Nepali Times
Guest Column
Caste mongering


Thanks to the past few decades of democracy and rebellion, the ghost of the Panchayati daura suruwal identity is finally fading away. Sadly, however, a new monster fast raising its head is one that mechanically forces each Nepali into compartments of castes and ethnicities. This new caste politics is taking us away from social inclusion and multicultural coexistence.

The mono identity of daura suruwal was the invisible wall that kept Nepalis blissfully unaware of each other's cultural histories. The problem about being assigned a certain caste ethnicity and bluntly being told not to venture outside its perimeters is that these are not as static as the mongers of caste politics would want them to be. Assigned identities and values constantly change as individuals adapt to new circumstances. Any discussion on cultural identity must be qualified by a further discussion on counterculture that our societies have undergone over the past centuries.

To deny Nepal's cultural identities in political debate is to ignore the elephant in the room. Equally, to disregard the dynamic changes cultural identities have already undergone is to imprison a twenty-first century human being into a medieval iron cage.

India offers an excellent example in clarifying how culture is not static but a dynamic concept. It is true that the idea of Indian independence started out with resistance to the English culture, which initially entailed digging deeper roots of Hinduism. But as early as in 1828, the Kolkata elites had already launched the Brahmo movement, or the worship of one universal god, aiming to do away with sectarian divisions and caste hierarchies within Hinduism while keeping the ancient spirituality intact.

While the elite Brahmo movement has gained wide attention, one that remains little acknowledged to date is the cultural movement of the non-elites, which is best captured in the Bollywood expression. It is all too easy to make fun of Bollywood, but it has uniquely touched the lives of many ordinary Indians. Unlike film industries elsewhere, Bollywood has never been funded by the state. Raj Kapoor's 'mera juta hai japani' was a snub to the 'be Indian, buy Indian' variety of nationalism promoted by the government in the 1950s. As the country reeled under the fanaticism of Hindu-Muslim violence, songs like 'na tu hindu banega na musalmana banega' went on to become the theme songs of the 1950s.

For newspaper-reading intellectuals across the world, India is often closely associated with recurring communal riots and ethnic strife between Hindus and Muslims, Christians and Sikhs. However, in the minds of ordinary people, most of whom happened to be the Bollywood movie-goers, India is a place where an incredibly large spectrum of diverse cultures coexist, bonded by a deep affection and making a respectful space for each other's unique cultural and religious identities. Film after film has obsessively emphasized the quintessential oneness of people of diverse faiths.

Somewhat belatedly in the winding road to democracy and pluralism, Nepal has finally come to realise that any political change must have deeper social and cultural roots for the common people to be able to relate to it. Thanks to the Maoist rebellion and the popular uprisings that followed in Kathmandu and in the tarai, Nepal has finally set out to open the old portmanteau of culture. This is an incredible achievement in itself.

Without addressing the centuries-old institutions, both good and bad, nurtured by our culture and our history, one cannot lay foundations of a New Nepal. But this won't be a panacea. Resolving the deep-seated prejudices of castes and ethnicities is undoubtedly a priority but making sure that the treatments truly echo people's spirits and not those engaged in identity politics is no less daunting.

Mallika Shakya is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)