Underdevelopment is a complex phenomenon. One of the promises of Dor Bahadur Bista´s book is that some of this complexity with regard to Nepal may be understood from die point of view of a native anthropologist of proven sensitivity and understanding of Nepali society and culture. What one gets from Fatalism and Development, however, is truly a mixed bag.
The book is a remarkable collection of valuable insights, pointed and accurate criticism, sympathetic and liberal portrayal of the Nepali under-classes, jumbled together with common and unoriginal descriptions, faulty and often-spurious analyses, out-dated development theory, and, unfortunately, myriad stereotypes and clichés about non-Western societies. The book´s virtues, as well as its failings, derive from this essentially schizophrenic mould.
In this book, Bista assumes the challenging task of demonstrating that the lack of rapid economic development in Nepal is caused largely by what he variously calls ´fatalism´, ´Bahunism´ and the ´culture of fatalism´. In sociological terms, Bista wants to show that a particular configuration of cultural and ideological practices (´fatalistic hierarchy´) has an identifiable and negative impact on Nepal´s economic development. Readers are alerted early that the author is dissatisfied with previous attempts to explain Nepal´ s poor economic performance. He laments that “a great majority of the critics like to focus on politico-economic aspects of the society for every evil of Nepal. Rarely do they look into the socio-cultural and religious values.”
Bista attempts to remedy this by proceeding to explain “every evil” of Nepali society in terms of “socio-cultural and religious values.” At one level, he does advance some intuitive, appealing and even plausible hypotheses about why Nepal is poor, under-deveioped and ill-equipped to tackle the modern era. The answer, as Bista never tires of repeating, lies in the insidious ´culture of fatalism’ that pervades the mind, spirit and actions of Nepalis who are “socially located to mediate relations between Nepal and the outside world”.
Fatalism and Development is divided into seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion. The first two chapters deal with the social and cultural history of Nepal in which Bista attempts to outline the slow but certain spread of ´hierarchial fatalism´ over a thousand-year period. Chapters Three to Seven are examinations of specific institutions and the ´fatalistic´ contradictions within them — Family, Value Systems, Politics, Education and Foreign Aid. The bibliography is extensive, but readers should note that only 58 out of the 282 works listed here are actually cited in the text.
Bista´s attack on Nepali society is multi-pronged. Stripped to its barest essentials, however, the author seeks to establish the following set of related theses: economic development happens only when society as a whole, and particularly its leaders, believe in an “achievement-oriented” ethic. In Nepal, due to the pervasive influence of “hierarchic fatalism”, society is “ascriptive” (the opposite of achievement-orientedness) and the dominant Hindus are unwilling to relinquish their undeserved hold over society. This results in the waste of productive energies of the majorities, the non-ruling castes. Development, therefore, can occur only when the Hindu caste system is thoroughly purged of its “fatalistic” tendencies.
Indeed, these are things that might seem self-evident to many, familiar with the workings of Nepali society. At times, they may have even harboured identical suspicions about the reasons behind Nepal´s current state. Fortunately, suspicion does not enjoy the status of explanation or theory in the social sciences. One of Bista´s major flaws is that he, at times, seems to forget this. Not surprisingly, on a more systematic analysis; the entirety of his main thesis collapses. Not only is he unable to show any causal link between ´fatalism´ and development, he is guilty of mis-specification, mis- interpretation and misrepresentation. In the guise of developing ´analytic generalisations´, Bista provides a highly simplistic, biased and untenable framework for the study of the relationships between society, culture and economic development in the Nepali context. This is highly unfortunate since many in South Asia and in the West look up to Bista for insights into Nepali society. The thought that this work may be internalised by scholars and novices alike is worrisome, not the least because as a sociological study of under-development, Fatalism and Development is decades behind similar scholarship about many other developing countries.
Bista is well aware of the charges he will face and has taken pains to defend himself a priori. First, he urges that detailed counter-examples not be used against his ´fatalistic´ model, as (he writes) otherwise generalisations cannot ever be made. Yet, his own generalisations are built on his impressions and the linkage of disconnected facts. Good generalisations should stand up to empirical and causal verification. Bista´s other defence is to imply that those who do not agree with his thesis are themselves victims of the ideology of ´hierarchial fatalism´. This kind of intellectual intimidation is not worthy of a scholar of Bista´s well-deserved reputation, and might have the unfortunate effect of inhibiting criticism of Fatalism and Development. Evaluation of a fellow social scientist´s work should not make one vulnerable to such charges. In any case, Bista´s work cannot go without challenge because it has the potential of creating serious rifts within communities in Nepal.
