April 23, 2009
At least on paper, the question of “the untouchables” has been eliminated from the hierarchal system of Nepalese society. “Untouchables” are now referred to as Dalit, a self-designation for a South Asian group of people traditionally regarded as “polluters of the upper classes.” While the caste system has been formally abolished under the Nepali constitution, there is still widespread discrimination and prejudice against them in the private sphere.
In the context of traditional Hindu society, Dalit status has often been historically associated with occupations regarded as ritually impure, such as any occupation involving butchering, removal of dead animals and removal of night soil (human feces). Dalits still work as manual scavengers, cleaning latrines and sewers by hand and clearing away dead animals. Engaging in these activities was (and is) considered to be polluting to the individual who performed them, and this pollution was considered to be “contagious”. But they were also consigned to certain trades: Kami (ironsmiths), Sarki (leather workers), Damai (tailors) and Badi (entertainers, musicians). Historically, Dalits were commonly banned and segregated from full participation in Hindu social life. They could not enter the premises of a temple or a school and stayed outside the village, while elaborate precautions were sometimes observed to prevent incidental contact between Dalits and other castes. Even today, many Dalits are doomed as bonded workers and many work in slave-like conditions to pay off debts that were incurred generations ago. The majority of Dalits still live in segregation and experience violence, murder, rape and other atrocities on a scale that dwarfs the victimization of other caste groups in Nepal.
As a result, inferiority, humiliation, resignation, lack of self-esteem and dependency on upper castes has developed because of geographical exclusion, social exclusion, capability deprivation and domination by external powers. All of this has contributed to underdevelopment with in the Dalit community.
In spite of the new Maoist regime, which relied heavily on Dalit participation during the decade-long “People’s War”, the Dalits’ lot in life has not improved significantly. It is perhaps pertinent to note that the Maoist leadership hails from upper caste lineage, including Prime Minister Prachanda, a Brahmin by birth.
Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Dinesh Kumar Pariyar, a Dalit who -- through intelligence, talent and a lot of hard work – has managed to extricate himself from the normal preordained Dalit occupations. He has gone on to make a place for himself in urban 21st century Nepal. Among other things, he has worked with the Dalit Welfare Organization, under the UK Government's Department For International Development (DFID, where he produced and directed the television program SAHAYATRA, (broadcast on Nepal Television). On KANTIPUR FM 96.1 Radio, he produced and presented “The Voice of Dignity”, an advocate program concerning Dalit rights, development, governance, human rights, poverty, gender and children. Currently, he is a producer, writer and news reporter for IMAGE CHANNEL PVT. LTD.
DUNHAM: Tell me a little about your early background.
DINESH: I was born in 1979, in a village not too far from Kathmandu called Dhaksi, in Matatirtha VDC-9. My ancestors came from Gorkha, along with King Prithivi Narayan Shah. We have been in the Kathmandu Valley for six or seven generations. I studied in a school near my home, called Nandi Ganesh, up to grade five. I took my SLC with excellent results in 1997. I’m the first Dalit in my community who passed the SLC.
DUNHAM: Did your family encourage you to get an education?
DINESH: My family came from the lower class and it was a real struggle to pay for my studies. But I received some help through scholarships -- that made it a little easier. My family was involved in traditional sewing and tailoring work – their income was not enough for food, let alone school costs. To augment our income, we also did some farm work and poultry work, and hard labor. Everyone in the family worked long hours each day.
So I went school in the morning, but in the afternoon, I joined the rest of my family, who were working somewhere.
DUNHAM: How many brothers and sister do you have?
DINESH: One sister and two brothers. All are married.
DUNHAM: When was the first time that you sensed that your caste, the Dalits, was discriminated against?
DINESH: When I was in grade five, the school organized a picnic program. All the school kids were there. There was a circular seating arrangement set up for the students. But when I arrived I realized that there was another place where three of us – all Dalits – had to sit – apart from the main group. Before that, the three of us Dalits had sensed that we were discriminated against, but at that picnic I saw very clearly, by the seating arrangement, how condemned we really were.
