It is very heartrending that caste-based prejudices persist in this world of the 21st century. Dalits, also known as ‘untouchables’, have suffered, for generations, public shaming due to structural barriers, caste-based social system, and continue to face widespread atrocities across the country even today. The ‘murder’ of Nawaraj BK and his five friends in Rukum West recently is just the tip of the iceberg.
Caste-based discrimination exists in other South Asian countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. In Nepal, the Dalit population make up 13.12% of the country’s population, but they have been abused for as long as anyone can remember.
Occasionally, the incidents of discrimination have even escalated into murder, with at least 16 caste-based killings reported since the Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Act came into force in 2011. According to Jagaran Media Centre, there have been 31 documented cases of physical violence against Dalits during the lockdown period (since March 24, 2020, till today). Such cases of discrimination rarely reach court and even if they result in convictions, the offenders are given small fines or minimal jail time of a few months.
Crimes are happening across the country. Dalits are not simply killed; they are humiliated, tortured, disfigured, and destroyed. Is not this a kind of mental illness? Up to when will they be paying a price for their equality and freedom?
Dalits in Nepal and other countries experience discrimination at every level of their daily lives, either in limited employment and educational opportunities they have accessed or while simply collecting water. They face residential segregation and physical and social isolation. They become landless, capital-less, asset-less, and thus poor and underprivileged. They are forced to live like slaves.
For decades, Nepal has struggled to criminalise caste-based discrimination and untouchability. The National Code (Muluki Ain) 1963 also aimed at making caste-based discrimination a punishable offence. Since then, a few affirmative programmes have been introduced to improve the Dalits’ situation, but they have generated deep resentment among upper-caste people. Today, there are very few educated Dalit civil service officers, and professionals of other sectors. Besides them, Dalits still fall behind, indicating that caste-based discrimination is still alive and well in the workplace and other places. Shy of revealing their identity, many Dalits hide their caste and wish if they were born into a different caste.
Such prejudice remains alive even in educated, middle-class circles. They dehumanise Dalits, beat them up and parade naked if a Dalit touches their food or water taps. Many Dalit children have suffered a nightmare at schools where they are heavily discriminated against for belonging to the Dalit community. Many adults have been rejected by their lovers just because of their caste. At the same time, uncounted Dalit women have been gang-raped and forcibly married to their alleged rapists from a dominant caste. It is painful to recall those incidents not only because of the way they were discriminated against but because even today, people continue to believe in high and low castes.
However, something good is also happening in society. Of late, international organisations have been expressing their concerns over caste-based violence. After the Nawaraj BK murder last month, the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter is being widely promoted on social media as part of a campaign to give voice to stories of discrimination and ways to combat prejudice.
Laws and affirmative action policies have facilitated more representation of Dalits in state affairs, but attitudes on the ground have remained unchanged. In this horrible moment, the National Dalit Commission, formed in 2015 as per the new constitution to oversee Dalit issues, should strengthen legal protection for Dalits. Relates laws should be strictly implemented.
Dalits themselves, NGOs, and leaders from political parties should cash in on these provisions and put pressure on the government to frame the right policies. The change must start with various grassroots movements through the practical education of social inclusion.
Most importantly, Dalits should be united and push their agendas on their own. Nobody will fight for their equal right and justice as effectively as they can.
Pun has a master’s degree in social work from Tribhuvan University.