Vol. 12 No. 9 · 10 May 1990

Alan Macfarlane writes about the crisis in Nepal

3686 words
Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernisation 
by Dor Bahadur Bista.
Longman, Madras
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The current political revolution in Nepal marks a further stage in the rapid integration of that country into the Western capitalist world. From a standing start in 1950, when the Ranas were overthrown and Nepal began to be transformed from a medieval oriental despotism into a modern nation-state, a great deal has been done. Between 1950 and 1980 the cumulative growth in various sectors has been estimated as follows: ‘70 times in power generation, 13 times in irrigation facility, 134 times in school enrolment, 12 times in number of hospital beds’. A literacy rate of 2 per cent in 1951 had been increased to over 40 per cent in the late Eighties. There are now more than a hundred and fifty university campuses. Epidemic disease has been almost eliminated. Infant mortality rates have been halved. Piped water has been brought to most villages. An international airline has been started. Nepal now exports goods worth more than twenty-five million dollars a year. A large tourist industry has been created, with over 300,000 tourists (other than Indians) a year. Kathmandu and other towns have grown remarkably and now have many facilities, including television, computers and many modern goods and services.

Yet these rapid medical, economic and educational changes have not been matched with political development. A patriarchal, ‘partyless democracy’ with an absolute monarchy has continued in place, despite periods of alternative government. As in Eastern Europe and China, the tensions between the competitive individualism and wider aspirations of the population, and the attempt of an élite to control political events, have come to a head. Ten years ago similar outbursts were quelled; now, swelling numbers of the educated, better communications and a growing sense of frustration appear to have gained the day. The population is growing faster, at 2.6 per cent per year, than almost anywhere else in Asia and the use and knowledge of contraception are lower. In 1941 the population was about six million; by the year 2000 it will have quadrupled. People press on land that is usually a thin covering of soil on extremely steep rocky slopes, swept by torrential monsoon rains. The country faces an ecological crisis. In one hundred years, with present trends, the mountains will be stripped of forest and soil, and the population will be forced to live in absolute poverty or migrate elsewhere. A country which once exported grains now has to import them. The majority of the population are year by year growing poorer and worse fed. Whatever their traditional loyalty to the monarchy and nation, they can see and feel that all is not well.

It is a timely moment to consider a forthcoming book by Dor Bahadur Bista. Bista has travelled extensively through Nepal and written the standard Peoples of Nepal (1967). He is a trained anthropologist. He is a member of the Kathmandu élite, with a son who was a Minister of Education. He has been the Nepalese Consul-General in Tibet, a professor at Tribhuvan University, was involved in setting up businesses, and is a member of an old family within the high Chhetri caste. His book is an attempt to distil all that experience into a portrait of his society.

Bista concentrates on the social and cultural factors which lie behind the current Nepalese crisis, locating the root cause of the present problems in the Brahmin-Chhetri minority which dominates Kathmandu and other towns, and in fatalism and caste. The more important is fatalism. This partly arises from the Hindu notion of karma, that one’s fete is written on one’s forehead at birth and there is nothing that can be done to alter it. ‘Under fatalism, responsibility is continually displaced to the outside, typically to the supernatural. There is a constant external focus for the individual. The individual simply does not have control.’ Bista contrasts this with the situation in Western societies and Japan where people have an internalised sense of responsibility. In Nepal, people characteristically blame others. ‘Altruism is suspect. Similarly, one is never obliged to anyone for anything because everything occurs as it should.’

The caste principle, Bista argues, is not intrinsic to Nepal: ‘Nepal’s native Hinduism has not included a belief in caste principles ... only in the last 135 years has the caste system gained any kind of endorsement.’ By now it pervades all parts of the élite, who feel themselves superior to the majority of the population. In particular, it makes the élite identify with the ideals of the Brahmin priests, who abstain from all physical work and depend on the charity of others. This ideal has been secularised and re-directed through education, so that ‘as a career objective in modern Nepal, every Nepali tries to have a jagir, a salaried job where one does not have to work but will receive a pay check at the end of each month.’ In Brahmin belief, the material world is maya, an illusion: therefore ‘there is no dignity in labour. High-caste people ... are accustomed to believing, as well as teaching others to believe, that erudition and ritual are the only important things.’

