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.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Da­niah Ish­tiaq

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.

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