There are at least two serious flaws in the book. First, Bista associates every negative or contradictory feature of Nepali society with ´fatalism´. He forgets a basic canon of logic— that something that explains everything, explains nothing! While Bista may very well be correct in arguing that the traditions of chakari and “afno-manche“, discrimination against minorities, lack of systematic planning, and so on have a negative impact on economic development, it is by no means clear that these are all caused by a ´culture of fatalism´. In fact, this is a spurious argument because a causal relationship is “asserted but never demonstrated. When one explanation does not seem to work, the social scientist must search for alternative hypotheses. Bista, however, begins with a pre-conceived notion about the inverse relationship between ´fatalism´ and development, and selectively uses social, cultural and historical material to ´prove´ his ´theory´. Throughout the book he -remains closed to any alternative explanation for the phenomena he highlights.
For example, the author repeatedly refers to chakari as a ´fatalistic´ practice. But chakari is a highly purposeful, manipulative and conscious form of social action where the one who does chakari attempts to impress on the receiver of chakari that he is committed and loyal to the latter´s cause, whatever that may be. In return for his labours, the chakariwala expects goods and services which under normal conditions would be out of his reach. Now, this might be highly undesirable, repugnant and may even retard economic progress. However, it is anything but fatalism, which by Bistas own account involves doing nothing about one´s circumstances. Chakari may mean many things, but it certainly does not indicate passive acceptance of fate or karma.
The second major flaw of the book is the collection of general and loose statements about Nepali society made without any supportive evidence. These generalisations are then used as building blocks for the ´fatalism´ thesis. I cite below only the most egregious examples of Bista´s arbitrary, impressionistic and speculative methodology, together with brief rebuttals.
* On religion and caste in historic Gorkha:
“A primary difference between Gorkha and the other kingdoms of Nepal was that it had not been dissipated by fatalism and its negative influence. Instead of being a rigid, fatalistic society, Gorkhas still lived by ancient principles which allowed a large measure of egalitarianism and personal initiative for achievement.” (p. 26)
There is no historical support for this statement. Gorkha kings, in fact, must have been far more Hinduistic than many Khas and Tibeto-Burman chieftains of the Baisi and Chaubisi states. They were certainly more Hindu than the Malla kings of Kathmandu Valley. It was, after all, Prithvi Narayan Shah who banned proselytising by Christian missionaries, which the Mallas had allowed.
It must also be recalled that some amount of flexibility on caste is a pre-requisite for successful war-making, and Prithvi Narayan was no stranger to this art form. To the extent that Bista´s ´fatalism´ assumes a belief in the Hindu caste system, the Gorkha kings were no more above it than most rulers of the period.
*On the effect of Hindu domination over matwali castes:
“Few ethnic Matwalis are successful, and even when this is so they often have frustrated, bitter and difficult personalities. Most turn their grievances into political activity of an essentially revolutionary kind.” (p.57-58)
On what grounds does Bista make such patronising statements about matwatis? To say that ethnic minorities are disadvantaged is one thing. To offer pseudo-psychological theories about their “personalities” and political proclivities is another. Perhaps Bista knows a few matwalis to fit his theory, but there is certainly no shortage of people with ´difficult personalities´ or radicals among tagadharis.
*On the status of women:
“Women in Nepal generally have equal status except among the Bahun-Thakuri and some middle and upper class Chhetris. Since the population of such high caste people is not large the percentage of women who are under-privileged in comparison to men is relatively small.”
Bista seems to think that leg ally sanctioned discrimination against women in matters such as inheritance, divorce and child-custody does not constitute gender inequality; or perhaps he believes that these apply only to tagadhari castes. One of the most consistent findings of social researchers in Nepal, particularly in the rural regions, is the significant inequality between men and women with regard to resources, power, work, leisure and so on. This is true across all caste groups.
*On the socialisation of children:
“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 internalized…”
No one can observe the children of Nepal at length -rural, urban, high caste, low caste – and still agree with this statement In addition to universal moral principles, Nepali children are constantly made aware of pap (sin), and taught to have great respect for elders. The dense religious and ritualistic milieu in which most children grow up, particularly girls, cannot help but inculcate a deep moral sense in them. As for ´social responsibility´, it is hard to imagine that children who often begin working by age six as anything but socially responsible, unless Bista has something entirely different in mind in his use of the phrase. However, even if the author is correct about children and morality, it is a dizzying Freudian leap from amoral socialisation to under-developed country!
