Nepali Times
Guest Column
Let’s talk about caste


Even as we painstakingly wrest back the right to debate openly, caste remains a strangely under-articulated topic in political discourse today.

Many enlightened Nepalis abhor the caste system, though few have broken caste taboos in their personal lives. Still, activists have long organised 'joint feasts' to allow people from 'high' and 'low' castes to defy segregation. The Dalits' rights movement is gaining pace despite elite resistance. Thousands of Nepalis across the country have even discarded their surnames to shrug off their caste identities. (Hence the proliferation of Nepalis with such surnames as 'Sorrowful' or 'Inspiration').

In the 1990 to 2002 period, the political parties had all been captured by Bahun men-who unfortunately blocked reforms on women's, Dalits' and Janajatis' rights. Studies were showing Panchayat-era caste profiles to be comparatively more diverse. Even now, the political parties remain the bastions of Bahun men.

Then came the king's October 2002 takeover. Dramatically, the Chettri caste that had monopolised power before 1990 returned. The heads of all the cabinets under King Gyanendra's rule have been Chettris: Chand (a Thakuri sub-caste), Thapa, Deuba and Shah (also Thakuri).

A recent cover story in Nepal magazine further reveals how narrow the absolute monarchists' caste base is. It lists the king's closest friends and advisers. These include: Prabhu Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, a childhood friend who accompanied the king to Indonesia and China. His nephew Prabhakar Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana heads the Soaltee Group and is also close to the king. Another trusted friend is Birendra Shah, better known by his nickname 'Lava Raja.' He was in Pokhara with then-Prince Gyanendra during the 2001 royal massacre. Sharad Chandra Shah is Lava Raja's nephew. He heads the Information Technology Commission but his informal powers are extensive. Another adviser, DB Rana, used to work in the Soaltee Group. Mahendra Kumar Singh, married to King Tribhuban's daughter from out of wedlock, sustained a bullet wound at the 2001 royal massacre. Ravi Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana and Queen Komal's brother Suraj Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana are also advisers to the king. Similarly close is Shanta Kumar Malla, former army chief, oversaw a five-person military inquisition into the 2001 royal massacre. Among other advisers are Sachit Shamsher Jung Bahadur Rana, Bharat Keshar Simha and Kesharjung Rayamajhi. That's 11 Chettri men, all but one a Thakuri.

It is sometimes tempting to reduce the struggle between absolute monarchists and democrats to a struggle between Chettris and Bahuns. This would be a facile conclusion, of course. Yet the non-political sectors that embody the present democratic movement-the media, the legal profession-are also overwhelmingly composed of Bahun men.

And herein lies a lingering weakness in today's democratic movement. Be they political parties, community or business organisations, NGOs or INGOs, or even families, the vast majority of democratic institutions remain markedly segregated-not by intention, maybe but by omission. There are apparently no 'others' who qualify to be 'one of us.' Or it is not worth the effort to reach out beyond our comfortable circles.

There is of course a difference in the ethics of absolute monarchists and democrats: the democrats' ideals oblige them to be inclusive. And they do sincerely intend to be so but first, they just need to restore democracy.

Yet, which comes first- democratic values or democratic polity? This is a question that many Nepalis-particularly non-Chettri-Bahuns-are now asking. Absolute monarchists would say that democratic values must come first and actual democracy can follow. Democrats would say the opposite.

But the ground realities of Nepal are better reflected in the view of Anil Bhattarai of Nepal South Asia Centre: "You cannot bring democracy first, then reduce poverty, then have awareness-building campaigns, then bring about social change. It all happens simultaneously. Look at what is happening. That is our reality."

So, democrats: while overthrowing Nepal's political anachronisms, let's also overthrow our own lingering contradictions, shall we? Let's start by talking about caste.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)