Every year, March 21, is observed as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The day calls for putting up more efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence including caste-based discrimination.
On May 24, 2011, Nepal’s legislature had passed the Bill on Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability. Its purpose was to end discriminatory practices against the lower caste people known as Dalits. Despite having such provisions in the law, Dalits are still regarded as impure and many of them are found living a miserable life. Over the years, much has been said and written to improve the condition of Dalits, all in vain. Sadly, instances of violence against Dalits have still been perpetrated.
Any discrimination based on caste is a punishable act, but hardly anyone is afraid as upper caste people openly defy the law. It is obvious that the state appears apathetic to implement the anti-caste law seriously. Emancipation of Dalits has remained confined within slogans only. Political leaders raise this issue now and then and draw attention of Dalits to win elections, but renege on their promises after winning the election.
Fear For Life
In many parts of the country, Dalits live under constant fear for their lives. The upper caste people don’t mind to mete out severe punishment to Dalits only if they violate the social norms practiced in the society since the time immemorial. Some time ago one Manabir Sunwar, a lower caste youth, was thrashed by the two men of upper caste. Later he breathed his last in the hospital. The poor youth had committed the crime of entering the kitchen of a local restaurant, which belonged to an upper caste person. There are innumerable instances where many Dalit men and women received brutal treatment at the hands of upper caste people. Some unfortunate ones have even lost their precious lives.
Several cases of abuse based on caste against Dalits have been reported across the country, but the perpetrators always get off lightly. The cases of rape and murder of Dalits have increased in the past a few years. But how many of them have received justice could be the subject of note. Reports have suggested that many Dalit women have been accused of witchcraft and thereafter violently beaten to death. The couples who dare inter-caste marriage must flee the village, leaving everything behind, or their death is inevitable. Dalits are not allowed to enter a temple or use public tap. Unfortunately, Dalits are not only oppressed by the upper caste Hindus, but also within the same community. There are upper caste and lower caste among Dalits. This has barred them united and stand together to fight against untouchability. It is also experienced that caste-based discrimination is more prevalent in the western region than in the eastern region of the country. This is obvious that caste-based oppression is more in the lowly development areas and vice versa.
Dalits have been forced to adopt caste-based work like black smith, goldsmith, tailoring, shoe mending, street cleaning, raising pigs and helping cremate the dead. Poverty is to blame why Dalits are not being able to raise their living standard and tugged to traditional occupations. Dalit women and their children have no option but to work in the households at a meager wage or sometimes even no wage is paid to them. They are contented with food and clothes they get in return for the work from dawn to dusk. Lack of education and skills make Dalit men and women unable to get lucrative jobs around them.
Education sector has also been hit hard by the untouchability. In many parts of the country, Dalits are not allowed to sit beside the students of upper castes. They have to sit at the windows to get their lessons taught in the classroom. They can’t even eat near the students of upper caste people. They should always maintain a healthy distance. All grants and scholarships are made sure to go to upper caste people while many talented Dalits are ignored. Not only students but also Dalit teachers are vastly discriminated. They are not promoted to higher posts where they could stand equal to upper caste teachers.
Caste-based discrimination can also be seen in the mainstream politics as well. Very rarely any Dalits occupy an important political position in any political parties. Political leaders give lip service and collect sympathy of Dalits and their votes. Frankly speaking, Dalits are used by the politicians for their vested interest. This is the reason why there are very few Dalit representatives in the parliament today. In fact, Nepali constitution has reserved 5% seats for women, but political parties seem reluctant to give any seats to Dalit women.
In most cases, Dalits are not allowed to practice Hindu rituals like other Hindus. This has encouraged them to join Christianity. Over the last two decades, more Dalits have joined in Christianity. Conversion into Christianity provides them self-respect and freedom within the Christian community. Fast conversion rate of Hindus, mostly Dalits, into Christianity is the testimony to this fact that more Dalits are embracing Christianity today than ever before.
To some extent, Dalits are accountable for the miserable condition of themselves. They are not united to fight the battle of caste-based discrimination. Not only has upper class Hindus discriminate Dalits, Dalits are also divided as they maintain caste-based hierarchy. Hence, intra-caste discrimination has left Dalit movement isolated and weak. Unless and until all Dalits stand on the same platform and fight for a common cause the Dalit movement cannot be strengthened. For many, the new constitution of the country has brought hope. Some stringent steps should be included in the new constitution where any caste-based discrimination must be pronounced a serious crime. The perpetrators must be penalized with a serious punishment that must discourage others to commit any crime against Dalits in future. Right to compensation should also be included in the constitution that should provide reparation to the victims of caste-based discrimination. At present, all lawmakers agree to abolish caste-based discrimination from the country. For this, they have agreed to bring a stringent law to enforce through new constitution. The government’s commitment to bring a strong and pragmatic law to deal with prevailed caste-based discrimination is a welcome idea indeed.
Change in Attitude
This is also assumed that merely legal provision is not enough to eliminate caste-based discrimination. Social attitude of the people towards Dalits should be changed. The youths of upper class Hindus should take initiation by socializing with Dalits. The first step should be taken from the villages where more Dalits are forced to live a life no better than animals. Electronic and print media can also play an important role to eradicate caste-based discrimination from the country. Media can educate people by propagating right kind of information. The essence of the message should be that no one is superior or inferior by birth. All people of the country are equal as the citizens of this country.
Economic status of Dalits should also be improved. The government should ensure that Dalits get proper education and employment opportunities. To encourage self-employment the government can provide special loan to Dalits. Access to education and employment can bring sea change in the social status of Dalits in the country.
We cannot deny the fact that racial discrimination has been deep rooted in Nepali society and in the psyche of the people. To bring a huge change in overnight is impossible, but a constant effort can bring positive change to a great deal. It is imperative that Dalit communities, the government, and the political parties must work in tandem to root out racial discrimination from the country. Any laws and government programs meant to uplift the economic and social status of the Dalits should be strictly enforced. Access to education must be made easy and available to one and all. Education alone can play a pivotal role to bring different castes, creeds and communities together and united.
(A Pokhara based freelance writer, LB Thapa writes regularaly forTRN).
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