Hope springs eternal for Nepal's Dalits


KATHMANDU - Nepal’s five million Dalits are pinning their hopes of an end to discrimination on a new Constitution being promulgated to replace the country’s 240-year old Hindu monarchy with a democracy. Considered ‘untouchable’ or ‘contagiously impure’ in hierarchical Hindu societies, Dalits have remained the poorest of the poor for over two millennia in Nepal. With the help of human rights groups and activists, the Dalits are fighting back, calling for an end to their inhuman treatment and for their rights to be enshrined in the new Constitution which comes into effect next year.

Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, 61, who was raised in Lumbini in west Nepal, told Lapido Media how he was made to realise he was ‘impure’ at the age of 13.

‘A “higher caste” resident beat me with sandals for possessing, and thereby “defiling”, the Gita [a Hindu scripture],’ he said.

The Gita belonged to Mr Bishwakarma’s father who served in the Gurkha regiment of the British Indian Army.

‘Though an illiterate, he was keeping the book in the house, hidden in a cupboard. I found it after his death.’

Today, Mr Bishwakarma is one of the most prominent Dalit politicians in Nepal. Until recently, he was the sole Dalit member in the Central Working Committee of Nepal’s oldest party, the Nepali Congress.

Another Dalit man recalled the discriminatory treatment he faced early in his life.

‘My school would hold a function on king’s birthday each year, but Dalit students would be made to sit separately,’ said Ram Nepali, who studied in Gorkha district in west Nepal.

Today, Mr Nepali is a Dalit activist.

Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until the fall of the monarchy in December 2007. However, as Pushkar Khati, from the Dalit NGO Federation of Nepal, explained, Dalits continue to suffer. They cannot rent a house – even in the capital, Kathmandu – unless they conceal their caste. In rural Nepal, Dalits cannot sit together at the same table with ‘higher castes’.

Dalits, Khati said, are identified by their surnames – such as Nepali, Sarki, Pariyar, Gandharva, Badi, Chamar, Paswan, and Musahar – as well as occupation. Almost all blacksmiths, goldsmiths, tailors, carpenters and leather workers are Dalit.

If a Brahmin man marries a Dalit woman, he is also considered a Dalit, which is why many with Brahmin surnames – such as Ghimire and Bhattarai – are also Dalits.

Human rights groups say a majority of the thousands of bonded labourers and trafficked sex workers are Dalit.

Nepal’s National Dalit Commission says 80 percent of the country’s poorest people are Dalit. The literacy rate among Dalits is 33.8 percent, while the national average is 54 percent. Their annual per capita income is $39.6 – as compared to $210 at the national level.

Activist Mr Nepali said, ‘What hurts the most is that discrimination is based on scriptures.’

The Manusmriti, one of the earliest Hindu scriptures, says an ideal society should have four endogamous and hierarchical classes: the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (traders), and the Shudras (labourers).

The supreme creator Brahma, it says, gave birth to the Brahmins from his mouth, the Kshatriyas from his shoulders, the Vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet.

‘...He [Shudra] is of low origin... If he arrogantly teaches [Brahmins] their duty, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears.’ (Chapter VIII verses 270 and 272). {translated by nineteenth-century scholar Prof George Bühler}

‘A [Brahmin] may confidently seize the goods of (his) Shudra (slave); for, as that (slave) can have no property...’ (VIII 417)

It is believed that the caste system originated in India and later spread to neighbouring Nepal through migration.

Mr Nepali, from the Association for Dalit Women Advancement of Nepal, said he was now disillusioned with religion and had become a Marxist.

Mr Khati affirmed that the caste system was still being promoted using religion. As part of an annual ritual in Nepal’s biggest temple, Pashupatinath in eastern Kathmandu, the idol of a god is taken to the houses in the neighbourhood, including a Dalit hamlet, Ambedkar Basti.

However, when the idol is brought back to the temple for re-installation, the priests publicly scold the god for entering into the houses of Dalits, he added.

Politician Mr Bishwakarma is ‘hopeful’ that Dalits will get their rightful place in society with the advent of democracy. His party has now elected five more Dalits to its core group – a sign that Dalits are seen as a significant vote bank.

Even in the 601-member Constituent Assembly – which is to promulgate a new constitution before May 28, 2011 – 49 members are Dalit. Currently, 45 percent of all seats in politics and government jobs are reserved for marginalised communities, of which 15 percent are for Dalits.

‘This is not sufficient. Dalits want proportional reservation,’ Mr Khati stated, explaining that according to the 2001 Census, 13 percent of Nepal’s population is Dalit.

‘But the Census was conducted during the monarchy rule. Many concealed their Dalit origin out of fear. In the next Census in 2011, Dalits will surely be over 20 percent.

‘We also want seven percent additional salary as compensation, for we have suffered for too long,’ Mr Khati asserted.

[Story originally published at Lapido Media and is used with permission.]

Asia, SocietyVishal Arora