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?

Casteist State

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.

Re­spect Di­ver­sity

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.

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