Fatalism And Development
Extracts from Dor Bahadur Bista’s Fatalism And Development, Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization, 1991.
History of Caste System (the extract from pg 36-38 from the second chapter, the Caste System in Nepal of Fatalism and Development) tries to explain the influence and power play of the Bahun-Thakuri-Chhetri castes, among others, in Nepal. Bista says, on basis of Kirkpatrick, a British east Indian Company official who visited Nepal in 1973, recount of the Gorkhalis, that “native egalitarianism, and not the hierarchised social order of the hierarchic caste system” was prevalent in Nepal largely due to the legacy of Gorkha King Ram Shah. This came in muchs later to the Gorkhalis, specially after the introduction of the legal code of 1985. (pg 46)
“Historically, it appears that the caste system has its greatest success when called upon to help establish the legitimacy of a partcialuar regime. With the destruction or elimination of the first millennium, the Bahun pundits have become the sole vehicle of erudition. They are the writers, the repository and the interpreters of history, and for appropriate consideration have been quick to document the ancient illustrious status of any new reign. The last incident was when they had Jung Bahadur Kunwar, a Khas, adopt the title of Rana, developing a fictitious ancestry of Rajput origin from the southern plains. Certain similarities in language and cultural traits exist between the Khas people and those of Rajasthan and Gujarat, all of whom are believed to have migrated across the Karakoram during the prehistoric period and to have spread over the western Himalayas as well as the Punjab, Rajastan and Gujarat (Sharma, Janak Lal, 1982:243). This made it easier for the advisers of Jung Bahadur Rana to posit a connection with the Rajputs of the plains, even though any study of ancestors of Jung Bahadur Rana leads to the conclusion that the Ranas were Khas, who took the tile of Kunwar (prince) during the medieval period but had no connection with the Indian Rajputs (Whelpton, 1987).
A sense of insecurity among certain Pundits have led them to concoct fictitious genealogies for any ruling dynasty they want, who then have been deemed to be of Indian origin. If this were true, it would be seem that the Nepali people are, as a whole, incapable of ruling themselves. There has never been a conquest of Nepal initiated from within India, so from the interpretations of history we are forced to infer that these so-called Indian dynasties must have secured their position through invitation, as a result of their personal superiority over anything that Nepalis had to offer. It is very hard to believe that Nepalis, with their reputation for an independent spirit and martial qualities, could not produce their own leaders but had to wait for fugitive nobles to arrive from India and paid homage to them as soon as they set foot in the hills. There is evidence suggesting that such Indian pedigrees for the Thakuri-Chhetri are the artifacts of their own sycophants.
In all my research I have been unable to discover any genuine evidence that any Thakuri (aristrocratic) family has its origin in India. Instead there is some evidence of distinctly Nepali origins for most Thakuris and Chhetris. For example, Nepali people have clan and family tutelary deities with clearly indigenous origins, and these deities have their own ritual practices and even their own local (typically Shamanistic) priesthood. An Indian family is extremely unlikely to have created for itself such a non-Brahmanic tutelary deity and is further unlikely to have it attended by non-Bahun priests; so that the presence of such a deity, with non-Bahun priests, may be taken as indicating an indigenous origin. The Shah Thakuris have been given a Rajput ancestry by few historians, yet all their clan deities and family tutelary deities are worshipped and cared exclusively by Magars- by Bhrahmanic standards a polluted low caste ethnic group; the Gorkha Kali, Manakamana, and the goddess at Lasargha, a re in the exclusive care of the Magars. (1) This trend has been the major means by which the Bahun pundits have attempted to gain influence and expand the hierarchic caste system. The main consequence has been a major distortion of Nepali history, belittling Nepali achievement while reorienting the culture evermore towards that of the Gangetic plains.
After the Bahun and Thakuri, the next highest caste group is that of the Chhetri. Various people of high status from among those groups that played an active part in the unification of Nepal took the title of Chhetri shortly afterwards. But not all Chhetris come from this background, and the proportion that do is ever decreasing, particularly within Kathmandu Valley. Those others that have the title of Chhetri are the children of Bahun fathers and indigenous ethnic mothers. As Bahuns move into new areas, these mixed Chhetri children form the nucleus of the caste community. Such children differ from the local Matwali children in being given an education by their fathers, and often tend to be successful economically and socially. These Chhetri then become the clients of the Bahun priests, with their economic success providing the basis of their economic support. Their educational and economic distinctiveness faciliatates their elevation to high status within the local community, which then influences the infusion of fatalism and hieratic caste principles into local ethnic life.
