Nepali Times
Guest Column
Dalit doubts



In his Kantipur column of 20 December Hari Roka, a pro-Maoist commentator and lawmaker, argued that part of the reason why India opposed the Maoists promoting a federal state was that it feared "the establishment of a new social system based on the redistribution of property and freedom from untouchability would have consequences on its states close to Nepal".

The statement is, inter alia, representative of how the Maoists continue to use Dalits in their propaganda. They have always claimed that theirs is a movement of the oppressed masses, and indeed many Dalits have sacrificed their lives for the cause. However, Roka's claim about untouchability rings hollow because there is little evidence to show that the ex-rebels actually care about the deeply entrenched problems of low castes.

On the contrary, Dalits increasingly feel they have had the rug pulled out from under them, not least because of the Maoists' unilateral declaration of autonomous ethnic states. Firstly, Dalits are not going to have their own autonomous state; they will be a tiny minority in all states. More importantly, Dalits suffer indignities and injustices not only at the hands of Bahuns and Chhetris, but also from Rais, Limbus, Madhesis, Gurungs, Magars, Newars, and others.

A 2006 report in Nepali Times stated: "In the hotbed of Tarai ethnic politics, mainstream Madhesi rights activists, anti-hills-people vigilantes, Maoist splinter groups and Tharu groups are demanding everything from greater autonomy to secession. But Madhesi Dalits are nowhere in the equation" ('Sideswiped', #320). The parties' attitude to Dalits in the Tarai and the hills remains the same, despite the pressure of massive political changes.

Hugo Gorringe, a British anthropologist who studied Indian Dalits, observes: "untouchability, it is clear, is irreconcilable with nationhood, and undermines the democratic project". The Nepali Congress and UML, despite their democratic credentials, have always refrained from taking Dalit issues seriously; their own workers and supporters regularly practice untouchability. The former rebels' initial enthusiasm about doing away with caste-based subordination has also been ephemeral. For instance, the Maoist government didn't, despite the popular expectation, start anything concrete to help Dalits; neither did it attempt to include them in important positions. Although they have been insisting on federal states named after particular groups, they have not yet articulated their policies on how untouchability can be effectively tackled.

Whilst Dalits are still struggling to become bona fide citizens of Nepal, they will have to fight separately to become the citizens of autonomous states as well. Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar's prescription for the Dalit movement was: "educate, agitate, organise". The implementation of autonomous ethnic states is likely to hinder these strategies, not least because the Dalit movement will then be dispersed and consequently further weakened.

Some believe that untouchability cannot be tackled until caste is annihilated; others think it can be challenged by emphasising the socioeconomic relationship between castes on the basis of modern national laws over customary ones. We should attempt to integrate low castes with other castes or ethnic groups to pave the way for a more egalitarian society. Ethnic federalism will only institutionalise and solidify caste or ethnic boundaries, instead of undermining them.

The Maoists are likely to lose the support of many Dalits and others by pushing for their retrograde demand for ethnic federalism, even if it helps them in the short term. Like most Nepali citizens, Dalits want to live in peace with more dignity and better economic opportunities. This simple dream cannot be fulfilled if the powers that be don't give up their stance on ethnic federalism under the facade of revolutionary change.

1. jange
Don't worry. You are not the only ones to be duped by the Maoists'.  NT and its journalists have been duped, many times. And they are very ready to be duped again...and again... and again...Better you organise yourselves as Nepali citizens and as fellow humans rather than as Dalits, Maoists, Kangresi, Forum etc. etc.

2. shellfish
Jange, nice thought (the part that follows your usual annoying rant) but political parties are an important vehicle for political mobilization and mass representation. It might be pertinent to seek transparency and accountability from the political parties that represent us. 

