Social Science Baha

Cultural Politics in the Markets: a Case from Inter-Caste Negotiations at Meat Business in Kathmandu

Kanako Nakagawa

This paper examines the shift in the inter-caste relationships brought about by the commercialisation of the meat markets in Kathmandu Valley, by focusing on every day practices of Khaḍgī caste, who have been engaged in slaughtering, processing, and trading of livestock as a caste-based-role in Newar society.

 Recently in Kathmandu, the people from other castes and religious groups, including Muslim ‘foreigners’ have involved in the process of distributing meat which used to be primarily dominated by Khaḍgīs. In the meat distribution process, they have usually retained their own norms and ethics which have rendered the meat market a cultural and religious mosaic. For example, Muslims keep practicing halal even when they slaughter the animals for the markets. Rai and Limbu, who are indigenous ethnic groups from eastern parts of Nepal, have brought into practice the eating of pork to Kathmandu Valley, where people tend to avoid eating pork since they are regarded as ‘impure’.

Under such current conditions, Khaḍgīs negotiate in the everyday commercial practices with other castes and religious groups, as well as re-interpret/re-define their caste-based self-image. In 1973, Khaḍgī established their caste-based association. Pressurised by the formation of meat markets and non Khaḍgī entrances to the markets, this caste-based association has enlarged its role as an agent for re-interpreting caste-image to ensure their caste category, thus enabling them to maintain an advantage in the market. Shifts in the inter-caste relationships have been brought about through this re-interpretation. For example, some members of Khaḍgī have been refused their traditional caste-based-roles which they considered to be linked with caste hierarchy.

These developments can be seen as a result of the individualisation mediated by the market economy. However, in the case of Khaḍgī, since their livelihood is keenly connected with the caste based role, they don’t simply seek the way for individualisation, but re-interpret the category of caste to facilitate their livelihoods by articulating themselves with the norms of ‘caste-based-role’ and ‘market trade’. In contrast to earlier studies that were based on people’s strategic symbolic re-interpretation in the ethnic identity politics, this paper points out that the everyday commercial practices also represent domains where the cultural politics have been engaged. Furthermore, this reorganisation of inter-caste relationships based on the commercial practices might have brought about changes in people’s sense of value and ethics, and open for them an alternative way for cultural politics.