Caste, Class, and Culture: Changing Bahun and Dalit Identities in Nepal

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Social & Cultural Anthropology


Nepal, like India, has traditionally been a caste society, with Bahuns (Brahmans) at the top, Chhetris (Kshatriyas) second, and Dalits (ex-Untouchables) at the bottom. Groups that used to be known as tribes and are now called Janajatis (the groups most commonly recruited to the Gurkha regiments) were slotted into the middle of the hierarchy. Between 1854 and 1951 this caste hierarchy was regulated by law and enforced in an authoritarian way by the state.

In India, Dalits have, since 1947, benefited from positive discrimination in education and government employment. In Nepal there were till recently no such provisions. Comparing different groups in the country, Nepali Dalits today have the lowest life expectancy, the highest rates of illiteracy, the worst job prospects, the lowest incomes and wealth, and the worst rates of achievement in education. Of all groups of any size they are most disadvantaged and the most discriminated against. Bahuns, by contrast, do extremely well in education, have higher levels of educational attainment, and obtain more elite and professional jobs than any other group. They also provide the bulk of the political elite. Neither Dalits nor Bahuns have been studied as much they should have, given their importance in Nepali society, and this study aims to fill this gap.

The political situation in Nepal is in flux. The Constituent Assembly, elected in April 2008 on the most inclusive franchise ever used in Nepal (surpassing even India's measures to ensure representation for marginal groups), failed ignominiously to produce a constitution, even after four years and four extensions of time, in May 2012. The Supreme Court refused to prolong the Assembly, leaving Nepal with a caretaker Prime Minister, no parliament, and an uncertain future. The key issue, over which the constitution-writing faltered, was that of ethnicity. In this context, it is essential to understand from the bottom up, the new process of ethnic identity formation among Bahuns and Dalits - a reaction to the much longer-standing and politically more assertive ethnicity formation among ex-tribal Janajati groups.

This project aims to examine in detail exactly how the patterns of disadvantage and exclusion, on the one hand, and achievement and success, on the other, are produced and reproduced. It will do that by focusing on six neighbouring villages in west central Nepal where the two largest population groups are Bahuns and Dalits. Field research will be carried out for a year in these villages and in their migration satellites in the Tarai (the Gangetic strip of south Nepal abutting India), in urban centres, and in India. A combination of participant observation and a detailed household survey will reveal changing attitudes to education, employment, and migration. The two next-biggest local ethnic groups, the Chhetris and Gurungs, who rank in between Bahuns and Dalits in the traditional caste hierarchy, will be included in the quantitative part of the study in order to provide controls for the main Dalit-Bahun comparison.

By producing an empirically sound, ethnographically sensitive, and quantitatively sophisticated study of the social history and migration of these two key Nepali groups, one of which is the most significant disadvantaged caste bloc, the research will also have considerable potential policy impact in Nepal. Both the PI and CI have long and wide experience of research in Nepal; in addition, the CI has considerable experience of the Nepali policy sphere and all the necessary contacts to ensure that the research has the impacts that it merits. The timing of research, coming as it does during the ongoing peace process and while disadvantage and exclusion are still very much part of the political debate, is appropriate and indeed advantageous. Two important local agencies, DFID Nepal and the Nepal Government's Ministry of Education, have expressed interest in the research findings.

Planned Impact

Issues of inequality and exclusion are not only high on the agenda of development NGOs and INGOs, they are central to the politics of Nepal. The country is still grappling with the aftermath of a decade-long civil war (1996-2006). The Maoists were 'brought back into the mainstream' of politics with the undertaking to restructure the state by means of a new constitution. That constitution has still to be agreed, but there is nonetheless a widespread consensus that the Nepal of the future must be more inclusive and more egalitarian. In this context, informed data on processes of advantage and disadvantage, especially as they relate to Bahuns and Dalits, will be of great policy relevance.

Non-academic users of this research will include:

1. Civil society in Nepal. There is a vibrant public sphere and often fierce debate, both in news media in Nepal and in cyberspace, which is actively accessed by the millions of Nepalis in diaspora as well as those living in Nepal. We would hope to introduce some new material evidence, new ideas, and a new angle into debates about tackling disadvantage. In order to achieve impact in this sphere we will seek to place summary articles in the Nepali media, both in Nepali and in English.

2. International aid agencies. Many agencies have sought to have an impact on levels of poverty and exclusion in Nepal. Sophisticated sociological data on disadvantage and migration will be of great interest to them. Some INGOs have faced criticism for using simplistic models of ethnic disadvantage, and this study will provide ethnographically based and grounded quantitative material on the interaction of caste/ethnicity and class. DfID's in-country political officer has expressed interest in and support for the project.

3. Nepal Government Ministries, such as the National Planning Commission, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Ministry of Finance, Department of Labour, and the Ministry of Local Development. Many of these ministries have responsibilities for planning and/or overseeing new positive discrimination (reservation) policies. Grounded material relevant to formulating such policies can only improve the effectiveness of their delivery. In order to disseminate the findings both to government ministries and to international development agencies, as well as to selected members of civil society, we will hold two workshops (one each in Kathmandu and Pokhara).

4. The general public, charities operating in Nepal, tourists, undergraduate and school students interested in Nepal and South Asia. We will produce a non-academic account of the history and current life of the six target villages that will be accessible to a general educated audience, including life histories of selected informants, from all backgrounds, showing the diversity of outcomes.

5. Local communities. The villages being studied will benefit from a more systematic collective knowledge about their own members' histories and destinations. We will hold regular meetings with a local steering group throughout the project. There will be focus group meetings towards the end of the project to feed back conclusions. We will also publish articles in Nepali in local newspapers.