DUNHAM: Who were the adults who made you sit apart from the rest of your classmates? Brahmins? Chhetris?
DINESH: Well, they were definitely from castes above Dalits: Brahmins, Chhetris – yes – but it was a mixed community so there were various castes involved. Also, there were ethic groups that looked down at us.
DUNHAM: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you have any hope that, one day, you could break away from upper caste discrimination? Or did you feel resigned to the old traditions and constraints?
DINESH: Before I answer that, I would like to tell you a story about one of my friends who was a Brahmin. The guy’s family had a store in the village; it was my friend’s chore to carry merchandise to the store. One time I helped him; we took turns carrying the packages. But as we approached the store, my friend told me to quickly give him the packages. I didn’t say anything at the time. But later, when we were alone, I asked him, “Why did you insist that I give you the packages before we got to the store?” And he said, “You are a Dalit. If someone saw you carrying the store merchandise, I would be in big trouble. Our customers wouldn’t buy our goods if they knew you had touched it.” That experience taught me a big lesson.
And there were other incidents that I saw as a child that informed me of the community’s prejudice against my low caste. My mother, for instance, was never allowed to draw water from the village well. When my father went to a teashop to buy a cup of tea, he had to wash his teacup after he was finished. None of the other castes in the village had to wash their own cups. It was everyday things like that.
These examples – and there were many – began to build upon one another and, as I grew older, I realized that I was feeling more and more rebellious. I didn’t just want to change the way my village was. I realized that the entire society of Nepal would have to change. I thought, “I have to be the change-maker of society.”
DUNHAM: Where did you go after you got your SLC? And what was the villager’s reaction, once you achieved that milestone within the Dalit community? Was there any sort of backlash, or did they accept your achievement of being the first Dalit to receive an SLC?
DINESH: Actually, the villagers accepted it. Even the upper caste students – who didn’t get first division marks – they didn’t have a problem with my success. They were just happy that someone in our region of Nepal had proven to be capable of achieving scholastic superiority. They also appreciated that I got these good marks even though I also has to work as a laborer when I wasn’t in school. No, the whole community was happy for me.
DUNHAM: What did you do after you got your SLC?
DINESH: Well, I wanted to continue my studies and become and a civil engineer. I applied to Pulchok College [in Patan]. As it turned out, I wasn’t selected for civil engineering but I got into auto-mechanical engineering, which had been my second choice. I studied auto-mechanical engineering for six months, but I didn’t have enough money to continue, so I dropped out.
Instead, I enrolled in RR [Ratna Rajya Laxmi] College in Kathmandu. I took a bus from home and commuted to college each day. But also each day, I spent some hours teaching in my home village. The income from teaching school provided me with enough money to pay for my daily expenses. RR College is a government college, so the fee is minimal. So at RR, I took a career turn and enrolled in journalism and mass communication, along with English and political science. I was very interested in the political situation and also the country was, at that time, in political upheaval. I graduated from RR and then enrolled in another college to get a Masters Degree in sociology. I still haven’t finished my Masters.
DUNHAM: You went from a quiet village to the urban environment of Kathmandu Valley. In terms of discrimination, was there a perceptible change from village to city?
Was one more biased than the other?
DINESH: In my village, there was always biasness, in one form or another. There still is. But the degree of rudeness has definitely been reduced. But during my college years, I really didn’t and haven’t felt discriminated against.
The village attitude towards me has changed because of my higher education. Now, I am welcomed into the villagers’ houses more often. There is another factor: I was the village schoolteacher; the children were learning and the parents were very happy that their kids were advancing in knowledge. On one level, you could even say that my status in the village is higher than members of the community who come from higher castes. But I’m something of an exception. I got this recognition because of what I had achieved through my studies. Even my immediate family members’ status has risen because of me. However, I’m rather unique. Other members of the Dalit community in my village are still rejected as social inferiors.