Elsewhere, we are told that very few children are taught to compete or to try to achieve better than their fathers. Bista is obviously reporting what he thinks is the case. It may be true that Nepalis do not like to claim that they are better than their fathers, but that is not the same as not wanting to do better than them.
*On belief in karma:
“Most Nepalis of the present generation, essentially from the Chhetri and Bahun castes, have been brought up according to a belief system that posits that one´s circumstances have been determined by a supreme deity; that their lives have been fated. If one is happy and successful, it is because one must have earned this in a previous life. This is called karma.” (p.77)
There is no method of either proving or disproving this statement. If one goes by behaviour, however, it is difficult to see how people who are supposedly so fatalistic (Chhetris and Bahuns), consistently managed to usurp the most lucrative jobs, to get their children highly educated, and to maneuver successfully in politics. It is not even necessary to believe that Chhetris and Bahuns are diligent in order to understand that, the theory of karma notwithstanding, people do all they can to live well in this life.
Bista writes elsewhere (p.81) that people in less privileged positions accept fate and choose not to “interfere with the divine order and dharmic purpose”. Again, one can come to this conclusion only if one closes one´s eyes. This contention was not true even in the age of the Bhagvad Gita when, for example, Buddhist monks preached against Brahminism, and millions of low caste individuals rebelled against oppressive Hinduism and became Buddhists. Mass conversions to Islam in late medieval India is further evidence that people in the Subcontinent have not always suffered quietly. Violent peasant revolts have always been a pervasive feature of rural South Asia. Most recently, the people of Nepal rose up against monarchical oppression.
The books and the Brahmins may say one thing; people, on the other hand, have always done what was possible to resist. It would be an insult to all those who have resisted in throughout history to think otherwise.
“As a rule Nepalis do not plan for the future. It is far easier to mentally speculate on the next life in an imaginary hell or heaven than to plan for one´s own old age or for even later years.” (p.85)
The biggest occupation in Nepal is farming. Agriculture is fundamentally about planning one´s labour according to the growing seasons. Planting, weeding, harvesting, irrigating, saving seeds, fertilising, organising one´s own and other´s labour in time for critical agricultural tasks—none of these can be carried out without planning for the future. Planning for the future is a basic human urge and necessity, and all people, including Nepalis, plan.
Demographers agree that high fertility itself is a sort of ´plan´ for old-age security. Contrary to Bista´s simplistic contention that Nepali parents prefer sons so that they can go to heaven, the real purpose behind male-preference is security in old age. As for savings, the poor (who make up the majority of the country´s population) do not save because they have nothing to save.
*On the ´poor but happy´ people of Nepal;
“Nepalis may be poor by international standards but the Nepali peasants are self-sufficient and largely content.” (p.133)
It is hard to believe that this statement is not made by a 19th century English traveler recounting his short visit to Nepal to the folks back home. What we have here is only a slight reformulation of the classic Orientalist view of the ´poor but happy’ people of Asia. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether ´content´ is the word that best describes the state of mind of Nepali peasants, who are among the most marginal groups in Asia.
*On the pace of progress in Nepal:
“The Nepali rate of progress has been commensurate with the level of motivation and the amount of productive labour invested in it.”
What is and what is not ´commensurate´ with a given amount of labour is an ideological rather than an empirical question. Is the United States’ standard of living commensurate with the ´motivation and productive labour´ invested by its citizens? In what sense is a Nepali peasant who puts in ten hours of manual labour a day on her farm, any less motivated, or less hard-working, than a Wisconsin farmer? By Bista´s logic, it would seem that each individual in the world is getting back only as much as he/she puts in — no more, no less. With such a premise, the next step is to say that the poor are poor because they do not work hard enough; the rich are rich because they are motivated and productive. In the Nepali context, by extension, we could argue that the Bahuns and Chhetris are collectively more wealthy because they are more motivated than the matwali castes. However, Bista should know better than anyone else that such a conclusion would be mistaken.
There are a number of other major inconsistencies in Fatalism and Development which render the book “simplistic, biased and scientifically untenable.”
