22 MIN READ
Throughout Nepali history, the brutality of the caste system has stunted social transformation
‘When the peasant takes a gun in his hands, the old myths grow dim and the prohibitions are one by one forgotten. The rebel’s weapon is the proof of his humanity.’ — Jean Paul Sartre, in the preface to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth
It feels as if the war drum of death is beating its booming march in my body. I see a torrent of corpses falling before my naked eyes. And I see – a blue-and-red checkered shirt, a face blackened as if some acid or some other chemical had been thrown on it to render it unrecognizable. Swollen lips. The body, too, somewhat swollen. Grey jeans. A corpse muddied as if dragged there by a flooded river.
Watching a body being exhumed brings back childhood recollections of dead cattle being buried at the edges of our field. Perhaps it was to keep the hawks and carrion dogs away, but I remember the burial pits being dug much deeper. But Ajit Mijar’s corpse hadn’t been buried even as deep as the carcass of an animal. His body had been hidden under a scattering of soil and stone, no more than a bit of mulch and few broken branches of syaula leaves. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to dig much deeper while burying a body by the road to Dhading; in any case, the corpse wasn’t buried much below the surface.
Ajit’s lifeless body asks vital questions: If the last name had been Dhakal rather than Mijar, would he have been buried like this for being with the woman of his choice? How can the fate of being cut down or not, or of being hanged or not, or of being declared a criminal or not be determined by whether one or the other of these caste names follows one’s given name? How does the same person simultaneously become Mijar and Dhakal – an untouchable and a Brahmin? Of these two last names, how does the ‘untouchable’ identity become the dominant and overpowering?
The unwritten history is carved into stone: so many ‘untouchables’ have been cut down for falling in love with Brahmin women, so many brahmins lost their caste standing for marrying an untouchable person. So many have lost everything because of love and marriage between ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ races and castes. When Brahmin men and women entered intimate relationships with persons from ‘lower’ castes, they lost their caste standing and were forced into exile. The family of Ajit Mijar Dhakal – whose death was deemed a suicide – are witnesses to a similarly ugly history. Whether it had been a case of inter-caste love or a marriage, whether it had been a murder or a suicide, how could a verdict rendered by ‘pure’ voices be sullied or impure? Therefore, it was established that he had committed suicide. And long may prosper the civil society and political society that added their yeas to that chorus! There was an age when murder was necessary, but now, when lovers or spouses commit suicide out of their own volition, it is as if the wind sweeps away the trash, and all worries disappear!
Does violence have two separate faces? Where the oppressor sees suicide, the victim sees murder. Otherwise, why do the families and relatives of victims see the murderers carve their verdicts into the cold corpses of their loved ones?
Ajit’s father says slowly, in a subdued voice, "What more is there? They’ve killed my son. His mother constantly dwells on the incident. I am tired of telling her to not dwell on it. There is nothing to be gained now, no matter how hard we fight – we are alone, and they are many. My father was a Dhakal, and my mother a Mijar. But they’ve always kept us among the untouchables."
My hands become damp with sweat as I listen to him. Breathing becomes difficult. I become speechless. My body is overheating – perhaps every cell is boiling at a hundred degrees Celsius. "They say a son continues the lineage," I begin. "If your father was a Dhakal, how did you become a Mijar?"
He says, "I don’t know what it is – they say it is an old tradition. We have been counted among the untouchables. Even though my father was a Dhakal, because my mother was a Mijar, we are untouchables."
The inter-caste love marriage between Ajit Mijar, a grandson of the so-called untouchable person, and Kalpana Parajuli, a Brahmin woman, didn't only debase the caste of the bride, but it also took Ajit's life. And July 14, 2016 became a dark day in the history of love.
I begin to wonder – how does caste debase?
Caste debasement: The guillotine of humiliation
The loss or debasement of caste is the greatest insult or humiliation within Hindu society. There is rarely a Dalit person who hasn’t experienced bone-aching degrees of caste humiliation; as the feminist historian V. Geetha writes, "The Dalit body becomes the playfield of humiliation. Dalit body is the prison for the Dalit human and his corporeal being precedes him and is itself considered as evidence of its lowness." She calls this an ontological wound.
