The Fallout of Deviant Anthropology

Reconsidering a British scholar's quarter-century-old work on caste-ethnic relations in east Nepal, a Nepali social scientist finds reason to make a case against "biased anthropology".

Western scholars have always been fascinated with South Asian anthropology. During the Raj, when this branch of study was developed as an offshoot of British colonial rule with "utilitarian purposes", it was limited to understanding the history and culture of the selected so-called "primitive peoples" such as the Onge, Naga, Khasi, Miri, Kachin, Lakher, Swat Pathan and Kandyan Sinhala. However, with the end of British rule, Western scholars were greatly restricted in terms of access to areas of research, particularly in India and Pakistan.

Even as the decolonised Subcontinent closed up to anthropological research, however, never-colonised Nepal, with its incredible diversity of caste and ethnic groups, opened up to welcome social scientists of various disciplines. Picking up where British residents and representatives like Hamilton, Kirkpatrick, and Hodgson had left off, Western ethnographers began conducting detailed studies of Nepal´s many population groups.

Four decades of anthropological research has left a considerable amount of literature on Nepal, and more is being generated every year. There has been an academic free-for-all as unbelieving scholars found the subject of their research, hill tribes, largely untouched by modernisation. What resulted was anthropology both good and bad.

With few Nepalis engaged in the discipline, it can be said that the anthropological portrayal of the "real Nepal" has been a project of Western social scientists. What they have had to say has by and large been accepted with little questioning (in the English language, for this research is largely unavailable to the native language-speaking subjects themselves).

A serious matter rarely raised is the ethics of anthropological practice. Bound as they are to their own cultural blinders and career-driven as many academics tend to be—in pursuit of the all-important tenure track—Western anthropologists may find it difficult to make ethical decisions once actually in the field. A critical awareness of the inconsistencies and complexities of one´s own system seems a prerequisite to the daring next step of making judgements about another´s. The honest social scientist must, first and foremost, protect and honour the persons which are the subjects of his/her necessarily intrusive study. All too often, research can jeopardise the very community which has helped advance the career of the scholar.

By picking up for critical review research done 25 years ago by one social scientist, I seek to highlight a problem that is quite widespread. My intention, by focusing on one study, is to caution those who would accept unquestioningly all Western anthropological works which seek to pass judgement on one community or the other.

Of the many works published by foreign anthropologists on Nepal, Lionel Caplan´s Land and Social Change in East Nepal (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970) is one of the most widely read. No article or book is complete without a reference to this study and no scholarly discourse can proceed without "alluding to it. But this very frequency of citation raises the question: why is the book so popular among scholars of various disciplines working in Nepal?

Lionel Caplan conducted his field work in Nepal in 1964-65 in Ilam, one of the hill districts of Eastern Nepal, and the work was part of his dissertation research submitted to the School of Oriental and African Stud-ies, University of London. The book, based on 12 months of field study, focuses on Limbu culture, the kipat system of land tenure, and Limbu relationships with high caste Hindu groups, particularly Bahuns (Nepal´s hill Brahmins).

Caplan´s main thrust is simply stated: the Limbu, who were the original settlers of the area and who received their state-recognised land right in the form of kipat from the Shah rulers dating from 1774, had their lands gradually "eaten" by the later immigrant Hindu groups, particularly Brahmins, through a process of treachery and other tricky behaviour. The Limbu are characterised as an innocent and naive people, in stark contrast to the Brahmins who are portrayed as cheats or otherwise dishonest in their dealings.

I have no intention of disregarding in its entirety what Caplan has written, for his arguments, assuredly, rest on empirical data. Rather, I want to establish that his truth is at best partial and selective. But, first, more details. Caplan used the case histories of two Brahmin brothers as exemplars of his general model of Brahmin bad faith and cheating.

Selective Scholarship

I had an opportunity to do research in Ilam in 1980-81, and came upon certain details which were not reported by Caplan and developed certain interpretations with which I feel able to challenge Caplan´s general thesis, at the very least to state that the two Brahmin brothers cannot be used genetically to define the archetypal Brahmin in his dealings with the Limbu.

The two brothers, with the surname of Bhattarai and locally known as Kahila and Kanchha, although blood brothers and presented as unified in their motives by Caplan, were bitter rivals in their daily life. Kahila was the Pradhan Pancha of the Village Panchayat of that time, while the younger brother was a kharidar (a second class non-gazetted officer) in a government office in 11am Bazaar.

When I was doing my own research, I was told that each brother had been involved in up to 75 litigations. Over time, they had victimised many peasants by appropriating their land in a variety of ways. They were certainly economically and socially powerful Brahmins, as Caplan writes, with direct access to government machineries.

The mistake that Caplan made in his presentation was to ignore the rivalry between the two brothers as he polished his Brahmin-exploits-Limbu thesis. The struggle which Caplan depicted in monotone as one between an ethnic and high-caste group was a much more complex social, cultural and psychological phenomenon. The most important point he missed was that in their nefarious acts of depriving land from agriculturists, the two brothers were competing mightily for economic and social advantage.

Caplan is quite correct when he points out that these two Brahmin brothers were crooks, but he fails to mention that the victims of this fraternal rivalry were both Limbu and Brahmin. Both high caste and ethnic lost their land and property to the brothers. Since Limbus had large land-holdings because of the kipat system, they inevitably lost more land when their cases went to court. Moreover, being land-rich rather than rupee-rich, they had to pledge their land to finance legal battles.

Caplan also failed to note that Kahila and Kanchha did not bother about caste and ethnicity when fighting each other. Any trouble, whether between two Limbus or between a Bahun and a Limbu, was taken as an excuse by each to try and out-do the other. And what of other ethnic or caste groups and their local relations? There were, for example, some powerful Gurung families in the area, richer than many local Brahmins, who also loaned money to Limbus and took land from them on mortgage. Yet, Caplan makes no reference to the Gurung. Why? The answer can only be that Caplan had his agenda which could not be muddied.

It is also worth noting that Caplan did not pick other Brahmin exemplars to explore local dynamics, to show in fact the variety among Brahmins, as there is variety in every community. In constructing his thesis, Caplan might have noted the numerous Brahmin households who had never dared to touch Limbu land through foul means, but he didn´t.

All this suggests, disturbingly, that the author of a study which has informed and helped form the worldview of numerous social scientists engaged in the Central Himalaya was selective in his use of the full range of information available. It is difficult not to conclude that the selection was based on his desire to prove a hypothesis he brought with him into the field site.

Did Caplan really believe that by presenting the case studies of two Brahmin families he could generalise the nature and habits of Brahmins everywhere, which is what he does? Could not a similar theory of lying and exploitation be developed for any group in the world?

All scholars whose subject is human society need to critically reflect on the extent to which the accounts of the anthropologist is concerned with the relevant data versus the unstated biases driving the research. In the case of the social scientist bounding across continents and cultures to do a few months´ research before pronouncing judgement, the responsibility is to be careful to the point of distraction.

In the case of Nepal, there is no doubt that Caplan´s work has had an impact on subsequent studies, and unwittingly he has helped shape the argumentation of many young Western social scientists who came later. Here, then, is the classic case of a society, without social scientists of its own, defined on the basis of someone who is from without.

While asking to be excused for critiquing a work of research a quarter century late, I believe firmly that Caplan´s book is a prime example of an anthropological report biased towards a pre-ordained conclusion. It suffers from a methodological fallacy. I do not understand why Caplan´s case isn´t considered deviant rather than a model of social science research on Nepal.

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Himal Southasian