With the terms ´development´ and ´modernisation´ occurring in the title, one would expect a brief review of some theories of development. Bista undertakes no such task. Had he done so, he would have discovered that 30 years ago, under the rubric of ‘modernisation theory´, scholars such as Alex Inkles, David McCleland and Everett Hagen attempted to explain third world under-development by pointing to the absence of particular mental or personality traits in non-western societies and individuals. They did so in much the same way that today Bista focuses on the absence among Nepalis of “competition”, “achievement-drive”, and “cause-effect outlook”. The attempts of Inkles, McCleland and Hagen were characterised in their time as vulgar, simplistic, reductionist and even reactionary.
Today, scholars of development everywhere have rejected psychological ´theories´ of change because it is agreed that the complex phenomena such as social change and economic development can never be explained in terms of a set of ´psycho-cultural ´ pseudo-variables such as ´guilt´, ´achievement drive´, and so on.
By Bista´s reckoning, all countries that depend upon foreign aid and loans (which now includes the whole Eastern Bloc, China and India) and have made less than satisfactory economic progress, must be suffering from some form of ´fatalism´. If that is so, we must conclude that all of the presently under-developed world, as well as parts of Eastern Europe, have societies that are based on a ´fatalistic hierarchy´.
Bista´s contention seems to be that fatalism is a quintessential Nepali trait. But since Nepal has no effective monopoly over poverty and slow economic growth, one would have to reach the conclusion that there is something inherently faulty in the ´culture´ of developing, countries and in the minds and personalities of their individual citizens which is primarily responsible for the existence and reproduction of the condition of poverty.
In fact, on page 150, Bista says exactly this. He suggests that “poor and backward” countries are in the state they are in because here social roles are ´ascriptive’ rather than ´achieved´. Thus, a society´s value system determines the pace of economic growth. By this logic, the most efficacious method of developing the third world is to replace native culture with ´successful cultures´ such as Western and Japanese.
CASTE AND CLASS
Fatalism and Development is at its best precisely when it is not talking about ´fatalism´. Scattered throughout the text are telling criticisms of the nexus between class- and caste-inequality in Nepal. The matwali castes have been greatly marginalised in the course of the development of the Nepali political-economy. Critical resources such as land, political power, education and employment have been unavailable to a very large group of matwalis, whereas a section of the tagadhari castes have enjoyed privileged access to these. It must never be ignored, however, that the majority of tagadhari people in Nepal do not share in the wealth and privilege of the ruling class, but are themselves marginal both socially and economically. The dominant social group in Nepal is increasingly, therefore, not a caste, but a class.
Bista´s real achievement is to recognise this inter-penetration of caste- and class-oppression in Nepal and to suggest that social inequality may be a real barrier to economic development. I am fully in agreement with Bista that when a significant proportion of the Nepali labour force is effectively outside the national mainstream and structurally barred from opportunities for productive activity, there cannot be rapid economic development Gross social inequality has been shown to have a negative influence in many contexts on the capacity for economic growth. The structure of economic and social opportunities must be expanded and the large Nepali underclass given preferential access to these before there is a significant change in the living standards.
If Bista´s main purpose was to make a plea for a fundamentally more egalitarian, pluralistic, secular, non-casteist and tolerant society in Nepal, then I believe these could, and need to be, made on their own merit There is no question that the various ethnic groups have historically been discriminated against He does not need to justify the call to redress this situation by trying to prove that these groups are better equipped to ´develop´ Nepal because they are less ´fatalistic´ than those of the presently dominant castes. Whether the under-privileged of Nepal are more or less fatalistic than any other group, their wider participation is a sine qua non for progressive change in Nepal. These groups need, at all cost, to have the same opportunities as others.
But Bista goes far beyond simply exposing the class and caste contradictions in Nepal. He has a theory about how these contradictions developed in the first place, and about how they are reproduced over time. He has a theory not only about why there is disparity within Nepal, but why the world is divided into rich and poor nations. Finally, there is an implicit theory about how this situation can be changed. When he begins to explain the genesis and persistence of class inequality in Nepal by conjuring up the theory of ´fatalistic´ conspiracy; when he justifies global inequalities by advancing the “ascription” versus “achievement” dichotomy; and finally when he suggests that development is a function of replacing one set of ´social values´ by another, Bista is quite far off the mark.
´Fatalism´ is ultimately about escapism — the desire to see and explain the world by resorting to simple theories rather than accepting the fact that the world is complex, ´messy´, and always contradictory. By casting the complex social, political and economic history and experience of Nepal within the mould of ´caste´, ´hierarchy´ and ´fatalism´, Bista partakes in the ultimate fatalistic exercise.