Alan Macfarlane writes about the crisis in Nepal

  • Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernisation by Dor Bahadur Bista
    Longman, Madras

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.’

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