3. jange
Mr. Shellfish- Don't be annoyed. Just cogitate on whether what I am saying is true or not. But I fear it is a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Or, exchanging one form of servitude for another. Having first been "branded" as a damai, sarki, etc.etc. they are now changing the "brand" into "Dalit". So, by definition, any gains made as "Dalits" can only be maintained as long as one continues to brand oneself as Dalit. This plays right into the hands of political parties and INGOs and NGOs as they have a vested interest in maintaining their constituencies and markets and are only too aware and skilful at exploiting peoples predicaments- especially if you have already done 90 % of their work by branding yourself.

4. hange

Excellent article.  And Jange brings up good points.  No one really cares for anyone else in Nepal anyway- we are the great nation of "me firsts".  Everyone wants power and is willing to dupe anyone else to do so.  While I feel for the Dalits, one wonders whether, if the tables were turned, they would not dole out to others what has been done to them.

5. shellfish
It's Ms. actually. Talking about brands, that didn't take very long for you to assume I was a man. 

I agree institutionalising the caste system definitely perpetuates the problems Dalits have. And pariyar writes: " Ethnic federalism will only institutionalise and solidify caste or ethnic boundaries, instead of undermining them."
But I think we have to go beyond just saying this is not a solution to actually offering one. Pariyar mentions 'educate, agitate and organise'. I think education might be enough, but it should be directed both ways. The problem of the oppressors isn't their boneheaded urge to oppress a group of people but their plain ignorant inability to understand that all people are equal. 

6. jange
Shellfish ji- I wouldn't assume that you are a woman just because you say so! Anyway, what's in a honorific? A rose by any other name... I hope it is the logic or otherwise of my statements that gets your attention. Sadly, I have nothing else to offer!

7. jange
Shellfish ji- Can you tell me just how these people are being oppressed and who is doing the oppressing?

8. Arthur
I have to agree with hange and shellfish that jange makes a (surprisingly) good point in #3.

As a foreigner completely unfamiliar with caste, such issues in Nepal are especially hard for me to understand, but I was also struck by the similarity between some of what Mitra Pariyar wrote, described as establishing a "brand", with related "victim mentality" problems in (non-caste) issues in other societies.

Such "branding" or "victim mentality" tends not to propose concrete solutions but instead to counterpose the struggles of one oppressed group against that of others in competion for "sympathy" (especially from NGOs and INGOs).

The writer seems to be ambivalent as to whether caste should be eliminated. Surely that is also necessary for a modern society, even if it takes longer to eliminate caste itself and it is more urgent to suppress particular aspects of the caste system such as untouchability (but also arranged marriages and dowry)?

After all the point of recognizing national minorities is to make identity issues less important, not to perpetuate and deepen them. That has been the experience of federations like Switzerland and Canada whereas the Serb attempts to deny autonomy to Croats, Bosnians, Albanians etc resulted in the collapse of Yugoslavia. Even though Canadians speak French and English and Swiss speak Romanesh, French, Italian and German, the world thinks of them and most of them now think of themselves as "Canadians" and "Swiss".

There is absolutely no attempt at explaining the author's claim that federalism would institutionalise or solidify caste boundaries or hinder Dalit efforts to "educate, agitate, organize" both federally and within each state. Obviously federalism only helps solve some of the problems of national (eg linguistic) minorities, and cannot in itself either help or hinder the solution of many other problems of other kinds of minorities (eg muslim) or other kinds of majorities (eg women, poor, young).

Pretending that dealing with some forms of oppression is opposed to dealing with other forms of oppression is merely a way to perpetuate victimhood.

As for jange's question in #7:

Can you tell me just how these people are being oppressed and who is doing the oppressing?

 Tilak Pariyar's interview gives a short clear answer to the first part:

What are the main problems for Dalits?
There is no representation in government, there is social discrimination and they are economically backward.

As to the second, I would guess people just like jange do the oppressing. It is not unusual for people who don't care about discrimination and oppression to also notice and correctly point out the problems of "victim mentality" or "branding".

