The caste struggle: Discrimination rife despite laws in place16 years ago, Nepal was declared free of untouchability and discrimination. But Dalits continue to suffer.
Tika R Pradhan
In June last year Preeti Gaire, a junior technical assistant, was forced out of the cowshed of a local resident in Bhimsen Thapa Rural Municipality, Gorkha.
She was called to vaccinate the goats, but upon learning that she was a Dalit, the house owner with Poudel surname, did not allow her inside the shed where the goats were.
Gaire with the support of local Dalit leaders filed a complaint at the local police station but they were asked “to settle the issue” at the ward level. Later, the issue was “settled” after the Poudel family apologised.
“Even the school principal, who teaches social studies, said that such minor incidents keep on happening and such an issue should not be blown out of proportion,” Gaire told the Post over the phone from Gorkha. “Poudel had asked her to vaccinate the goats but when I entered the shed, she chided me and told me to step out, saying Dalits are not supposed to enter.”
Such discrimination against Dalits happens across Nepal on a regular basis, and not all the cases are reported. Gaire’s mother is a ward member and she says even she has faced discrimination at the hands of the so-called upper caste people.
“Once my mother was invited to a wedding party of a Newar family along with four other members of the ward. While others were allowed into the room, she was asked to stay outside,” Gaire shared. “When she was eating in the verandah, others left the party, saying she had touched the food.”
Although Nepal has made remarkable achievements to ensure the rights of Dalits, discriminatory practices are still prevalent, even in urban centres.
In June last year, Rupa Sunar, a mediaperson, was denied to rent an apartment in Kathmandu after the house owner learned about her caste. The house owner was arrested after she filed a complaint with police. The case then drew media attention after the then sitting minister minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha himself reached the police station to release the house owner.
Dalit rights activists and experts say there clearly is state complacency and abolition of untouachability and discrimination still remains a pipedream.
“There is a tendency among Nepali rulers to agree to speak and write on the issues related to untouchability only when they are compelled to do so. They, however, have failed to internalise the issue,” said Hira Vishwakarma, a researcher, writer and Dalit rights activist.
Exactly 16 years ago—on June 4, 2006—Nepal was declared an untouchability and discrimination free country.
Eleven years ago, on May 24, 2011, Nepal enacted a law criminalising caste-based discrimination. The Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability [Offence and Punishment] Act prohibits any discrimination on the basis of caste in any public or private sphere.
Section 2A (1) of the Act says each person shall have the right against untouchability and discrimination while Section 3 prohibits untouchability and discrimination. Section 3(1) says no one shall commit, or cause to commit untouchability and discrimination.
The Constitution of Nepal 2015 also has provisions against discrimination.
Article 24 (1) states that no person shall be subjected to any form of untouchability or discrimination in any private and public places on grounds of his or her origin, caste, tribe, community, profession, occupation or physical condition.
Clause 5 of the Article states that any act of untouchability and discrimination in any form committed in contravention of the constitutional provision shall be punishable by law as a severe social offence, and the victim of such act shall have the right to obtain compensation in accordance with law.
Also, Article 40 ensures economic, social and political rights of Dalits.
The Muluki Ain drafted 59 years ago didn’t have any punitive provisions for untouchability and caste-based discriminations. In 1991, it was amended including a punishment of three months of jail term and up to Rs30,000 fine after the 1990 constitution outlawed untouchability.
Dalit rights activists say on paper Nepal may look extremely progressive but in reality, the Nepali society continues to remain regressive as discrimination against Dalits continues even today.
The country has a constitutional body also to look into and protect Dalit rights.
“Just like Dalits, the National Dalit Commission also faces discrimination from the government,” said Devraj Bishwakarma, chairperson of the commission. “We don’t have any legal officer or any investigating officer. We have assigned office bearers to monitor cases of discrimination but they may not have legal knowledge.”
He said with no proper human resources, complaints filed at the commission are sent to the Nepal Police but most of the time, they do not respond about the progress made.
