Dilemma of Dalit movement in Nepal

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Nepal’s Dalit movement face and existential crisis as attempt are being made that it does not stand on its own and depend on the various ideological formations in the name of ideology, politics or development. The Hindu Nepal had relegated Dalits to a position prescribed to them under the Manu’s law and remote areas still function on those ‘traditions’ and ‘cultures’ which were strengthened by the monarchy.  However, there is a lot of churning in Nepal after people threw away its Hindu Monarchy and opted for a secular constitution. It decided to give wider political representation to Dalits and other ethnic minorities resulting in a substantial presence (though still much below their population percentage) in the Constituent Assembly. In the first CA (after the peace accord)  there were nearly 50 members from the community in the Assembly of 601 which was about 8.32% representation of a community which is officially 13.5% of Nepal’s total population though independent experts suggest that Dalit population in Nepal is not less than 20%.  This representation of Dalits was due to a serious commitment shown by the Maoists towards the Dalit issue particularly related to land reforms which attracted huge number of people to them.  The percentage of the Dalit representatives elected during the recently held elections of Constituent Assembly have drastically reduced and has shocked political analysts and Dalit Rights activists who felt that this has happened due to faulty electoral system.

Nepal has a mixed Member Electoral system in which 52% elected representative comes through First Past The Post System (FPTP) and rest 48% have to be elected through Proportionate Electorate System ( PES). There is no provision of reservation for the Dalits in the FPTP and hence it is difficult for them to get elected.  Actually in the last CA just 7 members belonging to Dalit community won through FPTP out of 18 candidates put up by different political parties and rest 43 were elected through the proportionate electorate system. In the current election of Parliament just one member got elected through FPTP and rest won through the PES. There was no provision of ensuring the Dalit representation which remains highly insufficient in the Constituent Assembly of Nepal.

At the time when the new constitution is being drafted the fair representation of Dalits and other ethnic minorities is essential so that their interests are protected. Unfortunately, in the absence of independent identity of the Dalit movements in Nepal, political parties seemed to be unaccountable to this approach resulting in substantial reduction in the Dalit representation in Constituent Assembly. In fact many Dalit political leaders have expressed their concern on the issue. The reason for Dalit issues being left to the mercy of the caste Hindu dominated political parties are very clear as no independent Dalit movement has taken shape in Nepal. Thousands of NGOs exists ‘working’ for the Dalits apart from t ‘social movements’ which are actually ‘action’ side of political parties as well as NGOs working on different issues. The mainstream political parties rarely raised the issue.

Dalits do not have reservation in the government services and their percentage is far below in these services. Though, it is true that Nepal’s political parties as well as government is quiet keen on speaking about untouchability and caste discrimination in public and supported the law against it in the United Nations, the fact is that there is strong resistance among the people when the question of representation comes. People accept that ‘they’ should be ‘helped’ but feel very much like the upper caste Hindus in India that ‘jobs’ should not be ‘reserved’ as it would affect ‘merit’. In fact, I was shocked to see the reactions of students at a law college in Kathmandu where I spoke on the issue of social justice, participation and representation of the Dalits. The students were not ready to take the matter that easily and questioned and counter questioned.

In the political turmoil of Nepal, Maoists actually took up the Dalit question a bit more seriously than their other political counterparts. The issue of land reform was very important as the entire edifice of the feudal structure is based on heavy accumulation of land in some hands. Unlike, Indian Communist Parties, Nepal’s CPN gave representation at senior level to many Dalits said Tilak Pariyar, a very respected a senior party member of the Communist Party of Nepal.  Hailing from a Darjee community (tailoring work) which is one of the large Dalit communities in Nepal, Tilak Periyar said that he faced caste discrimination during his growing days but the Maoist movement fought against both the caste discrimination as well as feudal structure of the Nepalese society.  However, my own experience is that both Prachanda and Babu Rai Bhattarai have never used the opportunity to speak against social tyranny of the brahmanical system and continued with term ‘feudalism’. Nepalese leadership cannot blame ‘imperialists’ for the caste system like many ‘brahmanical’ scholars do in India blaming the British rulers to ‘divide’ our society.  Mr Tilak Periyar blamed the leadership of Prachanda for not taking the Dalit issues seriously and ignoring their leadership. His party has broken up with Prachanda and returning to prepare ‘Jan Vidroh’ as they feel that Parliamentary form of democracy is just manipulations and would not allow them to make pro people legislations.

