Understanding The Caste System

by Pingal Sapkota
The Caste system of Nepal is based on the original 4 Varnas (sometimes translated as caste): Brahmin (priest), Kshyatria (warrior), Vaishya (trader) and Shudra (worker). These were supposed to be classified based on people’s profession and were not acquired by birth, nor were the people discriminated based on this.
However, at some point in history (not clear when this happened), castes made their way and got transferred from generation to generation. In Nepal (part of present day Nepal), a Malla king (14th century) classified his citizens into 4 castes and 36 sub-castes. First Shah king (last royal dynasty) of unified Nepal, Prithvi Narayan Shah, famously said that Nepal is a “flower garden of 4 castes and 36 sub-castes.”
Classification of castes made it into the “Muluki Ain” (Nepal’s civil code) during 19th century. This code defines all “sub-castes” and “surnames” prevalent in Nepal into various castes and 4 Varnas and ranks them in terms of hierarchy. It also defines when someone will lose their caste and fall lower in the hierarchy (mostly by marrying someone from “lower” caste or being born in such marriage). You could only go down on the hierarchy and not up. This law along with the caste based discrimination was abolished in 1962 after the introduction of democracy in Nepal. This was reinforced during the second coming of democracy in 1990. Affirmative action to help “lower” castes was introduced during this time, but was limited. After the end of civil war in 2006, affirmative action has made its way into most of formal governance (from local to national level). However, discrimination based on caste system is still prevalent throughout the country, more so in rural areas.
The hierarchical ranking system is still a common practice although it may not be discussed as openly as in the past. Marriages mostly happen within the same caste. Cultural practices of each caste is different from the other, and often have their own language, festivals, and traditional attire. However, these days parents are more accepting of their sons/daughters getting married with someone from a different caste but with hesitation most of the time. The situation is worse in villages and among the uneducated communities, where the whole community can go against such couples, trying to separate them or boycott them. Parents could be accepting tacitly out of love but will be afraid to do so openly because of the fear of being humiliated further in the society.
In the past, there was an imbalance in terms of people attending schools and colleges and eventually getting government and other high paying jobs, with people from Brahmin, Kshyatria, and Newars (35% population) holding 90% of them. This is improving in the present days, with the help of affirmative action, but will take years before it will balance proportionately. Nepotism and corruption is present everywhere, which will benefit the families and relatives of the people having power.
After the civil war, caste issues have been broadly politicized with new political parties emerging to represent particular castes, others promising states based on castes. Although there are many political parties at present, there are mostly two opposing views. One, blaming all the backwardness of the country, failures from the past in terms of development to two “higher” castes (Brahmin and Kshyatria) as the people from these two castes occupied most of the government jobs and leadership positions. Two, saying that the caste based politics is harmful for the national security, will divide the nation and eventually benefit the outsiders (India and European Union getting most of the blame) who are fueling such divide. Both of these viewpoints have some truth but as politics everywhere, they create more divide and increase their vote-bank than finding a solution.
In my opinion, you can put all the castes from Nepal into 3 groups. First, traditional “higher” castes which includes Brahmins & Kshyatriyas from hills and terai, and “higher sub-caste” Newars. These people have enjoyed the privileges of being elites in the society. But there are still poor people in rural villages who belong to one of these groups. Second, indigenous castes that includes Rai, Limbu, Gurung, Magar, Sherpa, “middle”-class from Terai. Although people from this group are only seen scattered in government jobs, a lot of people have their own lands and sufficient income (Nepali standard) to live a decent life. Most of them also have their own culture, languages, rich history which they are proud of. They may have been taken advantage of in the past due to being uneducated and poor in some cases but not humiliated in based on their caste. Most castes belonging to this group are based on a particular region, often having a majority in the region, thus having a potential for strong political power within the region. There are still a lot of poor people from this group.
Third, traditional “lower” castes and “untouchables” belong to this group. Majority of these people do not have their own lands, have a small income and are barely surviving. They are technically skilled as their traditional professions being blacksmith, goldsmith, tailor, cobbler etc. but are paid very little. They were considered “untouchables” and humiliated in every instance of life. Most parents are uneducated and children also do not make too far in school. Unlike the indigenous people, they are scattered throughout the country in and despite having a significant population (20%), they are only a minority in any region. They seem to be largely ignored by both traditional and new parties. They are the poorest among the poor. Government supports them with books, supplies and other minor expenses in government schools in addition to tuition fees.
Personally, I think a combination of good education and a decent income is the best solution to bridge the gap between the “lower” and “higher” castes. Although there are poor people in each caste, “Dalits” or the “lower” castes are the ones that need most help. Education and income may not be enough to avoid the social injustice they face in their everyday life, but I think it will empower them and in-turn it will help them to fight for their rights. There are many positives happening these days. Most parents are aware that they need to send their children to school. In addition, many people from each group have been able to find employment abroad (mostly in the middle-east, Malaysia and India) and support their families financially. People from the younger generation are more educated and more willing to support equality for all groups.

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