By Christopher Giles:
Lodged on the map between China and India, the two emerging economic titans, you’ll find the tiny, landlocked country of Nepal. While its prospering neighbours dominate headlines, Nepal is a country left struggling to emerge from decades of uncertainty and conflict. The jobless rate is 46 per cent, and over half of the population don’t attend secondary school. What’s going wrong? The conclusion I’ve drawn, from living in Nepal is that its caste system, an archaic (and technically abolished, but still observed) form of social stratification, has become an almost insurmountable obstacle to development. It’s a country imprisoned by its past.
I dined one night with Arjun, a member of the lowest caste. As we sat round the table in just candle light we ate our rice with lentil soup as the monsoon rain danced furiously on the tin roof. The power had been out for hours. Arjun said, “the lowest cast, to the other three casts, is like what the black man was to the white man”. We both paused and took a swig of buffalo milk. He continued “my father worked for his whole life on the land of the Brahmin caste for little reward”. Generation after generation, the caste system still divides.
The Nepali caste system is largely similar to that of India. There are four principle castes: the highest is Brahmin, then Chhetri, the Royal Families caste, then Baise, and finally Sudra, the lowest caste colloquially known as the “untouchables”. Beyond these there are intricacies within certain regions and ethnic groups. It’s a complex system where your status and a large part of your identity are predetermined. Cultural behaviour is often informed by caste; for instance, a person of the Brahmin is unable to eat food prepared by the lower castes. There are also common surnames to people of each caste and particular jobs related. No one can escape this nightmare. Endogamy, the practice of marrying within one’s caste, is the norm. The son of my host had dared to marry a woman of a higher caste and this 18-year-old mother was disowned by her family for marrying below herself. I was staying in a village in western Nepal of just 300 people, yet – thanks to institutionalised inequality – often your neighbour was not your friend.
My host Arjun, an “untouchable”, was also a polio sufferer, which meant he struggled to walk. This made it difficult for him to find a wife. I can understand why he spoke with such anguish; Nepal is a superstitious place and it appeared that he was out of favour with the fates. I did a little teaching in the local public school where Arjun worked. Even though it was an institution with six classes and six teachers, it wasn’t unusual for Arjun and me to be the only ones teaching. The other teachers sauntered around relaxing with idle chitchat. I asked Arjun why he didn’t confront them about their work ethic. The answer: he had, but they were all Brahmin, so his opinion carried little weight.
The village had a resource centre where children went before and after school to play games and do homework. Again, this was an area of public life where the division between castes was present. The children from the local private school were not allowed to attend. And no, private school in Nepal is not an elite institution, but only mildly better than the poor standard of public schools. The children from the private school would stand by the window watching the other children play. When helping at the resource centre I encouraged them to come in, but this often caused confrontation between the children, a prejudice instilled in them by their parents. There is a dire lack of self-awareness.
One thing that really surprises visitors is that there’s no innate link between status and wealth. One morning at 7am I was approached by a father of two of the children in the village. He was an alcoholic and was asking me for money and clothes. He was clearly poor but his caste Chhetri results in him having a higher social status than many of the richer “Untouchables”. It’s somewhat like England in the 19th century, where there were aristocrats who were rich in social status but poor in material wealth, because their relatives had squandered everything.
You might hope that being squeezed between India and China, Nepal could get a little of their combined wealth. On the contrary – it ranks just 168th in the IMF GDP per capita rankings 2012, and is burdened by a lack of roads, health care and education. Poverty and violence are rarely far apart, and it’s unsurprising that there was a vicious “People’s war” from 1996 to 2006, in which an estimated 12,000 people died. It was a conflict between the Communist Party of Nepal, which is now in power as a coalition, with the then government. When a nation has little or nothing, any alternative, even if it is an extreme one, can seem desirable. My host Arjun said he supported the Maoists, but had the opinion even they were not doing enough.
We should never write off a developing nation, but we should have the courage to call out cultural norms that just don’t work. Nepal is a nation without a glass ceiling to break. The caste system represents an opaque, thatched, clay ceiling which cannot not be touched. The phrase “khe garne?” is said regularly by Nepali’s when faced with challenges. It translates to “What is there to do?” What indeed?
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