6. Educational NGOs in South Asia. Last, but not least, the study will contribute to research on educational transformation across South Asia. Along with government organizations, educational Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in South Asia, particularly those dedicated to uplifting the status of Dalits, should benefit from the research findings. We will disseminate our findings to selected organizations in South Asia through articles and policy briefs.


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Chaudhary A (2023) The Menstrual Impurity of Women and Girls: Chhaupadi Practice and Resistance in Asian Journal of Population Sciences

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Gellner D (2019) Masters of hybridity: how activists reconstructed Nepali society in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

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Gellner, D.N. (2016) The Idea of Nepal

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Gellner, D.N. (2019) Nepali Dalits in Transition

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Gellner, D.N. (2019) Introduction: Nepali Dalits in Transition in Contributions to Nepalese Studies

Description Detailed data was collected on 540 households and 1,185 individuals over the age of 13. Using this data we can ask questions about skills, livelihoods, migration, landholding, changing educational aspirations and achievements, class position, attitudes to caste purity rules, preferences for particular song types or genres of cinema, and much more. In particular, we are in a position to ask detailed and searching questions about the relationship between caste and class.
The key findings are:
(a) there has been economic improvement to varied extents across all groups under study, with only a few households worse off in their own estimation;
(b) the assumption of perfect caste-class correlation is not warranted, but nonetheless caste still has a considerable influence on class position;
(c) there is class differentiation within every caste;
(d) there is some support for the idea that different castes have different forms of cultural capital and some are able to make use of this in their traditional occupation;
(e) access to literacy means that the so-called upper castes have had a headstart in education, but others are catching up, at least in terms of literacy;
(f) cultural traits are at the same time transferable and all Nepalis now value education highly;
(g) social capital, i.e. strong social networks, help, to some extent, to reproduce class and status;
(h) migration is inflected by caste and education;
(i) differences between groups in relation to tastes and participation in cultural fields are very subtle and there are no major class- or caste-based cultural divides, at least in this milieu (whatever may be the case elsewhere in South Asia);
(j) unsurprisingly, cultural differences between generations are substantial.
In addition to the quantitative data, a large number of observations and formal and informal interviews were collected by all three main researchers (PI Gellner, Co-I Adhikari, and RA Arjun BK).
The project aimed to examine whether there were strong cultural differences between Dalits (ex-Untouchables) and others. These are relatively less marked than might have been expected. The study documented the extent to which old discriminatory practices were on the wane, but also revealed that there is still a considerable way to go before Dalits are completely accepted as full and equal members of the local society.
Our study has for the first time in Nepal and South Asia tested culturally adapted instruments to survey cultural tastes; this could be adapted for large-scale national surveys. We also trained a group about 40 'barefoot' social researchers from local communities and demonstrated that they could be effective in gathering survey data of this sort.
Exploitation Route We hope that some of our findings will be used, in partnership with the Samata Foundation, to increase awareness of Dalit disadvantage. The project that sought to make this happen, 'Tackling Dalit Structural Disadvantage through Nepal's Educational Curriculum', is described under impacts.
In November 2019 we were awarded another grant under the GCRF-funded British Academy scheme, Heritage, Dignity and Violence. This 2-year project, 'The Dalit Search for Dignity: State, Society, and Mobilization from Below in Far West Nepal' will take forward both the findings and the methods of the 'Caste, Class, and Culture' project and apply them in the Far West of Nepal, the area where, arguably, analysis of Dalit disadvantage and the pros and cons of using the Dalit label to mobilize against is most needed. Research collaboration with both Samata and with RSDC will continue.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description In order to provide a direct public benefit in the local area where the research was carried out, we composed, three local chronicles or vamshavalis relating to the three main and sizeable Dalit castes in the locality. The community themselves put a request and each of them formed a publication committee to collaborate with us in the writing and validation of information and in taking charge of the publication, themselves as a publisher. These were based on our research and contained family trees of the households covered, as well as historical, and cultural and contemporary socio-economic information. A small number of copies were printed and bound and handed over to community representatives at a formal ceremony on 15th December, 2017. These local leaders provided feedback and checking and the chronicles were printed as books in 2018. A second impactful activity occurred through a small follow-up project in 2018: 'Tackling Dalit Structural Disadvantage through Nepal's Educational Curriculum'. The research aimed to establish how Dalit (ex-Untouchable) issues are handled in the school curriculum in Nepal. We piloted and proposed new lessons working together with schools (three), educationalists, Dalit activists, and policymakers (one local government, and the central curriculum body). As a result, new ways forward for the national and local curriculums have been proposed. The Samata Foundation, partner NGO, is considering scaling up research of this nature, as a result of enhanced capability. Two policy workshops were held, one in Lumle, near Pokhara, the other in Kathmandu. Key stakeholders attended from local and national government and the government's Curriculum Development Centre.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Consultancy partnership with RSDC 
Organisation Rural Self-Reliance Development Centre, Nepal
Country Nepal 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution xxx
Collaborator Contribution xxx
Impact None so far
Start Year 2014
Description Tackling Dalit Structural Disadvantage through Nepal's Educational Curriculum 
Organisation Samata Foundation
Country Nepal 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution We aim to embed the findings on Dalit disadvantage in the educational curriculum. We will provide the academic research and legitimacy to the process of introducing the politically sensitive issue of Dalit exclusion into school lessons.
Collaborator Contribution The Samata Foundation is the leading research NGO specializing in Dalit issues in Nepal. Working together with them and with educational institutions in Nepal, Krishna Adhikari will lead an attempt to devise lessons that sensitively introduce the question of structural inequality into the school curriculum.
Impact Too early to report outcomes this year.
Start Year 2018
Description Consultation with social scientists in Pokhara 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Very lively discussion of pilot questionnaire on cultural consumption.

Pokhara-based social scientists given new ideas for their own research
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014