However, despite all setbacks and internal differences, Nepal owes its democracy and rise of Dalit assertion to Maoists. Hundreds of young leaders have emerged and want to make a change. Today, political parties are responding to the issue of Dalits in political structure though in the second phase of the elections for Constituent Assembly, the representation of Dalits has reduced and political parties are maneuvering the entire issue so that no further compensation is granted to Dalits. Many activists have appealed to the government to ensure the Dalits get representation according to their population in the Constituent Assembly so that there issues are properly debated and discussed. In fact, the electoral system that Nepal has today is because of the Maoists forced the political parties to opt for proportionate electorate system though the political parties who are manipulating and subverting the democratic process to deny the ethnic minorities and Dalits a fair share want Nepal to revert back to First Past the Post System which produced more symbolic democracy during the King’s regime with almost no representation from the marginalized sections of society. Nepal will have to guard against this onslaught and sinister design of many such political parties which want to follow the Indian pattern which nothing but manipulation of the corporate and caste forces.

Nepal started building up institutions for the benefits of Dalits. It has formed various autonomous bodies like National Human Rights Commission, National Dalit Commission and National Women’s Commission. However the effectiveness and efficacy of these Commissions is still questionable including the power they enjoy.

At the World Conference against Untouchability organized by International Humanist and Ethical Union and other organizations from Nepal including Nepal Dalit Commission, a member of Constituent Assembly boasted in glory how they have been able to get the word ‘Dalit’ into Constitution of Nepal unlike India where the official term is ‘scheduled castes’. While the Nepal’s political leadership felt proud of it, there is an inherent danger as I warned many of them during the conference. Our constitutional forefathers were more visionary in this regard. Baba Saheb Ambedkar actually understood the diversity of the untouchable communities and hence all those castes were scheduled for clarity and representation purposes. Some time in boasting one big identity, we ignore the diversity of castes in it and later some communities dominate the entire spectrum while majority of others suffers silently.

While I do not wish to sound negative but the fact is that in popular discourse on Dalits in Nepal, we do not hear much about Mushahars, Mehtars (manual scavengers), Doms, chamars, Halkhors (Ploughman) etc. In fact, I doubt if there is any survey existing on the conditions of these communities who remained most marginalized and untouchable. The dominant discourse of untouchability is led by Kamis i.e. Vishwkarmas who are Lohars (ironsmith) or Darjee (tailors) or Sunars (gold smith). In fact, Nepal’s Dalit commission should look into the gradation of untouchability and decide about it. I do not know whether Vishwakarmas or Sunars in UP and Bihar were ever untouchables because it is these regions which are bordering Nepal and share almost same caste order and traditions. No doubt, Kamis are around 30% of the total Dalit population followed by Sunars and Darjee. The fact is most the leadership in all sector also emerged from these communities too. If all the communities and particularly the most marginalized one do not get fair representation in political structure and government jobs the Dalit movement for a cohesive identity will not grow resulting in the non-represented communities aligning with the power elite becoming pawn in the political chessboard. Nepal will have to focus on communities which are engaged in degraded traditional practices such as manual scavenging, cremating the dead bodies, Badis which is engaged in prostitution and Mushahars. A majority of these communities are completely landless and non-represented. They suffer from internal untouchability too and are thoroughly isolated.

Mr Sita Ram Mandal, the acting chairman of Nepal Dalit Commission actually conceded to me in an interview that many of the marginalized communities are not represented anywhere in Nepal. Mushahars have a fairly large presence in Nepal but highly under represented. He also pointed out that the Mehtar community exists in Nepal but could not provide me any data about their numbers in the entire country. It is important to note whether Nepal has manual scavenging practices or not. It is great if Nepal does not have manual scavenging but if it has then it is the biggest failure of the social movements in Nepal for their inability to get deep into the practice and how to eliminate it.

