The Foundation for Critical Dialogue (FCD) has commissioned four studies to see the changes in caste system in Nepal over the time. All four studies have almost observed the similar caste practices but with different places and informants i.e. freedom in selecting occupation, access to and discrimination in schools, status of property ownership, Inter-dining with other caste-people, status of inter-caste marriage, untouchability/commensality, affiliation in the institutional networks.
Reviewing all these papers it has drawn that there has been changes in the practices of the caste system. However, social change or transformation is a relative matter; it cannot be done in an absolute sense. So, it would reveal the real sense of transformation if studies have been done in a comparative way with non-Dalits. Transformation should be judged with the emancipatory shift. There is an estimate that at least ten percent GDP loss each year has been occurred due to loosing Dalits in development. There is a need of an empirical research on how much the state lost over the period due to the caste system in Nepal. the welfare system should be restructured in an innovative way, 'Pro-liberalism’ in place of neo-liberalism which embedded with the principle of protectionism to the deprived ones under the political spectrum of ‘Liberal Socialism’. Egalitarian society from bottom to top is the basic part of the pro-liberalism and liberal socialism is the pathway to break the caste system that our constitution and the contemporary human rights movements direct for.
Key Words: Dalits, Discrimination, Transformation, Caste-system
In 27 and 28 December of the last year the Foundation for Critical Discourse Nepal (FCD) in association with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung organized a seminar on Capitalism and Caste System in Nepal. There were four papers presented based on the studies commissioned by FCD. More or less all the papers concentrated on the transformation of the caste-based practices in Nepalese society over the time. The seminar was glorified with some Indian speakers (online) including a well-known Dalit scholar Prof. Sukhadeo Thorat. There were immense constructive discourses on the presentations. I was also chairinga session for the one of the papers. The seminar meant to sensitize the transformation of caste system and boost those drivers of the transformation in the society. However, a lively debate took place on the understanding of term ‘transformation’ itself along with the methodology undertaken and information presented.
Social inclusion and inequality have been the most challenging issue for the modern world and it has been further accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As per the OXFAM report the gap between richer and poorer is continued to be widen. Since 1995, the top 1% have captured nearly 20 times more of global wealth than the bottom 50% of humanity. The latest report concludes that ten richest men double their fortunes in pandemic while incomes of 99 percent of humanity fall. Widening economic, gender and racial inequalities are tearing our societies apart due to the neoliberal atrocities and economic violence induced with economic liberalism i.e. capitalism. The neo-liberals simply ignored the social problems produced by deregulated markets, which created serious threat to social cohesion (Giddens 1998). The societies of the developing countries are still heavily engaged in disparity and discrimination based on religion, race, caste, class and ethnicity(Bk 2018). In the present context, more than 200 million Dalits of South Asia have been facing economic, social and political violence and discrimination based on caste. The loss of human development due to protracted inequality is huge. Moreover, the cost of the profound inequality we face is in human lives. The inequality contributes to the deaths of at least 21,300 people each day. Every four seconds, inequality contributes to the death of at least one person. This information shows how extent of humanity the inequality is costing for.
Nepali society has been practicing Hindu caste hierarchy since time immemorial. Dalits are at the bottom of such Hindu caste hierarchy who were historically not only excluded but treated as ‘untouchable’. Nepali Dalit model itself is an offshoot of the Hindu Indian model that penetrated to Nepal through other Hindu caste with their traditional caste occupations. At the same time, some so-called high caste from Hindu groups also became Dalits over the years as a result of the caste expulsion practiced in the Hindu system until 1963 (Bk 2008). The 1854 legal code organized caste and ethnic groups into four categories (Brahmin, Kshetri, Vaishya and Shudra) dividing into touchable and untouchable with the differential justice and punishment process based on the Hindu Verna System (Bk 2018). Such practices officially continued until promulgation of the new legal code of 1963. However, despite the restoration of the democracy and the constitutional provisions, the discriminatory social practices remained even today in Nepali society. ILO revealed that deprived people working overseas continue to experience economic and social discrimination based on the caste even in the diasporas (ILO 2005). 200 forms of community-practiced types of caste-based discrimination have been identified in Nepal (Bennett 2005). Thus, they are oppressed in every sector of the life and have been suffering from the ‘Caste Penalty’ since the time immemorial (WB and DFID 2006).