Why are the so-called ‘untouchables’ obligated to carry the deep welts and dark bruises of humiliation for thousands of years? The scholar Gopal Guru, who has theorized the notion of humiliation, says, ‘Humiliation is not so much a physical or corporeal injury; in fact, it is more of a mental/psychological injury that leaves a permanent scar on the heart.’ His argument is that when a person is wounded morally and mentally and they are debased culturally they become inculcated with the sense that they are naturally of a lower and lesser order. Thus, when a civilized body is treated with hatred as if it is a debased body the distinction between human rights and humiliation becomes stark.
The practice of this philosophy in Nepal is no different. Even today when ‘grand citizens’ are asked about the caste system, the answer is this: Dalits carry within themselves a sense of inferiority. They think of themselves as lesser. Then this advice is given free of cost – ‘Dalits must rise above such thinking.’ Dalits, who have been continuously made to stand before the guillotine of humiliation, continue to protest against this accusation in their own ways. It is considered normal to suffer humiliation in the name of caste. To study the historical evidence of the caste debasement of non-Dalits is to see with utmost clarity why it is not at all normal to have to endure humiliation under the guise of ‘untouchability’. Although the nature of this humiliation is social in appearance, the history of its political form is terrifying.
Is it not violence to humiliate a person with the loss of caste?
The axis of caste: Unmoved by revolutions
The history of Nepali society is in fact the history of caste. Examine the history of individuals and institutions and you will find the pitiable cries of those crushed under the weight of caste. Sometimes it feels as if the conception and practice of democracy have remained unfinished because of caste. Every stage of every revolution has been taken hostage by caste.
Tanka Prasad Acharya, who fought for democracy, is a revolutionary leader. But, how is it possible to understand his life without examining caste, which sits front and center in his life and the revolution that he led? My curiosity about caste debasement was helped by the incident faced by the ‘pro-democracy leader’ Tanks Prasad Acharya. Nepal Praja Parishad had been created under Acharya’s leadership to end the Rana rule and to establish democracy in Nepal, and it was the very first political organization in Nepal. In the course of the protests started by the Praja Parishad, in 1940 Dharma Bhakta Mathema, Ganga Lal Shrestha, Shukra Raj Shashtri (a Newar Joshi), and Dasharath Chand were hanged and shot to death but Tanka Prasad Acharya was merely imprisoned and had his caste debased. His head was shaved and he was declared an ‘untouchable’. Dharma Ratna Yami, a colleague of Acharya, says that Acharya was so distraught at having his caste debased by the Ranas that he petitioned the Rana ruler, offering the ceremonial coin, to return him to the status of a ‘touchable’ person.
I was bewildered even more about caste debasement when I learned about how Tanka Prasad Acharya had become the president of the Praja Parishad. The historian Dr. Rajesh Gautam cites Dharma Ratna Yami, "Dasharath Chand and Dharma Bhakta Mathema were candidates for the presidency of the Praja Parishad. However, Nepal being a Hindu nation, it was decided that brahmins and cows were unassailable, therefore Tanka Prasad Acharya was elected the president after a lot of discussion."
How is it that in the same group of individuals willing to give up their lives for democracy some had the luxury of being granted life while others were forced to die? Why was Tanka Prasad Acharya, the ‘leader’ of the leaders of a revolution, so distraught at having his caste debased temporarily by the Rana rulers? How has a large group of people lived after being made less than human through the practice of untouchability, the food, and water touched by them deemed unacceptable? Is it undemocratic to raise such a question about somebody who fought for democracy?
Dr. Gautam comments, "That was the nature of the society then. If the members of the society and other political prisoners hadn’t behaved as if Acharya’s caste had been debased, perhaps Acharya wouldn’t have bowed before the Ranas." This comment perhaps means that a revolutionary should have the opportunity to regain his caste, even if that requires him to submit to his oppressor. This sort of writing appears to suggest a continuation of the brahminical history. The revolutionary leader who submitted before the state and before caste later became the prime minister of the counter – apparently, caste is also the source of state power.
The point is not whether or not Acharya submitted before the Ranas – the point is on what issue he submitted his petition. Didn’t Acharya – a revolutionary who had refused to submit to the tyrannical Rana rulers at any cost – reveal himself as brahminical when he bowed before the Ranas just because his caste had been temporarily debased? Is it possible for a Brahmin to become a revolutionary while maintaining all the trappings of brahminical caste? Will this society, so persecuted by the caste system, allow a Brahmin to become a revolutionary? For which caste and race will the democracy dreamed up by this group be? In light of this incident, it appears as if the humiliation of caste debasement is a worse fate than that of a death sentence in the ‘beautiful, peaceful and vast Nepal’. Is there a worse and more degraded death for a ‘pure’ and ‘clean’ person to be subjected to an ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ death?
