Necessity and ideologyThe Dalit agenda has been reduced to combating social, but not political, abuse
Dalit leaders should have no confusion about their role in Nepali politics. Comfortably refusing Dalits their rightful share in the Cabinet for the third time now, the political parties have implied that they cannot team up with Dalits in politics and government. While this abuses the very essence of nation-building, which lies in the inclusion of all national stakeholders, sidelining Dalits only encourages them to initiate collective political action of their own.
Three of the six Cabinets post the first Constituent Assembly extended a few ministries to Dalits in an attempt to respond to a fresh national call for inclusion through the war and civil unrest. Two of the five ministers from the Dalit community were even entrusted with what they deserved and became full ministers. Although the hill Brahmin and Chhetri dominated bureaucracy refused to cooperate with them, they performed equal to their colleagues in the Cabinets. However, their performance against all those odds could not prove their ability to team up with the mainstream parties to lead the country.
The initiatives that Dalits and other minority groups considered progressive nation-building actions quickly turned out to be illusions. In reality, the disgrace that the CPN-UML perpetrated upon Dalits by forwarding Ramprit Paswan’s presidential candidacy, when its leaders knew well that the party would lose in the election, persists eight years since the transformation project began. The parties come to Dalits
when they want clowns, not partners, in their political circus. They even abused the academic authority of Madan Pariyar by appointing him Chairperson of the State Restructuring Committee, when they knew that they would not accept any of the committee’s proposals. These are advanced forms of what happened earlier, with the nomination of Dalits to contest the election wherever the party was sure to lose.
By only giving roles that bring risks, controversies and disgrace to Dalits, the parties rob Dalits of the goodwill they would otherwise have earned. This further reinforces the stigmatised public image that Dalits have sustained for so long as incompetent. Hence, mediahouses do not have to worry that their lists for persons of the year include no candidates from the Dalit community. They know that only a few people would vote for Dalits, because once again, the Nepali political parties and the country’s educational community have long preached the lie that Dalits are inferior.
Sharing the blame
While it is not new for parties to assault Dalits in their efforts to prolong their rule, Dalits will have to share the blame for remaining apathetic to this abusive behaviour. In the world where the fittest survive—and where Nepal has evolved merely by responding to threats, be they political or social—in the guise of change, it is the Dalits’ lack of confidence that prevents them from rebelling against their oppressors on their own.
In all of Nepal’s history of electoral democracy, the first CA, for the first time, witnessed 50 representatives from the Dalit community. Though even this representation was below the group’s proportion of the population, it was enough to assert their yearning to change their public image. Seven Dalit candidates were elected through first past-the-post, challenging the public belief that Dalits cannot win an election. Unfortunately, Dalit leaders, like Plato’s people of the cave, felt perplexed by their exposure to the light in the first CA, and they missed the opportunity to mainstream their agenda. Passing through the prime time of Dalit presence in the CA, the ruling castes automatically construed that the previous Dalit ministers were an over-estimation of the group’s political power.
In reality, Dalits had left their yearning for change back in 1950s. Then, Dalits used to hold mass demonstrations, where the state arrested as many as 750 individuals at one event, while asserting their rights to enter the Pashupatinath temple. Dalit leaders declare that their movement is the oldest of all social movements in Nepal but few of them have confidence in their ability to mobilise as many people as their half-educated predecessors did 60 years ago.
The 40 representatives in the second CA and the hundreds of Dalit civil society organisations in cities and villages have failed to assert Dalit rights to enter the Cabinet, even while the state has been abusing its right to share power.
The need for ideology
This inability to believe in the group’s strength, however, lies in the lack of a well-defined political position with an ideological standpoint. Dalit leaders do not think their people can have an ideological motivation and so, untouchability has long been the cause of their movement. Therefore, former Dalit CA members boast about introducing an anti-untouchability law, which in reality has failed to protect the rights of Dalits. Worse, the law cannot rectify the tendency of the state to bar Dalits from entering powerful positions in administration.
This indicates a fact, which Nepali Dalits do not seem to have realised yet: the hierarchical caste system is the product of a political effort to define a share of power. The old Civil Code, which instituted the hierarchical caste system in Nepal in 1854, raised Brahmins and Chhetris, placed all other castes in the categories of the ruled and required Dalits to serve both the rulers and ruled. Successive political systems have retained the essence of the Civil Code by sticking to caste in the matter of power sharing in the state. Thus, sustaining casteism in the political system will continue to deny Dalits their rightful position.
The failure to understand this dynamic of how the nuances of casteism are dominant in Nepali politics has become an institutional barrier to the collective action of Dalit. This has limited their vision to link their movement to a political ideology that aims to dismantle the caste system and pave the way for real democracy. Their so-called political participation, under the leadership of those who have been abusing them, has reduced the Dalit agenda to combating social but not political abuse.
Thus, a well-defined Dalit political position will provide them with the strength to combat frequent political abuse by detaching themselves from their oppressors. In the longer run, when a process of pulling out by excluded groups from their association to the caste-dominant political operation completes, necessity will give rise to the new force that the current Nepali psychology is seeking. In this new condition, Dalits will have to team up with other groups with rightful position in politics. A nation operating on “autopilot”, under an obsolete and unfair caste system, does not make sense for modern Nepal, and Brahmins and Chhetris themselves will not dismantle and the caste system and allow Dalits into the Cabinet.
Nepali is a Fulbright scholar studying International Relations at Georgetown University in Washington DC, the US