Not long ago, Tashi Jangbu Sherpa and I were discussing some matter in a courtyard near Patan Dhoka. A Maruti jeep bearing government license plates came to a halt about 50 feet away. An officious-looking bureaucrat-he could not have been anything else-stuck his head out of the window and waved towards Tashi, gesturing him to walk over. Tashi, an accommodating Nepali if ever there was one, started moving towards the jeep. I held him by the hand and stopped him short. Again the official waved at him, this time irritably. I held on to Tashi and called out, "What is it that you want?"
"I'm looking for the doctor's clinic."
"It's just there, you may proceed."
Now this may be considered an ordinary, everyday incident. But to me it was rich in meaning, about understandings and expectations in a society that is modernising but remains feudally insular. The parbatiya (Bahun or Chettri) official did not know either of us, and yet he chose to call Tashi with his flat \'Mongoloid' features rather than me with my aquiline \'Caucasian' ones. When the aphisar-saab had to decide who to trouble to take those 50 steps and answer his query, he chose to call the one with the flat features.
I asked Tashi, who is President of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, a well-travelled businessman who knows the ways of the world, "Why did you make to walk over when he summoned you so crudely?"
"This is just the way things are, aren't they?" was his reply.
This one little episode speaks for the numerous indignities people of \'ethnic' features (and, to be sure, others who do not look decidedly powerful and/or parbatiya) have to endure daily in government offices, bank counters, at the airport departure/arrival points, or even while waiting in line to pay the electricity bill. Across class lines, people with sharp features are put to the test less than others.
Some may demand why bring up such a divisive issue when the country is undergoing one grave crisis after another, "What with the maobaadi and all." But the discrimination against one or another kind of Nepali-whether madhesi, women, Dalit or in this instance hill ethnic-is a matter of critical importance. If we ignore the injustice that is the unremarked undercurrent of our society, then more problems are bound to surface in future.
There are of course some areas where the people of ethnic origin are ahead of other communities, but by and large it is the parbatiya and Newar who have traditionally partaken of the national spoils in the arena of economy, academia, administration, politics-and now NGOdom. And the two areas where the injustice of under- or non-representation is carried out on a grand scale are those of politics and administration. If we believe Nepal is a true mosaic of different communities and castes, then of course all groups must be properly and proportionally represented.
More than anything else, the destiny of the nation lies in the hands of the political parties and the government machinery. There can be no doubt in the minds of Nepalis that Chettris, Newars and especially Bahuns have got a bigger slice of the representational pie in these spheres. In the last decade of democracy, the peoples' representation was supposed to grow increasingly to reflect the given proportions in the population. This has not happened, and it is only the proportion of Bahun that has grown in the civil service.
Statistics from the Public Service Commission (picked up by this writer at a recent seminar organised by the Janajati Mahasangha) indicate that in the past decade there has been a substantial growth in the number in the "Bahun/Chettri" category who get pass the examinations for the civil service. Simultaneously, there has been a drastic, even heart-stopping, drop in the number of Newar, janajati (ethnic), Dalit and people of Tarai origin who make it into government service.
This information should set alarm bells ringing, but so busy are we in charting the course of the Maoist \'revolution', the inter-party wranglings and hatching of one more conspiracy theory on this or that, that this relentless downturn over the years has gone practically unremarked. It is said that the officials of the Public Service Commission themselves are cognisant of this negative trend and are properly concerned, but one does not find representatives of the educated classes furrowing their brows and-where necessary-railing against what the statistics point to.
And this is what they show: among those who passed their civil service examinations and were assigned to ministries, 69 percent were Bahun/Chettri in 1983-1985, this was up to 81 percent in 1992-1993, and now the number has peaked to 98 percent. The proportion of Newars who made it into the civil service during the same period is down from 19 percent to 11 percent, and rested at 1 percent in 2000. The figure for the janajati category has dipped from 3 percent to 2.5 percent to nil as we speak.
There are of course some extenuating circumstances which could help us digest this data, some would say. For example, the capable individuals from non-Bahun communities are far less interested in the civil service, or other fields have opened up in recent years are more attractive and lucrative than a civil service position can ever hope to be (discounting corruption). For example, there is foreign employment of all kinds now available, NGOdom has become a magnet for the capable, and opportunities in the business world has obviously attracted away Newars who earlier would have joined government. It is mostly the Bahun from the hills that have the required education and orientation for bureaucracy, and this explains their preponderance among the inductees into the civil service. (It should also be noted that even though the Chettri tend to be clubbed together with the Bahun as "parbatiya", it is in fact the Bahun who are mostly represented in the civil service statistics being cited.)
Turning from the civil service to the political parties, which play the overwhelming role today in giving (mis)direction to the state, here again we find an over-representation of Bahuns in comparison to their proportion in the population as a whole. The top leadership of the major political parties are almost exclusively Bahun, with a few Chettris included and nothing but a sprinkling of the hill ethnics and other communities. This is true for all the large parties-from the extreme left to the far right. The Nepali Congress has a 31-member Central Committee. Within it, 18 are Bahun, five are Chettri, four are from the tarai, and there is one Newar, Kirat, Gurung and Giri each. The Standing Committee of the UML has 11 members and there is only one Chettri there. The rest-all ten of them-are Bahun. And what of the Maoists, who makes such cynical use of the ethnic card in their rush to build a people's republic? Half the leaders of the Maoist organisation (those whose names are known) are Bahun including the supremo Dahal and ideologue Bhattarai.
In every sector of society, whether in the political arena, the education sector, the media as a whole and especially the press, or the bureaucracy, it is obvious that the Bahun are predominant. It would be fair to say, therefore, that Bahuns have essentially been running the country for the last decade. If we were to agree that the country and system have failed to live up to their promise, at least for the time elapsed since 1990, then it would also be fair to say that the Bahuns are overwhelmingly responsible for this sorry state.
The response to such an indictment should ideally be an introspection rather than outright rejection, or finding reasonings and excuses as to why things are the way they are. Sure, the Bahun tend to "make it" better because of their tradition of learning and its derivative, mental discipline. Sure, the others are finding greener pastures elsewhere. Even accepting these arguments, one should ask whether it is correct to maintain the status quo where one community that makes up less than 15 percent of the population should have such clout over the direction of the entire country and its people. And it is also necessary to ask whether a corrective mechanism must not be sought so that both Nepal's political terrain and bureaucratic echelons are more representative of the communities that inhabit this differentiated land.
We remain an incomplete democracy for many reasons, including the fact that our politically powerful classes and bureaucracy are not representative of the population-and in fact are becoming less so as far as the civil service is concerned. To bring about the change that is required, you do not need a benevolent dictatorship/monarchy, nor do you need Comrade Prachanda's path or the hiving off of independent \'homelands' for the \'indegenous'. The change in representation can be brought about from within the existing constitutional dispensation. This will begin to happen the moment those who have the responsibility of forming public opinion-the educated classes, including foremost the Bahuns among them-decide that there is an unfairness about which needs redressal. This is a serious, even volatile issue that must not be pushed aside on any pretext. Whatever the reason or causes for this phenomenon of under- or non-representation, a correction is necessary which will show up in the statistics of the political party leadership and in the data put out by the Public Service Commission in the years to come.
Writer's note: When a version of this article first appeared in the 1-16 September issue of Himal Khabarpatrika, the letters in support all came from the janajati fold and the brickbats all from the bahun side, indicating a divide that in a more progressed society would have been less obvious. The writer would suggest that readers also refer to an earlier piece, "Need to know your Nepali" (# 45), to get a fuller picture of his understanding of ethnicity, language and the modernising Nepali state.