February 7, 2011


[Prepared in June 2001, this is a note on Nepalese social issues from historical perspective. It is published here, for archiving only, without any change in it. Only a few words have been replaced for clarity. A drastic change has occurred in Nepal since it was prepared. There are still some social issues the country has to address immediately. Nepalese people now believe the government will bring out constitution on time and hold free and fair elections. The country will head towards peace and prosperity and all outstanding social issues will also be resolved eventually. - The Blogger]

By B. K. Rana 
1. The Making of Nepali Nation: Social exclusion is still prevalent in Nepal. Untouchability persists, less experienced in urban areas however; the case in rural areas is still horrible. Primarily, through language and culture the ruling elite excluded all others from the mainstream of development for centuries. This is what has been customarily continuing in South Asian Countries - mainly in Nepal and India. To understand the underlying factors of social exclusion and efforts for inclusion in recent times; we need to have basic idea on the formative social forces and cultural history of Nepal. Nepal has been a common home for peoples of different origins and cultures since the ages. Generally speaking, at least three different types of peoples make up Nepali nation as:

i) Ethnic peoples of their own mother tongues and cultures,
ii)Peoples of four-fold Hindu varnasharam – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra and,
iii)Others from different religious beliefs

The collective identity of all Nepalese is the ‘Nepali Jati' as provisioned in current constitution. There should, therefore, be no difficulty in distinguishing Hindus in the four-fold whereas indigenous ethnic peoples or 'ethnicity' should also be understood referring to peoples by their origin or descent rather than culture and nationality. These peoples are also known as the Janajatis [indigenous peoples] of Nepal.

Caste in Nepal is to denote ‘Jat’ of Caucasoid extraction of Indo-Aryan language group while ‘Jati’ is to refer to  mainly Tibeto-Burman speaking communities and few others that are mainly tribal. Current Nepalese caste system is a borrowed product from southern plains; therefore, ‘Jati’ can better be equated with ethnic groups or the Janajatis as an independent etymology. A ‘Jati’ is therefore certainly, no femininity of ‘Jat’ in a strict linguistic sense.

With the rise of House of Gorkha, an unwelcome process of Nepalization began and became able to infuse compatriot sentiment among the Nepalese peoples and transformed them into a ‘Nepali Jati’  - the peoples of Nepal. That virtually  led Nepal become a 'melting pot' wherein ethnic diversity was forced to  intermingle into the lowest ranking ‘ Panichalne Shudra Jat’ – a rather different Shudra than the classical one. These panichalne Shudras are socially ostracized in Nepal.

2. Castiesm: A  Barring Factor for Social Inclusion:

Outlined below is a brief treatment on the age-old traditions and exchanges among the peoples of Nepal. This should be viewed as a social interaction among societies of different origins, languages and cultures. The state machinery including constitution and other state laws are based on Vedic principles strengthened with Manu’s Dharmashastra known as - Manusmriti. The relevance of Manu’s principles in the 21st century has been challenged. It has come under fierce criticism from among the tribal communities in the region. Therefore, a tug of war - between the ‘elite’ and the ethnic communities who are apparently rustic - has surfaced in the Indian subcontinent whose magnitude is severely felt in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal also. Tribal communities in Nepal are out for acquiring fundamental rights for their all round development.

2.1 The Rigvedic Period:

A generally held belief is that the early Vedic period did not have any caste structure and caste hierarchy. According to later Vedic texts four-fold Hindu caste system emerged from the sacrifice of primeval beings – the Purush Shukta – in Rigveda chapter 10, stanza 90 mantra 1; which was believed to be incorporated later into it in between 1000  –  600 BC. The mantra relates - Brahmins came out from the mouth of Male Brahma, Kshatriya from his chest, Vaishya from thigh and Shudras from the feet. This propagation got further elaborated as human population grew more and more and there seemed a need for smart social management. An effective law was required to maintain law and order in society.

Around 1st century AD, Manusmriti is believed to have been written. In Manusmriti  chapter 1 verse 87  - it is written that god, the creator  laid down separate duties upon men for the preservation of his creation. The Brahmins having been originated from the mouth were to study Vedas, teaching performances of sacrifices, officiating as priests and gift making and acceptance. The Khastriyas were to protect peoples mainly, Vaishyas were to rear cattle, gift making, merchandize, money lending and agriculture et cetera. Shudras had to ungrudgingly serve the above three types of peoples. Manusmriti does not permit Shudras to study Vedas and earn wealth and happiness. This non-acceptance opens up the pages of history of misery of Shudras. The root cause for South Asian impoverishment and resultant conflicts lies in this very categorization in the four fold.