The hierarchic mentality produces contempt for those below and a sycophantic dependence on those above. One important manifestation of this hierarchical tendency is chakari, originally ‘to wait upon, to serve, or to seek favour from a god’. This was institutionalised in the 19th-century court of the Ranas, which instituted a system whereby potentially overmighty subjects were forced to be constantly visible, and constantly spying on each other. Later, ‘government employees had to perform chakari to ensure job security and in order to be eligible for promotion.’ The system still flourishes behind the façade of modern bureaucracy; and the vast expansion of the salariat, which feeds off foreign aid, merely exacerbates the tendency. ‘Though it will be commonly denied, today chakari remains a solid fact of social life, and is evident at all levels of government.’ It is a way for information to pass informally through the organisation. Endless gossip and back-biting are encouraged as each morning junior officials wait around their seniors, ‘paying court’ and offering small presents; and this, in turn, leads to widespread paranoia, as each person maligns others who he thinks may be gossiping behind his back.

Complementing chakari and flowing from it, but lying on a horizontal rather than vertical social axis, is the other main institution, afno manchhe. There is a strong distinction made between ‘us’, who are trustworthy, loyal, to be helped, and ‘them’, to whom one has no responsibilities, and who deceive and are to be deceived. Afno manchhe, in Bista’s words, ‘is used to designate one’s inner circle of associates – it means “one’s own people” and refers to those who can be approached when need arises’. Almost every activity is influenced by it: the length of time it takes to cash a cheque, whether or not one receives a permit, the treatment one receives in hospital, a child’s success at school. Sometimes it is institutionalised in equivalents of Western Masonic-type associations, but usually it is just a circle of mutually-supportive associates, whose ties cut across and through the supposed impersonality of bureaucracy.

The workings of a combination of fatalism, hierarchy, chakari and afno manchhe are examined in studies of education, politics and government, and foreign aid. As we have noted, education is a path to non-manual jobs which are secure and work-free. In the burgeoning bureaucratic and government system, ‘the practice of chakari is so ingrained in the modern situation that any attempt to bypass it or eliminate it is treated as an act of social deviance.’ In all government ministries there is a ritualised use of ‘meetings’ and ‘conferences’ and ‘seminars’ to cover over the fact that nothing much is being done – just a lot of talking. A fear of decision-making and of taking responsibility is central.

As the level of responsibility increases within the administration, the fewer the decisions actually made. Making decisions can be a risky business ... In a fatalistic society people are not thrown out for not making decisions but for making bad decisions ... People do not really expect things to happen ... But doing something means taking responsibility for it.

Anyone who has tried to get anything done in Nepal will know how true this is. Requests are passed from place to place and years may pass before a simple decision, which has been agreed in principle, can be implemented.

Fatalism and hierarchy also influence the use of foreign aid. First, they heighten the sense of powerlessness and dependency which aid on such a huge scale is in any case likely to instil. Foreign-aid donors ‘are seen as father surrogates; the only active agent of development becomes the foreign party.’ The infatuation with speculative, abstract, non-practical and ritualistic thought deadens action. Those who go abroad and see alternative systems are soon defeated by the fatalistic attitude when they return. Often they leave the country; those who remain ‘become cynics and adapt to chakari and afno manchhe culture’.

With this corrupt and corrupting system there is a massive squandering of resources. The many dangers of foreign aid, the political motives of donors, the overpaid and ethnocentric advisers, the high degree to which aid is ‘tied’, the absence of any involvement or consultation with those for whom the aid is supposedly designed, are compounded by the administrative system through which the development effort is filtered. Development is often unco-ordinated and ill-planned, reflecting the random interests of donors and local patronage networks.

