Change of courseUnchallenged notions, attitudes, and ideologies of caste, clan, family and status have to be re-examined
I have been writing about South Asian issues publicly since the mid-1990s. For the first 10 years or so, I ignored politics as a subject of my meditation save for a paper I presented in 1991 at a convention of North American Nepalis in Maryland and a long academic essay I wrote on John Locke, his magnum opus on democracy, The Two Treatises of Government, and his association with colonialism. Nepali politics in the 1990s bored me because the 1990 constitution was nothing more than a covering to mask the deep-seated injustices in Nepali society. Since the mainstream politics of the 1990s couldn’t bring fundamental changes, I thought maybe focusing on the social and cultural life of Hindu Nepali and Indian societies could help. So, I made The Nepal Digest, an email list started by a Nepali cyber-enthusiast at a time when the World Wide Web hadn’t been commercialised, my main vehicle. I didn’t care about publishing in prestigious outlets, I just wanted to meditate on the status of women, caste and education and put it out there among those men and women who had access to email and subscribed to the mailing list.
Then, the Royal Massacre of June 2001 happened. It shocked Nepalis and they couldn’t believe that the roots of the massacre could be in the social and cultural life of Nepali/Hindu society. I wrote to explain why and how this event was both cultural and political. More precisely, it was the failure of culture as it prevailed in the royal palace to respond to the open politics that the country was experiencing despite the severe limitations of this politics.
And since 2009, I have been writing regularly on Nepali politics because the abolition of monarchy, the heart and soul of Hindu conservatism and state discrimination against the marginalised, and the election of the first Constituent Assembly (CA) in 2008, a great harbinger of the future, brought hope for both the political and cultural liberation of the Nepali people. Everything was up for grabs—or, at least, that’s what it seemed like during the lifespan of the first CA. So, finding politics as the fastest and most effective vehicle of all-round change, I focused on it almost exclusively.
Transformation doesn’t come easy
In view of the failure of politics to bring about a desirable change for the marginalised since the first CA, I have come to believe that politics as usual can’t change society. Nor can society change itself culturally just through politics unless it is transformational, either in the form of revolutionary change like those of the hardline communists in Mao’s China or Stalin’s Soviet Union or of an autocratic, tyrannical diktat like those of the Ranas of Nepal. Freedom and social change—better yet, freedom to change—is a hard act. Yet, Nepalis can’t accept either the hardline communist or the fascist, tyrannical options.
In the absence of the above two, how can the murder of a Janakpur girl like Sneha Kumari Yadav be prevented? Sneha was killed by her own family and family’s friends. Politics as usual becomes just a means to negotiate power grabs among various sectors of society that possess this power. The state can make progressive laws for whatever reason but how can society change voluntarily? Menstrual untouchability is still practiced in most educated hill Hindu homes and dowry is still exchanged between most Madhesi families.
While critics have been sceptical of Prime Minister KP Oli’s stunts about development and prosperity, will this prosperity, even if it is attained, end menstrual untouchability or the dowry system? Will it prevent Sneha Yadav’s murder by asphyxiation (by her own parents and in collusion with her family’s friends in the murder and disposal of her body)?
Heinous crime from unchallenged notions
In case you have forgotten, let me remind you who this girl was. She was a ‘Plus 2’ student at a college in Kathmandu, sent there by her parents to be educated so that one day she would be a doctor or an engineer. So that she could be married off to a well-known, wealthy, prestigious family whose bridegroom would also be a doctor or an engineer. But the young woman, in her teens and under the influence of her hormones and nature’s pressure, hobnobbed with the boys. And the school complained to the parents and the parents called her back to Janakpur. Once there, her family and family’s friends killed her in her sleep and burnt her body. The father, once arrested and interrogated, told the police that they killed her because she was defaming the family by openly mingling with boys in a local bazaar. If being seen with boys in a local market were the criteria to kill daughters, then half of the Chhetri girls in my village would have been killed. They, in fact, walked with boys from their homes to fair miles away from the village and returned home with them or slept in their friends’ houses—and nothing happened. These girls, now settled as wives and mothers, have been doing well with their husbands and children. Thank you very much.
So, the question is, how can society change? How can society, especially the adult Hindu males in that society, learn to understand their daughters and sisters and wives and respect their wishes and learn to live with differences and disagreement or peacefully part ways? Can politics help here? I don’t think politics as usual can help. As one can see in India, politics as usual can aggravate rather than alleviate primordial, primitive instincts and propensities by politicising them for majoritarian political gain.
There is no Khap Panchayat in the Madhes, but there certainly exist all the unexamined, unchallenged attitudes, notions, and ideologies of caste, clan, right and wrong about family, status, and good life. In the absence of transformative politics and in the presence of instrumental, rote education, who and what is going to force the society’s males to examine and challenge the ideas and attitudes they receive from their clan, caste and kinship network? That is the question that needs to be asked, now more than ever, given the growing awareness that the last decade of political ferment has forced on Nepal.
Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States