Dalit freedom hinges on religious reformThe incompatibility between caste rituals and anti-caste laws has caused inevitable friction in Nepali society.
Despite dramatic political and legal changes in recent years, freedom eludes Nepali Dalits. Caste hatred penetrates and permeates every fibre of Nepali culture. Members of the “lower caste” or “unclean caste” that do not honour the traditional caste system are likely to be verbally abused and physically assaulted, if not killed. Over 70 percent of the Dalits rent properties in Kathmandu, Butwal, Dhangadi and other towns by faking their surnames; few landlords would accept them if their true caste identities were revealed. The idea of the country as a secular democratic republic sounds like a misnomer for most of us, as we still face exclusion, humiliation and violence reminiscent of the Rana autocracy.
Caste discrimination may have eased over the years, but Dalit life has become more complicated and insecure nowadays. This is due to the contradiction between traditional Hindu and modern secular laws. In the past, following the principles of casteist texts such as the Manusmriti and the Parasarsmriti, state laws like the 1854 Muluki Ain officially denied the Shudras their fundamental human rights. The Dalits were thus reduced to slavery. Those laws have now been overhauled, and the Dalits are granted rights and privileges as equal citizens. Anti-caste legislation passed in 2006 declares caste discrimination, both in public and private spaces, a punishable crime. But these egalitarian constitutional and legal provisions are highly incompatible with the law of Manu.
This incompatibility between traditional caste laws and modern anti-caste laws has caused inevitable friction in society, even as the Dalits remain at the receiving end. Caste discrimination remains unabated as the Dalits asserting their rights according to the new laws—through inter-caste marriage and temple entry, among others—are often met with violent reprisals. The lynching of Nawaraj BK and his five friends in West Rukum in May 2020 for trying to marry a Thakuri woman is a prime example of this new reality.
Religious sentiments enrage the “upper” or “cleaner” castes when the Dalits try to undermine traditional caste rules. Indeed, not everyone may be well versed in the extremely casteist principles codified by the Manushmriti and the 1854 old Civil Code of Nepal. However, they have long been culturally trained to defend their sacred caste laws.
Nepal is a very religious and/or spiritual society, with religious customs and traditions holding sway in people’s lives. There is a strong belief that flouting traditional caste laws, particularly in maintaining social distance from the ritually “impure” Dalits, is likely to offend one’s lineage deity (kul devta), ancestral spirits and other domestic deities. People greatly fear the wrath of their deities and gods and spirits. This is why people are often ready to shed blood to defend the caste order. Dalit murders are as much honour killings as the appeasement of (potentially) enraged deities.
Most Nepalis know or have experienced that caste has its taproot in religion and culture. The notion of ritual purity and pollution—as the French anthropologist Luis Dumont demonstrated for the Western scholars and others so impressively in his magnum opus Homo Hierarchicus—is paramount in Hindu culture. But it is also significant, to a degree, among Buddhists, Bons, Jains, Muslims and Christian converts. Moreover, as part of their sacred tradition, Nepalis have exported caste discrimination among the diaspora, including in the USA, Europe and Australia.
Dominant Dalit discourse views caste discrimination as a purely constitutional, legal, political and economic issue. Many Dalits attached to communist parties emphasise class over caste. These are undoubtedly important aspects of Dalit suffering, but they are inadequate. The Dalit movement should pay more attention to religious and cultural elements. Following the establishment of multi-party democracy in 1990, some Dalit groups conducted forced temple entry as an essential part of their assertion. During the “People’s War”, the Maoists tried to contain untouchability in some of their bases by slaughtering and feeding cows, forcing their armed Dalit cadres into temples and homes of the Brahmins. These were appreciable efforts but did not go very far.
Dalit activists, politicians, policymakers and others concerned with caste discrimination must put the issue of religion at the top of their agenda. This is key to Dalit freedom. They should not accept the hypocritical preachings of conservative Brahmins that use different arguments to show that Sanatan Dharma has nothing to do with casteism.
We should first accept the role of religion and culture in perpetuating caste hatred. Then we must radically reform religious and cultural traditions per the modern constitution and law to attack caste oppression at its roots.
When I propose this argument, people often ask me: Can religion and culture be reformed whenever we want? Do they not transform automatically with time and with generational shifts? My response is: We can and should reform religion and culture immediately. Plenty of historical and contemporary examples of reforming other religions in other parts of the world exist. And such a reform will not necessarily hurt Hinduism. If the termination of the Sati custom did not damage the Hindu religion, an end to untouchability would not damage it either.
Another question may be: Who should initiate religious reform? Of course, the government is primarily responsible for changing customs, cultures and beliefs that continue to dehumanise six million Dalits. The Malla, Shah and Rana regimes of the bygone era systematically constructed Nepali social structure, customs and cultures on the basis of the Hindu caste hierarchy. The government of the democratic republic today is duty-bound to remove or defuse the ‘caste bomb” previously planted in society.
To that end, other state organs—parliament, judiciary, political parties, media—and civil society groups, NGOs and INGOs should also work in tandem. Dalit organisations must launch peaceful but effective campaigns to force the state to work in this area. Since caste and culture issues are highly sensitive, party leaders are unlikely to act until they are pushed vociferously.