BCN or CHHE?

A friend warned the other day not to be seen as anti-BCN (or is it anti-CHHE?), on risk of losing credibility. The following article from Republica is fairly interesting, although I admit, the half on the US was less compelling reading..

Caste matters – Sradda Thapa

Before the reader jumps to conclusions and deems me a caste-ist, allow me to explain with two very straight-forward points. First, to dismiss the privilege attached to certain so-called high-caste names is to somehow pretend castes don’t matter. While it truly may not matter to the high-caste, it sure does for others. Even if they personally really do not discriminate against their lower-caste neighbors, it does not eradicate the social caste-system. One look at leading businesspeople and bureaucratic whips indicate that caste and opportunity is still closely aligned.

Which leads me to my second point: While the correlation between the two is close, it is an issue we can deal with if we are willing to admit that caste, indeed, matters because accepting this bitter fact is the only first step available to alleviating the situation. Furthermore, our caste-based social heirarchy is not a lone social evil. There are lessons to learn – both in terms of what to replicate and avoid, from world history. America just happens to be one very good example.

You see, while the world hegemon have had a historical headache about race, we in Nepal have one about caste.

The Bahun Chhetri Newars (BCN), Caste Hindu Hill Elites (CHHE) – and whatever other accronnym you choose to employ to describe the supposed thulo jaat in the country – are usually the first to deny the importance of caste. It is easy for the “high caste” of us to be dismissive of the entire system, to proclaim we do not care for it. It is even expected that we wave it aside and sneer at it for being so trivial, so backward, so beyond us.

Since my fascination with Nepal scratched the surface of Mt Everest and the brave Gurkhas, I have come to admit that your last name does indeed speak much about your opportunities and life chances.

Of course, I am not suggesting we divide, categorize, and then rank the value (or the pani chalne and na chalne) of this socio-political construct called ‘caste’. What I am suggesting is we refrain from dismissing caste as something so “unimportant.” Because for all the nonchalant I-don’t-care-about-castes proclaimed by the thulo jaats, Dalit CA members still found it difficult to find a room to rent in the capital. A CA coommittee coorindatior and its members have complained about the “tendency” to refuse recieving complain from Dalits (Caste discrimination, untouchability to end: Mahara, June 11 2011). And inter-caste couples of urban Nepal today where mention of marriage raises an eyebrow at best and ostracizationat at worst.

It seems even if we don’t care about caste, caste cares about us.

Once the idea that castes cannot be brushed under a national carpet is agreed upon, the likes of American racial tension – current and historical – offer much for Nepal to build upon in terms of discussion and action.

Everything from its initial “only slave-owning men may vote” to segregation that marks large pockets of the country even today is a case for Nepal to ponder. From divvying affirmative action to minority groups participating in a majority-based government, (which is what we call “democracy”) their re-education and planning is worth contemplating. American pop culture is consumed in large proportions by the urbane, rural, youth and senior of us, but American history also brings a healthy dose of reality. If the Internet at home is too faulty, a good place to begin would be a book – Cornel West’s Race Matters, to be precise.

There is much to pick up from Race Matters and to consider from American history. Especially in this very moment as we deliberate what jaat we have been born into means, as we consider the correlation between caste and poverty, as we try and draw policies to implement tomorrow in an effort to apologize, if not rectify what was systematically propogated yesterday in the name of religion and culture.

I had the opportunity to hear the man, West, dubbed “one of America’s most gifted and provocative public intellectuals” – speak at my little liberal arts school. Perhaps the most brilliant mind I was ever privy to listen to in person (rivaling only Noam Chomsky), the one word that rings as soon as his name is uttered is “audacity”.

“The audacity of it all” he cried over and over again that evening. Between that line and his infamous book, “race matters” is what I recall most vividly.

Nestled in a small Christian college forty-minutes from Boston where little blonde girls would ask friends from Kenya, “Why are you so dirty?” as they innocently but still so hurtfully tried to rub off the “dirt”, West’s title, Race Matters, seemed to offer nothing new.

Of course, race matters. And, it didn’t just take someone who was a bona fide non-WASP to figure that one out. “WASP,” being an acronymn my high school teacher taught us to describe the four usual characteristics (before-Barrack Obama) crucial to running for US President – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

Perhaps then it is only obvious that in skimming through newspapers and traveling to remote corners that define this country, it becomes evident that our version of Cornel West’s best-seller would have to be titled Caste Matters.

Indeed when my WASPish American friends expressed horror at our caste system, that one was born into, that one could not escape, that determined one’s life chances and that decided who you could and could not marry, I listened. I nodded and agreed it was awful, “just like how African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Hispanic-Americans or Jews were treated in America”. This wasn’t to shut them up as much as to indicate that social evils plagued any and every society. The only difference perhaps is that their country has been dealing with it for well over decades, while it is something we are rather new at, especially at the nation-state level.

But first, we must have a collective understanding that pretending caste does not make a difference to how we perceive and treat others does not mean these “others” of us are not treated differently by society.

In an ideal world, race and caste in our case would be non-issues. But, so long as they are, we are doing more harm than good if the privileged of us pretend to enjoy no privileges in being privileged. We owe it to our countrymen to refrain from belittling a national plight. I can say I don’t care if I am a Chhetri woman, that it makes no difference to me. But, we all know the difference it continues to make to those who are non-Chhetris (sans Bahun sans Newar).

Because, for all the talk – this wedding season I saw but a few where caste really did not seem to matter. What’s our version of the American WASP and how do we go about addressing its meaning?

sradda.thapa@gmail.com

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