The nation fails DalitsThe major political parties have only used the Dalit community’s issues to further their own interests
A great of deal of analyses of the Constituent Assembly (CA) election results has focused on ethnic v ideological politics. But most analyses have, so far, regrettably failed to highlight the role of Dalit communities in the CA, other than dropping the word ‘Dalit’ here and there. Failing to honour the space the Dalit community deserves in national discourse, as evident in the CA results, is neither new nor surprising. In fact, it is symptomatic of Nepal’s age-old tendency to postpone issues of social transformation, to eschew the appreciation of Dalits and use and discard their issues to achieve other political goals.
Maoists failed the Dalits
During and after the People’s War, the Maoists were most vocal about the issues of Dalit. Consequently, Dalits lobbied among themselves to cast their votes for the Maoists and celebrated their victory in the 2008 CA election. Dalit support for the Maoists was so strong that seven Maoist Dalit candidates became victorious in the first-past-the-post (FPTP) election, breaking the old, ill-founded view that Dalits cannot win voter confidence in general elections.
However, upon coming to power, the Maoists abandoned the aspirations of the Dalit community as the party’s interest shifted towards consolidating power and positions in government. By the time of the election to the second CA, the Maoists completely forgot the fact that Dalits and other minority communities were their soldiers in the war and voters in the election. The party frustrated its loyal Dalit constituencies and other minorities by failing to shun the political tradition of considering Dalits as inferior allies. The Maoist party only fielded nine Dalit candidates in the second CA election, as compared to 17 in the first. And these candidates were not a priority for the party when it came to assistance in the election campaigns. Without the party’s support, the Dalit candidates were doomed to suffer losses in the election.
The list of ways in which the Maoist leaders disappointed the Dalit community becomes very long, very quickly. But what tops the list is that they grossly discounted the fact that Dalit youths were always the first to sacrifice their lives in the decade-long insurgency. Party leaders meekly compromised the future of their cadres, many of whom came from Dalit and minority communities, by celebrating army integration. Consequently, most former combatants headed towards uncertain futures. Many female Dalit cadres are still struggling for acceptance from the families of their upper caste husbands.
Furthermore, to their great dismay, no Dalit was given a berth in the Cabinet of Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai, a person whom Dalits had always regarded as a person of vision. It is shameful that a party which thrived on Dalit numbers and votes refused to allocate a meagre ministerial berth, even when it had become a tradition for even an authoritarian government to have a token Dalit minister in its Cabinet?
NC-UML fail Dalits
Such a big digression for the Maoist leaders from their wartime commitments to the Dalits created opportunities for the CPN-UML to approach Dalits through their NGO entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs, in the guise of social workers, have once again disillusioned the Dalit community and availed themselves of a chance to trade off welfare packages from generous donors to Dalits and vulnerable communities in exchange for votes. However, the UML’s victory cannot become a harbinger of change because the party has repeatedly disappointed Dalits in the past. Furthermore, the party has not introduced any fundamental reform within its own party structures to take responsibility for social transformation.
On the other hand, the Nepali Congress (NC) did not even show a minimum degree of respect for Dalit votes—it did not field a single Dalit candidate in FPTP for the second CA election—despite the fact that the Dalit community had put its trust in the NC time and again in the past.
Dalit voters are well aware of this fact, which is illustrated by the case of Biswendra Paswan. Dalits could have cast their votes for their own leaders had there been choices other than Paswan. Nevertheless, an increase in the number of votes secured by Paswan’s Dalit Janajati Party (DJP) shows that Dalits have more faith in someone from their own community than in leaders who use the Dalit cause for their own and their party’s political ambitions. In the absence of an energetic Dalit leader, equally accepted by the hills, plains and Newar Dalits, the DJP had to be satisfied with just two seats in the CA. The silver lining in this scenario is that Dalits can carve out their own political space if they dare enter politics and unite to back their leadership.
Politics of presence
Because Dalits did not act strategically as one community in the election to select more Dalit representatives, they cannot enjoy the same or greater level of presence only through the Proportional Representation (PR) system. This is indicated by the political parties’ nomination of Dalit CA members in their PR list and the election of only two Dalit candidates in the FPTP system. Additionally, the reliance of Dalits on the PR system demands their acceptance of a subservient role in the CA. As the election results have been construed as a victory for non-ethnic politics, there is scant optimism that Dalit CA members will be able to acquire meaningful political space in the new CA. Thus, the second CA may deliver a constitution but it will not have enough diversity to deliver a constitution that is Dalit- and minority-friendly.
The CA was envisioned to write Nepal’s constitution by undoing exclusive and discriminatory social structures and institutions. But along with disillusionment among the political parties regarding the CA’s leadership, and in trust of Dalit and minorities, there is an increasing danger that political apathy and non-participation will make this historical political dynamics even worse every passing day. As Dalit and marginalised communities have lost a meaningful presence in the constitution-writing process, the underlying social, economic and political causes that society has to address (both in the interest of minorities and for an emerging political system and developing nation) seem severely jeopardised.
When we consider the dismal level of Dalit political representation, it is easy to become pessimistic. The danger I mentioned above is imminent. However, the fact remains that the community can ultimately strengthen its political space by mobilising Dalits and pro-Dalit citizens. It can also ally with groups who have common interests and politically challenge the establishment which has repetitively exploited the grievances of Dalits .
Nepali is a Fulbright scholar studying International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington DC, USA