Nepal | September 16, 2019

Understanding the Madhesi caste system

Book Review

Ram Kumar Kamat
The Caste System  in Terai Madhes

The Caste System
in Terai Madhes

Ram Dayal Rakesh’s new book The Caste System in Terai Madhes sheds light on the castes of the region, its interaction and impacts on society which now asserts a pan-Madhesi identity.

The 195-page book has five chapters — Definition of Caste, Origin of the Caste System, Evolution of the Caste System, Function of the Caste System and Conclusion.

Caste system is still in vogue in most of the South Asian countries particularly India and Nepal. Caste system, the author argues, came into vogue out of fusion of two lightly different concepts of Varna and Jati. The caste system has been divided into four Varnas — Brahman, Kshetriya, Vaishya and Shudra and there are number of castes, which are called Jatis in Nepal, within it.

Varna divisions are hierarchical with Brahman being considered higher/superior and Shudra being termed lower or untouchable caste.

Caste system has been practised in Tarai/Madhes for millennia and has influenced social, economic and political status of the region and understanding the caste system of the Tarai region, is therefore important.

Although the caste system was officially abolished in 1963 in Nepal and a new civil code, the Muluki Ain was promulgated in 1964 (slightly modified in 1975), this system is still prevalent in the Madhesi society, argues the author.

The Madhesi society is unequivocally South Asian in its original and genesis. It has been derived from the culture of Gangetic plains, which occasionally links with North India. The author rightly says the Madhesi society is markedly and mainly rural in character and it is a highly complex society and caste has been the determining factor in all aspects of social life.

Caste is believed to have come from Latin words — Castus, which means ‘pure’. The caste system, originated, in South Asia towards the end of the Vedic period. Many scholars mention that the caste system was in the form of division of labour in the beginning and later (at the end of Vedic period) it became rigid and appeared to have been fixed by birth. The author also says there is a caste system not only in Nepal and India, but the whole world but the caste-based stratification in other parts of the world is racial.

The caste system of the southern plains is same and similar to Indian states of Bihar and UP. The author argues that while caste system gives moral education regarding the customs and manner, maintaining caste endogamy and clan-exogamy, the caste system creates an obstacle to national integration and also in economic development. Caste system, Rakesh argues, creates inequality in society.

The author rightly says remarkable linguistic and social diversity based on the caste system in the Tarai can pose a problem for consolidation of a pan-Madhesi identity. It is noteworthy that during elections candidates of Madhesh solicit votes on the basis of caste identity.

The author also says Madhesi castes have been exploited by hilly castes and within Madhesis, there are trends of higher castes exploiting lower castes.

The author has cited his own example: “Some years I was not allowed to take water along with Dhanuk caste of my village from the well because I belong to Kalwar caste which is considered untouchable. This was a very humiliating experience for me in the village. The caste system was so rigid that I could not break.”

But the author seems to have agreed with the fact that caste barrier is slowly decreasing. The castes such as Kalwar, Sudi and Teli with whom water could not be shared in the past, is not a case in point anymore.

While endogamy and social separation have caused group inequalities to perpetuate, practices of untouchability and caste-based discrimination have ensured the exclusion of members of the so-called ‘low castes’ from preferred positions in society.

Caste prejudice in India is still very strong and ingrained and changes for the better can only be effected slowly. The same and similar condition prevails in Nepal, especially in Tarai Madhes.

The book states the caste system is mainly based on the principles of purity and pollution, which persists some way or the other. There was national caste hierarchy during the Rana rule. When Jung Bahadur became prime minister in 1854, the caste hierarchy was codified through the Muluki Ain. It placed castes of comparable status of the hills higher in status than similar groups among the Newars and the Tarai Hindus.

In his book, 56 caste/ethnic groups of Madhesi origin are briefly described incorporating their origin, socio-cultural, economic and political development. Tharus, Muslims and some Janajatis are also included in this book as a caste. The author, however, says that caste system as practised in the Hindu society does not apply in the Muslim community. As far as Tharus are concerned, they belong to Janajati wherein the conventional caste system does not apply.

The author argues that Kathbaniya is a separate caste and not a sub-caste of Kayastha.

The author has mentioned his personal reflection to prove that Marwaris are peace loving and believers of non-violence. He states that Hulas Chand Golchha rejected his proposal of opening hotels saying hotels use meat and liquor. The author says it is a pity to say that Tharus are not Madhesis. “Tharus are born in Madhes and their settlement is called Tharuhat. It is also correct to say that they are the first inhabitants of Madhes,” he writes. Nowadays caste is undergoing considerable change as a consequence of urbanisation, industrialisation, democratisation and spread of education.

As such the caste system is undergoing a change due to modernisation and globalisation and losing its grip. Rakesh rightly says that politically-aware and educated people hardly believe in caste system these days. He would also like to link its changing pattern to recent political developments in Nepal. Though there are some grammatical and spelling errors, the book explains in simple language the lifestyle and culture of various castes of Madhes, interactions between them and how diversity in Madhes could pose a challenge to a pan-Madhesi identity. The book will be a valuable guide for those who want to understand the caste system of Tarai Madhes.

The Caste System in Terai Madhes
Publisher: Adroit Publishers, New Delhi
Price: IRs 450
ISBN: 978-81-87393-10-8

A version of this article appears in print on August 16, 2015 of The Himalayan Times.

Follow The Himalayan Times on Twitter and Facebook

Recommended Stories: