Nepali society: Not caste in stone
The media highlight of the humiliation faced by Dipak Malik in Nayanpur village, Siraha and by Mitra and Rita Pariyar, on account of their caste, in Sydney, Australia, has thrown the debate on secularism, freedom of religion or Hindu Nepal in the constitution into sharp focus.
In Nayanpur, “high- caste” Hindu Madhesi men and women refused to allow Malik, a Dom, the lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy, to fetch water from the village well even though he was accompanied by Nepal’s most popular film star, Rajesh Hamal, and the BBC Sajha Sawal team.
Dipak’s family does not have the right to fill their water pitchers themselves because the villagers believe that the well will be polluted if a Dalit touches it.
On the other hand, the Pariyars, hill Dalits, cannot escape caste humiliation even in Sydney, from I presume, hill caste men and women.
In their own words, “It’s almost a part of their (fellow Nepalis) lingo to make derogatory terms. You are Damai, you are as black as a Kami.”
How do the drafters of Nepal’s constitution plan to address such incidents?
Without going into the details of caste distinctions, the status of religion in Nepal’s upcoming constitution has two dimensions: external and internal.
Hindubadis and their sympathizers blame Western powers for trying to foist secularism on Nepal so that Christian missionaries can use their money and other temptations to convert Nepalis and transform Nepali society’s fundamental character.
The internal dimension comprises of the hill caste ideology in constituting the Nepali state since the rule of Prithvi Narayan Shah through Jung Bahadur and king Mahendra to the present.
It discriminates and dominates the Janajatis, Madhesis and the Dalits even as all three — yes, even Dalits — practice various degrees of untouchability — extreme forms of purity and pollution — against those they consider lower than themselves.
In the late 1970s, whenever I visited our village bazaar in Morang while home from college in India, I, along with my friend Bishnu Rayamajhi, always stopped by Chainpure Dai’s rented house with his tailoring machine set up on the verandah.
Once there, I always felt thirsty and asked for water, and his wife whom I called Bhauju, after initial hesitation, happily obliged.
I felt that caste was the creation of my Hindu forefathers and so, it was my duty, our duty, to do everything possible to not only repent but rectify the sins of our ancestors who did not know better.
But I do not think my gesture of drinking water at Chainpure Dai’s house or even eating food there made any difference in his or his family’s life, let alone in the lives of millions of other Dalits.
Rajesh Hamal’s gesture in Dipak Malik’s village has certainly helped highlight the issue but individual gestures can only go so far.
What needs to happen is struc- tural change in all aspects of Nepali public life through the constitution.
That is why, the secularism debate has become so important right now, especially when the definition of secularism seems to have been hijacked by the Hindu right to mean atheism or anti-Hindu.
To Each His Own
Secularism may mean freedom of religion, equal citizenship no matter the religious belief of the individual and separation of religion and state but the actualization of secularism is not uniform everywhere.
For example, the U.S., France and India are avowedly secular in their constitutions but they do not practice secularism in the same way. France does not permit religious symbols such as the Muslim headscarf, Christian cross, Sikh turban in government-funded institutions, such as schools, whereas the U.S. allows the practice of an individual’s faith even while taking oath.
The case of India is a hodgepodge of irreverent agnostic Nehru and deeply religious/spiritual Gan- dhi, where Muslims are allowed to practice personal law — polygamy, marital age of girls lower than 18 — unlike the rest of Indians.
The Nepali state, Prithvi Narayan Shah’s asali (pure) Hindustan, practiced an extreme form of caste discrimination through Jung Bahadur’s 1854 Muluki Ain.
Even though King Mahendra modernised the Muluki Ain by officially abolishing caste as a category of citizenship, the monarchy and the entire Nepali Hindu society continued to practice the caste system based on purity and pollution.
To entertain the idea of making Nepal a Hindu state would mean institutionalization of caste hierarchy and the adoption of the idea of purity and pollution, de facto if not de jure.
The Dalits, Janajatis and Madhesis, especially the middle and lower castes among the latter, would be at the receiving end.
It would mean the ideological perpetuation of hill caste male domination, as we know by now that even many communists, consciously or unconsciously, practice male chauvinism, believe in socalled Khas-Aryanism and advocate the Hindu way of life.
But, then, should secularism allow the violation of Hindu sentiments, such as cow slaughter?
I believe that the issue of cow slaughter in a Hindu majority society is the same as pig slaughter in a Muslim majority society, whether secular or religious.
It is a matter of being sensitive to one’s fellow citizens.
In a nutshell, France, the U.S. and India adopted secularism as an umbrella term but each practice it in their own individual ways because of each country’s specific historical needs and circumstances.
Whatever Marcus Aurelius’ or Epicurus’ meditations on the subject, secularism emerged in Europe as a reaction against the internecine religious wars and intolerance.
In the American case, it was a combination of freedom to practice one’s faith among the Puritans, their opponents and offshoots, the Quakers and, not least, the Deist Founding Fathers that determined the form secularism took.
In India’s case, it was obviously the European example, learned by Nehru and Ambedkar, made to confront the Muslim minority’s demands that determined its own watered down secularism.
But the debate has not ended there.
Nepal has to address the specific needs and circumstances of the Dalits, Janajatis, Madhesis and Muslims while discouraging the indoctrination of intolerance of other faiths preached by many, including many Christian zealots.
No wonder Jimmy Carter, a deeply religious Christian, quit the Southern Baptist Church after six decades because it discriminated against women and girls.
There are so many such examples. No religion has the monopoly over truth but many would kill in order to assert the claim.
But what Nepal cannot do is turn itself into a Hindu Pakistan. One cannot have democracy and a religious state at the same time in such a diverse country without bloody consequences.