On June 3, 1995, I had the opportunity to meet the much-debated sociologist Dor Bahadur Bista for an interview at his residence in Lalitpur. Ethnic identity politics had been gaining momentum in the years following the establishment of multiparty democracy. In a society that was slowly beginning to open up, Bista had introduced the idea of “Bahunism” into the public discourse.
Different aspects of our polity were yet to open up, however. I interviewed Bista for Jana Aasthaa weekly, accompanied by the photographer Santosh Pokhrel. While discussing social specificities, Bista put forward the claim that “the ancestors of the Shah Kings were ethnic Magars”. The newspaper used this statement as the headline. Controversy ensued. Despite the advent of democracy, the Royal Palace still resembled an island.
Bista’s comments remain explosive. He articulated his academic findings in very clear terms. These were not merely his opinions: it had been three years since he had set up the Karnali Institute in Chaudhabisa, Jumla. This interview was scheduled during one of his visits to Kathmandu.
I still remember Bista vividly. He disappeared – or perhaps, was made to disappear – within days of this interview, 18 years ago. The search for him continues. We had a long conversation on the front porch of his house. I remember thinking then that his ideas were too advanced for us. We had agreed to continue the conversation at a later date, but it was not to be.
Communalist expressions such as “pointy-nosed” and “flat-nosed”, meaning “Aryans” and “non-Aryans”, are becoming more common in Nepal. What’s the reason for this?
It’s very natural for people to be talking about ethnic issues now. Of the two ethnicities in Nepal, the Khas and the Kirat, the former migrated more. Khas-Arya people were nomads who raised livestock. They moved quickly through the grasslands with fast-moving animals such as cows, horses, goats, sheep and dogs.
The Kirat, on the other hand, because they inhabited the foothills of the Himalaya, southern China, Burma and Thailand, which were densely vegetated and received plenty of rainfall, had a more sedentary lifestyle. Therefore they kept slower-moving animals such as buffaloes and pigs. The Kirat’s advance to the west was slower. When the Khas moved eastwards, their rapid advance meant that they overran and established dominance over the smaller groups they encountered along the way.
The slow-moving Kirat appear to have come to Kathmandu, and only moved some way into the west. Khas dominance increased in this manner. When history doesn’t teach us how certain groups progressed, when schools don’t teach us, this discourse of pointy-nosed dhoti-clad people dominating becomes prevalent.
How many people have understood your concept of “Bahunism”?
I am very happy that quite a few young Bahuns (Brahmins) are beginning to understand it. When I first talked about “Bahunism”, it was felt that I was scolding Bahuns. The old order feared that if Bahuns were attacked, Hinduism would not survive, and if Hindus couldn’t survive, then they too would be unable to survive.
But that’s not true. We should live as Nepalis. As a Nepali, follow the religion you want, eat the dal and vegetables you want, build your house in the style you want, get married to the partner of your choice, and choose your own brand of motorcycle, who has objected to anything?
What is “Bahunism” then?
Essentially, “Bahunism” is that which perpetuates fatalism: whatever you have now is what you have earned through your previous lives, and your efforts now won’t result in anything.
As long as we believe that our lives are determined by the Almighty and embrace this theory of fatalism, we will lack drive. Without this, how will we ever be happy?
The idea of waiting for someone else to come and give us our bread, of holding out a begging bowl across the world, has been perpetuated by all our governments. This is shameful, and is the result of Nepalis becoming fatalistic.
The fatalism of the Bahuns has rendered us unenterprising. This is why I call it “Bahunism”. Until we root out “Bahunism”, the country will not move forward. The country will not progress until its citizens become dynamic.
As someone who is fluent in Sanskrit, you were probably very happy when the UML (United Marxist-Leninist) government started broadcasting news in Sanskrit on Radio Nepal?
There was absolutely no need to broadcast news in Sanskrit. A Marxist government that was meant to be uprooting misguided traditions ended up defending Sanskrit. Some shortsighted pundits felt, wrongly, that if Sanskrit were tagged on somewhere it would benefit the Bahun class and protect the Hindu religion, and started the news broadcast. But Sanskrit is not a language that needs further development.
Some people consider Sanskrit a “dead language” because it isn’t spoken anywhere anymore. There are many important books written in Sanskrit; what is needed is to read them and learn from them. There is no need to further develop the language itself. Had they started a broadcast in the Chepang language instead, at least two Chepangs would have been able to understand national affairs. Who are we trying to educate with this Sanskrit broadcast?
You’ve started defining the “Khas” as janjati, an ethnicity. What is the rationale behind this?
I don’t think any other group in Nepal is as oppressed, poor and marginalized as the Khas. It is the largest ethnic group. The modern Nepali language (Khas Kura), being mixed with many other languages, is very different from the ancient Khas language. Whom do we call janjati if not a group like the Khas, with its own language, its own geographical territory, its own traditions, which does not worship gods and goddesses, and does not employ Bahun priests?