2.2 Kirat and Lichhivi Period:

The Kirats became kings defeating Gopals of Kathmandu valley – it is so written in the history. Yalambar was the first Kirat king of Nepal. The Kirats were powerful kings. Even Shiva - the god of creation in Hindu trinity is revered as Kirateshowr – the god Kirat. This well illustrates how significant social status the Kirats had obtained then. The history of Kirat is not well explored and explained as the historical evidence on them is still unavailable. The early Kirats are believed to be the ancestors of all indigenous [tribal ethnic] peoples of Nepal.

After Kirats, Lichhavis came into Nepal from Vaishali – the present Bihar in India. Caste culture prevailed during Lichhavi period also but that was not taken as a rule of the land. After the fall of Lichhivis, Nepal came under Malla Rule. During Malla period  casteism got its roots deeper into the society. King Jayasthiti Malla, in 13th century formalized casteism as part of the system. This king even invited Brahmins from South India to teach Veda or Vedic education  in this indigenous Himalayan Kingdom.

2.3 Malla and Shah Period:

The stratification of Nepal's Newar community was based on division of labour as described in the Manusmriti and eventually it contributed to affirming later Rig Vedic culture also. For the caste hierarchical system that prevails today in  Kathmandu,  King Jayasthiti Malla is believed to have been responsible. After the fall of Mallas, Shah kings came to Kathmandu from Gorkha. King Ram Shah[1] had also favoured caste system.

King Prithivi Narayan Shah who is also revered as the founder of modern Nepal has said in his Dibyopadesh (The Great Teaching) " Nepal is an orchard of four castes and thirty-six Varnas..." The term varna here suggests as many other ethnic groups as 36 consonants of Devanagari script. This way Nepali society went into a rigid caste based culture with the rise of  the House of Gorkha.

3. Indigenous Ethnic Groups, Dalits and Other Minorities and Prevalent Social Exclusion:

Especially Aadibasi Janajatis [tribal ethnic communities], Dalits [water untouchable Shudras] and other minority groups suffer social exclusion in recent times. Having not been able to find accesses to the national resources, these ostracized peoples have been facing many hardships. Below is a brief analysis of Aadibasi Janajatis and Dalit situation in terms of social exclusion that prevails even after the restoration of democracy 12 years ago.

3.1 Conceptual Definition for Aadibashi Janajatis and Dalits:

a) Aadibashi Janajatis: Janajatis are those peoples who have their own distinct language and culture but who do not fall in the four fold Hindu caste hierarchy of  Bhramhin, Kshatriya, Vase and Shudra.

b) Dalits:  The peoples of Indo-Aryan descent and culture; who fall in Shudra category in Hindu caste hierarchy are generally known as the Dalits.

Aadibasi Janajatis are slightly well off than the Dalits. The Dalits are terribly ‘dehumanized’, ‘exploited’, ’oppressed’ or ‘depressed’ in the contemporary societies. Literally Dalits suggest – ‘ground peoples’ between social mortar, sunken in swamps’ metaphorically and coming out of which is difficult and grudging, if not impossible. Traditionally, these peoples have been labeled by a number of individual names that psychologically weaken and render them social inferiority and humiliation. They are even known as 'pani na chalne' - water untouchable peoples in the region.

There is a need for clarity as to what Dalit means in current context. It was the Muluki Ain (Civil Code 1854) that gave a legal basis to caste hierarchy in Nepalese society. The first category grouped ethnic/caste groups as 1) Water Acceptable, and 2) Water Unacceptable or Untouchable. The Water Acceptable were sub-categorized as:

a) Thread-wearer,   
b) Non-enslavable Matawali and;
c) Enslavable Matawali

Matawali literally means alcohol drinkers and can be equated with tribal ethnic or Janajatis. The Water Unacceptable were also sub-classified into two: (a) Water purification unnecessary, and (b) Water-purification necessary. The Country Code or Muluki Ain (1854) was revised in 1963 but the democratic Constitution of 1990 labels Nepal as Hindu Kingdom and untouchability remains a fact of every day discrimination. The Country Code did not have the words such as a Dalit and Aadibasi Janajati, which are frequently in much currency. The word Dalit has been commonly used to refer to the Water Unacceptable or impure or Untouchables.

In fact the literal meaning of Dalit is “oppressed”. Since untouchability is made illegal in 1963, therefore government does not use this word. The official agency established to aid them is named as Upechhit (Ignored), Utapidit (Oppressed), Dalit (Suppressed) Class Development Committee. The Dalits are politically Upecchit (ignored), economically Utpidit (Oppressed) and  socially suppressed (Dalit). (Gurung 2001)[2]

 4. Distribution of Population  in Exclusion:

The total population of Nepal was 18,491,097 in 1991[3] of which Dalits were 28,20,266  (15.4 %), Aadibashi Janajatis 65, 72,365 (35.5%), upper caste  75,75,989 (41.0%) and others 14, 83 314 (8.1%). In the mountain region Dalits were 14,83,314 (8.1%) and remaining 12,00, 832 (6.6%) were in the Terai. They were not traced out in the Himalayan belt.

