There are many historical reasons why Nepal is presently stuck in its under-developed state, and the Muluki Ain is one of them. The recent re-publication Andr?s H? fer's The Caste Hierarchy and the State in Nepal: A Study of the Muluki Ain of 1854 underscores this point.
As a legal document, the Muluki Ain helped preserve the socio-cultural status quo as defined by the Hindu elite rulers in Kathmandu. Put in place by Jang Bahadur, it legitimised the culture which differentially conferred rights and privileges on Nepalis. As Hofer's commentary makes clear, the inter-mixing of communities was seen with alarm, which is why so much of the Muluki Ain deals with punishment for contact (especially sexual, but also otherwise) across caste-ethnic barriers.
The Muluki Ain legally validated the caste system as perhaps nowhere else in the world, to suit 'the terrain, time, customs. practices' without questioning these customs and practices. Some say the Muluki Ain helped unify Nepal by categorising and bringing all communities of this diverse land under one law, but it froze the time for over a century. It alienated large sections of society, without even giving them the vocabulary to articulate such alienation.
The Muluki Ain preserved the privileges of the Court of Councillors which signed the document into existence and consisted of nobles, high ranking officers, the royal preceptor and priests. Jang Bahadur may have wanted to bring Nepal under one legal framework, but he ended up entrenching the hierarchy.
What is also interesting is that the Muluki Ain existed for over 100 years (1854-1963) without any changes while the British Raj came and went in India. The formal Hinduisation of Nepal under the Muluki Ain created two categories of citizens: the 'tagadharis' of the upper-most rungs who monopolised privilege, and the 'matwali' (today's 'janajati') and the 'lower' castes. A majority of Nepalis were kept from realising their own self-worth or potential. Meanwhile, the privileged were indulged, with punishment that did not match the crime, with concessions that did not fit their behaviour. The Muluki Ain was a centralising document with a myopic vision of Nepali society.
Contrast this with the American Constitution, drafted only 67 years before the Muluki Ain. It, too, was drafted by a few people, but it was designed to build the foundations of a democratic and egalitarian society, based on the philosophical underpinnings of European political thought. In Nepal, the Muluki Ain gave us a country that Nepal has come to be socially, culturally and economically. Human potential has been squandered, and the country is still grappling with even a basic concept such as equality of its citizens.
Kumar Pradhan, the historian from Siliguri, in delivering the Mahesh Chandra Regmi Lecture last month made the point that the cultural leadership in the Darjeeling hills is shared between Nepalis of all backgrounds: hill janajati, dalit, Newar and parbate. This is in stark contrast to the home country where power remains the monopoly of the tagadharis. This is what the Muluki Ain did: Nepalis could seek inclusive, egalitarian society only by leaving Nepal.
The same week that Pradhan spoke, another book was launched in Kathmandu, Ropeways in Nepal. The hall was packed, the language was Nepali even though the book was English. Contributors to the book explained the value of various kinds of ropeways for Nepal and how we missed opportunities of the past by failing to see the obvious: using cable cars to transport goods in Nepal's rugged terrain.
The ropeways hold out the possibility of reversing hill poverty, giving marginalised hill farmers a break. A ropeway-based transport economy would reduce dependency on petroleum and provide the opportunity to develop indigenous hydropower. No wonder the Kathmandu-centric government and the development industry are not talking about ropeways.
Nepal's senior planner also spoke on the occasion, and his words took the audience right back 150 years. He said there was no demand for ropeways, whereas there was a huge demand for trucks and cars. Ropeways were expensive to build, while we could build roads with food for work.
Enough said. Nothing has changed since the Muluki Ain was passed. Even Jang Bahadur, as an astute man of the times, would have despaired.
Shanta Dixit is an educationist.