Nepali Times
Guest Column
Bahuns and the Nepali state (revisited)


Ten years ago, I was at the Foreign Ministry to request a change on my passport. Restless and beaten by the heat, I waited in queue for the concerned officer to show up. "He should be here any minute," said the guard. He finally appeared, a diminutive bahun with a gaunt, cross face.

A few minutes later, a man carrying a motorcycle helmet came through the door and went straight in. When I alerted helmet-man of the existence of a queue, the officer stared at me and barked, "Ta bhote, bhadta janne hunchas?" I have no appetite for racial insults, and ten years ago I was a feisty teenager. Even so, I quietly submitted to the officer's authority since I needed to get my work done.

That the bahun community collectively dominates the political and bureaucratic systems is beyond contention. It is in explaining this dominance, however, that opinion seems to vary widely. The anti-establishment revolutionaries point to the prevalence of caste-based, conspiracy-inspired discrimination that has turned the state and its institutions into instruments to further their hold.

The conservative rightists, on the other hand, revert to cultural explanations of the traditional bahun commitment to learning and education that paved a path for access to high office. The first seeks to explain state-sponsored social injustice, and hence calls for a fight to end it. The latter argues for a morally justifiable position of a meritocracy.

Whatever the origins of the caste system, it was encouraged and enforced by those who benefited most from it. It could hardly be otherwise. So it is not that non-bahuns are or were less-inclined towards education, but in a restrictive cultural climate which ascribed one to a certain hierarchical worldview and predetermined life-path, a lower caste interest in education came secondary to requirements of the role in society: soldier, farmer or blacksmith.

Not only was access to education less available to lower caste groups, but education could not provide an escape from caste perimeters. Caste advantages along with the priest-scholar roles in the royal courts allowed bahuns easy access to centers of power. With the formation of a modern state with its requirement for a bureaucracy and election-based political processes and institutions, the educated bahuns had "first-mover" advantage.

Nepotism, ethnic favoritism, and the demands of a new nation provided bahuns many opportunities within the state apparatus. Other ethnic groups did not enjoy the same caste privileges, educational achievements, monarchical access and intra-ethnic networks to pursue these opportunities.

This view synthesises both the reactionary and conservative positions, and attempts to paint a less political and more accurate picture of bahun encroachment on the Nepali state. It is a product of historical social processes based on natural instincts for self-progression in a competitive environment: it is not the result of an apartheid-like, state-sanctioned design, as many argue.

Favoritism is rampant, but to bring charges of some conspiratorial state agenda to undermine minorities and bestow privileges exclusively to the bahuns is stretching the truth too far. Such blatant charges seem often to come from conceited minority leaders whose fatal attractions are limited to cashing in on the ethnic card.

Ethnic domination is not restricted to bahuns. The Ranas and the chettris in the Royal Nepal Army, Newars and Marwaris in businesses, Sherpas in mountaineering, Gurungs in missionary armies are some other well-known cases. The lack of opportunities within the state apparatus is one reason why many non-bahun communities have built their own "economic" niches.

But all ethnic monopolies, large and small, need to be denounced. Every Nepali should be provided a fair chance to compete in all activities, public and private, within the state. But what of communities which have no niches to rely on? And if ethnic monopolies are prevalent, why all the hue and cry against bahuns only? Why are only they being blamed for the sorry state of our country today? After all, it is not the bahuns who have ruled Nepal for the last two-quarter centuries. They have become elected leaders only after 1990.

When a Limbu resident of Panchthar goes to Phidim to make his citizenship card, he will most likely encounter a bahun bureaucrat who refuses to sign his approval without some "chiya piune kharcha". In his office, a framed, garlanded poster of the king and queen will bear down on the man. The Limbu villager never faces the raja in real life; in his mind he is the impartial, benevolent arbiter of justice.

A non-bahun officer might be equally uncooperative but given bahun preponderance in the state system, especially since 1990, contempt for the stifling, corrupt and cold Nepali state has effectively transformed itself into a contempt for bahuns at large. Bahun vanity hits where it hurts the most: the pride and dignity of ethnic minorities.

Viewing Nepali politics from a purely caste perspective, one can argue that the so-called democratic changes of the 1990s were part of a successful bahun exercise to take substantive power from the Rana and Shah rulers and share the spoils. The bahuns effectively succeeded, but the struggle of the lower castes for a level playing field goes on. No matter how nationally-motivated and all-encompassing the aspiration of those who spearheaded the democratic struggle, looking through the ethnic glass it appears as an incomplete democracy.

Something is obviously wrong when bahuns make up over 80 percent of Nepal's political and administrative leadership when they only constitute 15 percent of the population. Fair representation from various ethnic groups in the government should be encouraged, not as showcases to get minority votes but to really put minority viewpoints and grievances at the forefront.

At the same time, minorities should refrain from impulsive, inflammatory reaction. It is unfair to blame everything on bahuns, or blame every bahun of wrongdoing. Democracy provides the minorities with an opportunity to organise and have their voices heard without engaging in hateful, malicious rhetoric or violent, disruptive conflict.
At the same time, increased educational campaigns to root out caste prejudices, and reform pressures to reduce state control on peoples' daily lives can lessen prevalent negative perceptions held against bahuns. t

(Nuru Lama Sherpa, a Phaplu native, is presently earning a Master's degree in Public Administration at Harvard University.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)