Once we were farmers
Once we were farmers
Nepal is an agricultural country, we were told continuously in our social studies classes as children. The syllabus of the time was rooted deeply in the Panchayat-era worldview. Since then, there have been tectonic shifts in the patterns of economic activity, mirroring the caste structure, as Nepal moved from being a fiefdom to becoming a modern nation state, even as agriculture remains the most common vocation of ordinary people. Still, the Panchayat system deserves credit for the modernization of Nepal as a state, though there were no other options to modernization at that period apart from choosing the path of ‘gross national happiness’, towards which Mahendra Shah did give a hesitant shot. In this article, I will look at the gradual evolution of the caste and class dynamics in the Tarai which have an indelible influence on current politics.
At the onset of modernization, we were a nation of villages. The sole concern of the power center was taxation to raise revenues, mostly to maintain the army and the lavish lifestyles of the powerful. Thus, villages were little more than sources of income. There were no attempts to provide any public services or build infrastructure. The long list of reforms that we were made to rote-learn in those same social studies classes (complete with dates) were either rudimentary reforms limited to the capital (a school, a zoo, a fire brigade) or vital industries that would bolster the income of the Ranas (jute mills, matchstick factories). Vast swathes of dense malarial forests covered the areas where there were no farmlands and villages.
By the third generation, agriculture had become the last vocation in the Tarai, something one did when one could not do anything else. With the opening up of foreign labor markets, the middle and lower castes found greener pastures abroad.
That feudalism was the most suited political system for the Shahs and Ranas of the period was natural, given their sole interest in raising taxes without the necessary bureaucratic structure. Since the inception of Nepal as a nation-state by Prithvi Narayan Shah, an ad-hoc mechanism to raise taxes was maintained, which also had the added advantage of being politically expedient by letting local rulers maintain their power in their areas while being responsible for paying annual dues to Kathmandu. In villages where no large landowner existed, powerful families from further south, almost exclusively consisting of high-castes, were lured with large land grants and handed the responsibility of tax collection. Similarly, the Ranas also gave large grants of lands at their personal whim, either to thank people for their loyalty or to sideline political rivalries. Communities like the Tharus, that owned land collectively, were also subjugated to similar structures, by either co-opting a powerful Tharu family or bringing in new landlords. We may have moved on from the basise and chaubise rajyas, but we were essentially still ruled by many kings, or tax collectors with private armies, to be accurate.
Then, in the 1960s, the USAID-funded malaria eradication program played a pivotal role in the clearing of the Charkose forest, which spelled further bad news for the malaria-resistant indigenous populations like the Tharus. Another impetus for the clearing of the forests was the expansion of the railroad system in northern India with large amounts of timber needed to lay the tracks. Not surprisingly, some of the most densely populated towns of the Tarai correspond to important railroad junctions of northern India.
With large tracts of forests now cleared and suitable for farming, it was time for some ingenious land reform and resettlement acts. The primary objective of the Panchayat regime, and in fact the Shah dynasty, had always been the consolidation of power over this fixed territory called Nepal. The biggest threat to this came from ethnic diversity. The favored political theory of the time maintained that nations needed identities which were created by commonalities, a far cry from today’s ‘imagined communities’. Mahendra was well aware of this, and using some of the brightest men of that period, set about the task of homogenization. The key to this would be the land reforms supplemented by resettlement acts. And of course, Israel was to play the advisory role. Families of upper-caste Pahadis with political patronage were resettled in the new cleared forests of the Tarai, some prominent examples being Jhapa, Chitwan and Dang from which some of our most influential politicians hail.
By now the stage had been set for inequalities of caste, class, and ethnicity that still plague us today. As we have seen, there were now a few large land-owning families and a large landless population. The worst-hit were the Dalits and the indigenous populations. Upper-caste, and to some degree, middle-caste Madhesis continued to own land, and thus power at the local level. Mahendra recognized the threat, and under the guise of the much-needed land reform, introduced land ceilings, which was particularly to benefit the upper-caste Pahadi population. Families with access to power were tipped off of the impending policy, who were then swift to invite relatives from the hills, thus dividing the land on paper. It was the Madhesi landlords who lost out on the deal, albeit without much benefit to the landless Madhesis, Dalits and indigenous populations. Not surprisingly, it is the Madhes-based parties that today oppose land reforms, which is as urgently needed today as ever before.
Despite Mahendra’s large-scale efforts, many upper- and middle-caste Madhesis continued to own large farming lands. The geography and demography of small villages in the Tarai were built upon asymmetrical relationships of castes. Each village typically has upper-caste, middle-caste and lower-caste quarters, each separated though not isolated. It is not hard to guess where basic infrastructure (such as the VDC office, primary schools, health posts etc.) is located at. As generations passed, the land was divided and re-divided into smaller plots, at a remarkable speed, thanks to our healthy fertility rate.
As these land saga played out, Mahendra was also instituting the modern bureaucracy. He needed educated people to run the government. This period coincided with the growing awareness of the need for education among the upper-castes of both Madhesi and Pahadi communities, along with political awareness due to the proximity with India. This was also the period when radios were becoming reasonably cheaply available. Many families sent their children to study in India to produce the first mass-educated class in Nepal. Many of the Madhesi upper castes subsequently joined the civil service. However, with the population steadily increasing, a large upper-caste landed population continued farming, thus perpetuating the historical land inequities among the lower castes. The lower castes, meanwhile, honed on their artisan skills (building houses, constructing government-sponsored projects such as roads) or became migrant labors.
By the third generation, agriculture had become the last vocation, something one did when one could not do anything else. With the opening up of foreign labor markets, the middle and lower castes found greener pastures in the Gulf states, Malaysia and other labor-starved economies. The upper castes and some of the middle castes found themselves either in dead-end government jobs (where the most important asset is political patronage) or private businesses, having no inclination towards agriculture or menial labor, nor the capacity or capital to explore other possibilities.
Today, we are witnessing a radical shift in caste and class relationships in the Tarai. I have tried in this article to examine some of the historical baggage that we still carry as market forces trump cultural and religious prejudices. In the next article, I shall explore the political, economic, and social ramifications of the rearranging of class and caste structures resulting due to the changes in land-owning and economic productivity patterns, focusing on the Madhesi community.
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