The caste system was a social stratification made by the autocratic rulers to keep their feudal regime intact (Bk 2018) which is still deep-seated in the society. The prime source of caste-based discrimination is Hindu religion. The Rigveda explained the mythical story of creation; birth of human being from different parts of a body (i.e. theBrahmin emerged from mouth, theKshatriya from arms, theVaishya from thighs and the Shudra from feet of a primeval man) whichfueled to perpetuate the caste system till the day. Based on this mythical story there are several rulers and pundits who escalated the atrocities over Shudras. Manu was one who created very rigid rules of caste hierarchy system during 300-200 BC (Bk 2021). The core of the caste system is ancestry that determines a person’s profession and class (Hofer 1979). In the caste system, not only the labor but also the division of the laborer becomes mandatory (Ambedkar 1936). The system entered in Nepal in the Lichchhabi Era (200-979 AD) and was made more rigid during Malla Era (Bk 2021). King Jayasthiti Malla (1360-97 AD) invited five Brahmins from India and formulated rules based on ‘Manushmriti’ introducing severe punishment for those breaking caste hierarchy, which was known as the ‘Manab Nyayshastra’. Those who were referred to as untouchable were segregated from mainstream society and they had to live in the outskirt of towns. They were imposed to wear special (bad) looking dresses and ornaments so that others would recognize them easily. The occupations given to Dalits were filthy and undignified (Bk 2008). They were even denied to keep lands and other properties. Upon the territorial integration of Nepal, King Prithvi Narayan Shah continued the similar practices stating that he wanted to make Nepal ‘Asli Hindusthan’. During the struggle for democracy prior to 1950, a few Dalits sacrificed their lives; resulting in great contribution for the democracy. However, there was no substantial change in the practice of caste system. It was only in 1963 king Mahendra abolished the old civil code and replaced with new one which opened equal legal spaces for Dalits of Nepal.
After the dawn of democracy in 1990, under the constitution of Kingdom of Nepalthe legal provision has been introduced to make caste-based discrimination punishable,reservation in the state mechanism and affirmative action in higher education along with the establishment of the National Dalit Commission and Dalit Development Committee. The restored parliament in June 4, 2006 declared Nepal as the “Untouchability free” nation. The present constitution of Nepal has further accelerated the provisions in rightous base.
There has been tremendous change in the political and governing system including over-throwing Panchayat (1960-1990) autocratic regime. We experienced decade long ‘People’s War’(1996-2006) by the Maoist envisioning to move Nepal towards a more secular republic with commitment to the principles of gender and caste equity. During the war lower ranks of the Maoist army were fulfilled by heavily recruiting Dalits and women. Very few Dalits assumed positions of authority in the decision-making level in the insurgency. The militarization during the conflict had exacerbated caste dynamics, resulting abuses against Dalits (Ibid). The rights against untouchability and caste-based discrimination as the fundamental rights have been institutionalized in the constitution of Nepal that was promulgated through the Constitutional Assembly, the first time in Nepal, in 2012. The constitution has also ensured the participation in state mechanism on the principle of proportionate inclusion (Bk 2018). Despite these changes over time, there is hardly two percent Dalits in civil services. Dalits are still struggling against domination not only in private sphere but largely with the state. In this situation, the FCD has commissioned four studies to see the changes in caste system over the time.
All four studies have almost observed the similar caste practicesbut with different places and informantsi.e. freedom in selecting occupation,access to and discrimination in schools, status of property ownership, Inter-dining with other caste-people, status of inter-caste marriage, untouchability/commensality, affiliation in the institutional networks.
