Caste Discrimination: A Core Problem in Nepal’s Development

By D.P. Rasali, PhD.

The views expressed here are solely of the author and do not reflect CFFN’s thoughts and values.

Nepal, a South Asian state, strangely running with medieval-style state machinery even in the 21st century, has been long overdue for a total transformation for modernization. Many changes taking place swiftly in the past few weeks through some bold actions of the reinstated Parliament with the backing from rebellious revolutionary Maoists are clearly the signs of the country moving on the right track for creating a new era for the people to be able to live without any fear, and progress with time.

Nevertheless, the caste-based discrimination is one of the most important problems that have been the root cause of the Nepalese society, is still under the shadow due to lack of sufficient thrust it deserves. It has been the main basis for retention of traditional feudalistic regimes. Shah dynasty thrived throughout the history of 237 years of reign in what came to be known as Nepal, mainly due to its societal position as the mythical warrior Kshatriya caste among four Hindu Varnas. Autocratic Ranas ruled for 104 years until 1950 by way of superseding the powers of Shah Dynasty and establishing themselves as ruling class rivals with Shahs. The systematic discrimination rampant between any other two Hindu castes and within any caste and/or any caste groups was the basis for both these dynasties to “divide and rule” the largely ignorant masses. The history of what came to be known as Nepal has been nothing more than the playing field for these two dynasties, by turn, suppressing the masses as slaves.

Of course, the original caste system is traditionally handed down from the Brahministic Hindu Varna system, in which the people were divided into four Varnas (i.e. classes), namely Brahmins, Kshtriya, Baishya and Shudras based on their divisions of work. Even if this system was in place for any good reasons of the past, later on, the whole system got much distorted and manipulated by the feudalistic ruling class for their advantage over the masses. But, the system of classifying the people based on their descent by birth is
fundamentally wrong, and has no relevance at least to the present-day world, where every individual has to earn her/his societal position and maintain it by own good deeds. In that context, Nepalese society must abandon their traditional belief of so called “high” and “low” castes, and discard the associated social evils like the practice of “untouchability”, which is still rampant in the society. The state machinery through the appropriate Charter of Human Rights put in place must even out social inequalities resulting from such traditional caste-based discrimination and associated ‘untouchable’ practices. This is, however, only a small part of the bigger issue of the manifold problems faced by the people, who have been victimized for centuries by such system.

The greater part of the problem is that through the reigns of Shah and Ranas. Nepal as a state had committed a grave crime against humanity by the promulgation of a civil code called Muluki Ain in 1854 making statuary provisions of caste-based discrimination and untouchability practices. This law was active until 1963, and even today, there is much ambiguity in the existing law of the land to go against the caste-based discrimination. In the Muluki Ain 1854, all castes knowledgeable to the then rulers were scheduled as “high” to “low” in their hierarchical order. The penalty for any civilian criminal was inversely proportional to their hierarchical order in the caste structure. If a Brahmin man (a priestly caste considered as the highest by law) raped a lower caste woman, he would be fined in cash, degraded to a “lower” caste or forgiven at the discretion of the judge, but if a so called “untouchable” man had consensual sex with a woman of so called “high” caste, he would be sentenced to a death penalty. This is only one example of discriminatory legal provisions that were in the first Muluki Ain (i.e. until 1963). The impact of cruel and unjustified structure of statutory provisions of this law had been devastating, pushing all people of oppressed castes to a status lower than animals in the society. As a result, today, the people of oppressed castes, who make up about 20% of the country’s whole
population, are still alienated from the mainstream society. Ironically, this significant chunk of population is oppressed in their socioeconomic and political status but it is one of the
most productive and hardworking masses in Nepal. Farm tool making, ornament making, garment making, shoes making, carpentry, music entertainment and folk singing, public
utility, construction and sanitation work are some of the domains of the traditional occupations of these oppressed caste people. Yet, they do not earn enough for their food,
clothing and shelter due to the exploitation in their capitals and earnings by so called upper caste. This practice has been continuing for centuries, and it is still a vivid reality in most
rural areas of Nepal. It must be uprooted in this new era, and oppressed people should be made inclusive in the mainstream society.

Clearly, the promulgation of Muluki Ain 1854 was a case of state crime of the past with direct implications existing even today, for which Nepal’s Parliament, responsible government and the head of the state must bow their heads down in shame and apologize to the victimized oppressed masses of people. In order to make the current sweeping changes meaningful for the sizeable chunk of oppressed people, a proclamation of an explicit apology must be made by the state for the past crime committed by the state against them. Moreover, the state must provide adequate compensation for all the sufferings the y have gone through in the black history of Nepal.

(Dr. Rasali is a Dalit Educator & Founder of Nepaldalitinfo International Network. He can be reached at nepaldalitinfo@yahoo.com ).

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