Caste of charactersIn Hindu society, many of the problems are a result of caste and not merely class
Debates on social exclusion and inclusion began to appear in Nepali polity and society on a large scale only after the restoration of democracy in 1990. Later, the Maoist insurgency and NGO activities gave it greater importance. As a result, the Nepal government incorporated an inclusivity programme through the 10th Plan or the Poverty Re-education Strategy Paper. Since Nepal has realised that exclusion exists based on caste, gender and ethnicity, it should think about making fundamental shifts not only in the structure of governance and access to economic opportunity, but also in the underlying hierarchical norms, values and behaviours that caste represents. I have found that a big missing portion in the debate about exclusion is caste. Sections of the Nepali population are based on caste hierarchy, and that is entangled and entrenched by the ‘varna system’. Caste is class here.
In Hindu society, many of the problems are a result of caste and not merely class. A high caste represents a high class status due to the social norms, values and laws that favour them. A low caste represents low class status due to the unfavourable social norms, values and discriminatory state laws. We can say that high castes have privileges to run their high status and lives while untouchables have inaccessible and deplorable lives in every aspect in Hindu society. The Bahun, Chhetri/Thakuri and Sanyasi comprise about one-third of the Nepali population and hold over three-fourths of the state elite positions. The Bahun and Chhetri castes of the hill region, in particular, have historically formed the top circle of the state elite. An overwhelming majority of leadership positions in the executive, legislative, judicial, constitutional and local administrative bodies, civil service, major political parties and civil society organisations are occupied by this category.
Consequently, the per capita income, life expectancy and educational attainment are low among Dalit caste groups. Economic opportunities for Dalits are few as they are mostly bound to traditional occupations and depend on feudal customs such as Bali, Hali, Doli and Khola Pratha. Access to justice is very difficult for them. My key argument is that exclusion notions that germinated in Europe are not able to grasp the specificity of the caste hierarchy and exclusion intrinsic to Hindu society. This is because there never was a caste system in Europe, and the class problems of Europe and the caste problems of South Asia are not the same. Therefore, the European model of exclusion would not be appropriate to explain the South Asian caste-based varna system.
Despite this realisation, has the debate about exclusion in Nepali academia ever considered caste or the varna system? No. Why? Because the bottom-level Dalits are not in higher education nor renowned researchers or academicians. There are no vibrant leaders or experts who can bring Dalit issues into mainstream discussions. Most research comes from Brahmin/Chhetri or Vaisya males to whom the issue of the varna system (caste and untouchability) is uninteresting. Even when a few persons speak upon Dalit issues in academia, the vast majority of the so-called high caste intellectuals do not listen to them. Internalisation of the hardships, harshness and atrocities imposed by caste does not touch them. There are a handful of high caste well-wishers, but most of them neglect, distort and show indifference to the issues. Why does this happen? It happens because such psychology has been injected into the so-called higher caste mindset by the varna system and entrenched and shaped by the state as a perennial truth.
The Hindu religion, along with its directed socio-cultural norms and values, and state laws are still working as driving forces in Nepali society. The 1854 Mulki Ain is still the source of laws, whose effects can be seen in numerous divisions and the hierarchised Nepali society. People feel superior when looking at a lower caste person even though their financial position is worse. For example, Bahuns think they are the purest and highest and see others as impure. Thakuris see themselves as ‘raja/rani’ while Chhetris see themselves as ‘bahadur’. Newars feel wealthy and Gurungs, Rais and Magars feel brave. High caste women think they are superior even though most women’s positions are the same in Nepal.
Every caste discriminates against each other. Inter-caste marriage is strongly forbidden and unacceptable even though the potential marriage partners have the same social class and follow the same religion. The so-called high castes treat Dalits as weak, impure, inferior, ugly and menial workers, and prefer to exclude them from society and deny them access to information, resources, sociability and recognition. When society is entrenched in the varna system and psychology is being developed by it, can a poor high caste and a poor Dalit feel the same way? If not, doesn’t Nepali society need to think about making fundamental shifts in the feudal, caste and patriarchal norms, values and behaviours besides increasing economic opportunities, empowerment and representation of excluded groups? Shouldn’t the state make special policies, programmes and plans to narrow the gap between high and low castes beyond the class-based approach?
Thus, Nepali society should seek a multi-dimensional way to eliminate exclusionary practices based on caste, class, sex, race, region and religion. It is a good sign that after the establishment of a republic, the country has become more willing to adopt an inclusion policy to some extent in the political and administrative sections. However, efforts in the economic, social/cultural and educational fields are as yet weak. When the country realises the gap between rich and poor, men and women, educated and uneducated, centre and periphery, over-represented and under-represented, touchables and untouchables, and pure and impure, and understands that it has been created not only by economics but caste too, it will open the door to an inclusive country, pride of being equal Nepali citizens and peaceful national aspirations.
BK is a founder-member of Dignity Initiative, a Kathmandu-based NGO