Sixty-eight year-old Padamsingh Biswokarma has completed his Madhyama (IA Level) in Sanskrit literature and used to be a teacher in Baglung. His views on the problems faced by dalits is different from those of people in the business of development. Himal Khabarpatrika spoke to him about the issues confronting dalits in Nepal today.
HIMAL: How would you define dalits?
Biswokarma: (They are) economically exploited, socially oppressed, deprived of education, politically marginalised, ostracised from the world of religion. They are outside the mainstream of the state. Before the 2020 Muluki Ain (Civil Code 1971) came into force, they were considered untouchables.
What are the major problems they face?
Illiteracy, poverty, social oppression and expulsion from the mainstream of politics and society. We will not have effective programs for dalits from the state until they themselves are in decision-making positions. Until then we will be unable to raise dalits to the level of other groups in society.
So how can all this be changed?
First, educated dalits should get jobs commensurate with their qualifications. They need affirmative action, reservations proportionate to the size of their population. It they cannot have affirmative action, they must be protected in other ways. Dalits are skilled in working with gold, silver, leather and iron. Their skills can be conserved by engaging them in productive activities. The goods they produce can be made tax-free to help with marketing. Mananges (the people of Manang) are good examples of how people can progress, given supportive state policies.
Which is the larger problem, economic poverty or untouchability?
Dalits, who make up 20 percent of the population of this country, are plagued by both. Because they are poor, it is difficult for them to get a good education and if they do manage, they find it difficult to get jobs. Then there is untouchability. Even today educated dalits cannot openly say \'I am a dalit.' Even today they have to lie about their surnames to be able to get housing in cities.
What should be done-put caste-related problems second and first work towards reservations, or end caste-based discrimination and work for competition on equal basis?
We need to balance the two. There was no untouchability in early times. In the Gita Krishna tells Arjun that character is based on virtue, that your deeds should reflect your virtuousness, and that caste is determined by your deeds or karma. That is why we need to revise the scriptures relating to dalits that were added to the scriptures after the Vedas. In short, to emancipate dalits from social and religious oppression, we need to improve Hindu religion and culture. To put an end to their economic problems, dalits need to be given facilities and reservation.
Isn't there untouchability within the dalit community?
We have made it a tradition. The Upadhyayas do that with the Jaisi, the Jaisi with the Thakuri, the Thakuri to the Chettri, the Chettri to Newar, the Newar to the Gurung, the Gurung to the Magar, the Magar to the Kami, the Kami to the Sarki, the Sarki to the Damai, the Damai to the Gaine, the Gaine to the Badi, the Badi to the Pode and the Pode to the Chyame.
This is why it is important to not say that untouchability and equality are issues related only to dalits. Yes, because they are the weakest, they are the most affected. The roots of untouchability are not Vedic religion but feudal tradition and they will remain until that is erased. That is why we need to look at untouchability and caste as a problem of all, not only dalits.
Have you had any bad experiences because you are a dalit?
I had a Jaisi-Bahun acquaintance in my village. When I was told to step down from the threshold of his house, I almost felt as if I had died. Once, on the way from Pokhara to Baglung, I met a pundit on the road. I discussed the scriptures with him. While we were taking leave from each other he asked me which bahun I was, and I said Biswokarma. After that he began to address me as timi, not tapai. I felt bad but such instances are common.