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Stripped of dignity

Publication Date : 01-08-2012


If there is one immutable fact about Nepali history, polity and social dynamics, it is the systematic suppression of the Dalits—in the hills by hill upper castes and Janajatis, and in the Tarai by Madhesi upper-and intermediate-castes. Codified in state law for over a century, discrimination against Dalits had official sanction. And even subsequently, it has continued to operate through exclusionary political and social practices and economic pauperisation.

Untouchability; prohibition of entry into public places; restricted access to common resources; closure of any prospect of upward mobility by evoking antiquated scriptures and religion; forceful practice of occupations considered "degrading" by the rest of the society; absence of any space in decision making at either the community or state level; and limited opportunity to avail of any basic state services are only some of the ways in which Dalits have been oppressed. Crucially, an entire community has been stripped of dignity.

A stated element of democratic and left politics in Nepal has been Dalit emancipation. Nepali Congress and Unified Marxist Leninist can both lay claims to at least a part of the legacy of fighting the discrimination within the caste system. Their ascent to power in the 90s did alter the traditional power relations in society, but only partially. The social base of these parties, and the composition and orientation of the leadership meant they neither paid attention to initiating radical social reform programmes or even moderate affirmation action policies. The fact that there was only one Dalit MP elected in 1991, and none in 1994 and 1999, is a stark indicator of the nature of the then constitutional framework. This proved to be, among other reasons, its undoing as an entire community saw little reason for defending the 1990 framework and instead perceived it as a part of the problem.

The Maoists recognised this fundamental political anomaly. A core component of their movement involved recruiting Dalits, and trying to build an egalitarian plural culture within the party and their army where the Dalits could participate as equal stakeholders. They did not always succeed, and tales of discrimination within the party abound, but there is little doubt that the Maoists did more to put the Dalit agenda on the national agenda than any other party. This eventually culminated in the increased Dalit representation in the CA. The Maoists seem to have a sizeable Dalit base; in contrast, NC has only 3000 Dalit active members out of its total active membership of 300,000—a measly one per cent.

This is the backdrop in which Nepal’s Dalit activists have to grapple with some key ideological and political questions.

The first is the changing nature of caste itself. Its salience in determining cultural and social capital, material advantages and political strength remains undeniable. As "Forging Equal Citizenship in Multicultural Nepal", a report on exclusion which remains unpublished since World Bank and DFID are scared of antagonising dominant elites, documents, “Dalits have a lower HDI, shorter life expectancy and much higher infant mortality. As a reflection of their past educational deficit, Dalit literacy rates above 6 years of age are much lower than the Nepal average… Dalits represent only 1.6 per cent of those holding technical and professional jobs.” It also adds that more Dalits are poor than other communities, and the decline in poverty among Dalits is a lot slower than the others.

But caste is no longer a static category. Traditional power relations are breaking down; education is spreading; migration has given economic weight to rural Dalit workers; the crisis in the agrarian sector has meant that landlords can no longer take Dalit labour for granted; and urbanisation offer prospects of breaking the traditional stratified nature of society. This does not take away from the continued prevalence of untouchability. Neither is one arguing that caste has ceased to matter, nor that invisible or even visible discriminatory practices do not exist in cities.

But it does pose a challenge to Dalit activists who need to think through the implications of these changes. Will adoption of an English-based market economy—as the Dalit activist Chandrabhan Prasad argues in the case of India—help Nepali Dalits as it will break the stranglehold of the Hindu upper caste-dominated Sanskritised Nepali-speaking public sphere? Or will integration into a global economy pauperise the poorest, in this case, the Dalits? What should be relations between Dalit and left politics in this context? What is the political orientation of the Dalit migrants who have returned from the Gulf or Malaysia? What is the most effective way to wage land reform struggles and link it with the crisis in agriculture?

The second immediate challenge is arriving at a common political position on key issues like federalism. This task is made complex because of the diversity within Dalits, especially between hill and Tarai Dalits. In the SRC, the Dalit Chairperson backed the Maoist-Janajati-Madhesi members and supported the 10-state model; a non territorial Dalit state, which no one quite comprehends, was promised in return. But the final negotiations showed that the proposal was no longer on the table.

Federal forces have not done any work in reaching out to the Dalit constituency to allay its fears on federalism (which essentially stems from the fact that they are spread across the country and will not have any state of their own). But many Dalit leaders do recognise that they have a higher chance of accessing political power if new states are created than winning it at the centre at least in the medium-term. The Indian example shows that federalism has allowed Dalits to consolidate in local spaces and accrue political strength at the state level; this in turn allows them to bargain with the centre. Dalits should negotiate hard with Madhesi and Janajati groups to extract commitments on reserved constituencies, inclusive electoral systems, and affirmative action within provinces in return for their support for identity-based federalism. This is also the best way for the Dalits to stay united, for Tarai Dalits support the federal project. If hill Dalits oppose it, a split in the emerging movement is inevitable.

While Dalit NGOs have done considerable work in pushing the transformation agenda, activists need to start thinking of shedding the comfort of the "civil society" space and jumping into the political theatre. Engaging with friendly forces at the moment is needed to safeguard the achievements of the post-2006 movement. Simultaneously, preparing for a Dalit party may be politically astute—for it is only through confrontation and negotiation that Dalits will be able access state power and break the traditional order.


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