Likewise, out of  65,72,205  Aadibasi Janajati population - 136,552 (0.7%) were in Himalayan region, 47,72,993 (29.89%)  in the mountain, 206,068 (1.1%) in inner Terai and 12,52,6562 (7.9%) were in the Terai region.  Dalits believe their population should be more than 20% and Aadibasi Janajatis hold they form over 50% of the total population. But claims as such are not flatly unbelievable, however, reflections from among grassroots activism might be noticed in them.

5. Civil Code 1854 and Reinforced  Social Exclusion:

Through a bloody massacre in 1846 Jung Bahadur Rana came to power and became de-facto ruler of Nepal for more than thirty years. He too, formalized the conservative laws in the country. Since, his rise to power had been only possible through conspiracy and heartless massacre of several of the Bhardars (Lords of the House) and not through the popular mandate of the people therefore, he went on consolidating his position enforcing laws that served his interests. The Civil Code (Muluki Ain)  of 1854 may also be viewed in terms of consolidating Jung Bahadur Rana's autocratic family rule that lasted for 104 years and brought in black days into the history of Nepal.

With the enactment of Muluki Ain, some of the social evils as the satipratha  (burning alive of dead man's wife in the pyre) and slavery could be abolished but sadly, it reinforced caste prejudice and castiest atrocities for the lower caste peoples, particularly the Dalits of the country.
Over time, several corrections seem to have been made in the Hindu polity following which it could grow as a dogmatic ideology to dictate the society that would serve interest of the ‘upper caste’ peoples; particularly Brahmins and the Khastriya in the four-fold. Right from the rise of House of Gorkha, deliberate introduction of casteism into the contemporary societies intensified suffering and hardship of indigenous peoples, Dalits including other minority groups while on the other hand, the country simply became able to take pride in officially remaining as the only Hindu kingdom in the world.
As the country has quite diverse and extreme topographical and climatic conditions; the caste hierarchy here is even more diverse and extreme. The main basis for Hinduism is stratified caste culture under which ones own brothers are regarded as Shudras – the low caste peoples who are also known as the untouchables. This low caste-hood and untouchability in the Hindu caste system could be viewed as one of the major causes for widespread under-developedness among Nepalese societies, however other South Asian countries as: India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Shri Lanka, Pakistan, and Maldives have also more or less same type of problems of prevalent discrimination and social injustice either on the ground of descent or of cultural attributes.

6. Sudraization in ' Melting pot ' and Current  Movement for Social Justice and Self Respect:

The water untouchables - Dalits, fall in classical Hindu Shudra category and the Aadibasi Janajatis [indigenous ethnic peoples] are also not essentially recognized and placed above the Shudras.  Nar Bahadur Gurung of Pokhara, was asked to act as a Shudra in King Tribhuvan’s coronation on February 20, 1913, the late Dil Man Singh Thapa – a Magar of Midwest Nepal served as Shudra in the coronation ceremony of King Mahendra on  May 05, 1956 and Padma Sunder Lawoti – another Limbu of East Nepal poured holy waters from different holy sources in the hands of King Birendra at his coronation ceremony on March 10,1975.

(Coronation of King Mahendra May 5, 1956) 
 These three incidents gave straight ways to legitimizing ethnic peoples' Shudra identity and which also served as the ingredient to reinforce Hindu stratified caste system in recent decades incorporating AadibasiJanajatis into the lowest fold that psychologically weakened and hindered from coming up to the forefronts in national perspective.

 7. Conclusion:

The Civil Code of 1854 recognized Aadibasi Janajati [indigenous ethnic peoples] as the  ‘pani chalne’ -  ‘water acceptable’ Shudras and put them above Dalit Shudras in social rank and file. This new stratified difference also forced Dalits to further suffer from another group of peoples besides the Hindus. Having known the underlying facts that the ethnic peoples are linguistically, culturally, and originally different than the others; there is now a kind of surge and flow of withdrawal from the conventionalist school and start of ‘deconstruction’ in the Aadibasi Janajati communities. Similarly, Dalits; ‘pani nachalne shudras’ i.e. “water unacceptables” are also coming up in their movement for human values, social justice and self-respect.

This sort of social movement is expected to strengthen solidarity of the nation and bring in socio-economic development at large and labeling which of being inspired by foreign invocation is totally falsified notion and is only camouflaging foul intent of those peoples who profess and prefer the society be in stagnancy.


[1] One of the forefathers of King Prithivi Narayan Shah. King Prithivi Narayan Shah subdued Mallas to establish Gorkha Kingdom in   Kathmandu Valley.
[2]  MS - Dr. Harka Gurung  2001
[3] I have used  1991 census data only to show the trend. The new population data has the same trend.