I would start reviewing the studies from one that was led by a prominent scholar and activist Ms Dhan Kumari Sunar . She had presented the overall situation of Dalit community with some facts and data along with some constitutional and legal provisions. She has also covered the historical aspect of how Shudras were made untouchables and deprived off in all spheres of human life. She also explained Marxist analysis how Dalits were reduced to the level of the proletariats. Karl Marx made the analysis of free men and slaves, feudal lords and serfs and bourgeoisie and proletariats on the basis of his contemporary Europe and showed the facts of the continual struggle between the exploiter and exploited classes in the society for the ownership in the means of production. She explained the historical materialist perspective that the class struggle originated with the private property. However, she agreed that the contemporary analysis of class formation does not match in the context of South Asia. Nevertheless, she has not explored how the classes are formed in the region especially in Nepal.
With this background she has undertaken the study of Dalit communities of two urban-centered municipalities; Tokha and Tarakeshwar of Bagmati Province involving respondents of forty households. Her study revealed that there has been significant change in access to school. However, thirty-three percent of the respondents have said that they faced caste and untouchability-related misbehavior at school. Study revealed that despite no formal denial in the choice of occupation thirty-five percent have chosen their own traditional profession. There is only five percent inter-caste marriage which is taken as a tool for social fusion among Dalits and non-Dalits. However, the study explored that the couples are either in rented-room or turned themselves into the Christianity. Property ownership is moderately less, around thirty-three respondents have their own house throughout the period. The social relationship such as co-feast is still week since merely around one third has experienced having food together with non-Dalits. The study revealed that the practices of untouchability and discrimination has decreased to some extent. However, it is also experienced that the government officials misbehave and delay their work once they know that the service-seeker is a Dalit.The conclusion she derived from the study that the caste system is a unique problem in Nepali society. The discrimination has certainly decreased in comparison to the past but it has not taken the momentum as required.
Another study has been undertaken by Dr. Madhu Giri , the associate professor in Tribhuvan University, on Continuity and Change in the Caste System: Trajectories of Inter-caste Relations. The study has been undertaken in the Musahar and Chamar Communities of Siraha District. He overviewed the Weberian concept that caste belongs to the realm of status as opposed to class. Weber argued that caste was rigid and undynamic, hence the term "close system of stratification," whereas class was referred to as "open system". Likewise, he also referred the conclusion of Louis Dumont that the elementary structure of the caste system was based on the purity ideology prescribed in the Hindu epics. The primary aspect is hierarchy; by which the pure is superior to the impure. Referring to Dor Bahadur Bista, a well-known anthropologist, he argued that the fatalistic ideology of the caste system was the main obstacle to the cultural change and economic development of the Nepali society. Furthermore, he claimed referring to Dor Bahadur Bista that the caste system which was very static in nature perpetuated fatalistic practices and promoted nepotism and other unproductive practices like Chakari.
Dr. Giri has observed the similar aspects of Dalits’ life but in Terai-Madhesh with the most deprived Dalit community Musahar and Chamar. The study areas are urban-centered (Golbazar and Lahan Municipalities). Therefore, the result of the study is almost similar as in the previous one. The study revealed that caste-based difficulties in accessing education have dramatically changed over the period of around thirty years, though narratives of exclusion continue. One-third of the respondents described experiences of being subjected to mild-level discrimination, while another one-third of them said they never went to school. However, around 27 percent felt difficulties in accessing education even today and Still, 40 percent have heard that there is a mild-level of discrimination for Dalit children at school. The economic status of an individual family or a person makes a significant difference in untouchability and discrimination in their everyday lives. In term of property ownership their own private land for home increased to 38 percent from ten percent and own private agriculture land to 20 percent from 5 percentin some 20/30 years’ period.The study revealed that inter-dining practices have changed from 13percent to 80 percent in the course of 30 years. However, because their caste Panchayat (Jat Samaj) fines if caste codes are publicly violated, Tarai caste groups are much more conscious of purity and pollution during rituals.
The study shows that the inter-caste marital boundary is still strong and caste-conscious. Both narratives and quantitative data show the rigidity of inter-caste marriage. Likewise, commensality practices between Dalits and the so-called upper castes are observed with a strict sense of physical distancing. Physical touch is considered normal now in comparison to some 30 years back. However, while touched by a Dalit some so-called upper caste people showed uncomfortable gestures and made grimaces. Physical distancing was strictly maintained as and when the Musahar or Chamars visited homes of the so-called upper caste people in the village. It was said that the Musahars preferred to live in isolation. But, contrary to this, they have acquired the membership of different kinds of social, political and economic organizations or institutions. Nevertheless, they have been used as vote bank providing some money and food during the election.