It is a brave man who reveals these things: it is an even braver one who honestly tries to explain the source which he believes is poisoning a potentially viable development. Bista locates two main causes, which are again interconnected. In his view, the root cause of fatalism and hierarchy is ‘Bahunism’ or Brahminism. ‘Bahunism’ is a cultural configuration combining caste and fatalism. Bista provides a survey of Nepalese history from ancient times, showing the gradual spread of Brahminic values. Caste principles began to be seriously introduced into Nepal in the 14th century, and were strengthened by Jung Bahadur Rana in the 19th. An overview of caste principles in each region of Nepal is also provided. Various features of priestly Brahminism are stressed: its dislike of manual labour, its hierarchical view of the world, its dependence on ritual and magic as opposed to practical behaviour. One needs to add the adjective ‘priestly’, because Bista is not talking about the majority of Brahmins who do not practise as Brahmins and who work alongside the other ethnic groups in apparent harmony. It is a small stratum, which also includes higher-class Chhetris and some Shreshta Newars and Thakuris, of whom he is writing.

The way children are brought up within such ‘Bahun’ households contributes to the fatalistic and hierarchical attitudes. There is very little discipline; long breast-feeding on demand and an absence of parental control or strong standards lead, he believes, to the absence of an internalised morality. ‘There is no moral pressure or guilt feeling regarding immoral acts, because there is little sense of morality instilled in children: a sense of social responsibility is simply not internalised and social sanctions are only effective in an external form.’ Fear alone leads to good behaviour, and fear can be mitigated by building up a network of friends, and a dependency on outside forces. Bahuns grow to adulthood ‘self-righteous but without an ability to be self-critical’.

Much of this picture of relaxed child-rearing applies to most ethnic groups in Nepal. What differentiates Bahuns is their attitude to women. ‘Women in Nepal generally have equal status except among Bahun-Thakuri and some middle and upper-level Chhetri.’ Gurung women, for instance, control their husband’s purse, are consulted on all major decisions, are not considered inferior or impure, and work at similar jobs to men: none of this is true of the Bahun culture. In Brahmin culture, whether in the hills or towns, women are part of the hierarchical system, impure and inferior, given no control of money, often badly beaten, often carrying huge loads while their husbands walk ahead of them carrying little. This attitude to women affects the family at a particular point. High-caste sons, who have formed a deep bond with their mothers, are suddenly taken from them and taught to treat them as polluting and inferior. A Bahun father, on the other hand, is an autocrat whose power remains very strong throughout a son’s life. A son thus learns both dependency and autocracy in his family and applies this to the world outside.

During the last hundred and fifty years, this small group has taken control of Nepal politically and bureaucratically, submerging the majority whose ethics and attitudes are much closer to the Protestant values of hard work, honesty, equality and internalised conscience which Bista clearly admires.

An important side-effect of Bahunism is on the relations between individual and group. Bista argues that under the pressure of Western models, ‘traditional group orientation’ is being replaced by ‘individualism’. But it is not the individualism which De Tocqueville perceived in America – namely, ‘a mature and calm feeling, which disposed each member of the community to sever himself from his family and his friends – but rather the earlier, more primitive form, which De Tocqueville calls ‘egotism’, ‘a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and to prefer himself to everything in the world’. This egotism is just about the worst possible solution to the problem of individual-group relations, leading to a mild version of the Hobbesian war of all against all. Although there is a residual sense of the local community and the family, ‘the public, the state, the nation are all abstract concepts’ which mean little to most people.

One effect of this is visible in the corruption and laziness of those in positions of responsibility, whose main goal is to promote their private and sectional interests. Another is in the field of development. Bista says that despite the rhetoric of ‘grass-roots development’, ‘back to the village’, ‘community participation’, the vast majority of ‘development’ projects are undertaken without consultation with local communities and with little involvement on their part. Bridges, roads, dams, health posts do get built, but often with serious disadvantages to local communities, who see them as ‘the whimsies of the foreign project directors’. When the project has been completed, ‘people lack any sense of either pride or of possession, as they would towards things they build through their own efforts.’

