Federalism doesn’t make qualitative difference to Dalits

Similar to other marginalised and oppressed groups, the Dalits placed a great hope on a progressive constitution that would correct historical wrongs and enshrine their rights, says Padam Sundas, a veteran civil society activist and the Chairperson of Nepal Dalit Literature and Culture Academy. But their hope of a progressive constitution have been dashed (for now) with the demise of the Constituent Assembly. The Post’s Gyanu Adhikari spoke with Sundas to get a perspective on current political developments, as well as the social problems faced by the Dalits. Sundas, originally from Bhojpur, is a board member of Samata Foundation, a think tank in Kathmandu enaged in policy research and advocacy for the Dalits.  Excerpts:

In the aftermath of the demise of the Constituent Assembly, the Janajati activists are planning a new party.  Is there a possibility of a Dalit party as well?

No, the reasons for oppression of Dalits and Janajatis are different, and so are the populations. Janajati groups tend to live in a block whereas Dalits are spread out. There are no places where the Dalits can win elections on a caste/ethnic (jatiya) platform, except perhaps a few constituencies in Saptari/Siraha Baglung/Parbat, and some places in the Karnali.

What about the possibility of Dalits joining the Janajati party?

Around May 27, there was a clear division between those who wanted a progressive, federal constitution versus those who wanted to maintain the status quo. The Dalits haven’t supported the federal agenda wholeheartedly because, qualitatively, it doesn’t matter. The Dalits are not asking for a state. It’s also true that Hill Dalits have distinct relationship with Khas Arya community. The Dalits in the Tarai have those relationships with other Madhesis. There are Dalits within Janajatis too, for example the Newars and Sherpas. So even if Dalits will not join the Janajati party, as members of oppressed groups, they’ll support the agenda.

Among the four major political forces today—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, UCPN (Maoists), and Madhesi parties—which is most supportive of the Dalit agenda?

The Dalit movement has always supported the progressive side. To be honest, the reason a huge number of Dalits joined the 10-year Maoist insurgency was because the way Maoists looked at the jatiya issues was practical.The Maoists said that Dalit issue will only be solved together with caste/ethnic issue. The Dalits were with the NC in the 1950 (2007) in its battle for democracy. It was with the leftist forces in the movement against Panchayat. Huge number of Dalits joined CPN-UML after the 1990’s movement, only to be disappointed. Today, I think about 90 percent of the Dalits are with the Maoists.

How has the representation of Dalits in various parliaments changed?

No party believes that a Dalit can win elections. Historically, before the CA, the only Dalit person to win an election was Krishna Singh Pariyar from Nepalgunj. He won on a NC ticket. But the Maoist party fielded large number of Dalit candidates in the direct elections for the CA, and seven of them won. Before the CA, when there was an interim parliament, the Maoists brought 12 Dalits to the parliament. Ultimately, the fact that there were in total 50 Dalit members from all parties in the CA and they could come together on issues was a contribution of the Maoists.

What did the Dalits gain from this representation?

The biggest losers of the CA’s demise have been Nepal’s women and Dalits. In the CA, 99 percent of the demands of the Dalits had been passed  (that’s why Dalit sympathy is towards CA revival than new CA elections). The new constitution would have made ‘untouchablility’ a serious crime (Jaghanya aparadh). Dalit rights would’ve been enshrined as fundamental right, something that hasn’t happened even in India. We wanted proportional representation and additional ‘special’ rights as a compensation for past injustices. We didn’t want a state, or a non-territorial state, because—once the Dalit issue is over—the community hill Dalits are going to dissolve (antarghulit) is with the Khas community. Similarly, the Tarai Dalits will dissolve within the Madesi community. Same with the Newari Dalits etc. It’s because the cultural and linguistic traits are the same, and once the problem of untouchability (Chuwachhut) is over, the communities will become one. Unlike the The Janajati movement, which is to preserve the culture and language, the Dalit movement is not forever.

Turning to the differences within Dalits, do you see differences in terms of Hill and Tarai?

They have different status. The Hill Dalits are ahead in terms of education, health and employment. The worst conditions for the Dalits exist in the Madhes, from east to west.

Why is that?

Madhesi and Hill Dalits couldn’t rise together. The biggest problem in the Madhes is that of education, and of land. More than fifty percent of

Dalits in Madhes are landless. Even after the Madhesi movement, the Madhesi parties and the Madhesis haven’t changed their perspective of the Dalits. One or two Dalits may be there in the parties as tokens but the actual position of Dalits in the Madhes is very weak.