One of the things I am doing in Jumla is to identify the Khas as janjati. Intellectuals such as Dr. Prapannacharya and Pandit Chhabi Lal Pokhrel have started the trend of converting Kirat into janai-wearing Bahuns. The challenge we face today is in preparing the janjati for the future. But people are running after a 200-rupee janai. If this is the situation today, what must have it been like to be a Bahun six centuries ago?
When the nobles of the great Khas empire were told that they were Thakuris and given the janai, they felt honoured. The remaining Khas were told they were Shudras. The janai-wearing Khas started thinking of their own Khas brothers as lower caste. I have gone there to correct this deception by the ancestors.
You have been working in Chaudhabisa, Jumla to test ideas from your book Fatalism and Development. How successful has the experiment been?
Bahuns never said anything progressive. They only spread the falsehood that giving alms to Bahuns would guarantee a place in heaven. If the Bahuns really believed in heaven, they would have been the first to go there. Because of fatalism we became unenterprising. Bahunism constrained people’s talents. And no such constrained group lost as much as the Khas did.
Therefore it became very difficult for the Khas to rise again. I had initially thought about going to the east after I wrote Fatalism and Development. But there’s already a stirring among the Kirat there. So I headed to the Khas region. Yogi Naraharinath is also a Khas. He goes around as a Bahun. But he hasn’t said the things that I have said about the Khas. Yogi Naraharinath too has the weakness of seeing things through the lens of Hindu caste hierarchy.
Naraharinath has considered the decline of the Khas only in a political context, not from the point of view of history. I have looked at why the Khas have been kept underfoot from the point of view of society, economy and culture. Until the Khas themselves realize that they need to rise up, there’s no hope for Nepal’s future, not on your life. Instead, Nepal will suffer from the politics of ethnic identity. My intentions are not communalistic – they are to establish the Khas as a janjati group.
Recently, there’s been a big controversy over the issue of beef-eating. What do you think?
It’s a non-issue. Padma Ratna Tuladhar’s initial stance and subsequent apology are both political statements. The truth is that Nepal has been a beef-eating nation since ancient times. To this day we see people eating beef – they do. It is not as though we don’t have the tradition of slaughtering cows. Only when Nepal became a Hindu kingdom did cow slaughter become a punishable crime, and the practice was pushed underground.
Cow slaughtering went underground just like politics during the Rana regime or the proponents of multiparty politics under the Panchayat regime. This is not really about cows, it’s about targeting Padma Ratna for talking about this, for communal reasons.
Meanwhile people tired of eating beef clandestinely have also started making trouble. There are reports of cow-slaughter in Syangja and Dolakha; these people were not incited by Padma Ratna’s speech, they’ve always been eating beef. It’s just an excuse to pick a fight. If it were not the issue of cow slaughter, it would have been something else.
Yogi Naraharinath has made a very big issue out of the incidents of cow slaughter. How do you view this?
I would not have made such a big deal of it. To make such a big fuss about anything is to incite riot. Such riots can take a violent turn. One should engage with the long term. One should not be invested in such fickle issues.
What advice would you give to the Bahun youth?
I tell the sons of purohits – the older generation will not change. So instead of collecting alms, learn to live off your own hard work and enterprise. Rather than reciting the purana and lying to people by telling them, “Give us alms, you will fly to heaven”, engage in productive work.
You’ve repeatedly asserted that the Shah Kings are of Magar stock. What evidence is there for this?
The assertion that the king who unified Nepal must have been a Kshatriya was made by ignorant Bahuns. A king has to defend his kingdom, no matter what his title is. I look into the history of development; I am not interested in the history of rulers and the changing dynamics of their power.
Among our kings’ ancestors there were individuals named “Micha” and “Khhancha”. People have taken these to be Muslim names. But in the Magar language, “micha” means “eldest” and “khhancha” means “youngest”. With Muslim influence names such as “Singh” and “Khan” appeared. If indeed the ancestors of our kings had fled here from Chittorgarh, why would a Hindustani Rajput have to call his sons “eldest” (micha) and “youngest” (khhancha)? Prithvi Narayan Shah’s maternal uncle, Digbandhan Sen, was a Magar. His mother was also a Magar.
There are three main Devi temples in Nepal – Lasarga Devi in Palpa, and Gorakhkali and Manakamana in Gorkha. Only Magar priests can officiate at these temples. In fact, sacrificing pigs and offering liquor are common in Palpa’s Lasarga Devi. Now they sacrifice boars instead of pigs.
We are given lame assertions regarding the notion of people coming to Nepal and becoming kings. Would someone who’s fled their kingdom be told by the locals “Oh, you’re here! Be our king”? There’s no evidence anywhere that they defeated the existing rulers. That’s why I’ve said that the ancestors of our kings are Magars. I have not said anything new.
This interview, originally published in Jana Aasthaa, appeared in the Annapurna Post on 18 January 2014.