The old social order has not changed much in the village of Melauli. Nearly a third of the inhabitants of this hamlet, which lies some 40 km south of the headquarters of Baitadi district in Nepal's northwestern extremity, remain "untouchable". The Dalits, as they now call themselves, do not share space with the "upper castes"; they don't sit or eat together. The upper castes sprinkle water over themselves in an act of "purification" before entering their home if a Dalit touches them-even by mistake. Dalits cannot enter the homes of the upper castes. Neither can they use the wells, taps and other water sources that are reserved for the high-caste people.
To this day, people in this area do not even sell milk in the markets, fearing that a Dalit might consume the milk. Some people actually stopped selling milk to restaurants that began serving tea to the Dalits. Although Dalits are now served at a few eateries, they are still hurt by the treatment they receive. "The higher castes pay the same amount of money as us. But while they eat and move away, we are made to sit and eat outside in dishes kept apart for us. Most humiliating is that we have to wash the dishes after we have finished eating. Restaurants are a business, and they ought to hire people to wash dishes," says Ishwori Dayal of Melauli.
In theory, the country's laws have guaranteed all Nepalis equal rights since 1962, but the reality is a different story altogether. Bhani Lohar complains, "Since we are cut off from the mainstream, we remain weak and poor. Even now, when we participate at village meetings or attend trainings, we sit with upper caste people. But as soon as refreshments are served, some of them slowly move outdoors to eat.
This attitude hurts us. What further insult can anyone suffer than this?"
Although all the Dalits here are Hindus, they are not allowed entry into temples. Arjun Dayal, a recent graduate of the School Leaving Certificate examination, says, "We are forbidden to enter places of worship. Since we cannot enter the temples, we keep small pictures of deities in our houses and worship them."
Dalits are not allowed to participate in any religious function, and since they are not allowed to recite mantras, their marriages too are performed without the attendant recitation from the scriptures. Neither are they allowed access to books and other learning material, since books represent Saraswati, the goddess of learning. This is borne out by the literacy levels of the Dalits-of 100 children of school-going age in Melauli only 23 attend school, and most of the youth and elders are illiterate.
If matters were not bad enough, even among the Dalits there exists a stratified pecking order. A Lohar will not eat something that has been touched by a Damai, who in turn will not eat anything touched by a Rana. A Sarki still considers a Bhard an untouchable. But this system is undergoing changes faster than the larger upper caste-dalit divide is narrowing. As Madan Damai puts it, "Change for the better can come only if we try and attack the very root of this problem. Nothing will change if we only try to remove the system practised by the upper castes, but continue to follow it ourselves."
As a step towards that Dalits have begun organising themselves with assistance from external agencies. The Jai Durga Social Organisation, which elected Madan Ram Damai as its chairman and Rukuwa Dayal as director, has initiated a boycott of restaurants where Dalits are discriminated against. Ishwori Lohar, a member of Jai Durga, says, "We want to put up posters in every restaurant stating that Dalits will not have to sit outside and eat, nor wash the dishes, will be able to eat openly in the marketplace and will not be discriminated against."
The socially fractured groups among them have begun interacting with each other. They have also realised that there will be no improvement in their status without education and have started community literacy programmes. They also conduct regular community meetings. Being organised has helped them become more aware of their situation and also of the world outside. Lohar says that earlier they could not even carry on a conversation properly, but now they are capable of doing that with confidence.
Members of Jai Durga have constructed village roads, built a house to hold meetings, and because they were denied entry to temples, even built their own temple during Shiva Ratri last year. "Now even upper caste people come and worship at this temple," says Arjun Dayal.
The condition of women in the Dalit communities is even worse due to the double marginalisation they face. Dalit women are now following the example of their men and are slowly asserting themselves. Shova Dayal was a timid woman when she began attending community meetings, but within a period of four months, she was elected member of the Aawaj De Samaj Sewa Yuba Club. Similarly, Dalit women affiliated to other organisations in Melauli have constructed their own office buildings, are helping their men in their work and are also engaged in employment schemes that will ultimately give them greater economic independence.
The focus of most of their activities has been to secure economic independence. Since they hardly own any agricultural land, they have had to rely on the upper castes for everything-for loans, for food, to lease land or to work in their fields. But now the Dalits have pooled together their savings and are offering loans to members without collateral. Other income generation activities like animal husbandry, poultry rearing and small retail business, have helped them improve their financial status.
Jai Durga's chairman, Madan Ram, sums it up: "Earlier when Dalits used to go to a gathering, upper castes never made an effort to tell us anything. We remained unaware of programmes that were supposedly being conducted for our benefit. Now that we are organised and self sufficient, we don't need the upper castes. We can take care of ourselves."
(Adapted from Himal Khabar-patrika, 17 September-1 October)