-C. K. Lal
Thanks to donors and INGOs, social research has become a kind of cottage industry for intellectuals aspiring to encash their knowledge. A positive fallout of this trend is that so-far unfashionable topics are taken up for in-depth studies. Paychecks are attractive enough to lure Brahmins into studying Dalits.
Hari Bansh Jha has prepared a Research Report titled Terai Dalits: A Case Study of Selected VDCs of Saptari District of Nepal for the INGO ActionAid. It's an attractively produced thin volume of about thirty pages. Based primarily on field study, it outlines several dalit groups of Saptari and gives their demographic characteristics, with an emphasis on health, education and occupation.
Given the social oppression and exploitation that the dalits have been historically subjected to, it's hardly surprising that they are found to be lagging in education-with only 18% literacy, as against 48% among non-dalits. Consequently, 43% depend upon traditional faith healers (Dhamis). Their average land holding in the study area is four kathas-about thirty-six meters wide and thirty-seven meters long-hardly enough to feed a family even for a month. Most dalits then have to earn day-wages for sheer survival but such opportunities aren't always available where they live. Many of them go as far away as Haryana and Punjab in India to earn a livelihood.
These findings are bleak, but not shocking, because the lot of dalits has not been any better in Hindu society. Treated as pariahs and exploited as animals, dalits were never considered human by the Hindu establishment. One of them even advocated that molten lead be poured in the ear of a Shudra caught hearing the holy Vedas.
The salvation for Shudras, or dalits, lies in the secular realm and has to be facilitated by the state and the community organizations. More educational opportunities, better health services, assistance in self-employment through small loans, modern training in traditional occupations and awakening by political mobilization are some of the methods that have worked well in neighboring India, and which can be easily replicated in Nepal, at least in the tarai.
Jha's study claims that it's first of its kind about dalits in Nepal. Let's hope that more detailed studies follow it.
Part of the credit for the compilation of papers on Tharus in Nepal: Tharu and Tarai Neighbors also goes to Jha. So says Harold O. Skar, editor of this volume, in the introductory chapter of the book, where he explains that Kurt W. Mayer's article in a local periodical criticizing books on the tarai by Jha and Dr. Ram Dayal Rakesh prompted him to suggest a conference by scholars then working on ethnic tarai questions.
Historian Baburam Acharya was perhaps the first to raise questions about the origins of Tharus in an article suitably titled Tharujati ko mulaghar kaha? It was first published in B. S. 2010 (1953-1954). This article was later reproduced in Ancient Nepal, Number 21, October 1972. Acharya's main assertion was that Tharus were Kirat-language speaking Mongols whose ancestors arrived from trans-Himalayan North through the valley of Brahmputra.
Following the reproduction of Acharya's article, Rishikeshavraj Regmi published a well-researched description of Tharus of Koshi. Titled Koshika Tharusamudaya ra tinko paribartanshil sanskriti (Tharu community of Koshi and their dynamic culture) it appeared in Number 23 of the same journal in April 1973. This article portrays its subjects in fair detail, and with sympathy. Dor Bahadur Bista's celebrated People of Nepal also has a useful chapter on Tharus, and its role in making a much larger audience familiar with this important community of Nepal cannot be overlooked. All these attempts are of Nepalis trying to understand one of their own, albeit neglected, brethren.
Nepal: Tharu and Tarai Neighbours, on the other hand, contains contributions almost entirely from non-Nepalis, with the sole exception of Dr. Ganesh Man Gurung of Tribhuvan University. Perhaps the sponsors of this conference held in Oslo chose him because he had been a Nepali Director of a Norwegian project for four years.
The first article of part one of the book is by S. K. Srivastava and contains his impression from his field study days in the Nainital district of Uttar Pradesh in India. He outlines the caste mobility of certain Tharu groups and shows how the mainstreaming of tribal groups is taking place in what may be loosely termed, after M. N. Srinivas, the process of Sanskritization, or what many scholars prefer to call Brahmanization. Srivastava advocates sensitivity in dealing with tribal groups and calls for a better understanding of their cultural dynamics. This entire collection should have been an attempt in that direction.
It tries, but with mixed results. In the second article, Katherine N. Rankine labors hard to link the movement for the eradication of bonded labor-kamaiya-with what she calls a "discourse of freedom." Her tone appears sympathetic to the system of kamaiyas. Similarly, the third article is not very critical of forced free labor-begari. The article on BASE in Dang by one Sigrun Eide ědegard is pure promotional rhetoric. Who is the mysterious Madam, the Danish 'advisor'? She appears to be the godmother of BASE. No wonder her critics blame her for promoting conversion to Christianity. The short paper on migration, politics and deforestation by Dr. Ganesh Man Gurung will be interesting to those who prefer 'facts' over opinions.
In the second part of the book, Kurt W. Mayer and Pamela Deuel try to fashion an independent identity for the Tharus based primarily on their house forms. The best one can say about the paper is that its authors need to be complemented for their travels and Mr. Mayer is a good photographer, in addition to being an architect.
Dr. Arjun Guneratne's case study about the process of modernization among the Tharus of Chitwan is good descriptive text-book material for the uninitiated, but the serious students of the subject may find that it lacks original thinking, in-depth analysis and useful insight. Harald O. Skar narrates the process of self-ascription in becoming a Rana Tharu-knowledgeable and readable stuff, despite the overuse of jargon. Rana Tharus get some more attention as Tove C. Kittelsen and Dr. G. M. Gurung study their marriage customs. The last paper by Christian McDonaugh on aspects of social change over a period (1980-1993) shows the direction Tharus seem to be headed. Despite the tittle, there is not much about the neighbors of Tharus, except a paper on Santals/Satars of Jhapa by Anne Buggeland in chapter six of part one of the volume.
It may seem to be sheer recklessness-trying to review a collection of papers in one article. Each one of the contributions in the volume deserves individual attention, but that kind of a critique is best left to academicians and their scholarly journals. For the general reader of a daily newspaper, perhaps it's sufficient to be aware that such a study is available to discuss, denounce, accept, or simply to read for information and pleasure.
Nepal: Tharu and Tarai Neighbours is well produced, as most sponsored publications invariably are. One particular periodical gets mentioned in the volume again and again. That should be indication enough for its readability index. Any Nepali who does not read that venerated publication cover to cover, on a regular basis, will find the book heavy going. The price of the volume is not mentioned, but it must be impressive, since the copy given to review had to be returned!
Both these reviewed volumes, together, show why academicians and professionals alike vie for assignments of sponsored scholarship-it's all gain with very little pain. Conferences in Oslo, excursions to Olangchunggola, reading Himal to understand Nepal, and putting on airs befitting an expert, all courtesy OPM-other peoples' money. If there is perspiration involved, it is solely for the payoff, and not due to any inspiration. Consequently, the results are like plastic flowers: beautiful to look at and feel, but without life, without fragrance.
(CK Lal is a regular columnist and reviewer in the Kathmandu printmedia.)