A past for a present

Whether it is a dog’s bite or deaths in Kailali, caste and ethnicity have become the central issue. And our history of forgetting the past is to blame for it

In the morning of August 24, before the news of deaths in Kailali trickled into our news feed, I continued my fight with a neighbour that had begun the night before. The man’s dog and my dog had gotten into their own fight, and as he had tried to shoo my dog away, she had bitten him on his leg. That morning, the molehill quickly turned into a mountain after the man asked me to buy him a new pair of pants, demanded that I financially compensate him for the pain the tetanus shot had caused him, refused to believe in the vaccination chart of my dog, turned down my offer to take him to a hospital in Teku, where the vaccine shots for rabies are free, demanded taxi fare instead, and asked that his medication for high blood pressure and diabetes be taken care of for the rest of his life. It took a trip to the police station, swarms of people screaming over each other and the arrival of my uncle, who trains police dogs, to settle the issue. After five hours of wrangling, the man finally dropped most of his absurd demands and agreed to go to Teku on our scooter.

At the end of the conflict, my landlady came to the following conclusion: “All that they wanted was money and they thought they could get it out of you because you are two little Magar sisters. These Bahun-Chhetris always try to oppress us.” She is Newar.

I was surprised by her statement. I had thought that it was the man’s ignorance of dogs and rabies and his fear and frustration that was driving him nuts. To be sure, the man was Bahun and the crowd rallying behind him was composed of Bahun and Chhetri men and women, but I hadn’t thought that their caste had any significance. I did notice that the crowd considerably calmed down after my uncle arrived at the scene, but I was not sure about the calming factor. It could have been my uncle’s gender, his caste (Chhetri), his profession (policeman)—all indicators of power, nonetheless—or it could have been just that the screaming and shouting had eventually tired everyone down.

Then that same day, the Kailali incident took place, in which seven policemen and a two-year-old died. In social media and elsewhere, people were quickly divided along the vertical line of caste and ethnicity in the way they perceived the incident. Most Bahuns and Chhetris were against Tharus, condemning the act of violence as terrorism; the rest criticised the violence but asked everyone not to forget the oppressed Tharus and their demands.

This time, I was not surprised. If caste can enter an ethnically neutral issue such as a dog bite, the Kailali protests, in which the Tharus were demanding a Tharuhat province, were bound to be seen along the lines of caste and ethnicity. What was surprising, though, was how the issue of caste and ethnicity had become very personal for many and how most had forgotten that the battle was against the socio-political system, which favoured high-caste men. Then again, it is not all that surprising. The privileged rarely sense their privileges. And our history has been all about forgetting the past, especially the stories of oppression.

Most high-caste men forget or are unaware that they were in power long before the 1990’s protests that ushered in multi-party democracy. They didn’t have to do much to get close to that power. It was enough that they were born into the sacred thread-wearing caste. And the Muluki Ain, from its first edition in 1854 until 1963, legalised this caste hierarchy, going in painstaking, jaw-dropping details to defend the system. The Country Code’s sole objective, when it was promulgated, was to punish people according to their offence and caste. This meant for the same offence, such as adultery, the high-caste offenders received lenient punishment, such as demotion to a lower caste, while the low-caste ones suffered imprisonment, confiscation of property, mutilation or death. And the person in charge of making sure that no one crossed the barriers of caste was the dharmadhikar, a Brahmin man appointed by the king.

Here’s an example of how ridiculously the caste hierarchy was codified in the Muluki Ain and how it still has repercussions to this day. An article in the Law on Disciplinary Matters in the Muluki Ain said: “Persons belonging to higher and untouchable castes shall not draw water from the same well.” Another article said: “Persons belonging to a higher caste and to the caste water touched by whom cannot be taken shall not live in the same house by setting up a partition or a wall.”

Most high-caste people say that such caste-based atrocities are a thing of the past (although Dalits are still barred from drawing water from the well that high-caste people use and Dalits still find it difficult to rent rooms in urban areas). They say that people have become educated now and that caste and ethnicity is relegated to merely mean last names (a highly debatable statement, as shown even by the dog-bite incident). And they ask why the sons should be punished for the sins of their fathers.

Sure, no one should be punished for the crimes their fathers committed, for the kings’ decision to divide and rule, but those the kings and the then elite favoured are now in power and they are in power precisely because the rest of the population was made powerless by centuries of systematic oppression. If it stings when people say, ‘Bahuns did this, Bahuns did that’, just imagine how Tamangs and Tharus, among others, must have felt when they were classified as ‘enslaveable alcohol-drinking castes’ and treated as such, when Podes, Kasais, Sarki, Gaines and others were listed as castes whose touch must be purified by sprinkling water over one’s body. Just imagine what a privileged life Bahuns must have had when the word ‘Brahmin’ means ‘spirit’ and only one segment of the population has the right to that eternal, unsullied entity.

The issue of caste and ethnicity is not going to die down soon. It will take many more generations before one’s last name evokes nothing but that, before a dog’s bite is nothing but a health concern, before protests are not ethnically charged. But for these to happen, those currently in power must understand their privileges and be willing to share them with the underprivileged.

Published on 12 September 2015, The Kathmandu Post