Dr Giri mentioned that the economic transformation within the last 20-30 years was the main indicator of their upward caste mobility. Previously most Dalits (Musahar and Chamar) experienced the Haruwa-Charuwa system, a kind of bonded labor. Present generations changed their occupation and followed the modern one. This signals their entry into the free market and freedom of livelihood strategies. However, there is no space for caste moving upward in the Hindu Caste System. It can only change the rigidity in caste practices. The caste has been embedded with the generation/hereditary.
He concludes that caste-based discrimination and exclusion have dramatically decreased as compared to 20-30 years ago. However, caste commensality and untouchability are still practiced during religious functions or by religious institutions. The duality of public and private commensality is still visibly practiced in society, though practice of maintaining physical distance has taken a backseat.
Dr. Madhusudan Subedi , a prominent scholar, has undertaken another study on transformation of Jat-based features in urban areas. He undertook this study in Kritipur municipality. The key research issues explored in this paper are: shift in Jat-based occupation and education across generations, occurrence of Jat-endogamy and its acceptance across generations. The study focused on exploring the matter most influenced in the life of Dalits in the past, and in the present context, Jat (caste) or economic status. Thus, the study aims to contribute empirical records by assessing the state of caste-based occupations, access to education, inter-caste marriage, social exclusion and discriminations based on traditional caste system, social value of economic or Jat status across three generations. The specialty of this study is that it examines trends in each of these issues over the generations. The other specialty is that in addition to mix method it adopted the kuragraphymethod including non-Dalits in its respondents with three generations (participants, their parents and children).
Most of the fertile land and other economic resources were historically controlled by non-Dalits. For example, prior to the 1950s, the state had controlled the land rights. Fertile lands were given to the priests, Brahmins, soldiers, members of the royal family, men of nobility and state dignitaries under the land tenure system. Although such type of land system ended after 1950s, disparities created by the state in the past continue to be visibly reflected in the economic and social inequality even today. It has the long-lasting impact on property-ownership and occupations. The parents of the participants and they themselves had faced Jat-based barriers to occupational mobility. However, the study revealed that with the increasing impact of modernization, industrialization and economic prosperity, there has been a tendency of increasing secularization of life. Moreover, Jat-based work is no longer necessary too because of growing markets for ready-made tools and clothes. The young generation has left the traditional Jat-based occupations.
In term of inter-caste marriage, it is a common observation that many young people select their marriage partners often within the limits of their own Jat circle. However, educated young boys and girls are increasingly choosing their life partners on their own which clearly shows the change in the selection of spouses. Accessing school, irrespective of their Jat, almost all participants mentioned that investment in education is an unavoidable opportunity necessary for increasing human capability and for pathways out of poverty. The study revealed that discrimination against Dalit students was the primary reason for drop-out from school but now it is rarely observed. However, the literacy rate and university education of the Dalit is still lower as compared to non-Dalits There is still a vast gap in terms of educational achievements among various Jats, particularly between non-Dalits and Dalits. In term of social relationship, the study revealed society becoming much liberal. However, there are still some rigidness in some social institutions.The rigidity in Guthi system of the Newar remains almost intact, making it difficult to bring flexibility in its rule. For example, every Jat of the Newar community has their own Si Guthi, where other caste people are not allowed. Likewise, sharing food and drinks in public places does not matter but it is remarked that non-Dalits still feel hesitant to take their Dalit friends to their homes. The young generation valued financial status more than the castesystem. However, Jat-based discrimination has greater influence in the economic condition of Nepali society.
