Born sinful

  • TU’s ethnographic profiles are a step towards a better understanding of excluded groups
- Gérard Toffin
Born sinful

Feb 22, 2015-

The Multidimensional Social Inclusion Index published in 2014 by Tribhuvan University’s (TU) Central Department of Sociology/Anthropology lists seven Madhesi (Tarai) Dalit castes among the 10 lowest-ranking marginalised Nepali population groups. In ascending order (of their degree of exclusion), starting from the bottom, are Musahars, Doms, Khatwes, Tatmas, Dusadhs (Paswan or Pasi), Halkhors, and Chamars (Harijan or Ram). Madhesi Dalits, that all together include nine to 10 castes, are therefore not only the poorest among the poor, they are among the most segregated populations in Nepal and are relegated to the very bottom of the hierarchy. Their situation is worse than that of their hill Dalit counterparts.

This project, funded by the Social Inclusion Research Fund, which is now closed, also published a series of ‘Ethnographic Profiles’ on the 42 most historically excluded caste and ethnic groups based on data collected by L Bennett and D Parajuli for the World Bank (2013, Himal Books). Field research was carried out by young Nepali researchers, mostly MA students. These monographs provide interesting ethnographic data on population groups that have so far been overlooked and—for some of them—are totally unknown. I myself took part in the project as a reviewer and met most of the authors at various internal seminars.

Dalits in the Madhes

Having reviewed work on Dalit groups, especially those from the Tarai, here I focus on Madhesi Dalit monographs, four of which have already been published. An atlas containing data from the 2011 census completes the opus and provides valuable spatial information on each of these groups. All together, the Madhesi Dalit population amounts to 1,167, 000, ie, 4.4 percent of Nepal’s population, compared to 2,151,000 Hill Dalits (8.12 percent of the whole population). They live mainly in rural areas, save Halkhors (or Mestar) and Musahars, who are mostly urban castes and often squatters. In Chitwan and Jhapa, Chidimars (1,254 individuals), who specialise in catching birds using nets and then sell them or eventually eat them, are listed by the National Dalit Commission among the ten Tarai Dalit castes. Yet, the profile written on them challenges such a label: they belong in fact to Janajati groups and are not ‘untouchables’.

These downtrodden castes cultivate fields and earn their living through several other extra activities. Yet, within the caste system, what marks them are the ritual services they have to provide for the middle and upper ‘pure’ castes in the region. These services cannot be provided by pure castes out of fear of being defiled. Dalit castes are therefore permanently in contact with impure substances (working with leather, raising pigs, washing dirty linen, disposing of garbage, cleaning toilets, eating rats, etc). This contact with polluting agents explains their impure status. However, some of them (Chamars, for instance) play music at collective events, like Damais in the hills, bringing a touch of auspiciousness during festivities and marriages. Women from among the same Chamars are also well-known midwives. It is worth noting that Khatwes and Dushads do mainly agricultural work and do not have to perform ritual services for pure castes. It would seem that some of these so-called ‘untouchable’ castes were ethnic groups in the past and that they became Dalits at a later date. This is particularly the case for Musahars.

It is still difficult to break down caste barriers and even more so in the Tarai than in the Hills. Madhesi Dalits suffer discrimination in various ways. They live in separate hamlets at some distance from pure castes and their access to schools or to public wells is limited. They cannot sit or remain seated while speaking to people of a ‘higher’ caste and their children are turned out of houses. As one informant put it, segregation and low status are regarded as paap, a (inherited) sin that accompanies them through life. This engenders intense self-depreciation of one’s status. More often than not, there is a sense of shame in disclosing one’s caste identity to others who belong to pure castes. Yet, this situation varies from one region to another, and a number of bans have recently been lifted. Over the last decade, easier access to education and a higher standard of literacy among these castes have, for instance, announced an improvement to their situation. The standard of modern amenities is also rising: among Chamars, 78 percent of families have a mobile phone.

Borders, economy, religion

Besides speaking the same languages that are spoken on the other side of the Indian border (Hindi, Maithili, Bhojpuri), these castes have permanent contact with India and regularly cross the border. They often marry Indians of the same caste and regularly visit temples in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. What is more, a number of these castes originally came from India and only settled in Nepal recently. Interestingly enough, some of them practise cross-cousin marriage.

Economically speaking, Tarai Dalits are bound to their pure-caste clients and to the landlords in whose fields they work. The system of bondage, called haruwa-charwa in the eastern and central part of the Tarai, is very similar to kamaiya among Tharus and riti-bhagiya (patron-client) in the western hills. It leaves tenants with little freedom and epitomises their dependence. Control over the land is obviously one of the means by which these groups are linked to higher castes. The hierarchical ritual system on which the caste system is based here (like elsewhere in Nepal) has deep-seated economic roots. These two aspects are inseparable.

Little is known of the type of Hinduism practised by Madhesi Dalits. In these matters, Tribhuvan University’s ethnographic profiles provide a wealth of detailed observations. Despite being excluded from most high-caste temples and not being allowed to light incense for deities, Dalits themselves declare overwhelmingly that they are Hindu. They worship their own deities, gods and goddesses (Sansari Mai for Chamars, for instance), and in most cases, they have their own temples. The cult of earth-deities predominates. Death is highly polluting and each group has its own rituals of purification, which are performed a few days after cremation. Most Hindu festivals are celebrated.

One lesson to be drawn from these monographs is that Madhesi Dalits contest their own position in the caste system more than the system itself. They consider themselves to rank higher than Hill Dalits because, as they say, the latter eat beef. In fact, relations between Dalit castes replicate the overall caste hierarchy. Each caste claims to be superior to the others and does not accept rice cooked by other ‘untouchable’ castes. Moreover, when possible, Dalits use Brahmans of lower status to celebrate their domestic rites and Satya Narayan puja. In their origin myths, they often see themselves as failed Brahmans because some of their ancestors committed ritual errors.

Aiding anthropology

Nepal’s ethnography still lacks first-rate work on so-called ‘untouchables’ which already exists in India. Yet, considerable progress has been made in recent years. The scholarly contribution by Mary Cameron (1998) has shed light on some aspects of the western Hill low-castes. The TU ethnographic profiles under review here and published in Nepal by Nepali scholars are a step towards a better understanding of these excluded groups. It is hoped that this undertaking will also contribute to creating a new school of professional Nepali anthropologists. In these times of rhetorical policies related to cultural diversity, this is indeed a real necessity.

Toffin is Research Professor at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Published: 23-02-2015 07:29

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