Casting Away the Castes
A law in Nepal strictly prohibits any further caste-based discrimination in public and private spheres. This is a milestone for the lower castes who have suffered long enough.
Nepal has passed a law to stop caste-based discrimination in all spheres.
In Nepal, a 22-year-old girl singlehandedly supports her family of 11. Her average daily income ranges between $5 and $10 – depending on how many times she sells her body during the day. Does she deserve this fate? Some in her country would perhaps agree.
The young woman belongs to the Badi community, which is one of the 36 castes of Nepal’s ‘untouchables’. Certain professions are meant only for the unfortunate people who are born into these castes and breaking out of them is largely impossible, even in the 21st century.
Prithvi Narayan Shah, the first King of unified Nepal, described the country as “a garden of four Varnas (castes)”. Broadly speaking, the caste system of Nepal is similar to the Hindu caste system. Castes are divided on the basis of religious, economic and political dominance and are known by many names.
The Khas people are high up in the social hierarchy. They are also known as the Thagadari – weavers of holy threads. Below the Thagadaris are the other three castes: the ‘Namasinya Matwalis’ who are “non-enslavable alcohol drinkers” and the ‘ Masinya Matwalis’ who are “enslavable alcohol drinkers”. Then there are the ‘Pani nachalne choichoto halnu naparne’
who are impure but touchable and, finally, the ‘Pani nachalne chiochoti halnu parne’ – the impure and the untouchable who are on the lowest rung in the caste ladder.
Historically, ethnic groups and castes are placed in one of these categories and face varying legal penalties and restrictions depending on the category they are a part of. Though the caste system was officially abolished in 1990, it is very much still present in Nepalese society and plays a fairly dominant role in the private lives of citizens.
A World Bank report says: “Exclusion remains an important hurdle that Nepal has to overcome in order to be able to attain the development objectives of both the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper and the Millennium Development Goals”.
The Brahmins and other castes at the top of the hierarchy account for a mere 28 percent of the population of Nepal, according to the 2001 census. Yet, they are massively pervasive in politics, law and other professional fields. And although the lower castes – the Dalits and Janajatis, for example, represent 45 percent of the total population, they have virtually no representation in any area. This is a huge waste of a vast reserve of potential.
To have a better understanding of how deeply entrenched the case system has become in Nepal, comparisons can be drawn between Nepal and India. Both countries share almost identical caste systems. One of the world’s largest democracies, India has become a symbol of modernity and free thought. In India, the lines that divide Indian society on the basis of caste are blurring with time – although they have not completely disappeared.
A major change can, however, be seen in Indian society, especially with respect to specific incidents. In a landmark judgment in 2009, the Supreme Court of India awarded life imprisonment to five Thakurs who belonged to the upper caste. They were accused of killing eight Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. In its judgment, the Supreme Court stipulated that the caste system be completely eliminated to ensure the rule of law and a smooth functioning of democracy.
Although, constitutionally, the case system was abolished in India in 1974, its presence in society cannot be denied. Professor Andre Beteille, a prominent sociologist, holds politics responsible for much of its continuation. In one of his recent lectures, he claimed that in politics there is "a premium on being a backward caste these days”. He is of the view that a caste is now the most important political tool for the mobilization of the electorate. But what does this imply?
It points towards the fact that while India has made immense progress in terms of non-marginalization on the basis of occupations and marriages, the caste factor is exploited for political gains. Its importance has resulted in positive developments too. In the 2011 Indian national census, castes were included in the headcount for the first time after the country’s independence. Information about castes was last collected during the British rule in 1931.
Following in the footsteps of its neighbor, Nepal also passed a law in 2011 to stop caste-based discrimination in all spheres, public as well as private. The law also proposed harsher punishments for public officials who were found guilty of discrimination. This is said to be a milestone for the lower castes who have suffered long enough. Change seems inevitable now.
All said and done, scars of injustices done to people in the name of castes will take a long time to heal. In Nepal, emotions run high due to the very personal nature of this problem. Where the government is concerned, it can only make efforts to level the playing field in terms of occupations and, may be, even politics. To change collective thinking in a country where these notions date back to hundreds of years is something beyond its reach. There is hope though that persistent efforts may deliver results in the long run.