Let’s talk about untouchability, the fundamental problem for Dalits. Are the mainstream parties and leaders ‘casteists’?

They didn’t let us raise the issue in the past. Take the NC or the UML, which were both supported by the Dalits in the past. The NC leaders said the problem was something that took time, not something we could solve because because we wanted to. My friends in the NC used to say that as soon as you brought up Dalit issues with Girija Prasad Koirala, he used to say ‘It happens, but have I ever discriminated against you?’ I personally experienced the UML. They said we should call ourselves oppressed, not Dalits. For them, only the class problem existed. They opposed quotas (aarakshan) until the movement forced them to accept it. The same is true for proportional representation. The Maoists took it seriously than the others. They have a Dalit Morcha within the party. Naturally, they discuss the issue more seriously.

Legally, when was untouchability made illegal?

The new Muluki Ain that came out after Mahendra brought out the constitution in the early 1960s prohibited discrimination based on caste. The Dalits started getting opportunities to study after that time, but there was this compulsion to proclaim we were all Nepalis. Protesting about unequal treatment wasn’t allowed.

So it’s been fifty years since untouchability was made illegal and today it’s punishable with a fine of up to Rs 100,000 and up to one year in prison. But why is it still frequently practiced?

For a long time, Dalit movement couldn’t be political. We focused on the social movement aspect and brought out programmes like entering temples and communal feasts. In addition, the communists ignored it. But the contradictions were there. For example, when a Dalit cadre took a letter from the centre to the district leader’s house, who usually happened to be upper-caste, the cadre couldn’t enter the house. So the leader read to him, from inside. Even today, in a district like Pyuthan, the birth place of big communist leaders, a Dalit has to face discrimination in everyday places like a tea shop.

Why aren’t there legal actions taken against those guilty of practicing untouchability?

Who is to implement the law? You couldn’t imagine a Dalit judge. There’s currently one in the appellate court, but that’s it. The implementers are the police. There’re no Dalit officers, so naturally, the cases about untouchability get ignored. Either the cases don’t reach the court, or the lawyers and judges didn’t give it proper attention.

Is the practice uniform everywhere in Nepal or are some places worse than others?

Everyone knows each other in a village, so a Dalit there doesn’t have it easy anywhere, be it school, bazaar or the temple. That’s different in Kathmandu. Cities give anonymity. Even with the landlord, you meet him only once a month. That’s why many Dalit friends from outside the Valley prefer to leave their district and live in Kathmandu. Here, at least, once you’re step out of the landlord’s house, you’re free. But discrimination exists in Kathmandu. Once they find out you’re a Dalit, the treatment is the same.

Is there anywhere in Nepal where this isn’t practiced?

Not a place. Well, there’s one place, Manang, a Buddhist place. Even in that district, the lower regions populated by Hill people have the custom. It’s very interesting. In the Sherpa territory, they don’t bother a Hill Dalit. But there are Sherpa Dalits. Another example is the Madhesi Dalit. In Kathmandu, he’s just a Madhesi—no matter whether he’s a Jha, Yadav or a Chamar. Conversely, when a Hill Dalit goes to the Madhes, the Hill-origin people treat us as Dalits, but the local Madhesi people don’t care. To them, we’re Pahadiya.

The Dalit movement is criticised for ignoring untouchability among the Dalits themselves. Is it a just criticims?

Yes, it’s practiced. The Dalit movement used to think that it would be weakened if the discrimination within the community was made an issue. But we shouldn’t forget that untouchability was derived from the practices of the upper-caste in the Hindu religion, and the structure within the Dalits is to divide the oppressed and maintain the status quo. Not only untouchability, there’re the water-taboo (pani nachalne), with Bisworkarma or a Sarki not drinking water touched by Pariyar or a Damai or a Gaine. Among the higher castes, they don’t have this. There’re categories there too, for example, between Upadhyaya Bahun and Jaisi Bahun. But water touched by one is not a taboo for another like in the Dalit groups. That said, among the politically conscious Dalits, this practice has drastically declined.

What’s going to be the Dalit agenda in coming days?

It’ll be to enshrine in the new constitution and implement all the provisions regarding Dalits passed in the CA. For this, we’ll have to work together with progressives, federalists and republicans.


Source: The Kathmandu Post

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