DUNHAM: OK, earlier you mentioned that there was political upheaval while you were in school. There was ten years of insurgency swirling all around you. In general, did the rising popularity of the Maoists have any impact on changing the attitude of the upper castes toward Dalits?
DINESH: Change is achieved through two means: one is through self-awareness and the other is through some sort of external pressure. To answer your question, though, the political movement had very little impact on the Dalit community in the Kathmandu Valley. Bias against Dalits might have been reduced a bit, but there has really been no significant change.
In other areas of Nepal, however, the change has been far more significant. In the far west, for example, there are areas in which discrimination against Dalits has been substantially reduced. In some cases, equality has been truly established. The way people look at Dalits has totally changed. In the far west, the picture is quite positive. And the Maoists can take credit for forcing the change in attitude.
But as I said, that change is not universal – certainly not in the Kathmandu Valley.
DINESH: So many things have improved in Kathmandu: more people are educated, more people have more resource; but the humanistic attitude and conscience of Kathmandu’s citizens has not developed along with the other things. The fact is that the Dalits in Kathmandu have not experienced improvement – not in lifestyle and not in attitude from higher castes.
DUNHAM: So how do the Dalits feel about this? And by the way, how many Dalits are there in Nepal?
DINESH: According to the government census, 13% of Nepal’s population is of the Dalit caste, but the Dalits themselves refuse to accept that number.
DINESH: Because the surveyors didn’t bother to go to areas where high concentrations of Dalits lived. Dalits are not just one caste. Dalits are many castes, all of which are or were considered “untouchable”. But the government has overlooked many of the castes that fit into the “Dalit” category. And so many people have not been properly counted in the census.
Let me give you an example. There are many Newari castes, six of which are Dalit. But the government categorizes them as Newari, not Dalit.
What the Dalits are claiming is that 20% of Nepal’s population is Dalit.
DUNHAM: And do you thing that the 20% is more accurate?
DUNHAM: But isn’t it also true that a substantial number of Dalits have changed their surname to disguise the fact that they are Dalit?
DINESH: Yes, yes, yes. They have to survive in Kathmandu and other urban areas, so it’s easier on Dalits to simply disguise the fact that they are Dalit. They take the surnames of higher castes to avoid discrimination.
DUNHAM: Has the Dalit community become unified and politically organized? Is there any kind of Dalit movement?
DINESH: There is definitely some shift in that direction. But Dalit political movement is based on ad hoc incidents.
You can divide Dalit movement into two aspects: political and social. The political movement is not as effective as it could be. Every major political party has a Dalit sister organization. For example: the Maoists have the Nepal Dalit Mukti Morcha wing; the president of that wing is Tilak Pariyar. Nepali Congress has Nepal Dalit Sangh; the president of that wing is Man Bahadur Biswakarma. UML has Utpidit Jatiya Mukti Samaj; Lal Bahadur Biswakarma is the president of that party wing. The list goes on.
But these parties are simply using the Dalit wings as an easy voters’ bank. The Dalit political movement doesn’t have a voice of its own; it’s dependent on larger political parties for its voice.
Looking back at the brief history of the Nepal democratic movement, the Dalits have participated in and contributed to every step forward in that development. But instead of organizing themselves, they have always been organized by political parties. So what happens is that their agenda gets lost in the larger agenda of the powerful political parties.
The political party leaders have never prioritized the Dalit issue because the parties have always been lead by non-Dalits. Thus, we have a vacuum of Dalit leadership, which has prevented the movement from going forward.
The constitution of 1990 was a very good constitution, but it was biased against Dalits – biased because the Dalits were never mentioned in the constitution, completely overlooked. And the Dalits failed to rise up in meaningful protest against the oversight. As a result, this has contributed to the fact that we continue to be marginalized by the government and discriminated against by the general population.
