Ram Prit Paswan's life has been harder than that of the average Nepali. He was not only born a poor madhesi, but also an "untouchable." The soft-spoken new vice-chairman of the Rastriya Sabha, the Upper House, survived the worst of discrimination in Nepal to reach a position from which he can spotlight untouchability and other forms of social injustice, and influence change.
Paswan is not the only Dalit to have held a high political position. Hiralal Biswokarma, for example, served several terms as minister in the Panchayat era. Paswan's story is slightly different: he rose in his party's ranks through sheer determination, fueled by a desire to change his experience. He says modestly: "I felt it was just not right. The more I was discriminated against, the more I felt the urge to revolt."
The 48-year-old vice chairman "learnt" that he was different when he was just seven years old. The second-grader used to take private tuitions from a "touchable" teacher. One warm January afternoon Paswan was sitting outside the teacher's house when the lady of the house brought food for her child and placed it near him. The son had just returned to the village after completing his Bachelor's degree. Suddenly, the educated youth began making a fuss saying the food had been defiled because Paswan had touched it. The lady of the house tried to convince her son arguing that because Paswan was a child, the food could be eaten, but in vain.
"The incident was like an arrow piercing the heart," says Paswan. "I cannot forget it even today." Life from then on was a constant struggle against the pain within, when not battling the other odds that come with being poor. He took his School Leaving Certificate exams from the village high school, then graduated from the intermediate level and became a teacher. "Every village I went to teach in, the first question I was asked was if I was \'touchable'." By then, Paswan, who was also a Marxist cadre when not teaching, had even begun firing back fitting answers.
When Paswan was in 10th grade, he met others who, like him, wanted to dismantle the discriminatory social order. Around this time, he also met up with people belonging to Subarna Sumshere's faction of the Nepali Congress. He spent some time with a pro-Congress youth group, until he realised he was in the wrong camp. "It dawned on me that I was with the people of the party that had most of the feudal landlords, people who prayed at the temples, put on tikas and then discriminated against us." It was all happening in the Nepal of the early 1960s.
Then, he came across Bhim Sedai, a follower of communist ideologue Puspalal Shrestha, then in exile in Varanasi. Sedai convinced Paswan, who was already a fiery rebel, that the kind of society he wanted to build was possible only through communism. The young Paswan liked what he heard and soon became part of a budding communist network that relied on clandestinely circulated books by Marx and Mao for solace and motivation. "In the beginning I did not understand what Comrade Mao wrote," says Paswan. "Marx was actually able to influence me."
Paswan contested the Lower House election on a UML ticket in 1999 and lost to a Nepal Sadbhavana Party candidate. "I intended to try and contest a second time, because I had been working in an area where there are 18,000 Dalit voters," he told us. "I did not expect to get the party ticket to the Upper House, even less, to be put forward as a candidate for vice-chairman."
Paswan's election as vice-chair of the Upper House came some weeks before Sher Bahadur Deuba outlawed caste-based discrimination and promised to make it punishable. "It is a good beginning," he says. But he also warns that Dalits should be careful about believing that legislation alone will change something that has been practised for centuries.
His prescription: time bound affirmative action to give Dalits a fair chance to compete against people from higher castes who have had the best opportunities in education and development. He says: "For that to happen we Dalits must unite and keep the pressure on."