Bista argues that ‘locally-initiated projects, when funded by the central authorities, have the greatest chances of success.’ This is certainly true. But the absence of a sense of the ‘public good’, in itself an unusual, abstract idea which took many centuries to develop in the West, goes even deeper than this. The idea of ‘citizenship’, of doing a job for the good of an association larger than the family, is little developed throughout Nepal. Thus in the villages, the development initiatives fail as the individuals employed to carry them out take their salary to be an entitlement to do the minimum amount of work. The tree nursery is allowed to fade away; the water bailiffs fail to inspect the water pipe and it leaks badly; the health workers at the local health post sell off the best medicine privately and refuse to visit sick villages without large payments; the schoolmasters appropriate school funds and absent themselves frequently. It is almost as if the payment of a salary automatically deadens any sense of public responsibility.

Examples from non-Bahun ethnic villages suggest one type of criticism that could be made of Bista’s explanation. He tends to idealise non-Brahmin groups. He does this for two main reasons. First, he uses them as a stick with which to beat the Bahuns, a way of pointing up the insidious and powerful, but ultimately ‘un-Nepali’ character of their culture. The majority of the population are not hierarchical. Their villages are ‘efficiently productive and harmonious’ social groups. Secondly, Bista believes that the only real hope for Nepal lies in giving their culture priority over the recently imported Hindi culture of priestly Brahminism. ‘Among the ethnic peoples, then, are located some very significant human and cultural resources. These people are hard-working, persevering and long suffering, co-operate well and work with a dedication towards collective well-being, and have the qualities necessary to be successful merchants.’ But, Bista argues, they are belittled, ignored and are in the process of being destroyed by the spreading Bahun culture.

As a result, everyone is now aware of the corruption, laziness and inefficiency that pervades most of the salariat. There is a widespread cynicism and a lack of any models for hard-working and public-spirited activities. Each individual feels disinclined to make marginal sacrifices of his own short-term good for the sake of the long-term general good when he thinks that no one else is making any. If an individual were to show signs of deviant altruism, his family and friends would soon put great pressure on him to desist.

The idea of the spread of egotistic values is a little over-simple. There are very few agricultural peasantries anywhere with much idea of the public good. On the other hand, Bista is right to say that if the élite had, by some extraordinary accident, shown more ‘rational-bureaucratic-protestant’ character, the response at village level would have been quite other. One can see this from the enormous difference between the self-disciplined, hard-working, altruistic, co-operative behaviour of Gurungs in the British Army and their behaviour when they are working in government employment in Nepal, where they are listless, unmotivated, and as prone to pursue their self-interest as the most acquisitive Brahmin or Chhetri. It would be hard to disagree with Bista’s argument that the tendencies of Brahmin-Chhetri culture and those of the mongoloid cultures of Nepal are very different, and that the balance is swinging towards the former.

In assessing the degree of success of Bista’s analysis it is important to distinguish three levels of problem. In order to understand Nepal’s predicament one cannot ignore the gross geographical and demographic facts. Scarce, land-locked resources pressed on by a rapidly growing population are bound to make the task of development difficult. This is one type of explanation, a necessary but not sufficient one. Ecology and demography, for instance, do not explain why many aid schemes fail, and bureaucracy is so clogged. But cultural explanations do not, in themselves, account for the shrinking of the forests and the soil erosion. Again, Bista is right to say that it is not enough to blame outside forces, international capitalism, neo-colonialism, Indian imperialism or whatever, for all of Nepal’s ills. They do not explain the waste and inefficiency in local health posts or aid projects. But they do help to explain why Nepalese manufacturers have been so unsuccessful, why hill agriculture is withering, why Nepal is a minor dumping-ground for medical drugs, drinks and tourists. It is an incomplete explanation, which does not take the international politico-economic context of Nepal into account.

Thirdly, there are the social and cultural factors – ignored until Bista was prepared to state them. Many of his observations are tacitly accepted, but as with the Emperor’s new clothes, no one has dared to say them out loud. They help to explain a good deal, but as we have just seen, they don’t explain everything. Furthermore, it is not clear how much of the phenomenon of fatalism/hierarchy is due to Brahminism. It is true that, as the only Hindu kingdom in the world, Nepal is to an exceptional degree dominated now by a Brahmin-Chhetri élite and that their values are as Bista describes them. The problem is that anyone familiar with other developing societies, whether in Africa or Asia or Latin America, will recognise many identical features. Much of the lack of Western ‘rationality’ appears to be an integral feature of such societies. In particular, anyone familiar with India from the pages of Kipling, Paul Scott, V.S. Naipaul or Varindra Vittachi will recognise a good deal of Bista’s world. We might expand Bista’s argument to say that certain structural features of a society with little experience of competitive, individualistic capitalism, suddenly thrown into such a capitalist world, have been combined with pressures which are more generally Indian, rather than specifically priestly Brahmin. The thesis would then probably be nearer the truth. Much of the educational, political and bureaucratic system of Nepal is modelled on India, and it has inherited the defects, as well as a few of the merits, of that land. Nepal is a periphery of a periphery in a different sense from the usual economic one.

