Reimagining InclusionArgument that only certain groups work hard will not hold any weight unless there is a deliberate effort to level the playing field
Sangita Thebe Limbu
At a recent policy event, one of the top finance bureaucrats said that the decade-long armed conflict in Nepal did not happen due to uneven development. What caused the conflict, he did not mention. But his prescribed panacea in the post-war Nepal was more development with conflict-sensitive analysis factored in so that development projects do not create new conflicts.
At another programme on representational inequalities in Nepal’s judiciary, a prominent judicial figure emphasised that all communities should be represented considering different identity factors including gender, caste, ethnicity and religion. In terms of policy interventions to operationalise those ideals, her recommendations were to economically incentivise the judiciary to make it more lucrative as a profession, which will eventually attract more candidates from all backgrounds.
Put together, these narratives share many common grounds. The staple rhetoric of “representation and development for all” is reiterated yet, when it comes to analysing and addressing the causes behind prevalent inequalities, there is a reluctance to go beyond individual capabilities and myopic policies. In almost a year as a researcher in Nepal, I have heard from and interviewed numerous people, from war-time conflict victims to incumbent parliamentarians, both within and outside Kathmandu. And there clearly emerges a common thought pattern, particularly among elites, whom I define here as hill “high caste” educated men and women in high-profile positions across politics, bureaucracy, civil society, media and academia.
The elites, as a collective, reinforce development and inclusion for all rhetoric, while concurrently there is a historical amnesia and superior subjectivity that underlines their lens of analysis. And those lead to conclusions such as identity politics is nothing but simply a construction or by-product of Maoist insurgency—in short, a futile endeavour based on the “victim card”. Further, as Nepal “develops”, those marginalised will eventually catch up. And no amount of statistics or evidence on how hill “high caste” groups dominate state structure and fare better across all socio-economic indicators is considered enough to demand exploration on a short but crucial question—Why? In sum, there is a denial of structural power inequalities, either deliberate, cognitive or both, which are underpinned by certain discourses and subjecthood as explored below.
It’s all due to hard work
The elites and dominant social groups in general tend to defend their social position on the grounds of hard work and education. The argument on meritocracy is commonly put forward as a defence against call for inclusion of historically marginalised social groups. Research on impacts of affirmative action introduced post-2007 in Nepal’s civil service—such as Kristie Drucza’s 2017 paper titled Talking about Inclusion—highlight how the hill “high caste” male-dominated institutional culture results in resentment towards quotas, internal efforts to increasingly narrow down eligibility criteria for marginalised groups and exclusionary behaviour towards those who do conform within the existing institutional framework.
In a diverse yet deeply hierarchical Nepali society, our social position and identity primarily determine our level of access to resources and opportunities, including life of dignity and respect. Unless there is a deliberate effort to make the playing field relatively equal through far-reaching redistributive policies, the argument that only certain groups work hard does not hold any weight. If anything, it only diverts attention from broader and difficult questions on power, privilege and patronage; sense of entitlement inculcated within dominant group; and structural barriers that those who do not adhere to the dominant worldview and culture face.
Everyone is marginalised
The other dominant narrative is that deprivation and marginalisation exist within every communities and thus, everyone deserves equal treatment whether they are Dalits, Madheshis, Janjatis, Bahun/Chettris or Muslims—a stance that has been institutionalised in the new Constitution. The question is—deprived and marginalised, but in relation to whom? In socially and unequally stratified society like ours, concepts such as deprivation, marginalisation, prosperity and domination become even more relative as our social identities have been informed by and built in relation to one another through active process of ‘othering’. For instance, “high caste” groups can only claim to be higher and morally superior when there is another social group that is systemically deprived, labelled and classified as “low” and “untouchables”.
In similar vein, systemic accumulation of land and labour by Ranas and other hill elites was made possible through displacement and deprivation of indigenous ethnic groups as seen in the case of Tharus in western Nepal. In archives of Nepali publications such as Swasnimanche produced in 1960s, which include anthropological writings predominantly by Bahun men on Janjati women, which are re-printed in Kailiash Rai’s 2016 book titled Pahichanko Khoji, Hindu-centric norms and values have been used as a barometer to categorise and objectify the latter as either civilised/uncivilised or promiscuous/moral. On Madhesh, a prominent hill Bahun academic claims patriarchal Madheshi and Muslim culture as the key factor for the region’s underdevelopment, without considering how patriarchy is pervasive across Nepal and there might be other factors such as state sanctioned policies and biases at play.
Addressing inequalities requires broader structural and historical analysis, which would entail understanding how social identities come to exist in relation to one another; how those social interactions produce marginalisation and prosperity for different groups; and how unequal power structures are sustained, reconfigured and reproduced over time. It would involve exploring the wider ramifications, both material and subjective, of Hindu-based social hierarchies institutionalised by the state since1850s. It would require revisiting formation of Nepali state identity based on the trinity of Hinduism, Nepali language and the Hindu monarch, and what that has meant for communities who didn’t/don’t confirm. And most importantly, how those historical legacies inform our subjectivity as in our self-awareness, socio-cultural consciousness and biases against others. Because inclusion is more than bringing diverse faces into the system that already exists, it is about transforming the structurally embedded social relations that reproduce and reinforce inequalities and exclusion.
Limbu is a researcher at Martin Chautari