A majority if the Bahun priests are the descendents of caste Brahmans who came mainly from the plains, though with some smaller groups form the Deccan during the miedeval period. A few may have come to the Nepal region for purposes of prosetlyising but most were fo5rced to emigrate from hostile invasions of the plain states. In particular, there were to be many who were running away from the religious persecutions of the Moslems. These people did not bring any religious mission with them but an excessive concern fro self-preservation which was to affect their relations profoundly with the inhabitants of Nepal and Nepali culture. The preservation of caste culture required that they did not succumb to Nepali influences nor in any way diminish the purity of their cultural treasures. The defence of their culture lead readily to the depreciation of the cultural lifestyle of the Nepalis. Benares and other scared cities if India representated, for them, the ideals of urban civilization, and Kathmandu’s culture was denigrated. The river water in Benares continues to be treated as holier than the clean and fresh water of all of the Himalayan rivers of Nepal. As the Muslim occupation of the south continued there was a general lapse in orthodoxy. What persevered was a continuing denigration of Nepali culture and Nepali people in general and an exaggerated adulation of the fatalistic caste culture of the plains with their religious centres such as Benares being treated as the holiest places of pilgrimage. This denigration of Nepali culture has become an inherent aspect of the developed Nepali form of Hindusim with a fatalistic hierarchy as interpreted by Bahun priests.”
It is interesting that much earlier than Jung Bahadur Rana, some Magars took the title of Rana. Today no-one takes seriously the suggestion that Rana Magars are of Rajput origin because they did not succeed in securing power and wealth as was done by Jung Bahadur, his brothers and their descendents.
The last section from The Caste System in Nepal (pg 55-60) aids in understanding the capital society, the ethnic rights movement, the mentality of the third generation of Kathmanduties. Bista foresaw the political upheavals that we are face today and felt it was essential.
Caste and Ethnicity
The Thakuri, Chhetri and Matwali people in the far western hills of Npeal are not divided rigidly by caste cleavages. Economic or political considerations tend to divide people rather than caste distinctions. All the major groups of people rather than caste distinctions. All the major groups of people eastward from the far west are defined ethnically rather than by caste, such as Magar, Tharu, Gurung, Thakali, Sherpa, Tamang, Sunuwar, Thami, Rai, Limbu, Danuwar, Dhimal, etc. Increasing agitation by pundits in support of nationwide extension of the caste system had had a direct influence on consolidating the thinic identity of these various groups within Nepali society. This increased sense of ethnic solidarity is a result of the defensive reaction against the intrusive and dominating activities of the Bahun-chhetri. The various groups of people who do not have caste groupings have no way of maintaining group solidarity other than through their ethnic groups. This leads to the emphasis on ethnic identity.
Ethnic Matwali groups are aware that once they identify themselves as Hindus they will be placed at a low social status and will be at a disadvantage. As a result we are beginning to see the assertion of ethnic organizations for political and economic rights. There has been some exploitation of this ethnic dissatisfaction by political activists and some members of the various ethnic groups are rallying under the slogan ethnic rights to fight the high caste Hindu domination. But this development is not unique to Nepal. It is quite common where ethnic minorities feel that they have been discriminated against. Clifford Geertz, who observed this particular phenomena in areas around thee world, states that it is the manifestation of a ‘desire to be recognised as responsible agents whose wishes, acts, hopes and opinions matter and it is the desire to build an efficient, dynamic modern state; it is a search for an identity, and a demand that the identity be publicly acknowledged as having import, a social assertion of the self as being somebody in the world’ (Geertz, 1973). (1)
Many Nepali intellectuals are beginning to echo the same opinion, as will be clear if we look at the viewpoint expressed by Prayag Raj Sharma. He suggests that ‘a new basis of national integration will have to be found to give the country a new strength of unity… Our true search should be to continue to find harmony in group relationship, but the values on which they are to be based must be compatible with the time’ (Sharma, 1986).