It also led Dalits to be sympathetic to the Maoists during the “People’s War”. The Maoists roused them with their slogans of equality and brought them into their fold in the mid-1990s onward. A lot of Dalits joined the Maoist People’s Revolution. The percentage of Dalits in the People’s Revolution was very high. The Maoists gave the Dalits hope for a better life.
Another reason the Dalits joined the Maoists was that the Maoists promised them a better constitution – one in which Dalits would be guaranteed equality. So they fought for the Maoists and died for the Maoists. A lot of Dalits became martyrs during the ten-year insurgency.
DUNHAM: Now the Maoists are in power. They have transformed themselves from rebels to the central administration. The government is supposed to finish writing a new constitution by May 2010. At the present time, do you believe that the Dalits are a priority for the Maoist leaders?
DINESH: No. Not really. Understand that the Dalits fought in the insurgency, not only for themselves but for the general public as well. They believed that if the general condition of people in Nepal improved, their group would benefit as well. So they fought. Over 1500 Dalits died during the insurgency. In the April 2006 rebellion, 3 of the 25 people killed were Dalits. The Dalits have fought for freedom and more than paid the price in blood. Still, time after time, the system has failed the needs of the Dalits.
According to the current interim constitution, Dalits are no longer “untouchables” and they must be treated as equals to the rest of the population. But the reality is quite different. Dalits women are still being barred from drawing water from the wells. Very recently, a Dalit woman was treated atrociously because the village claimed she was a witch; she was brutally beaten and then forced to eat human excrement. But the government failed to take any action against her torturer, who happened to be a woman and the principle of the local school.
Have the Maoists come to the rescue for the Dalits? No. The Dalits are still knocking on the door of justice, now controlled by the Maoists, hoping to achieve equality. The new Maoist government shouts its new slogans but its attitude is in no way different from previous administrations when it comes to helping the Dalit community.
The irony is that, in the past, if we used some kind of force and raised our voices, some kind of justice could be achieved. But now, with the Maoists in power, even that has been taken away from us. Why? Because other castes now appose our demands. For example, when the cabinet was created under the Maoist leadership, for four or five months, not one Dalit was represented in the cabinet. Even during the king’s regime, there were two or three Dalit cabinet leaders. But the party that shouted the slogan of “proportional representation” -- the Maoists -- has failed to apply the slogan to their own cabinet. There was not 20% representation of Dalits in the Maoist cabinet. That has changed recently, but the Dalits who have been given posts are more aligned with the Madeshi issue than their own Dalit caste. So even now, Dalits don’t feel like they are being properly represented. The party that touted social inclusive and equal rights has now shown its true face. And the Dalit community is completely unsatisfied by what they see.
DUNHAM: Because people know that they can still mistreat Dalits with impunity? If someone wants to abuse a Dalit because they think that person is a witch, or if someone wants to single out a Dalit in the community because they don’t like them for some reason – is it fair to say that those people can proceed without fear of being brought to justice?
DINESH: Yes, and the reason is that higher caste people run the judicial system in Nepal. They are members of the very castes who chronically discriminate against Dalits. They even feel proud to be asserting their old caste privileges when dealing with us. Justice is achieved through an administrative process. Even if the judiciary would like to rule in favor of Dalits, the administrative process – the police, the government attorneys, etc. – all from higher castes, mind you – the administrative process works against the Dalits ever having their day in court.
For example, torturing someone in the name of “witch” is banned according to law. If the case goes to court, the victim will get justice, but the police won’t even accept the complaint against the torturers. So how can the victim get justice if they can’t jump the hurdle of police discrimination?
If an upper caste woman is tortured for being a witch, there are many cases in which the torturer has been brought to justice and punished. But if the victim is Dalit, the torturer escapes justice.
DUNHAM: Dalits are easy victims – sitting ducks.
