Contemporary Nepal is a fascinating example of a society still defined by social hierarchies. While officially outlawed in 1962, the ancient caste system still thrives in parts of the country today, actively shaping interactions, institutions and other social structures.
Nepal’s experiences with social stratification and inequalities were the subject of a talk by speaker David Gellner at the Department of Anthropology on 19th September, 2016. Sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and co-sponsored by the Centre for South Asian Studies, the talk entitled “Ghosts of Hierarchies Past: Inequality, Hierarchy and Blame in Nepal” explored the themes of caste and ethnic relations and how they play into the workings of modern-day Nepal.
The speaker, David Gellner, is a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of All Souls. He has carried out fieldwork in the Kathmandu Valley on many occasions, with a particular interest in politics, ethnicity and the role of healers. He also has a great understanding of popular approaches to misfortune, religious change, and specifically, the history and effects of the newly introduced Theravada Buddhist movement. His doctoral research (1982-84) was on the traditional, Vajrayana Buddhism of the Newars and on Newar social organization, in the Kathmandu Valley, Nepal.
Gellner began by introducing the audience to Durmot’s theory of social hierarchy. Dumont’s theory, Geller explained, postulated that one social structure will always be more valuable than another, thereby bringing in the concepts of hierarchy and inequality. He then outlined the basic features of the caste system- a glaring divide between the dominating “in-group” and the isolated “out-group” with a resulting “enormous ego gap” between two extremes.
Strongly influenced by India, Nepal’s own intricate caste system comprises of four main groups (varnas) followed by thirty-six unique castes. These include the “Dalits” or “the untouchables”, who reportedly make up 20% of the country’s population. Gellner pointed out the inequalities in socioeconomic statuses not only across the castes but across Nepal. While the country brings in an average remittance total of over $4 billion, most of its population survives on a meagre $2.5 a day.
In a question-and-answer session following the lecture, Gellner expanded on the influence of the caste system on key institutions within Nepali society- including non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Below is a short excerpt from the Q-and-A:
Q1: Is the composition of NGOs caste based and does that perpetuate the caste cycle?
NGOs did previously hire people from higher castes for different reasons, Gellner commented, due to the fact that they were generally better educated and acquainted with the way the NGOs functioned. They also often knew English, which was imperative for those working in such environments.
This, he noted, is where class and caste very closely overlap to create inequalities that may be perpetuated by the very institutions trying to help end them.
Gellner also explained that Nepali NGOs are now becoming more and more conscious of the caste system. “You will see less caste imbalance within the working ranks in NGOs than you will in for example government bureaucracies,” he said.
Q2: Does Nepal’s ‘reservation’ law work?
Reservations, Gellner noted, have become a contentious issue over time. The misuse of this policy by the government has damaged the original concept behind it’s inception. The resulting resentment from the upper classes comes from not only religious beliefs in their own superiority but also a genuine concern for fairness of opportunity.
Some educational institutions have reservation quotas as high as 25-50% leaving half the seats- and in some extreme cases, less than half- for the all other students to compete for. Gellner argued that this not only hurts the concept of merit but also breeds inter-caste resentment towards students who obtain admission into institutions because of the harsh policy.
Q3: How has the caste system changed over time?
Historically, the caste system was unquestioned by all those affected. Few dared to voice objections against the hierarchy although, Gellner pointed out, more subtle inter caste social relations did exist to a smaller extent within Nepali society.
Today, he observed, things have changed. There is a greater sense of identity and camaraderie within and between castes, as people begin to feel comfortable questioning the fundamental principles of the system and the discrimination that goes with it. This is partly born out of the necessities of social interaction, such as attending school with people from different caste ancestries or having diverse friend circles. While this fosters a deeper understanding between those from different castes, Gellner concluded that there is still a long way to go before the remnants of the ancient system completely disappear from the workings of Nepali society.
Emaan Thaver is a fourth year student studying International Relations and Economics at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of interest include the historical periods of post-war Europe and the logistics of peace as well as contemporary global economic development.