Rise of a peasant caste

  • Jyapus today picture themselves as the most genuine Newars and are striving for their status to be fully acknowledged
- Gérard Toffin
Rise of a peasant caste

Dec 5, 2014-

Since 1951, Maharjan (Jyapu or Dangol), the traditional agricultural caste of Newars and numerically the largest group in this community, has experienced a fascinating rise in their standard of living. In the 60s and 70s, most Newar farmers in the old villages and cities of the Kathmandu Valley were barely educated and their lifestyle was devoid of any modern aspects. Admittedly, their general situation was much better than that of hill peasants (among Maharjans, the staple diet had long consisted of rice, but often of inferior quality) and it varied from one place to another. In urban centres, especially in Kathmandu, Jyapus led a more arduous existence than those in rural areas. In cities, they mainly tilled other people’s land and were subservient to higher Hindu and Buddhist castes, whereas in villages, they privately owned a large part of the land and often enjoyed the role of dominant caste. However, on the whole, Jyapus were economically and socially backward. Their living conditions were wretched. Even their name carried negative connotations and was sometimes used as an insult. Politically, here and there, the poorer sections secretly backed the Communist parties.

Much progress made

Having spent time living in Jyapu villages in the 1970s, I remember them walking barefoot in ragged clothes, leading a rustic life totally absorbed in their agricultural work. Wristwatches (exclusively for men) were a rare sight, money was hardly ever used, and houses were often unhealthy places that one shared with animals. By and large, over the last decades, food, clothing, housing, people’s general tastes, and standard of education have improved. Farmers have embraced the modern world; they have bought televisions and electronic devices. They eat more meat than before. The gap between them and higher-status groups has dwindled. Jyapus have gradually moved over to non-agricultural work in various white-collar sectors very far removed from farm work. Upper-ranking and wealthier families have even started to join the urban middle class. Some have married Shakya and Shrestha girls who belong to their former landlord castes, whom they used to serve. They now wield authority over others. A number of them are still pro-UML, but a growing number have joined the Congress. In regard to this rajnitik issue, sweeping generalisations must be avoided. As people say, ‘Even within a family, sons and daughters can vote differently from their parents and even from one another’.

This remarkable success is due to several factors, five of which are particularly noteworthy. First, since the fall of the Ranas, Jyapus have benefited from the 1960s and 1970s land reforms. Tenants have obtained greater security of tenure, and some of them working on guthi land have registered land in their own name, thus becoming outright owners. Second, production has increased in a spectacular fashion over the years due to the introduction of chemical manure and improved selected seeds imported from abroad. Third, the price of land has increased tremendously and farmers, who were formerly reluctant to offer their land for sale, have started to sell some of their fields, suddenly becoming just as rich and even more so than high-status Newar and Parbatiya castes. Fourth, this money has been invested in the education of their children, who have obtained university degrees and have slowly started to compete with students from traditionally richer groups. Finally, Jyapus have greatly benefited from their location within the Kathmandu Valley and from the proximity to good schools. They are not yet totally bhaju, an honorific term for high-status, respectable castes, but they are not far from being called this. The higher-ranking Jyapu ‘creamy layer’ has clearly undergone a gentrification process.

These economic achievements have gone hand in hand with the loosening of caste regulations to which Newar farmers were formerly subjected. Nowadays, Jyapus, who in the past were used as servants and messengers by landlords and high Newar castes, especially during rites of passage, increasingly refuse to fulfil these tasks, regarding them as derogatory.

‘Genuine’ Newars

More amazing still is the fact that Jyapus have succeeded in placing themselves at the centre of Newar society, thanks partly to the growing popularity of the indigenous adivasi discourse. Today, they picture themselves as the most genuine Newars, the epitome of their society and culture. Through their community organisations, Mahaguthi and Samaj, they increasingly speak on behalf of all Newars. They now have their own museum and their own festive day, Jyapu Diwas, celebrated on the full moon of Mangsir (November-December) and during which Miss Jyapu is elected. These developments have made them proud to be Jyapus. Today, they openly claim that they belong to this community. Here again, they have clearly won the battle: nowadays during ceremonies even upper-caste Newar women wear the traditional Jyapuni black skirt decorated with a red border at the bottom to assert their ‘Newarness’. In the past, Jyapus were able to climb the social ladder by becoming Suwal, Singh and, more often than not, Shrestha. Today, they are striving for their status to be fully acknowledged by preserving their identity and by boasting about it.  

Of course, this is far from being a total transformation. Caste barriers still exist and stereotypes about peasants, as opposed to urbanites, are hard to shake off. A number of inequalities persist in the prevailing pyramidal social structure. Maharjans have not yet reached high-ranking positions in political spheres, for instance. In addition, by selling their land, they have jeopardised their income and financial resources. Such material success is indeed a slippery path. But the overall improvement of their situation cannot be contested. Money and a higher status have helped farmers overcome social handicaps. Remarkably enough, this upward shift is not due to government policies (save the land reform) or certain affirmative action measures. Jyapus, who might be classified as Other Backward Class (OBC) caste in India (though they considered themselves as Adivasi in Nepal), have climbed the social ladder all by themselves, thanks to their skills, their investment, and their enterprising spirit. What Dalits need is perhaps not necessary the case for all OBC-like castes. This is one lesson of this success story.

Toffin is Director of Research at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France


Published: 05-12-2014 08:55

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