Today we want to talk about the caste system in Nepal, something even so widely understood as outdated and discriminating the country seems to hold tight to.
Let´s start by laying out the basics to better understand. The Nepalese caste system developed parallel to the Indian one and wasn´t part of ancient Nepal. It is important to know, that Hindu scriptures say, there is no caste system – a system that affects families, their life, dresses, food, occupation and culture of course. In short it defines the way of life and has a vital part in the social stratification.
The system: These days the caste system is still intact, but the rules are not as rigid as they were in the past. In 1962, a law was passed making it illegal to discriminate against other castes led all castes to be equally treated by law which results for example, in education being free and open to everybody. The system is divided into four segments called Varnas, a Sanskrit word which means type, order, colour or class.
The four Varnas in Nepal are:
- Brahmin (priests, scholars and teachers),
- Kshatriya (rulers, warriors and administrators),
- Vaisya (merchants, agriculturalists and traders), and
- Sudra the lowest rank of all varnas (labourers).
All in all there are 36 castes within Nepal, Including the Dalits or “the untouchables” with 103 distinct groups speaking 92 different languages where Nepali is the national language.
More on Dalits or Untouchables: It is said that Dalits were excluded from the four-fold varna system and were seen as forming a fifth varna, also known by the name of Panchama. Dalit is a Sanskrit word which can be translated as “divided, split, broken, scattered”. Dalits are discriminated as a result of the system and the so called “untouchability.” They are also discriminated by higher caste people and in the religious sector as well. They are not allowed to practice Hindu rituals, norms and values in the same manner as other castes or they are not allow to enter or to be near around the temples and can only follow their religious practice from far. In order to escape from this discrimination some people decided to change their religion which is illegal since August 2017, but we will come to that later.
Dalits work as black/goldsmith, tailors, shoemakers etc. They are considered of low social status. Poverty and discrimination forces them to continue their traditional occupations. Dalit women and children are also forced to work in the households of their landlords.They get lower wages compared to other castes. Dalit women, on the other hand, get less wage than their male counterparts.
Sadly enough untouchability is practiced in schools as well. In rural areas of Nepal, Dalit students can not sit along with the others or they are not allowed to touch or use the school material. In some places they even sit outside the classrooms. Dalits are denied entry into the houses of higher castes, temples, hotels/restaurants, teashops, food factories, farm etc. A Dalit who drinks tea in a tea shop has to wash the cup by them self as they touched the glass/cup. They also have a belief that if a Dalit enters the cowsheds and touches the cows, the animals will die or will give less quantity of milk. Inter-caste marriage is still almost impossible. Violating these rules is liable to punishment like for example social boycott. Inter-caste marriages, a higher-caste man marries a lower-caste woman or vice versa is unacceptable from the parents of higher class or the neighbours, the society.
Status Quo: As mentioned before in 1962, a law was passed making it illegal to discriminate against other castes led all castes to be equally treated by the law. But since the Dalit communities are unaware of this program, they hardly benefit from it. The constitution of Nepal prohibits any form of discrimination on the basis of caste, race, sex and religion and is punishable by law. The government declared Nepal an untouchability free nation in 2006 but in practice, caste-based discrimination and untouchability are still practiced all over the country.
A big change recently happened during the last election held in 2017, a breakthrough so to speak. Voters were allowed to elect candidates for seven posts of local level, which included chiefs and deputy chiefs of local levels, ward chair, four ward members (two female members!) including a female member from the Dalit community. It was a mandatory to have a Dalit woman candidate at the ward level election. In total, of the 33,420 elected ward members, at least 13,368 are women and at least 6,684 of those women are Dalit.
Transformation happening on another level: Out of the 30 Million inhabitants in Nepal 75% of the population are Hindu and 5% are Christian. Hinduism, deeply rooted in society, has many rituals, celebrations and a great number of beautiful festivals. It is said, that a lot of poor people were converting to Christianity because they simply can´t join all of the festivities. As we know mainly poor people belong to lower casts and wealthy people to higher. But in order to join the festivals and festivities money is needed which is a real challenge as we can imagine. We have two problems here: not everybody is allowed to join in completely as we mentioned before and in addition money isn´t available to participate. In order to escape that dilemma an increasing amount of people decided to change their religion. This leads to a different way of living and a change in routine. In order to stop that, the government decided in August 2017 on a new law that forbids to change religion in Nepal. In case of infringement people can be prosecuted with 5 years of jail or a fine of USD 700. One can only hope that that this will have a positive impact on the ending of the caste system..
The good news is that luckily the young generation ignores the old system of untouchables. They have no problem with “lower” castes and they don´t follow the racial discriminations.
bbuildsupnepal – Let´s create a better life for children in Nepal.
We are creating a Better Transit Home in Kathmandu for street children, runaways or children who were victims of abuse. Help making a difference for children and families in Nepal.
We strongly hope that the caste discrimination will be completely extinguished along with the efforts of the government body, increasing awareness of society and better knowledge among illiterate peoples also thanks to programs from NGOs / INGOs.