Some thoughts on Multiculturalism, Peace and Democracy in Nepal

– Suresh Singh

Nepal, a country located between two large Asian countries: China in the north and India in the south, has historically been influenced by both the north and the south in terms of racial as well as socio-politico and cultural make-up. Consequently, the country today consists of various communities and religions like shastric Hinduism, Buddhism, shamanic form of Hinduism (mainly Shiva-Shakti cult as practiced by Janajatis and hill Dalits), Muslims, and Sikhs. More recently, owing to Christian missionaries and evangelists, Christian population is also growing in Nepal.  As the country has embraced liberal democracy for “now” for its political system, the concepts of inclusion and secularism have generated the issue of multiculturalism at least among the educated people. At the first glance, the principal cause for this appears to be the fact that the word ‘multiculturalism’ usually refers to cultural diversity especially to the demographic make-up of a specific place, and it is also applied at the organizational level, for instance, schools, businesses, neighbourhoods, and towns, and cities, etc. Since, Nepal has different groups known as Jaats or Jatis, regional identities: Madhesis (Tarai people), and Bhotes (of Himalayan region), and religion: Muslims and Christians; the main concern of the thinking section of Nepali population is how to ensure that peace prevails among these different groups so that identity politics does not harm the wellbeing of the country, and lastly, how to ensure that democratic norms and values become dominant narratives in Nepali society.
However, there are two main challenges to such concerns of the educated Nepalis. One is the political scenario of the country, and the second is the socio-cultural framework of Nepal.  We can see in the democratic process of Nepal, in 1990s that the communists were asking support from the Janajatis and Dalits so that they would create an egalitarian society and bring development to the villages. This was CPN (UML), whose activists were raising Dalit and Janajati issues. Then came the Maoists insurgency or people’s war, which capitalised on these issues along with the issue of Jatiya Rajya or community based units derived from the concept of ethnic federalism. These issues have strengthened the idea of inclusion since the first Constituent Assembly (CA) election in 2008. Although the Maoists have bagged lesser votes than the Nepali Congress and UML in the second CA election of 2013, they along with the Madhesi parties have been claiming that the CA election of November 19 was not fair to them mainly in terms of counting votes. With the demands of smaller region and community based groups and parties like the ethnic based party led by Ashok Rai, and the Maoist agenda of Jatiya Rajya, one can wonder how peace and stability would possibly come to Nepal.

Another main problem as mentioned above is the socio-cultural framework of Nepal. By the 19th century, a socio-political framework was created in the Himalayan region under the ceremonial or nominal head of the Shaha rulers centralised in Kathmandu. This was the Gorkha Muluk, which was defined as Nepal by the British, and it gradually evolved and consolidated with the time passed in the psyhic of the people. The basis of governance and law was defined in terms of ceremonial purity derived from the shastric Hinduism and the rituals of the so-called upper castes (Bahun-Chhetri castes). The reading of Muluki Ain introduced by Prime minister Jang Bahadur Rana in 1853-54, and the legal codes issued earlier during the times of Bhim Sen Thapa in the first half of 19th century provide ample archives to the understanding of how discriminatory was the state’s political establishment in terms of caste and religion, which in turn made the women as subordinate to men. The caste division and its system of high and low were made possible by controlling the bodies of women, in short, by making laws revolving around the sexual relations and marriage. Marriages with caste no bar would make the caste divisions as fake. Despite Nepalis found themselves headed towards modernity, the concept patronised and enforced by the western countries through colonialism and production of knowledge all over the world, the they still had broad hierarchical divisions in the society. Just like the Khola-Nala (rivers and streams) used to divide the political formations in the Himalayan region before the Gorkha Raj, water was dividing the society into Pani Chalne (water acceptable castes) and Pani Nachalne (water unacceptable) castes. Within the water acceptable castes, the Bahun-Chhetri castes were dominant, and accessible to the political life of Nepal. The Matwalis or Janajatis with some access to political and social advantage were deprived from holding posts of high power and decision making, where the Pani nachalne or Dalits were labelled most impure and were not allowed to enter in the socio-politico and cultural discourse of the country.
Coming back to the “now” or the present, the Dalits and Janajatis have not been able to affirm their space in the socio-political framework of Nepal. A social hierarchy based on caste still exists in Nepal despite the adoption of democracy as a political system of Nepal. In this case, the slogan of Jatiya Rajya and reservation to Dalits and Janajatis would make the situation confusing. First, because, the population of Janajatis is heterogeneous, no Jati or caste in Nepal is having its majority in any district of Nepal. For instance, in Syangja, Gurungs are less than the other Jatis like Magars, Bahun-Chhetris, and Dalits put together. We find that in villages often a Jati is numerically dominant here, and in another village another Jati is more in number. In towns and cities, populations are mixed; those who have money can buy land and house irrespective of caste or any Jati. It is not like in India that Bengalis are more in numbers in West Bengal or Punjabis are more in Punjab. This results in fear of domination by one Jati in a particular region among the other Jatis in Nepal because various Jatis are found to be living in one district for generations.  We learn from the Indian experience with democracy and federalism that even a community or a Jati is given a statehood like Nagaland, or autonomous councils like that of Bodo in the north-east, still such a community has not been able to affirm its space in the socio-cultural set-up of India. The tribals are still considered as peripherial people or ritually impure by the mainstream Indian society (read upper castes and middle castes or OBC). In Nepal, even if the Janajatis get Jatiya Rajya, they would not get out of Matwali status in the traditional caste system of Nepali society. Federalism is a western concept that has no remedy how to destroy the caste system because it was not created and developed in Nepali soil by the Nepalis themselves. It is for this reason that even if the Madhesi parties raise the issue of Madhesh as a separate Rajya or land within Nepal, they fail to address the issue of Dalits in their Madhesi community.
Following the western perspective, many educated people say that political representation and affirmative action would solve the problem of caste system. India with more than 60 years of democracy has been practicing the theory of political representation and reservation to OBCs (Shudras or touchables), tribals, and Dalits. But the caste system and discrimination have remained as rampant as before the Indian independence. Indian Dalits say that the cases of atrocities and rape of Dalit women have not stopped rather rape cases of Dalit women have increased in India. Reservations and political representations have benefited the ritually impure lower caste people with education and money but it has not changed the society in terms of caste system. When we talk of society it concerns the majority of the people, and we find that in India majority of Dalits, tribals and OBCs still trapped in the caste hierarchy of rituals and ceremonies.