“We receive around 40-50 complaints each year but we lack human resources to look into them,” said Bishwakarma. “In most of the cases, authorities try to patch up cases through mediation.”
Existing laws, however, do not allow anyone except the National Dalit Commission to settle such cases through mediation. There are concerns from Dalit activists that even the National Dalit Commission should not have been given such an authority and the provision should be scrapped.
Removing caste-based discrimination is the most crucial issue for Nepal’s Dalits, who make up around 13 percent of the total population as per the 2011 census.
Rights activists say that laws now are in place—for several years—the focus should be on action, and concerted efforts are needed to ensure a just and equitable society where all persons can live without fear and lead a dignified life.
According to the advocates of the Dalit movement, incidents of violation are rife and many go unreported for the lack of a support system and even in cases which are reported, the offenders are not punished, thereby giving rise to the culture of impunity.
A survey by Samata Foundation, an organisation advocating for the rights of the Dalit community, shows that out of 78 cases of caste-based discrimination reported in the fiscal year 2019-20, only 40 were reported to the police and the number of reported cases in the previous year was half of that.
According to Nepal Police, 39 cases of untouchability were registered during the last fiscal year-2021/22 and 30 cases in 2020/21. Spokesperson of Nepal Police Senior Superintendent Bishnu Kumar KC said there are Women, Children and Senior Citizens Cell at all the 77 District Police Offices which records the incidents of untouchability as well. Police have started to keep the record of untouchability since 2013.
The Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability [Offence and Punishment] Act was adopted in 2011. The original bill had recommended that the government introduce an overall plan of action, like National Action Plan, to eradicate caste-based discrimination. But not much has been done to formulate such an action plan which could have provided an institutional tool to implement the legal provisions and commitments.
A report entitled “Human Rights situation of Dalit Community” by the National Human Rights Commission in October 2020 had recommended that the government and political parties devise a long-term national work plan as the existing laws were not properly implemented.
The report stated that even elected representatives of political parties face caste-based discrimination.
According to the yearly report of the National Human Rights Commission published in 2021, nine cases related to untouchability were registered in the previous fiscal year and officials said five cases were reported this fiscal year 2021-22.
Loknath Bastola, assistant spokesperson of the commission, said the rights body has encouraged authorities concerned to register cases against untouchability and caste-based discrimination with the police and the Dalit Commission. Only those cases land at the rights commission which police or the Dalit Commission refuse to register, therefore the number seems to be less, according to Bastola.
Dalit rights are violated in various ways in Nepal—they are routinely denied access to temples and religious sites, they are not allowed to fetch water from public taps and they face resistance to inter-caste marriages, among others. The most undignified act at the hands of the so-called upper caste people, however, is refusal to eat or drink food and water touched by Dalits.
Bishwakarma, the chairman of the Dalit commission, says cases of discrimination never came down even after the laws were put in place.
“Incidents of caste-based discrimination have continued unabated. It’s just that these days due to the media and social media, more cases come to public domain,” he said. “Despite that, society does not seem to feel any pressure to change.
JB Biswokarma, a researcher, says Dalits have continuously been suffering because the state has been negligent and irresponsible.
“Political parties are also equally responsible. Their prejudice and a lack of effort to end caste-based discrimination also perpetaute disdavantage for Dalits,” said JB, who goes by the initials. “They tend to divert the attention by linking cases of untouchability with other offences and instead engage in victim blaming.”
For example, according to him, a Dalit youth in Humla, who eloped with a so-called upper caste girl in December last year, was accused of marrying a minor.
Political analysts say declaring the country free of untouchability without any vision or plan to end the scourge of caste discrimination is meaningless.
“The declaration was just a ploy to create an illusion among the public,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator. “Since the so-called upper caste people occupy the high offices, I don’t think there will be any substantial changes in the near future. But the Dalit movement must continue to wipe out the caste-based discrimination which is an affront to society.”