Legal Education Empowers Dalits

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Nepal has made a significant stride in eliminating caste-based discrimination and untouchability both constitutionally and legally. Particularly, Articles 24 and 40 of the constitution and the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offense and Punishment) Act 2011 have recognised the discrimination against Dalits as serious social crime and punishable offense. Similarly, Dalit activists and organisations have challenged discriminatory practices and behaviours.  Despite these positive changes, Dalits continue to endure various forms of caste-based discriminations and atrocities. Most Dalits are confined to traditionally assigned roles and occupations that limit their access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities. Legal education is, therefore, one of the important weapons to break this systemic barrier and increase Dalit community’s access to justice. 

The root of caste-based discrimination can be traced back to Muluki Ain (Country Code) of 1854 that severely affected Dalits’ socio-economic and cultural status in the society. Even today, significant number of Dalits are denied access to justice due to structural barriers and lack of awareness. Furthermore, there is a minimal number of lawyers who possess a thorough understanding of the caste system and socio-political power dynamics from a caste perspective, as well as empathy towards the Dalit community. Consequently, a large portion of the Dalit population is suffering from injustice and inequality. 

According to the 2021 National Census, there are nearly 4 million Dalits (13.4 per cent of the total population) in the country. The total number of licensed lawyers in the registration pool of Nepal Bar Council is 20,552. Of them, Dalit lawyers are less than 1 per cent. Similarly, the presence of Dalits in the scheduled legal posts in government service is abysmal. None has become a judge from Dalit community in the Supreme Court yet. Although there is reservation quota for the Dalits in higher education, there are fewer number of Dalit enrollees. Very few cases related to caste discrimination are settled in the court. 

Genocide

In a case related to genocide in which Nabaraj BK and his friends were brutally killed in Rukum West, the District Court gave justice to the families of the deceased. Lawyers from Dalit community have played significant role to defend this case. But, the case of the murder of Ajit Mijar is still waiting for the verdict. In recent past, a media person Rupa Sunar’s case about not renting room to the Dalits and distortion of Dailekh’s Kabiram Kami’s name in the citizenship as ‘Kukur Kami’ drew much of media attention. On the other hand, the constitutional body - National Dalit Commission (NDC) - lacks expertise and resources to deal with the caste-related cases. Majority of the cases go unnoticed in the judiciary process. The incidents of caste-based violence mainly take place when Dalits use public spaces, participate in socio-religious functions and enter inter-caste relationship. 

The existing constitutional and legal provisions against caste-based discrimination and untouchability seem to be strong but the enforcement of them is challenging. There is a critical need for a substantial number of skilled Dalit lawyers capable of handling cases in the community. Dalit lawyers can play a pivotal role in community empowerment, advocacy and judicial transformation. Such lawyers can also navigate and lead the complex socio-political movements. Dalit lawyers will internalise the Dalits’ cases and fight for the rights empathetically. Therefore, it is imperative to encourage and support Dalit youths to go to law school. To make it happen, the government’s role in making substantial investment to produce the new generation of legal eagles from Dalit community is highly important.

Those young scholars may have grown up watching their communities and families experiencing caste-based discriminations and injustices. Each may have some stories of violence, neglect, and exploitation. By carefully engaging in legal activism, the prospective lawyers can contribute to the ongoing struggle for justice and equality for the Dalit community. Lawyers from the targeted community not only challenge the existing practices but also promote social justice in several grounds. 

In the U.S, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) played an instrumental role in producing competent lawyers from the Black Community, who subsequently developed their law careers to advocate for the rights of apartheid people. Figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., E.B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall and Oprah Winfrey are the outcomes of these interventions. Late Olga Davis Murray, a prominent figure in the establishment of 'Affirmative Law’ in the California Supreme Court, firmly advocated the critical importance of legal education for the marginalised community in advancing human rights, inclusivity, and social justice. Her contribution in educating the prospective Dalit lawyers through Nepal Youth Foundation is remarkable.

The growing interest in pursuing a legal career among the students from marginalised groups shows their promising future. It is essential to enforce law as the constitutional safeguard. Universities within the country should have the provision to provide scholarship for the students from Dalit and other marginalised community in their law schools instead of merely allocating seats for admission. Access to legal education needs to be considered as en route to access in justice. Most importantly, the line ministry and university authorities should increase the admission quota and support scheme for Dalit students in law faculty. The inclusivity in justice institutions will be established if the concerned authorities become pragmatic in giving access to legal education to the marginalised community students. 

Inclusivity 

The access to justice begins from filing the First Information Report (FIR) to breaking the malpractice of ‘Mediation’ in sensitive cases of caste-based discrimination and subsequent misdeeds during investigations of the caste-related cases. The underrepresentation of Dalits and other marginalised groups within the judiciary is a sort of structural barrier that needs an immediate intervention. The authors of ‘Why Nations Fail’ have astutely stated that the relative success of nations is due not to geography, culture, or ignorance, but rather to how inclusive their public institutions are. 

Hence, a true sense of inclusivity will be promoted with the arrival of new generation legal defenders from the marginalised community. Given the highly exclusionary nature of our judicial system, it is imperative that efforts are made to make it more inclusive. The scope of legal education needs to be expanded with an equitable opportunity to bring the right person in right place. Yet, the meritocracy within the targeted community either for higher studies or employment should be ensured fairly.

(Regmi is associated with the Nepal Youth Foundation and Sunar is the executive head of Dignity Initiative)

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