There is acceptance of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar in the Dalit movement in Nepal and many claim themselves as Ambedkarite but there are very few among them who want to convert to Buddhism as a change. Most of them want to remain with their caste identities or fight without being religious.  Dr Ambedkar had visited Nepal in 1956 to attend World Buddhist Conference and was very disturbed to see the plight of the untouchables there. He visited many villages and basties in Lalitpur and Deopatan area of Kathmandu and expressed his disappointment. One of the great Dalit leaders Late Mohan Lal Kapali took Dr Ambedkar to various places where living conditions were utterly pathetic. According to Om Prakash Gahatraj, a leading Ambedkarite in Nepal, ‘When Baba Saheb visited Dalit Basti (Area) and saw the worst condition of Dalits, he became angered against the attitude of Nepal Govt. towards Dalits of Nepal. Seeing the anger mood of Baba Sahib, the liaison officer who was associated on behalf of Govt. in the visit reported the anger of Baba Saheb to the Prime Minister of Nepal (Mr. Tanka Prasad Acharya). After the return of Baba Saheb to the Guest House (Sital Nivas), Then Prime Minister Hon. Acharya invited Baba Saheb to his residence to talk about this matter. When Baba Saheb showed his reluctance to go in his residence, Hon Acharya himself came to the Sital Nivas and assured to Baba Saheb to give due attention to the development of Dalits’.

The Dalit movement has not grown independently in Nepal with a clear debrahmanised ideological shape. It will have to ally with other likeminded groups. There is another factor which is religious too. Nepal has remained deeply entrenched to Brahmanical ritualistic beliefs which have become part and parcel of people. There are same regions for defeat of Communist movement as in India because none of them led the social revolt against Brahmanical hierarchy. In the absence of such unambiguous agenda, many times movement falls in the hands of those who may talk of liberation in purely ‘political terms’ but not challenging the social hierarchy and cultural practices which Baba Saheb Ambedkar felt the root cause of oppression of the Dalits.

Maoist leaders like Tilak Periyar accept Ambedkar’s contribution but not ready to accept all his views particularly related to religion. Actually, during my all interaction, I found, this was the most uncomfortable question to all the leaders which they felt that Buddhism has done nothing to emancipate Dalits. The Marxists blamed Ambedkar for failing to understand Marx and taking a religious route ignoring completely the great speech he delivered in Kathmandu in 1956 where he found the point of convergence between Buddha and Marx as well as their differences. Obviously, this issue needs to elaborate separately.

The positive side is that the growth of the leaders particularly women in the Dalit movement. Obviously Nepal is developing two ways. One side, political representation and other side the civil society. The Maoists decry the NGOs as the agent of imperialism but then very much participate in their activities too in the name of social movements. The National Commission for Dalits needs to be strengthened and more resources need to be allocated to such commissions so that they can do independent studies to find out the status of various untouchable communities.

Nepal’s government has been very positive for an international law against caste discrimination unlike the government of India which has always blocked and defamed the organisations. In fact, India never agreed internationally that untouchability exists. This is brazen shamelessness. Whether India or Nepal, they will never shine unless and until all forms of untouchability cease to exists. Dalits in Nepal have no other option than to stand up and seize the opportunity and compel the political forces to accept to their demand and bring strong provisions for protecting their rights and for that they will have to make ideological alliances who stand with their issues through thick and thin leaving aside their ‘political’ manipulations. Most of the people are frustrated with the political class who they feel are compromising to community interest and promoting themselves. Such practices will only go if the movement is strong and compel political forces to act according to community needs and desires. India is shining example of both success stories and failures of the Dalit movement. Nepal can learn from our successes as well as failures.

Such alliances are necessary as political changes in India affect Nepal too and at the moment right wing Hindutva forces too are operative in Nepal. Their agenda is to use the political uncertainity for their purposes and pitch the Dalits against the religious minorities. The VHP chief Ashok Singhal’s statement of converting Nepal to a Hindu country is very much in the minds of people. Therefore, it will be important for the Dalit social movement and political parties to reach beyond mere identity politics and focus on ideological similarities as the circumstances in Nepal are much more favorable towards the Dalits movement and their ideological allies than in India. The political churning and various struggles has created situation whether they will have to come together with likeminded people without losing their identities and ideological positions but with a common minimum programme.

Source: Northern Voice Online as posted at http://nvonews.com/dilemma-of-dalit-movement-in-nepal/ on May 11, 2014.

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