Social Science Baha

Caste in Contemporary Nepal: Hierarchy and Equality

Gérard Toffin

Since the fall of royalty in May 2008, Nepal has theoretically become a republican state made up of equal citizens. Nepali society is still based on caste (and ethnicity) but the ideological context has changed considerably. The egalitarians values, which have been operative for some decades, and the new political environment have gradually caused a shift. Today, the caste system is rejected by a large number of people and of religious movements, even among Hindus. This rejection is perhaps of a more radical nature than in India, where it still plays an important role in public discourse. This paper addresses these paradigmatic changes and their impact on caste reality throughout the country. First of all, it focuses on the changes in terminology (if any), in the meaning of the word jati, which is still used in the official contemporary Nepali vocabulary. Then it explores the two main related processes that are at work in this field: ethnicisation and substantialization of caste. In response to the ethnic politics advocated by adivasi/janajati groups, the politicization of caste groups has thus intensified significantly in recent years.

The main argument is that, as a global system of social relations, the caste system is slowly dying out. Yet castes have retained their strength in the form of independent, competitive, and self-centred groups, seeking to defend their own identity and interests. Caste consciousness and pride in belonging to such or such high caste are up to the present day key ideological elements. Furthermore, in spite of the increasing number of inter-caste marriages, there is still a tendency to marry within one’s own caste in a large number of communities. Last but not least, it is worth noting that caste transformations are not uniform in Nepal. Although there has been a noticeable relaxation of restrictions on inter-caste dining in urban areas, the old rules of commensality strictly apply in rural areas. Some examples will be taken from various parts of the country, and in particular from the Kathmandu Valley.