Read, write and bring about changesThe Dalit voice is seldom heard in the mainstream, but its time we changed that
One of the most difficult things about dealing with injustice is finding effective ways to talk about it. This is especially true for Nepal’s Dalit communities, who are far behind the national average on all human development indicators. Their poverty rate is 48 percent; the children’s chronic malnutrition rate is at 60 percent; the food deficiency among Dalits is 85 percent; and their life expectancy is only 48 years.
Far below the national average in education, they lack tools and resources to engage in public discourses. Only 43 percent of Nepal’s Dalits are literate. In most public schools and colleges, where a larger majority of Dalits send their children for education, children often complain of not getting the teachers’ full attention and support. A small number are university graduates and a tiny handful can write and speak with the ability to engage broader audiences. A few Dalits reach the positions from where they can make a difference in social policy and national priorities.
Particularly challenging is engaging the policy-makers who know nothing about the Dalit struggles or are unwilling to understand them. Many believe caste-based discrimination happens only in villages, but many “higher caste” urban landlords hesitate renting out houses or rooms to Dalits. While they can talk about justice, they scruple about allowing their sons or daughters to marry Dalits. They refer to the laws prohibiting untouchability to claim no discrimination, but the same bunch of people turn a blind eye when Nepal’s law enforcement agencies coerce victims to settle the cases outside the legal channels. The so-called higher castes claim to not discriminate, but ironically, immediately ask about your caste for an introduction.
At this key moment of transition in Nepal not speaking up is not an option; even when doing so is risky. After 10 years of civil war and 10 years of the constitutional writing process, Nepal is implementing the 2015 Constitution for building an inclusive federal republic. Dalits, just as other Nepalis, must speak up to assert for their basic human rights such as to live an equal and dignified life.
It is imperative we do everything in our capacity to make sure stories of social injustices are heard in policymaking. For this, the importance of training and mentoring of aspiring Dalit writers and changemakers cannot be overstated. This is because only through investing in skill development can they develop the skills required for communicating complex social issues, conducting research and analysis and enhancing confidence to raise voices.
It is in this context that Dalit Reader —a writing workshop, has taken an innovative approach for creating a transformative discourse framework for social justice. It piloted two sixteen-weeks writing workshops to explore issues of marginalisation and how to overcome them.The appeal of these initiatives for younger writers has been instantaneous, and so have the results. Numerous articles are appearing in mainstream Nepali newspapers, giving voices to otherwise unpublished experiences and ideas, and showing how those paradoxes can be overcomed.
But writing about injustice will necessarily contain personal and emotional stories. Inexperienced writers will share their stories without sufficiently supported arguments or reference to relevant policy documents. The“everyday” language some of them use will further generalise rebuke against perpetrators to implicate mainstream readers, rather than, for instance, inviting policy-level dialogue.
Yet having said that, it is necessary to maintain “analytical distance” while exploring issues of policy concern. The trick lies in striking a fine balance between subjective elements and objective evidences of marginalisation. Unless Dalit writers connect and situate their stories with larger issues of advancing policy change, simply raising voices will be futile.
So, for instance, their stories of malnutrition become evidence for explaining how ‘land acts’ have left Dalits without any land to cultivate food for their twice a day meals. Another participant Shushma Baraili reveals, “We need to cover Dalit issues with proper analysis and go beyond the anecdotes and the usual conversation of untouchability.” She thinks one must focus on structures, institutions, and policies while having a conversation on systemic discrimination to avoid unwanted confrontation.
The journey has just started with Dalit Reader’s training for a young generation of Dalit and non-Dalit youths to give voice to issues of Dalit struggles.What remains to be achieved is the fundamental objective: making policies more effective and inclusive of the most marginalised communities.
At present those who have been silenced the most need the tools, skills, and platforms for speaking up the most. This means that we need to provide many more Dalits the training to share and make sense of their experiences in effective, impactful ways. Only then can they collectively tackle the many paradoxes they face as they deal with issues of grave structural injustices and inequalities
Empowering one individual writer at a time is perhaps the most powerful method for tackling the many challenges faced by those seeking greater social justice. A far larger mass of Dalit writers and intellectuals can follow these few individuals and influence Nepal’s policy-making for the good health of the nation. For our society to tackle many complex paradoxes of social change toward greater justice, any small step we can take, any humble contribution we can make will count a great deal.
Nepali is a research, policy analyst, and a Dalit Reader activist