Caste awayUntouchability and discrimination cannot be ended without strong state intervention
One morning last February, I had gone to look for an apartment with my sister who lives around the Kumari Club at Balkhu where she runs a tailoring shop. We went to her friend’s landlady because she was moving and I hoped to rent the room she would be vacating. The landlady told us to first check out the room. We found it to be okay and returned to the landlady and her son to say that we would be taking it. The landlady, a female Brahmin in her 60s, and her son asked us if we liked the apartment. I said that it was fine and just needed a new coat of paint. Her son said they would paint the room and then asked me where I was from, where I was presently living and how many family members would be living in the apartment. My answers satisfied them.
Then the mother asked me which caste I belonged to. “Bishwokarma,” I said. “Does Bishwokarma mean Kami, Damai or low caste?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “I am a Kami.” She became instantly hostile and shouted, “We will not give rooms to Kami, Damai or untouchable castes. I am old, and sometimes I need somebody to give me water. But we can never accept water from untouchables!” And so I was turned away by the Brahmin landlady.
Among all the varied racial and ethnic problems, untouchability is the most brutal and humiliating offence to human dignity. Being a Dalit is not just being deprived of one’s rights, it is also being involved in a process of psychological disintegration that educates us to accept inhumanity.
The above incident is one among many that I have confronted in my life because I am from a low caste. I have been forced to have my tea and snacks standing outside the restaurant and then wash the dirty dishes myself. I have never eaten with my classmates in my high school dining room. I have been denied access to public taps, springs and temples. My high caste friends, teachers, leaders, cadres and the whole country tell me that if I become educated, clean and rich, I will be accepted by society. I am all these things, but I am still disparaged. The caste system and untouchability exist in Hindu society based on work and descent. It does not matter if Dalits are educated, wealthy and healthy. Once they say they are Kami, Damai or Sarki, they are openly discriminated against. If I hide my caste and say that I am a Karki (a Chhetri caste), I can easily rent a room.
Hundreds of thousands of Dalits who are educated or even highly educated are victimised by the so-called high caste people, regardless of whether they are educated, uneducated, wealthy, poor, rural or urban. I would strongly declare that all high castes (Brahmins to Janajatis) have the same discriminatory mindset if they follow the Hindu rituals of purity and pollution. However, there is a tiny number of revolutionary high caste people who have stood up against the caste-based system and untouchability practices, and have freed their lives individually and made their homes untouchability-free. I salute them, but I am not fully convinced that the high castes will change their views on caste because of individual prosperity and high education levels. The Brahmins, Chhetris and Newars, who are the most educated and wealthiest, seem to be the most conservative with regard to caste-based practices and are more oppressive than other population groups.
There have been lots of attempts to break and eliminate caste-based prejudices and untouchability practices nationally and internationally. But there has been little progress, and atrocities against Dalits continue in South Asia. In January, a 26-year-old Indian PhD student, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide after being subjected to constant caste-based oppression and discrimination. It was reported on the International Dalit Solidarity Network that his suicide was a direct outcome of exclusion and caste oppression by the University of Hyderabad.
A long structured caste system cannot be abolished only by individual attempts without strong state intervention. If there had been state intervention, I would easily have rented a room in a high-caste home in Kathmandu. If education and wealth were the most important factors to change casteist attitudes, Rohith Vemula would still be alive. If it is true that educated and wealthy people will remove untouchability, the Brahmins, Chhetris and Newars would already have thrown out the caste
system. If individual attempts could break caste structures, inter-caste couples would not be fleeing their villages.
I do not mean to discourage individual attempts to break the caste system, but they are only secondary endeavours.
In Nepal, the caste system and untouchability practices were structured and entrenched by the state and society. It became more rigid when the state imposed the first legal code in 1854 which divided Nepali society into five major categories and laid down offences and punishments on the basis of caste. Therefore, I strongly claim that without the strong will and intervention of the state, the structured caste-based discrimination will not disappear merely through individual acts of bravery. However, such efforts must continue, and the state must encourage and reward such individual acts of bravery. Furthermore, the state must actively conduct a ‘great campaign’ against caste-based discrimination and untouchability, and offenders must be punished instantly. I am awaiting such justice from our leftist-led government to which I contributed personally. Thousands of Dalits sacrificed their lives in their campaigns to fulfil revolutionary aspirations during the People’s War and the 2006 April Movement.
BK is pursuing an MPhil in Sociology at Tribhuvan University