Print Edition - 2017-02-18  |  Women Power Up

Questioning the Questions: Caste struggle against structural minds

  • Let’s challenge the system by re-imagining, redefining, re-narrating and retelling our story
- Sarita Pariyar

Feb 18, 2017-

While returning home after a walk one morning, I bumped into a friend from my hometown. She had just completed her masters’ and was excited about future prospects. She went on to discuss the developments in her village, adding that when it comes to education her tole (neighbourhood) was doing far better than my tole. 

I lent an attentive ear as she said “you should have made progress”. She was referring to my career pursuits. “You are from a Damai family, but you were not living hand to mouth. Your parents sent their children to school. But you see, you people are so backward due to your close association with the Bhote (Tamang) people.”

Arundhati Roy wrote that when she read BR Ambedkar’s eighty-year-old Annihilation of Caste, she felt like he had walked into a dimmed room and opened the window for her. When I heard my friend, I felt the opposite. I felt that I was pushed rudely into a dimmed room. I was at a loss for words. I was astounded. Not only did she define my progress on her terms, she drew judgment on why and how I was backward because I grew up in a Bhote village. There was no explanation as to how Bhote signified backwardness? More importantly, I was left thinking why she asked that question?

When we look at the struggle against the caste system in Nepal, it may be tempting to reduce it to superficial achievements limited to papers, a legal provision here, another there, a token appointment here and there. 

We have not yet begun to educate minds of people like my friend, who merely reproduce the caste system without ever questioning it: the system that not only divides people based on the occupation but also creates division between the touchables and untouchables, the pure and the polluted, those who drink alcohol and those who abstain, those that are enslave-able and those who are non-enslavable. 

The underlying structure continues to deny that all people are equal and makes some people more equal than others. 

The conversation I had is an important example for analysis of structural foundation that hands down social concepts from one generation to another. It is an entry point to understanding the concepts that shape mentalities and define attitudes. It is in this context that dissident psychiatrist Thomas Szaszwrote: “In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.”

 “Definition” has its basis in power. 

The caste system, which is extensively practised in South Asia and has variations across the globe, marks its victims and beneficiaries from birth. It is not something that can be earned or discarded. Social, economic and cultural status is based on the birth rather than the worth. Creating a singular, simplistic narrative of the social order is a powerful means to make others feel weak and vulnerable and define them by a single dimension over and over again. 

In the African context, the novelist Chimamanda Adichie has called this phenomenon the danger of single story.As a Dalit woman, I face this in my life in several ways on a daily basis. 

Recollections of public and private encounters in my life have brought home to me the cost of single story. No matter what I eat, wear, talk or do, I am treated differently. I am made to feel different. “Look! This dress looks nice on her even though she is a Dalit”. 

More tragically, looking at the past year alone, Laxmi Pariyar, who was killed in Kavre, Ajit Mijar, who was brutally murdered, and the disabled Dalit woman gang-raped by police in Rautahat are all victims of this mindset. Their lives, and their worth, were reduced to a single story: a single arbitrary identifier defined the dominant society.

A history that is recorded and documented by the dominant society reflects this single story. 

In the princely state of Travancore-- now Kerala in India--Shanars were considered subordinate caste and women were not allowed to cover their upper bodies in front of dominant castes. 

Due to the influence of Christian missionaries in the early 19th century, some of them started wearing tailored upper body garments. The dominant castes were not happy with this change and they attacked these women in public places and tore off their upper clothing. 

After a lot of struggle, the government of Travancore issued a proclamation allowing Shanar women, whether Christian or Hindu, to wear a jacket, or cover their upper bodies in any manner, but not in the manner women from higher caste would do. However, the story of the attack on the Shanars was not only a story of the upper body covering. The anger against Shanars was also because of their resistance to paying discriminatory taxes and their denial to render free labour. The event is often shown as a single story concerning the dispute over the upper body covering. The multiple dimension of caste history gets lost in the preoccupation with a single story. 

In the present context, we can see this reflection of the single story when we look at the issues of Dalit and non-Dalits, Khas Aryas and non-Khas Aryas, Pahadis and Madhesis and men and women. 

The idea of single story is embedded naively with us, and is accepted without questions. A few months ago, I went to a Dom village in Saptari. I had assumed that Madhesi Dalit women are unable to express themselves freely, and therefore others had to speak on their behalf. But that was not the case. They were willing to tell their stories freely in their own language. A midwife said, “I serve everyone regardless of their social status during delivery. I help them reduce their pain. Instead of thanking me, they give me grief because I am a Dalit. I feel sad about such unfair and unjust behaviour.” 

Although the answers were not in the format that I was looking for, they spoke about their problems openly. I was surprised. These stories were not similar to the stories that I am accustomed to hearing in Kathmandu. They have powerful stories to tell. 

Who tells the story, and when and how they do it shapes what knowledge is given the legitimacy of being called the truth. This raises a key question when dealing with history: who are the people we give the legitimacy of calling historians? 

Relatedly, how can we legitimise someone as a knowledge producer simply on the basis of the caste they belong to, or the language they speak? 

According to Kamal Prakash Malla, the traditional intelligentsia were Nepali-speaking Hindu Brahmins, Newari-speaking Brahmin Joshis, Maithali or Bhojpuri speaking Brahmins. These were the ideologues in the Malla courts. 

Traditional Nepali scholarship is mainly the output of the Sanskritised priesthood. 

The idea of a single story that only recognises the intellect of the Brahmins deliberately denies the intellectual achievement of Dalits and other marginalised communities.

Eminent writer Bishwo Bhakta Dulal (Aahuti) argues that the consciousness of pursuing education is the most radical transformation after Panchyat era in the history of Nepal. People, no matter whether they are poor or rich, send their children to school. 

Formal education has a significant role to play in shaping the future of our country. Yet the legacy of more than a millennium of Hinduism’s history cannot be ignored.

It is in this context that Dr Ambedkar wrote that the principle of hereditary occupation is the soul of the caste system and the caste system has ruined the Hindus. 

A very important question that arises is how the caste system plays out in knowledge production system in South Asia? 

The scholar Braj Ranjan Mani wrote: “Knowledge can be false and more dangerous than ignorance”, further adding that false knowledge is not solely the product of human failure. Some individuals or groups, for selfish reasons, can knowingly and perversely construct false ideologies. The creation and repetition of false ideologies can be seen in myths, folk songs, proverb, jokes and religious stories.

The notion of purity and pollution led us to the national legal code of 1854, which legitimised the caste system although caste-based discrimination and untouchability were in practice even before it. 

The national legal code needs to be studied seriously. It has had a serious impact on knowledge production as well as on political history, political economy, legal history, media history and the overall development of the country. 

Untouchability may be legally banned now, but as Dr Ambedkar pointed out, caste is like oxygen to Hindu society. We breathe it every moment. It is the legacy of the caste system that we do not teach history of the people, but rather emphasise hagiography.

Teaching history of the people from bottom-up, and educating the mind is not a simple matter to be discussed and it is not going to be. A good point to start is by listening to the complete story and asking questions differently that seek answers in new framework. 

To truly seek to challenge the caste-based system is to re-imagine, redefine, re-narrate, and retelling of our story.  


- Pariyar is a law student and a Board Member of Samata Foundation, a Dalit research think tank

Published: 18-02-2017 09:46

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