Dalit rights: No respite at the topThose in power are allowed to get away with perpetuating atrocities against Dalits.
There is somewhat of a broad agreement among political scientists that democracy has swept the world in waves. Samuel P Huntington is credited with popularising the concept while arguing that the third, and so far the last, wave of democratisation began in the mid-1970s and lasted for around 15 years, ending with the break-up of the Soviet empire. Explaining the reasons for its success, besides factors such as erosion of legitimacy of authoritarian states and the unprecedented economic growth worldwide in the preceding era, Huntington also mentions the ‘demonstration effect of transitions earlier in the third wave in stimulating and providing models for subsequent efforts at democratisation’, a fact most relevant to us since we ourselves rode the third wave’s coattails to usher in the second coming of democracy in 1990.
The power of the demonstration effect was on full display last year with the Black Lives Matter protests erupting globally following the killing of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of a white police officer in the United States. The very fact that multi-racial groups of Americans felt impelled in the middle of a pandemic to go out onto the streets to demand changes, prompted similar movements in other parts of the world, and for a few weeks, it seemed as if we were on the verge of a revolutionary moment. Ultimately how far the cause of racial justice was advanced will only become apparent over time, and the portents so far are mixed.
Just two days before the Floyd murder in May 2020, a perhaps more heinous killing rooted equally in history had taken place in Nepal. News of the multiple homicides of Nawaraj BK and five of his friends in Chaurjahari Municipality in Rukum West left us quite shaken as a nation. That he had fallen in love with an ‘upper-caste’ girl and was planning an elopement with her was incidental to the fact that the one and only reason he was set upon by a crazed mob was that he was a Dalit. Our national consciousness appeared quite thoroughly outraged by the brazenness of the act, giving hope it might lead to a collective reckoning on the question of both discrimination and offences against Dalits. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and it is perhaps telling of where we are as a nation that the incipient Dalit Lives Matter campaign got no traction and has all but fizzled out since. Yet, we fail not to be outraged again. This time, in the case of Rupa Sunar, a young woman who faced no physical violence but an experience that cannot have been any less traumatic.
State vs Dalits
Earlier this year, Nepal underwent its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the mechanism established in 2006 by the UN Human Rights Council to look at all member states’ human rights record. The report submitted by the government included a separate section on ‘Non-discrimination’, which made much of what the law says. It also threw in the trump card of the Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2011 as further proof of the state’s commitment towards ending everyday violence against Dalits. The irony that there were fewer than 100 cases filed in the three years mentioned in the report cannot have been lost on whoever compiled it.
It was in 2001 that in response to the Maoist juggernaut and its appeal among marginalised groups, including Dalits, the Nepali Congress government under Sher Bahadur Deuba declared the ‘practice of social discrimination and untouchability’ to be ‘grave and punishable crimes’ and also announced the formation of a National Dalit Commission (NDC) to ‘work for the interest and welfare of Dalits throughout the country’. Of course, the declaration changed practically nothing on the ground for Dalits, and it would take a full decade before the law was finally enacted to put its spirit into practice; the NDC was (and continues to remain) fangless. While that has not prevented Deuba from crowing at every given opportunity of his being a champion of Dalit rights, the 2001 declaration marked the beginning, albeit much belated, of attempts to criminalise atrocities against Dalits.
Unfortunately, the state is Janus-faced with regard to Dalits, and it is as the oppressor of Dalits that is presented foremost. Thus, it took Sunar hours in the heart of the capital before the police even registered her complaint. Far away in Rukum, the state was present in the person of Dambar Bahadur Malla, the ward chairperson who is reported to have led the attack on BK and his friends. I do not know whether readers noticed it or not but in all the reporting on the Rukum killings that mentioned Malla’s complicity in it not once was it explicitly stated that he had been elected on a Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) ticket and at that time belonged to the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). I do not know if that was an oversight or a deliberate omission but that is a pattern evident in other cases as well, most notably not long after the Rukum case of the death of Angira Pasi of Devdaha Municipality in Rupandehi district. Here, too, an elected official was implicated but his party affiliation was kept out of the reporting. (For the record, the ward chair involved, Amar Bahadur Chaudhary, is from the Nepali Congress.)
As far as I know, neither official has been denounced by his respective party, and this reflects poorly on the Maoists more than any other party. Together with adjoining Rolpa, Rukum was one of the districts most strongly affected by their insurgency and where their writ against casteism held sway the longest. In fact, it has been reported that BK was given to understand by the girl he loved that since they came from a family of Maoists, caste differences would not matter. She was probably naïve enough to believe that rhetoric; for, like much of their agenda that took a backseat after the Maoists joined mainstream politics, their attitude towards gender equality and continued atrocities against Dalits has also taken a regressive turn. It was reported at the time that powerful Maoist leaders did their best to get Malla off the hook, and it was only due to the sheer pressure of public opinion that they failed.
To complete the circle, we needed a CPN-UML example of protecting caste privilege, and sure enough, along came Education Minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha standing firmly on the side of the perpetrator and against Sunar. That is the crux of the problem. The backlash against Sunar on social media is painful enough to even read but perpetuating the environment to make it even possible are those very individuals whose stated mission in life should have been to fight against it. So long as politicians in power are allowed to get away with visiting atrocities against Dalits, either through action or otherwise, and so long as those at the top of the party hierarchy grant them leave to do so, we will continue to be served platitudes like our UPR report that does show progress but which in reality is an infinitesimal one at best.