The Dalits of Nepal and a New Constitution

Posted for consideration in the context of second Constituent Assembly Elections:

The Dalits of Nepal and a New Constitution: A Resource on the Situation of Dalits in Nepal, their Demands and the Implications for a new Constitution, compiled by: United Nations Development Programme Kathmandu, September 2008.



“Untouchability” does not exist – at least that is what one might conclude from reading the revised Muluki Ain, or Country Code, of 1963. Or the Constitution of 1990. Or the Declaration of the recalled Parliament in May 2006. Or the Interim Constitution. All of these have said that “No person shall, on the basis of caste, be discriminated against as untouchable” – or similar words. But the lived experience of the Dalits is quite to the contrary. Untouchability is only too much alive.

Dalits have not called bandhas or burned buses. There have been no special agreements with the government to amend the Interim Constitution to reflect their special needs. However, the provisions of the Interim Constitution and the election law and in particular the system of proportional representation have produced a far more representative Constituent Assembly (the CA) than Nepal has ever known. Moreover, with 49 representatives, this is by far the highest number of representatives that the Dalit community has ever attained. This situation does offer a chance for them to make a real impact on the deliberations of the CA.

One of the thorny issues that remain unsettled is the real population among different communities and caste groups. For example, while official data show that Janajatis constitute 37.8% and Madhesi 31.2% of the total population, these two groups argue that their populations have been underestimated and are higher than shown. Similarly, whereas the 2001 census recorded 13.8% Dalits, they would claim a higher percentage of about 20% to 25%.

In order to have real impact, and ensure that the new Constitution does more than record aspirations, Dalits need tools – facts and arguments to present to the CA. The purpose of this volume is to provide some of these tools. But, in the light of the repeated, and unsuccessful, efforts to make Untouchability a thing of the past, is there any point? Is it realistic for Dalits to rely on a new Constitution? Will it not be as much a broken reed as these other documents? Certainly it is important not to expect too much of constitutions. But a constitution is a beginning, it is a framework for a new future, and both legislation and changes of social attitudes will be required for effective improvement in their situation. The Dalits are not discouraged, but are determined to claim their rightful place in Nepali society. The UNDP is also optimistic. It is happy to have been associated with the development of the Dalit Charter, and with the current volume. The UNDP pledges that it will remain engaged with Dalits in turning the Charter into reality.

Robert Piper, Resident Representative, UNDP

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