Dr BR Ambedkar initially used to believe that political representation of Dalits would improve their status as Dalits would have political power. But later on, he came to believe that without social sanction, the social status of Dalits would not improve. Social sanction means when the non-Dalits who are in majority consider and treat the Dalits as fellow human beings like them and not as untouchables. What he said was that a change in attitude in human beings is important for social change. This was the reason why Jawaharlal Nehru (in his book Discovery of India) feared that democracy in India would not function well, as he said that Democracy with concept of liberty, equality and fraternity is in direct contradiction with caste system. He said that a real democracy and caste system cannot live together. Nehru’s view is very much relevant to Nepal. Since Nepal has a flourishing caste system, it is difficult to ensure that democratic norms and values would find their place in the hearts of Nepali people. It is for this reason that highly educated Nepali people find the western concept of multiculturism as attractive.
Multiculturalism would make the society with various groups peacefully co-existing with each other. A multi-cultural society is “at ease with the rich tapestry of human life and the desire amongst people to express their own identity in the manner they see fit [1].” Such a society advocates equal respect to the various cultures in a society, promoting the maintenance of cultural diversity, in which people of various ethnic and religious groups are addressed by the authorities or state as defined by the group they belong to.  To create such a society, interaction among various communities in the context of culture is important, as such interactions of cultures provide opportunities for the cultural differences to communicate and interact to create multiculturalism. Bhikhu Parekh argues that multiculturalism is about the proper terms of relationship between different cultural communities, which means that the standards by which the communities resolve their differences, e.g., “the principles of justice” must not come from only one of the cultures but must come through an open and equal dialogue between them [2].

However, in Nepali context, the creation of multicultural society seems to be difficult owing to the social hierarchy based on Hindu ritual purity. In the western countries, discrimination was on the basis of race relating to color of skin or physical features. The Christian religion did not sanction racial discrimination even when racism was rampant in the west. But the narratives of Hindu religion that is practiced in Nepal sanctions discrimination on the basis of birth: some castes are ritually purer than other castes. Some castes are so polluted that they are untouchable. Unless, these kinds of narratives are erased from Nepali society, multicultural society would not flourish in Nepal. Before thinking of multicultural society in Nepal, it is to be borne that in the west, there were socio-cultural movements like reformation movement in Europe that made religion largely a personal affair and greatly removed the need of priests as intermediary between humans and God, and in the USA there was a puritan movement that made the case for democracy and dignity of labour making the people hard working. But in Nepal, there have been no socio-cultural movement to make people free of the concept of pollution or ritual purity. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, there was a Josmani movement in Nepal, which attempted to abolish caste system but it could not succeed because the political establishment did not support it and the Ranas suppressed it.

It seems that the only way to create a multi-cultural society in Nepal is by encouraging and organising socio-cultural programs that would give platforms for various communities to come and interact with each other like dramas, shows, beauty contests, music concerts, and through media like movies, songs, etc. Different communities must be brought together for such an endeavour.

    Foot notes:

[1] Kevin Bloor (February 2010). The Definitive Guide to Political Ideologies.
[2] Bhikhu Parekh (2005), Unity and Diversity in Multicultural societies.

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