Cultural revolution neededPeople don’t give up caste hatred even when they move from villages to more urban parts of Nepal.
The plane landed in the southwestern town of Nepalgunj, and as I disembarked, I was hit by a blast of mid-May heat. Driving north for half an hour past the highway town of Kohalpur, I arrived at a little village in Chisapani, Banke district. A group of local Dalits waited in the shade of a large bombax tree. I’d been invited to share my views on the best course of action for liberating Dalits from social oppression. Some 150 Dalit men, women and children from nearby settlements joined us. A few local officials and politicians, belonging to high and low castes, also came. They were migrants or descendants of migrants from the northern highlands. They’d left the hills of Dailekh, Jajarkot, Surkhet, Rukum and Humla districts, hoping to escape not just poverty, but also the atrocious cruelties of caste.
Giving up the cooler and healthier mountains for the furnace of the plains had opened up economic opportunities, but the stigma of caste remained. Caste oppression follows migrants like their shadow. Research (such as the 2016 study of Pokhara Dalits by academics Bishnu Pariyar and Jon C Lovett) has shown that many Dalits have been able to conceal their caste after moving from their villages to the anonymity of large towns and thus evade discrimination. Some urban Dalits have become conspicuously wealthy, mainly through the commercialisation of their traditional trades as goldsmiths and tailors. But some forms of caste separation and humiliation persist even among the wealthy.
Migration seems to have made little difference in the lives of Dalits settled in rural areas such as Chisapani. The power relations remained unchanged because people came with their excess baggage. The upper castes from the hills adhere to their customs and cultures, and Dalits continue to be excluded and humiliated as part of the sacred tradition. Thus, the caste system has been extraordinarily resilient. It survives and thrives in all sorts of environments.
The Dalits of Chisapani were angry about two recent incidents in particular. The first is the case of a Dalit woman who’d played a pivotal role in raising donations to build a Hindu temple. She’d invited many people to the opening ceremony where she was humiliated by being made to sit separately and denied the holy offering panchamrit. The Dalits took offence at this blatant humiliation and planned to file a case at the local police station. According to anti-caste discrimination laws, an offender can be fined and jailed for up to three years. The Dalits of Chisapani wanted to teach these upper castes a lesson for humiliating a Dalit woman at the temple ceremony. But the powerful high-caste people used the usual strategy of “iron cuts iron” to protect their own. They got a glib Dalit politician to talk the Dalits into dropping the case. In another more recent incident, some upper-caste neighbours participating in the funeral of a Dalit woman refused to accept apples that had been cut into slices by Dalits. But they had no qualms about accepting the whole fruit!
The norm here is that nobody, as in vast swathes of Nepal, accepts food and water from a Dalit. In the upper-caste mind, inter-dining will offend their ancestral spirits and deities, whose wrath could be devastating. Fear of the gods is used to segregate and disempower Dalits in Banke district as everywhere else. The Dalits of Chisapani took solace in the fact that at least their upper-caste friends and neighbours accepted their fruits, which are the only foods not transmitting ritual pollution. But this time even the fruit cut into slices was deemed unacceptable.
The greatest weakness of the Dalit freedom struggle is lack of leadership and organisation. There are intelligent and educated Dalit leaders and activists, but they have been effectively co-opted and appropriated by the political parties which are all controlled by the higher castes. The same was evident at our gathering in the village of Chisapani. The ward chairman and a few other local leaders from the upper castes, as usual, downplayed the severity of Dalit suffering and claimed that untouchability would vanish after a few generations. The worst part was that Dalit politicians, including a former Member of Parliament and junior minister, parroted the words of their upper-caste masters. They noted that society had changed much as a result of their decades-long struggle, and that there could be no Dalit freedom movement separate from party politics.
Along with my PhD thesis, I’ve done much academic research on diasporic castes, and found that Nepalis have spread out as far afield as England and Australia. Living a new life in a relatively secular environment has obviously changed things, but the fundamental religious injunctions to keep Dalits away continue to hold sway even in the migrant communities. Caste in the context of international migration is a whole new topic.
It is evident from my recent trip to Chisapani village—as in many other places I’ve visited over the past two years—that people don’t give up caste hatred even when they move from their ancestral villages to other parts of Nepal. As anthropologist Mary Douglas has shown in her famous book Purity and Danger, cultural conceptualisation of purity and pollution dies hard. There’s no place to hide from caste as it is deeply embedded in our cultures and customs, and in our psyche. We must think outside the box and aim at a cultural revolution (I don’t mean the Chinese variety) to create a new culture of equality and unity.