Dr. Subedi concludes that the class system as a new social structure is receiving more preferences in Nepal because of changes in the economic structure. The economic and social transformations have changed people's lives and livelihoods, and Jat-based relations more broadly. Livelihood diversification, prioritization of education, health facility to the citizens, democratization of the micro and macro institutions and media access have played a crucial role in generating new values and practices in the traditional Jat-based society. However, he agrees that due to discrimination and exclusion exercised by the state in the past, Dalits are still socially, economically and politically marginalized as compared to non-Dalits. With these findings he raised two major questions for further empirical research;1)Will a class system lead to the eradication of hierarchy-based Jat system? 2) How does an economically and socially unequal society transfer and provide access to resources, employment opportunities and political participation to the socially and economically marginalized people, and guarantee the right to equality for all its citizens?
Likewise, Dr Khagendra Prasai , a well-known scholar on Marxism, has undergone through a study to investigate the current status of caste in Nepal and whether it is persisted in its fundamental or classical form or has undergone and is undergoing transformation in the tangible scale. His study is based onthe materialist theoretical standpoint. So, the investigation has been made as in previous ones by measuring material indices such as property ownership, division of labour, access to education—an important material and cultural resource, and other constitutive features such as practice pertaining to commensality, untouchability and marriage through longitudinal and descriptive research design. He conducted field works in thirteen local bodies from various districts of three states with 200 Dalit respondents of different age groups (young to forty-plus).
The study found that literacy and access to education for Dalit has expanded massively over the last thirty years. The findings pertaining to occupation of Dalit indicate that caste-based occupational restrictions have been significantly diluted. It is a noticeable indication of dilution of restriction and discrimination related to labour and production. Likewise, the data evince an increase in income of Dalit, breaking-down of caste-governed ownership restrictions, and suggest an expansion of property ownership of Dalit which he validated with the national survey.
In term of commensality, in all commensal activities, the portion of those who found reactions of the so-called upper caste 'comfortable' is much bigger than of those who found reactions 'uncomfortable'. However, it is noticeable that the reaction of the so-called upper caste 'uncomfortable' is not too small (16 %) to neglect. Restrictions on commensality and practice of untouchability are two concrete manifestations of caste-based discrimination that are widely practiced in all facets of social life in a characteristically typical caste society. Through this study he observed that these forms of discrimination have been significantly diluted and are on the way to further dilution. It has been revealed thatincidence of inter-caste marriage is incrementing over the time. However, the transformation of caste endogamy is much slower than of the other components of caste-practices.
Dr. Prasai concludes in his study that the caste-based practices in Nepal are transforming substantially and perceptibly enough in all its constitutive elements, though in different speeds—some faster while other slower. However, he has not mentioned whether some changes in few practices undertaken in his research reflects the overall emancipation of Dalits. He neither mentioned how can remaining part of the practices including new modes of discrimination that the Hindu Verna system is reproducing be diluted.
Reviewing all these papers it has drawn that there has been significant change in the practices of the caste system. However, out of over 200 caste-based practices in Nepalese society, the basis of choosing these few practices is not clear. Likewise, the studies have not been able to explore the driving forces of these changes whether it is due to change in political system or governance restructuring or policy contribution or global phenomena or social movement or some other reasons, or the combined contribution of all these factors. It has been said that the mix method has been used to bring the information from some thirty years to till the date. Whether the method itself is appropriate to get such comparative information is in question. It would have been more appropriate to use ethnographic method to explore the history of caste-based practices. However, Dr. Subedi has used the kuragraphyand Dr. Prasai longitudinal and descriptive research design, a part of ethnographic tool there is no consistency in the methodology. No scientific method has been undertaken to choose the sample and clusters.
Social Change or transformation is a relative matter; it cannot be done in an absolute sense. So, it would reveal the real sense of transformation if studies have been done in a comparative way with non-Dalits. While designing the study, it has been perceived that caste-based practices prevails due to Dalit community. So, the study has done with Dalits. However, Dalits are those who are struggling to break such practices. Non-Dalits are one who resist for change and try to perpetuate caste system. So, the study is needed to explore the resisting mindset of non-Dalits. Why they want to perpetuate such system which produces great loss to society, the state and themselves. Nepal’s Human Development Indexindicates an overall loss of 25.2 percent due to inequality (NHDR 2020) whereas caste system is the major contributor to inequality. There is an estimate that at least ten percent GDP loss each year has been occurred due to not mainstreaming Dalits in development. It is also justified with a research (Bk 2010) that higher the social inclusion factor (SIF) higher is the productivity of an institution. There is a need of an empirical research on how much the state lost over the period due to the caste system in Nepal.
