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Anthropology: Considering Dalits and Political Identity in Imagining New Nepal

“My point is not to refute the legitimacy of Dalit activists’ claims as they craft modern political identities. Rather, I wish to show how these claims only partially mirror the complexities of rural Dalits’ agency of resistance within a socioeconomic context that must be considered in finding paths to social justice in the new Nepal.”

– Dr. Mary M. Cameron, Florida Atlantic University, United States.

Abstract:
In this article I examine the articulation between contexts of agency within two kinds of discursive and complimentary forms of self and group identity that emerge from demarcating social perimeters with political and economic consequences. The first involves a provocative border created around groups of people called Dalit by activists negotiating the symbols of identity politics in the country’s post-revolution democracy. Here subjective agency is expressed as political identity with attendant desires for social equality and power-sharing. The second context of Dalit agency emerges between people and groups as they engage in inter caste economic exchanges called riti maagnay in mixed caste communities that subsist on interdependent farming and artisan activities. Here caste distinctions are evoked through performed communicative agency that both resists domination and affirms status difference. Through this examination we find the rural terrain that is home to landless and poor rural Dalits only partially mirrors that evoked by Dalit activists as they struggle to craft modern identities. The sources of data analyzed include ethnographic field research conducted during various periods from 1988-2005, and discussions that transpired throughout 2007 among Dalit activist members of an internet discussion group called nepaldalitinfo.

Excerpts:

WAITING
“In the last week of November in 2006, forty-one ears after the United Nation’s General Assembly adopted for ratification the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination ICERD 1965), thirty-five years after His Majesty’s Government of Nepal ratified it, six years after the National Human Rights Commission was established by mandate of the 1997 Nepal Human Rights Commission Act, four years after the Nepali government established the National Dalit Commission, and one week after the landmark peace agreement between home-grown Maoist rebels and the Nepali government, a Dalit woman sat alone on the familiar steps outside a Thakuri home in far western Bajhang district of Nepal. [1] Through the clear night air Durga could hear from the third floor kitchen above her the slapping sound of fresh wheat dough and the clinking of heavy silver bracelets, as the Thakuri family’s eldest daughter-in-law prepared the evening meal of roti and vegetable curry. It was a cold evening, and a late autumn wind blew down from Khaptad Lekh. The figure on the steps hugged her bony legs closer to her chest and tightened the threadbare shawl around her thin frame. Her meal that evening would not begin until she returned home with the salt and spices she was now awaiting from the landlady. “Ama” I called to her. “Aren’t you cold? Why is she taking so long?” As she had for so many years, through four children and nine grandchildren, the now elderly widow beseeched her Thakuri patrons inside the house to “have pity on me, I have so little at home to eat and I want to cook my potatoes with some salt and turmeric. Please give me only a small handful of salt and a piece of turmeric root.” Decades of sewing clothing and repairing shawls for the landowning family, first alongside her husband and then with the elder two of her three sons, had earned her the right – she hardly considered it a privilege – to ask the wealthy Thakuri landowners for help in times of need such as she experienced this night. But the obligatory waiting that was the customary sign of subservience for so-called lower castes seemed only to get longer, in spite of government proclamations that caste discrimination must end and that those who violated Dalit rights would be brought to justice. In spite of national laws, Durga herself witnessed recent incidents when Dalit students were barred from the local high school activities involving the worship of Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Durga wondered how those people – the young and defiant Maoist followers with their bright red scarves and flapping banners who until recently had assembled in the once-active school yard near her Dalit community – were ever going to help her. he could not dream of seeing changes so great in her lifetime that she would be free from being a lower status person, a juto manche (impure person), a nachhune manche (not touchable person).

“Two months later in the new year of 2007, in the capital city of Kathmandu and in small and large cities around the world, a related discussion was underway, a debate among Dalits about who they are, what they should be called, and whether to relinquish or to retain those symbols attached to their Dalit status. Durga, of course, did not participate, and indeed, was only partially a subject of their discussions, focusing as they did primarily on men’s concerns. Yet she lived in the kind of place the discussants often evoked when referring to the persistence of caste discrimination in Nepal, namely, the rural farming communities to which urban Nepalis often point as reservoirs of conservative, non literate and backward conditions. I will suggest in this article that activists’ struggle over Dalit identity politics in Nepal’s new democracy might be challenged to include other agencies of resistance found in the lived experiences of rural Dalits like Durga, specifically in the context of economic transactions that daily frame their lives. My point is not to refute the legitimacy of Dalit activists’ claims as they craft modern political identities. Rather, I wish to show how these claims only partially mirror the complexities of rural Dalits’ agency of resistance within a socioeconomic context that must be considered in finding paths to social justice in the new Nepal.”

– Dr. Mary M. Cameron, Florida Atlantic University, United States.

Link to fulltext:
http://www.fau.edu/anthro/documents/Considering_Dalits_and_Political_Identity.pdf
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[1] . A scene drawn from field observations in Bajhang recorded during the years 1978-2001.

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