4-10 September 2015 #774

Lessons from India’s Patel movement

Nepal’s affirmative action should be nuanced enough to avoid quotas for better-off Dalits, Madhesis or Janjatis
Om Astha Rai

TALE OF TWO RIOTS: The Indian Army patrols the streets of Ahmedabad (left) after deadly anti-reservation riots last week which had parallels with protests in Nepal's Kailali district against provincial boundaries in the new constitution, which left nine people dead. Pic credit: DNA (left) and Bachu BK (right)

The same week that Nepal deployed the army to contain ethnic unrest in Kailali, India had to clamp down on a parallel outburst of violent protests in Gujarat. 

Nine policemen were killed, the army was on the streets in Kailali. In Gujarat, ten people including a policeman died and the Indian Army was sent out to quell caste riots. In Nepal the protests were triggered by Tharu community’s unhappiness over provincial demarcation in the new constitution, while in India the agitation was spearheaded by the Patel community demanding a share of government jobs and college seats reserved for Dalits and what they call ‘Other Backward Communities’ (OBC).

On social networking sites, some Nepalis drew comparisons between the Kailali killings and the Gujarat violence because they were both about communities which felt aggrieved by state policy. But there may be more than meets the eye in comparing India’s Patel movement and growing discontent over reservation policy among Nepal’s Bahuns and Chhetris. 

The Patel movement could be an indication of a future anti-reservation movement in Nepal, too, where Bahuns and Chhetris are arguing that caste-based reservation policy is not justified because sections of their community are poorer than Janjatis or Dalits. If an activist like Hardik Patel, the 22-year-old leader of the Patel movement in Gujarat, can succeed in uniting anti-reservation youths, there is the possibility that Nepal’s own quota policy too could be diluted. We can be smarter about it by reforming our existing reservation policy, which is flawed and fails to uplift the genuinely marginalised.

In the end, it boils down to making a distinction between caste and class. Although social inequities in Nepal have caste and ethnic characteristics, it is becoming and will continue to be more class-based. Nepal’s reservation policy was introduced not only too late but also in haste. After the 2006 Democracy Movement, which was a culmination of years of struggle for an inclusive society, Nepal finally amended the Civil Service Act-1993 to reserve 45 per cent of government job quotas for Dalit, Madhesi, Janajati and women. 

But that law did not differentiate between privileged Janjatis and under-privileged Janjatis, or privileged Madhesis and under-privileged Madhesis. As a result, well-off Janjatis, Madhesi, Dalits and women are now able to grab all quotas reserved for the marginalised, breeding resentment among Bahuns and Chhetris who may lag behind economically.

The Janjati umbrella organisation, NEFIN, has categorised Nepal’s 59 indigenous communities into five groups: advanced, disadvantaged, marginalised, highly marginalised and endangered. Newars and Thakalis are in advanced group because of their high Human Development Index (HDI) rankings. Newars constitute only five per cent of population but already hold eight per cent of all government jobs. Now, they can get more jobs because of the Janjati quota. 

Some Madhesi caste groups like Rajputs and Kayastha also occupy a disproportionate number of government jobs while other more systematically-excluded Madhesi people are still excluded. Then, Bahun, Chhetri or Newar women dominate quotas reserved for women, leaving out women from more marginalised Madhesis, Muslims or Tamangs.  

Ironically, in treating all Madhesi, Janjatis, Dalits or women equally we are perpetuating class inequality in Nepali society. The HDI ranking could be the widely accepted way of determining which castes and ethnicities deserve more quotas. We can also learn from how our community forest movement determines the vulnerability of forest users. In most Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs), a Dalit family is not considered vulnerable enough to get priority to use forest products just because it is Dalit. Household income and land ownership are considered, and the whole community decides. If two Dalit families demand timber at the same time, the more needy one gets the priority. Our national reservation policy should also be more nuanced like this.

The policy of reserving government jobs, college seats or higher education scholarships should be accompanied by programs to empower the most underprivileged communities to compete for the allocated quotas. Nepal reserves quotas for MBBS scholarships, but does not empower Chepang, Kusunda, Thami, Majhi or Jirel communities to compete with Newar or Thakali students. If we fail to reform it effectively, Newar and Thakali students will be getting more than 90 per cent of medical school scholarship quotas in the future. 

To be sure, not all Newars or Kayasthas may be well off either, but it would be unfair if richer Janjati, Madhesi or Dalit candidates got preferential treatment. This would breed resentment, and lead to a future Patel movement in Nepal, too. It is not too late to be smarter about affirmative action.



Reservations about reservation, JB Pun Magar

Reserving reservations, Ajaz Ashram

Are Newars Janajatis?, Hemlata Rai

Kailali carnage

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