The studies try to justify that there would be an upward-caste mobility once there is economic transformation but since the caste system is embedded with genetic birth there is no room for upward caste mobility. As Weber opined, it is undynamic close system of stratification. So, there can be change in some sort of position in the society but not upward caste mobility. The study revealed some rigid institutions like Jat Samaj in Terai-Madhesh, Ghuthi in Newar community. There are some more such institutions and some emerging in the society. Therefore, until and unless there is the caste system, it reproduces discriminatory atrocities in a new form. It is fueled with neo-liberal global policy and the existing social/state policies. Crony economy (Bk 2018) in the name of capitalism has been the major factor keeping knot of the discrimination in a dynamic form. It is widely accepted assumption that democracy protects people from extreme injustices. However, the conventional democracy 'winner takes all' principle has created and widened the disparity among human beings (Bk 2020). However, in modern era democracy is not merely the freedom, but it should bring emancipatory shift substantially in the wellbeing of all human lives in an equal footing, i.e. Transformative democracy. It helps to overcome inequalities and structural disadvantages, and to empower weaker actors of the society. Transformation without emancipation does not build egalitarian society. So, the transformation should be judged not through few conventional practices rather through the big spectrum of power-sharing, cultural revolution and the attitude of the nation. For the emancipatory shift in the sosiety, like Critical Race Theory in the USA, we need to integrate ‘Critical Caste Theory’ in our education system from the very beginning; i.e. basic level.
Even though the Constitution of Nepal directs for socialism-oriented economy with no discriminationthereis no such policies and practices undertaken to reset the economy as well as the society. Neither following the existing global policies brings any expected emancipatory shifts in the society. So, the welfare system should be restructured in an innovative way, ‘Protective Liberalism (Pro-liberalism)’ in place of neo-liberalism which embedded with the principle of protectionism to the deprived ones under the political spectrum of ‘Liberal Socialism’ (Ibid). Egalitarian society from bottom to top is the basic part of the pro-liberalism, and liberal socialism is the pathway to break the caste system that our constitution and the contemporary human rightsmovements direct for.
(Dr. Bk was the Fulbright Research and Teaching Scholar at Brandeis University, the USA for 2016/17, is author of the book "Eradicating Hunger: Rebuilding Food Regime" and Visiting Faculty in Kathmandu University/Nepal and Akamai University/USA. He is the former secretary for Government of Nepal)
Ambedkar, B. R. (1936). Annihilation of Caste. Lahor.
Bennet, Lynn (2005), “Gender, Caste and Ethnic Exclusion in Nepal: Following the Policy Process from Analysis to Action”, The World Bank.
Bk, Man Bahadur (2008), Social Inclusion in Microfinance, Janauttan Pratisthan, Nepal.
Bk, Man Bahadur (2018), Eradicating Hunger: Rebuilding Food Regime, EKTA Books, Nepal.
Bk, Man Bahadur (2020), “Protective Liberalism: The Foundation for Transformative Democracy”, available at https://www.academia.edu/41584548/Protective_Liberalism_The_Foundation_for_Transformative_Democracy.
Bk, Man Bahadur (2021), “Sarbjanik Prasashan Ma Samabesikaran ko Sawal”, Published in Nepal Press on 2021/05/08 available athttps://www.nepalpress.com/2021/05/08/52913/
Giddens, Anthony (1998), The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, Blackwell Publishers, USA
Hofer. A. (1979). The Caste Hierarchy and the State in Nepal. Universitatsverlag Wagner.
ILO (2005), “Dalits and Labour in Nepal: Discrimination and Forced Labour”, Series 5, ILO in Nepal.
NHDR (2020), Nepal Human Development Report 2020, NPC and UNDP
World Bank and DFID (2006), Unequal Citizens: Gender, Caste and Ethnic Exclusion in Nepal, The World Bank and DFID, Kathmandu, Nepal