Within Kathmandu, social relations between the dominant caste groups and ethnic minorities are complex. As will be fully elaborated in later chapters, social life in the capital is greatly infleuenced by key caste values and interpersonal styles, and prominent among these is the requirement of membership in appropriate social groups that are called afno mannche. For one to make any kind of social progress or get things done, one must have the correct afno mannche connections. These afno mannche connections are not necessarily caste based, but the membership to them takes time, knowledge, and the right kind of support elsewhere. These resources are rarely available to the ethnic minority member newly arrived in Kathmandu from some remote region, and hence this kind of person will always tend to be excluded from an effective social and political life there. This is not so much matter of discrimination because of memberships of an ethnic minority group, or because of low caste status, but is a form of social exclusion in the absence of other qualifications necessary for group membership. Ethnic minorities, then, are disadvantaged and excluded in Kathmandu by default.
Ethnic minority members attempting to make their way into the modern world also prone to experiencing special forms of acculturation. As will be seen in the chapter on education, ethnic minority families are typically very poor and dependent on their children’s labour for survival, and cannot afford luxury of spending them to school—which tends to be reserved for upper caste or upper class children. Those that do get an education are therefore from elite families. Ethnic minority members who are able to go to graduate school tend to adopt high caste attitudes, as the permeability in the Nepali caste system offers the hopes of caste mobility. A hierarchic attitude is often developed, and part of the process essentially requires the rejection of low caste or ethnic background. As a consequence the ethnic community looses the ambitious and mobile, who still have a long way to go to be accepted in a higher caste, and which may be possible only for descendents. The ethnic minority member, therefore, in some kind of social and existential vacuum, having tenuous, repressed connections with ethnic antecedents and a dubious position within the caste society of the capital. The high caste attitude at that point provides the only immediate and even remotely accessible social reality, which again forces the individual into reorienting to a hierarchic caste perspective. As an objective the higher status will always be unattainable. A consequences is often the eventual breakdown of the defence mechanism of the ethnic individual, with demonstration of erratic behavior and a loss of motivation. Few ethnic Matwalis are successful, and even when this is so they often have frustrated, bitter, and difficult personalities. Most turn their grievances into political activity of an essentially revolutionary kind.
The typical indices of failures in acculturation and ethnic conflict are largely obscured in Nepal. Delinquency is ignored or even not recognised. There is little awareness of the existence of mental illness, other than psychotic breakdowns. No generally useful statistics has been collected for measuring the pervasiveness and form of failures in acculturation. It is therefore difficult to examine the extent to which these different ethnic groups are prone to alienation and what the social cost of this alienation is to the nation. Though it is obscured, it is nonetheless there. To some extent, the absence of visible alienation and social conflict is the consequent to the economic nature of Kathmandu, which does not have many industries and is really not seen as a place of opportunity, except for those who have administrative ambitions. Hence there is little urban drift to Kathmandu, and there is no developing slum area of rural migrants who have left their homes hoping for some opportunity to improve their lot. Kathmandu attracts mainly prosperous and upper class people. Those with economic ambitions among the various ethnic groups go to the Terai, or even to India. Becoming an expatriate is a common alternative for the frustrated but ambitious ethnic group member.
Geertz further suggests that there is no single established method or strategy that the minority people would adopt in order to make their point of view heeded. There are several ways of doing this. An extract from his text will make the point clear:
When we speak of communalism in India, we refer to religious contrasts; when we speak of it in Malaya, we are mainly concerned with racial ones, and in the Congo with tribal ones. But the grouping under a common rubric is not simply adventitious; the phenomena referred to are in some way similar. Regionalism has been the main theme in Indonesian disaffection, differences in custom in Moroccan. The Tamil minority in Ceylon is set off from the Sinhalese majority by religion, language, race, region and social custom; the Shiite minority in Iraq is set off from dominant Sunnis virtually by an intra-Islamic sectarian difference alone. Pan national movements in Africa are largely based on race, in Kurdistan, on tribalism; in Laos, the Shan States, and Thailand, on language. Yet all these phenomena, too, are in some sense of a piece.(Geertz, ibid:256-257)
February 22, 2008
Fatalism And Development