I begin to wonder – was the hammer used often by my brother in reality the history striking at the dignity of the ‘untouchables’? How can caste-based violence and its eradication become central issues in a revolution that carries, in its womb, the idea of caste itself? Will raising questions such as this force all revolutionary politicians to face the question of caste? And perhaps it will also expose their slogans of democracy and socialism to new questions and scrutiny?
Caste is firmly transfixed through Nepali society and politics, like an iron stake. This fact is reflected not only in the views of Dalit politicians but also in the grammar used by Brahmins. It can be found in From India’s Freedom to Nepal’s Democracy: Memoirs of DB Parihar edited by Shankar Tiwari. Even though DB Parihar had a command of English superior to that of BP Koirala, he wasn’t made the editor of the party publication of the Nepali Rashtriya Congress, established with the jailed Tanka Prasad Acharya as the chairperson. Dr. Gautam says that DK Shahi didn’t have enough English to become the editor of an English language paper, but he was made the editor. Parihar, feeling the sting of humiliations for being denied the recognition of his capabilities because he was a Dalit, says, ‘The faith that Congress leaders show towards socialism is false.’ What sort of a socialism did the Congress imagine where the caste system is the main obstacle before the workers and where the system smothers and kills capability and talent and throws into the gutter the very sentiment of group identity? Where a caste community is immune to all questions and where all the questions from another caste community are annihilated?
What sort of a democracy was implemented where some groups were immune to questions while questions from other groups were prohibited? Of what nature were the discourses on that particular form of socialism?
The writer Aahuti says, "Nepali society is a society hostile to thought. This society is an enemy of the tradition of thought. There is a large crowd in this society of those who are engaged in the easy act of formulating ideas without active contemplation. There is a danger of writers and intellectuals in such a society falling into the easy act of ideas without contemplation. If that happens, there is no possibility of anything new emerging."
Aahuti, who has been active in the communist movement since a long time, frequently presents examples demonstrating the extreme extent to which caste has smothered the communist parties of Nepal. Isn’t it our greatest irony that even our communist parties are being crushed under the immense weight of caste?
A history of questionocide
The caste system forbids a culture of questioning. Asking questions comes at a high cost. How much inhumane violence is carried out in the name of religion, the caste system, and the gods? The history of Madhav Raj Joshi contains some straightforward answers to these questions. Madhav Raj was the father of Shukra Raj Shashtri. He established the Nepal chapter of Arya Samaj in 1896. The questions he had raised for the reform of Hinduism were anathema to the people in power. Because his ideas challenged the hegemony enjoyed by the royal priests and Brahmins, they deemed his ideas dangerous. Therefore, sometime in the July of 1905, he was invited to Singha Durbar, purportedly to participate in a debate on the scriptures. The chief royal priest Prayag Raj and hundreds of Brahmins were on one side while Joshi was their sole opponent. In the course of the purported debate, Joshi logically refuted the assertions made by his opponents regarding the burden imposed by the priestly caste upon the Nepali society; the donations to the priests as required during various religious functions; and the caste system. When Joshi raised objections against idolatry, the chief royal priest asked permission of the Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shamsher, saying, "Please permit us to beat up this man who calls Pashupatinath, worshipped even by the King of Nepal, a mere idol of stone."
Joshi was wearing the white clothes of a person in mourning. The chief royal priest and the other Brahmins in attendance beat Joshi nearly to death with sticks, beating him all the way out of Singha Durbar, then proceeded to show him off to the entire city before throwing him in prison. Dr. Rajesh Gautam mentions how Joshi’s sons Amar Raj and Shukra Raj were expelled from the Durbar High School and had their castes debased. This event illustrates how the Hindu state punishes with caste debasement anybody who dared to question or think. Even today, the voices of those who ask similarly discomfiting questions or fail to show equivalent contemporary forms of deference are suppressed through various means.
How was this caste system – which has created and sustained such a violent and degrading structure for thousands of years – created? I am constantly startled by questions about how this structure has instituted a regime of violence and humiliation in my life and the lives of people like me. How can we not feel ashamed that the oppressive burden of caste has still not crumbled in our days, with our generation, informed by the caste experiences of Tanka Prasad and Ahuti, having seen the struggles for democracy and the long decade of a People’s War? How can we not feel resentment at this failure?