Its interesting to note however that Tilak Pariyar takes a positive approach of only identifying the problems that must be resolved instead of either jange's approach of questioning their existance or Mitra Pariyar's approach of identifying various specific groups as the problem (which makes it unresolvable):

...Dalits suffer indignities and injustices not only at the hands of Bahuns and Chhetris, but also from Rais, Limbus, Madhesis, Gurungs, Magars, Newars, and others.

The preceding statement is quite silly:

Dalits increasingly feel they have had the rug pulled out from under them, not least because of the Maoists' unilateral declaration of autonomous ethnic states. Firstly, Dalits are not going to have their own autonomous state; they will be a tiny minority in all states.

Nepali Times has already given space for both that silliness and an equally silly complaint that there will be no Muslim autonomous ethnic states and of course nearly all the anti-federalism articles mention that there are many other linguistic minorities too small or dispersed for autonomous states. When do we get an article complaining that there is no women's state?

9. Sameer
And, as long as there is a caste divide, the Christian-evangelical  INGOs will take advantage of it and thrive in Nepal.

10. Sujan
problem is everyone's looking SirCurry NoCurry,
NoTension Job with definite PenSon...
All is Dal-eat..... let's think about Bhat n Roti too...
we're all dancing life rats... in tune to political cats....
thin vs. fat,
like a feather weight wrestler in the Sumo-Ring
WHO the hell wins

11. shellfish
Always got to be wary when Arthur comes to your defence. But thanks. 

Jange, well I guess you just have my word. And what does it matter? It matters because you just automatically assume someone commenting here must be a man. And it isn't just me, is it?

Now for the oppression part. Arthur has said much of what I would like to say. I dont know if you think oppression should automatically should be in the form of bonded slavery, which actually is still practiced in Nepal. So, exhibit A just there. 

But besides the outrageous examples, what is the root of my argument is the structural discrimination that persists today as a result of hundreds of years of oppression by a group of people. And, I think they belong to a certain caste. That is not to say there aren't poor people within that group, or illiterate, or devoid of opportunities like the others. It just just to say that the discrimination has been overwhelmingly systemic. The people who were the courtiers in the old system, established a bureaucracy, got people they know to work there. Don't tell me you don't think public bureaucracy is based on nepotism. While at the same time, their cobblers, garbage collectors, carpenters, tailors, and so on weren't even allowed to use the same bloody water tap. 

What you and I probably agree on, and I wouldn't count my blessings, is that institutionalizing caste system isn't the ideal way to go about to solve this problem. And I think a federalism based on caste systems institutionalizes it. 

12. Sarath G
Debate debate debate...! Bloody social science!

Build eight-lane super highways in all 14 zones, intercity trains in 7 zones, especially the trade routes, build 14 x 10 really big, palatial schools where anyone who can't afford does not have to pay, and build 14 x 10 more grand hospitals where people who can afford pay, and if you can't, you don't, and make corruption a crime punishable by death. Then just get back to whatever you were doing, leaving everyone else in peace for the next 10 years. Thats probably the only way to go now.
And oh yes, also check all foreign nationals' work permit who work in these leech-like INGOs.

13. capitalist, Damai
Let multi national corporation to enter the country. That could be Sony,Toyota, Mcdonald's, BMW or anyother that has big money. There is evidences that countries which allowed to wear geans ane eat McDonal or has free flow of coca cola has less discussion about cast ethinicity and race. Microsoft and Google are more effective in this age then anyother traditional means to bring equality in the society. Let money to flow, soon hard working people will rise. Hard working Dalit will only be visible when need for hard woriking people are recognized. Only capitalism will bring us to rise. Let international capitalism to enter the country. Believe or not my friends, when good and services start to flow across the country in four lane high way, need of all individuals will equally recognized.

14. prabin
Untouchability has to go. It is against sanatan Dharma.
Going to our bases of ancient Dharma, untouchability is a shame. It was a social invention to supress not religious and it has to go.

15. abhimanyu
untouchability is one of the problem for the economic degredation of over 500 million people in india and nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)