Inheriting the earth

November 18, 2009 at 12:27 pm Leave a comment

Inheriting the earth


 Rearranging of class and caste orders in Tarai
Prejudices are always rooted in history. The nature and intensity of the prejudices may vary depending on contemporary dynamics but they are ‘justified’ by appealing to historical narratives, often revisionist in nature. When I looked at the historical causes of caste, class and ethnic inequities existent in the Tarai in my previous article (Once we were farmers, Oct 8), the intention was not to blame any particular group of people or to suggest that time should turn backwards, as some have suggested (most notably Jay Krishna Goit who believes that the annulations of all previous treaties following the Nepal India Friendship Treaty of 1950 grants sovereignty to the Tarai by default, using some clever twisted logic). When I looked at the history of the current inequities, it was rather to look for the origins of our current predicament. While history in itself cannot be prescriptive, any prescription to end the prevalent inequities cannot be complete without understanding the causes behind it.

In my article, I had argued that since the inception of Nepal as a modern-state, an ad-hoc mechanism had been set up by the rulers that allowed for efficient taxation, while also being politically expedient. For centuries, feudalism was thus adopted as the official political system, leading to inherently unequal distribution of land, which adversely affected the lower and middle castes and indigenous communities in particular. Later, with the adoption of the oxymoronic ‘one party democracy’ system called the Panchayat, Mahendra promulgated a series of land and resettlement acts which achieved the opposite effect of reform – it further entrenched asymmetric land relations, while importing the feudalistic ethos in modern bureaucracy. Thus, we end up at this unique position where our political parties, our bureaucracy (including vital institutions) and our economy (mainly agricultural) are all shaped by and imbibe the spirit of feudalism. Only recently, fuelled by the Maoist-led People’s War and the resurgence of ethnic movements, has there been any serious challenge to this ossified and antiquated system. In this article, I shall focus on how shifting patterns of productivity and economic activity is slowly hammering on the cracks that have appeared in the system, even as resistance to change by the old guard remains strong.

Following the restoration of democracy in 1990, some inevitable changes were made. This included the liberalization of the economy, expanding the network of public services and freeing the media. Despite the obvious failures of multiple post-1990 governments, inter-party rivalry and opportunistic power games ensured that the issues of more interest groups than ever were heard. However, what was lacking at the heart of these changes was that a large portion of the population belonging to lower castes, excluded ethnicities, and living predominantly in villages remained in the margins of the developmental process.

The Maoists were quick to capitalize on the marginalization of these groups – the Dalits, other oppressed lower-castes and indigenous communities. With a shrewd understanding of guerilla tactics, both political and military, they led a textbook example of communist insurgency following on the footsteps of many Latin American countries.

The Maoist movement, however, did not have as much influence in the Tarai as they would have wanted for many reasons, including more entrenchment of the caste system, more asymmetric land relationships, stronger bases of traditional political parties and some strategic errors like criminalization of the party rank-and-file. Logic would suggest that problems of caste and land being more amplified in the Tarai should have favored the insurgency. However, this was not the case because the levels of dependency were simply too strong. The economic and social repercussions for potential recruits were too great. They did, however, gain a significant foothold among the Dalit community and to a certain degree on other landless communities (consequently leading to upper-caste led vigilante groups that were precursors of today’s armed and criminal groups).

It was instead the opening of foreign labor markets that would pave the way for seismic changes in Tarai politics. Already, for decades, many of the middle-class and upper-caste landed families were shifting vocations, choosing governmental or private sector jobs, with rising levels of education. Disillusionment with the Nepali state remained strong because many in this substratum lacked political access. This is reflected today in the large number of civil servants in health, education and infrastructure development sectors, though not proportionally represented in the upper rungs.

In the other substratum were the landed families of both the middle and lower castes. They benefited from the shift from agricultural to non-agricultural vocations of the upper-castes, gradually augmenting their landholdings. Many were also quick to join the exodus of migrant workers in the initial stages of the opening of foreign labor markets. They too now enjoyed better economic prospects but were growing increasingly restless with the lack of political representation.

The third substratum consisted of the landless lower-castes – ‘the wretched of the earth’, to appropriate Franz Fanon’s words. Historical caste inequities had now put them in a position where they could now reap the most benefits of the opening of foreign labor markets. For generations, they had worked as artisans, fulfilling their role by doing jobs that other castes considered ‘beneath’ their station. Now, it was precisely these jobs that were most in demand. Initially, lack of awareness and initial capital inhibited them from benefiting from new opportunities being created. However, as the first few members of the community returned from abroad, they became examples not only of prosperity that lay ahead but also as emerging leaders of the community. It is a testament of the strong sense of these communities that new cooperative structures were put in place, such as migrant labors pooling resources together so that a newly arrived member could pay back the credit owed back home before the interest became too high. This broke the historical shackles of credit that had perpetuated a vicious cycle (first through cultural malpractices such as dowry and high ritual costs and later by credit required for investment in the future), which was now being replaced by a virtuous cycle – as more members of a community went abroad for work, they made it easier for other people of the community to join them. Furthermore, they became more aware with exposure to foreign lands and cultures.

All three substrata were gradually becoming more economically empowered, which inevitably would lead to the quest for political influence. Oblivious to these tectonic shifts in demographic dynamics, our traditional political parties were trapped in a bubble pretending that the post-Jana Andolan II era was just another ‘restoration’ of democracy. That the Madhes Movement would burst forth with unprecedented momentum was inevitable. Issues that the Tarai Congress and later the Nepal Sadhvawana Party had been raising could now not be wished away. Along with a larger pan-Madhesi movement, current dynamics are also changing inter-caste and inter-class relationships, most measurable and apparent in landowning. (One should, however, be careful not to oversimplify the caste and class dynamics – these processes have many other facets as well.)

These processes – shifting patterns of economic activity and political influence – are anything but static. It will require a nuanced understanding of these forces of change to better manage them. Policies will have to take them into account. Political parties will have to attune to these growingly powerful voting bases. There will be attempts to misuse these dynamics, as is always the case when changes happen. As I have witnessed firsthand during this festival season, there is a growing dissatisfaction among the upper-castes about the ‘decay in the social fabric’, by casually attributing increase in criminal activities and even more ridiculously load shedding on the growing wealth of the lower and middle castes (now even the teli-suris have television sets and thus more electricity consumption, so the logic goes). What is undeniable is that whether or not the government policies help the worse off in the society, the opening of foreign labor markets has helped them climb the ladder of growth. As Jesus aptly put it in a sermon – Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth



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