I experienced caste-based untouchability even before I understood the caste system. I was, in utero, already an ‘untouchable’. And already a declared ‘criminal’. To be an ‘untouchable’ in the Hindu society is to be preemptively declared a criminal because they are condemned by the society without any fault of their own.
They are made to experience the sensation of being subhuman in subtle ways. I recall an incident – I had gone to the well to fetch water early in the morning. When the others saw my water pot, they moved their water pots away. For a long time, I didn’t comprehend why they moved their pots away. Perhaps my mother didn’t understand it either, but, even if she may have had little comprehension of the caste implications, according to my father, she had a strong sense of dignity.
Father used to say, ‘After she was humiliated while trying to fetch water from the well, your mother always went to the River Rapti to fetch water, even if it were at midnight.’ I don’t remember what mother did for borrowing or lending goods with the neighbors. I don’t remember if she shared food or shelter with the villagers. But I have barely any recollection of having eaten at the homes of our neighbors. I would be hungry, of course, but I would rarely admit to being hungry because whereas I could tolerate hunger, I couldn’t tolerate humiliation. I was human, but in every moment I was obligated to keep proving my humanity to others.
The core of the caste system and preferential rights
Caste is as bewildering as it is easy to understand. Perhaps it is because the caste system is the most complex and layered organization. For the common Nepali, the caste system is something instituted by the gods, and defiance of this tradition bars their passage into the heavens in the afterlife. But, in The Caste System and Class Struggle in Nepal, Ahuti says, "Five thousand years ago, fair-skinned Aryas from Europe entered what is today Iran. In the Indian subcontinent, there were people of Austro-Dravidian origin with black, red, and yellow skin. The indigenous people who were defeated in war were enslaved while the victorious Aryas became the slave-owners. Thus, the age of slavery began in India. The skin of the victorious Arya was fair while that of the vanquished was black, red, or yellow. Therefore, the victorious Aryas started discriminating on the basis of race and skin color. In the beginning, the word varna denoted color, whereas now it denotes race."
The ruling class of that time imposed division of labor as an insurmountable structure by forcing a particular nature of labor upon a particular lineage. Naturally, when restrictions were placed upon the choice of occupations, the so-called ‘untouchables’ rebelled. In the course of such struggles, the Hindu society practiced violence against the ‘untouchables’. Later, the division of labor was fixed as a matter of birth in order to make the practice of violence unnecessary. A system was created wherein some were born criminals while some others were born with the privilege of becoming dharmadhikaris – passers of verdicts and dispensers of justice. Consequently, the dharmadhikaris were Brahmins appointed by the state. Thus, the caste system is responsible for keeping the Hindu society operational through the imposition of insurmountable structures along caste divisions. And, the politics of myths has become the axis around which the notion that the Brahmin born from the head (of Brahma) is capable of thought and deliberation, is above the rest, is pure, and has the ability to adjudicate according to scriptural laws while the dalit born from the soles of the feet of Brahma is incapable of thought and deliberation, is condemned to forever remain in the lowest stratum of society, and is impure and criminal in nature.
A study of modern history shows that the tradition of appointing justices and judges according to their birth and caste hasn’t changed much at all. According to Shivahari Gyawali, who has studied cases related to accusations of cow slaughter, in the fiscal year 2017, there were 34 cases related to cow slaughter at the Supreme Court with 43 defendants. Of the defendants, 51 percent are Dalits. Of the judges passing presiding over these cases, 76 percent of the 34 District Court judges, 69 percent of the 67 Appellate Court judges, and 62 percent of the 34 Supreme Court judges are hill Brahmins. Of the 377 judges in Nepal, Brahmin and Kshatriya judges comprise 332 (88 percent) while there are only 2 Dalit judges (less than 1 percent).
The practice of criminalization of Dalits and other minorities in the neighboring country of India is terrifying.
Of the people condemned to death under various reasons Dalits and other minorities make up 93.5 percent. It is as if they have priority rights over the death penalty.