What Bista does show, and this is his major argument against fatalism, is that it need not be so. If present trends continue, Nepal will grow more and more impoverished and dependent on foreign aid. But there is nothing inevitable about this. Miracles have happened before, and in particular in cultures not dissimilar to Nepal. In the 1950s, most professional commentators were still predicting that Japan would never recover, that it was doomed to poverty and insignificance, and so on. Similarly no one could have predicted the success of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand. Current prophecies of Nepal’s imminent collapse could prove equally wrong in this rapidly changing world. The sudden demise of international Communism and the Cold War; the new scientific discoveries which may make it possible properly to harness Nepal’s one immense natural resource, hydroelectric power; new international communications which suddenly open up Europe and the Far East to Nepalese products, avoiding the Indian stranglehold – all these may have unforseeable consequences. Yet they are unlikely to produce a change for the better unless those who decide Nepal’s future, both insiders and outsiders, are prepared to take seriously the grave defects of present developments and try to change course. It will be tempting to dismiss Bista’s work, even though he cannot be swept aside as an ignorant outsider, or as the jealous member of an inferior caste. But it is important that his arguments be heard.

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Vol. 12 No. 15 · 16 August 1990

I would like to comment on Alan Macfarlane’s recent piece on Nepal (LRB, 10 May). It is remarkable that, in referring to Dor Bahadur Bista’s study of Fatalism and Development in Nepal, Macfarlane so signally fails to consider the significance of the recent dramatic developments in Nepalese politics for Bista’s esis that Nepal’s lack of development is due largely to the pervasive influence of ‘Bahunism’, a cultural configuration combining caste and fatalism. During the last few months, the political pressures which have been clearly building up in Nepal for over a decade have finally burst through the carapace of the monolithic ‘partyless panchayat democracy’ to challenge the existing political order. But the democracy movement in Nepal is not, as Macfarlane appears to imply, simply a ‘miracle’ triggered by events in Eastern Europe or China; nor does the political transformation now taking place simply mark ‘a further stage in the rapid integration of Nepal into the Western capitalist world’. The changes are the outcome of dynamic and identifiable social forces within Nepal that require a more systematic analysis than is provided by Bista’s vision of fatalism as a kind of ‘curse’, or by Macfarlane’s image of the tribulations of a traditional society ‘with little experience of competitive, individualistic capitalism, suddenly thrown into such a capitalist world’.

The problem with essentially conservative theories of ‘stagnation’ is that they cannot account for change when it becomes undeniable – except as ‘miracles’ generated by external events. But the relationship between economics, politics and ideology (cultural configurations), in Nepal as elsewhere, is a dynamic one, and one full of potential for dramatic change.

What is striking about the democracy movement is that those active within it include, notably, members of those ‘high caste’ groups whose fatalistic ‘Bahunism’ Bista sees as so pervasive that it undermines Nepal’s prospects for ‘modernisation’. If ‘fatalism’ and ‘caste’ undeniably constitute important elements of the political ideology of the ruling classes in Nepal, it is now evident that they are unable to prevent other ideologies from gaining ground. But to understand precisely why the language of democracy and change has become increasingly powerful, and how the political transformations now taking place have become possible, it is necessary to consider the economic and social developments that have been taking place in Nepal over the last fifty years, for it is those developments that have created new contradictions and conflicts, and the potential for further change. It is precisely Nepal’s development (with all its problems and crises) that has given birth to those social forces which currently take the form of the democracy movement.

David Seddon
University of East Anglia

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