Nepali Times
Guest Column
Lip service


The monarchy may be on its way out, but what about other forms of feudalism? A measure of the success of the current peace efforts will be whether they help create an environment in which the most oppressed communities, like dalits, can live a free and dignified life.

But when I talk to political analysts about this, even those I consider friends, there is a depressing response: "Widen your horizons and move beyond caste-based thinking. This is the time to address important national issues, not focus on what benefits a particular section of society should get." Okay, so perhaps I sound a little 'racist'. But practically every breath I take is still contaminated with casteism. Even now, people look at me through their caste lens.

For members of oppressed communities, the founding of a democratic republic will in itself not feel like a notable achievement. India is a democratic republic, but dalits continue to be suppressed in many places there. At the grassroots dalits really don't care who wins or loses on the political front. What they are interested in is whether they can look forward to a better future, if not for themselves, for their children.

Accepted, social changes can never happen as swiftly as political ones, and nobody has a magic wand to manage everybody's expectations overnight. But it is reasonable to ask whether the political players are genuinely interested in addressing these problems. If they are, we need to see this demonstrated not in words but in actions.

There is a lot of talk about the need to include dalits in the interim government and the constituent assembly. Inclusion is of course a catalyst for social change. But it isn't everything. Look at past efforts to include dalits as key players in decision-making bodies. The royal regimes did so, as did party politics after 1990. Yet, no substantial changes were noticeable as a result.

What we need now are practical measures to enforce constitutional and legal tenets on dalit rights. It's not enough to merely give it lip-service in the statute of the day. Like the provisions of the 1990 constitution, those too will likely prove meaningless. We need a separate, clear-cut policy on practical ways of addressing the problems of dalits, and the future state needs to adopt a zero tolerance policy against caste discrimination. Untouchability should be declared a crime against the state and a crime against humanity.

It's common knowledge that the political parties, which consider themselves champions of freedom and democracy, themselves suppress dalits. Not only are virtually all party leaders high caste, there are often instances of local party bosses publicly humiliating and putting down dalits. Even the 'revolutionary' Maoist party has hardly any dalits in leadership positions, and both sides have effectively kept dalits away from the decision-making associated with the current peace process.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the structure of the parties is as feudal as anything in Nepal. Perhaps they should set their own houses in order before they address big social change. They should discipline cadres who display discriminatory behaviour and restructure their parties to be more inclusive. This way, we can see the changes they promise in action. Can the parties start doing their bit to dismantle feudal practices before the elections to the constituent assembly?

The problems of dalits are unique and complicated by poverty, illiteracy, and exclusion. The idea that Nepal is moving towards a post-feudal state is meaningless until such critical issues are tackled. There will be no durable peace or democracy without that.

Uday Pariyar works in Kathmandu for an international agency.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)