Similarly, in the United States, African Americans seem to enjoy priority rights over ‘crime’ and incarceration. In the major cities of the United States, nearly 80 percent of African American youth are found to have been accused of drug abuse even though white American youth are engaged in drug abuse and trade in equal proportion. Such ‘criminal records’ become the basis for a lifetime of legal discrimination against African Americans. They are pushed to the lower castes, made to rot in prisons for entire lifetimes, and are excluded from mainstream society. Therefore, according to the civil rights lawyer and writer Michelle Alexander, ‘Earlier, the ‘caste system’ existed in the guise of discriminatory Jim Crow laws and slavery, whereas now the same system has been employed to commonly imprison African Americans. The criminal justice system that besmirches an entire race, permanently marginalizes them, and designates them lesser on the basis of laws and traditions is racial caste.’ Don’t the record of crime and imprisonment in our country tell the same story?
It is true that, just as many political leaders often repeat, many ‘transformations’ have taken place in Nepal. Those who would shy away on the road in yesteryears now approach to shake hands. Those who dressed in rags now wear coat and pants like the upper castes. Dalit women who were obsequious in the past have now reached positions from where they write legislation, can look people in the eye and hold conversations. But, upon close inspection, it doesn’t appear that any change has occurred in the power structure or power relations. For instance, Brahmins and Kshatriyas have the biggest share of the Nepali power structure, but even women from the same community have a much smaller share of it. Of the 332 Brahmin and Kshatriya judges, only 11 are women, a mere 3.31 percent.
Even on the visage of the judiciary established to deliver justice the ugly face of the Nepali society is reflected. It is easy to see that there is a long sociological history behind the negligible representation of Dalits in the judicial system. But, what is the reason behind such dismal representation of Brahmin and Kshatriya women? Is it perhaps that brahminical patriarchy has a role in it?
A reservoir of violence: Brahminical patriarchy
What is brahminical patriarchy? What is the relationship between violence and brahminical patriarchy?
According to the feminist historian Uma Chakravarti, brahminical patriarchy is a structure that retains within itself control over land, women, and religious traditions. Even among women, this structure controls the sexuality, labor, and education of women of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ classes by keeping man at the center. She says that caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organizing principles of a brahminical social system and they are interrelated. To keep the ‘upper’ caste women firmly under the control of men isn’t simply to perpetuate patriarchy but also to perpetuate the caste system.
The extent of violence and humiliation inherent in the patriarchy that maintains castes like Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas and keeps caste central to itself is experienced in the Nepali society every day. The victims of this system are the Dalits, called ‘untouchable’ until very recently. It seems there is no sense of culpability or guilt in the so-called ‘upper’ castes regarding their acts of violence or humiliation. If the ‘superiority, purity and holiness' of their castes and creed are being defended, then murder, suicide, or gradual death and all other kinds of violence seem to become acceptable! Even the state, the political parties, courts, police administration, and the casteist society seems to find such violence forgivable.
In that sense, the ‘suicide’ of Ajit Mijar, the attempted suicide of Buddhamaya Bishwokarma, the rape and murder of Maya BK, and the slaughter of Mana Sarki are no longer murder, since they have the approval of the scriptures and the state. This means that they will not refrain from any form of discrimination, humiliation, or violence if it returns to them the dignity of their caste. According to their beliefs and notions, if an act of violence is committed in accordance with the scriptures, it isn’t violence – Vaidiki himsa himsa na bhavati, which is to say that caste-based violence is no violence at all.
Ajit Mijar’s cold corpse awaits – on a slab of ice at the Tribhuwan University Teaching Hospital – the justice denied to him. Therefore, some people have to be hanged when they choose to love across caste lines, some have to be buried when they marry across caste lines, and some have to be put on cold ice for 748 days.
That must be why Ajit Mijar’s cold corpse asks us – How many political systems have to change before ‘untouchables’ become touchable? How many more violent or non-violent struggles will be necessary?
Translated from the Nepali by Prawin Adhikari.
Editor's note: The photos and captions in the article are from Dalit: A quest for dignity, a photo-history book edited by Diwas Raja KC and published by Nepal Picture Library. The book brings to attention the neglected history of Dalit's lives in Nepal.
Sarita Pariyar Sarita Pariyar holds a Master’s degree in sociology and a Bachelor's degree in journalism and English literature from Tribhuvan University. She is the founder of the Darnal Award for Social Justice, and serves as a board member of SAMATA Foundation, a think tank that works for the rights and dignity of Nepal's Dalits.
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