DINESH: Yes, yes. For example, at the beginning of my career in journalism, I used to produce short documentaries, funded by DFID (Dept. for Foreign and International Development – a UK government organization); the documentaries were broadcast on Nepalese TV with the help of a local NGO. I was producer, director and resource director. I still remember an incident in Bungmati [in Lalitpur] where one Dalit woman was severely beaten by the local people for drawing water from the community well. She hadn’t had water in her house for three or four days. She was dying. She knew that she would be tortured if she went to the well but she went to the well anyway, so dire was her condition.
We heard about the incident and went there to film and interview her. She was bed-ridden. While we were filming location shots around the well, 1500 – 2000 locals surrounded us. They seized and smashed our camera. They accused us of being there just to defame their community. I was abused and beaten badly – and not only that—the Dalit woman was again beaten, accused of having inviting us, even though she had not invited us.
DUNHAM: When did this happen?
DINESH: In 2004, while the Maoist insurgency was at its height. The police had no intention of arresting the culprits. If we had run a story that accused the police, we, in turn, would have been accused of being Maoists. We were threatened that that would be what would happen. It’s not just my theory. So, in the end, we ended up dropping the story.
It was one of the saddest moments of my life. I was born in the Kathmandu Valley, I was raised here and I was discriminated against all my life, but I never realized the depth with which the people of Kathmandu despised us and the extent to which they could be so cruel.
That was the moment when I realized that little protests, here and there, are not going to have any impact on improving the status of the Dalit community. It’s going to require a huge, broad revolution.
And I promised myself that, from that time on, I would not compromise; I would devote my life to furthering the cause of Dalit equality. That incident is the overriding experience that continues to motivate me to fight Dalit discrimination.
DUNHAM: Are you personally politically involved in organizing the Dalit community?
DINESH: For a long time, I believed that society could be improved through political action. As a student I became alternative Central Committee member of ANNFSU – the student wing of UML. Our group led a lot of protests in Kathmandu. I led the movement to grant a 33% discount for student transportation and we prevailed. It was one of the most successful student protests to date. After that, some of the leaders of the protest, joined the Maoists, some drifted off into the private sector, and some of us, like me, shifted from political activism to social activism.
Being part of the media is one part of my social activism. My journalism is all about social justice and activism. Raising awareness through the media has proven to have more impact than if I had remained just a wingman for a political party.
I’ll give you an example: I produced a documentary about a group of upper castes that refused to buy milk from the local Dalits. There is an old tradition saying in Nepal: “If the Dalit touches the milk, the cow will climb the tree”. In other words, even the cows are afraid of Dalits touching them. They would rather fall out of tree than being contaminated by Dalits. Such a ridiculous belief.
But through my documentary -- when we showed the reality of how Dalit dairy farmers conducted their daily operations, things changed significantly in that community. The attitude of the upper castes changed. Today, they have no problem purchasing milk from the Dalit dairy farmers.
In another documentary, I covered the story of an oppressed Dalit woman from Kapilvastu [Terai town along the Indian border]. Even though she was educated, extremely intelligent, she was repressed by the local community. After my televised profile on her, however – and it was aired several times here in Nepal – she was allowed to participate in local politics. And she proved to be so active, so effective that the UML used her in several rallies. Her success continued and finally she was selected to be a UML sponsored member of the current Constitutional Assembly.
These are examples of what my efforts, through the media, have brought in terms of concrete change. Imagine what could be done if more Dalits had significant jobs in the media and were allowed to cover the subjects with which they have intimate knowledge.
DUNHAM: How will the proposed federal system affect the Dalit community?
DINESH: If it happens, if will be very bad for the Dalit community. We have accepted it because the government has really committed itself to Federalism. But we want a special clause included in the new constitution that guarantees equal opportunity for Dalits. Why? Under federalism, the Dalit community will be scattered among several states and the focus on them will be diluted.
Dalits don’t lack skill—they have already acquired these skills through the work-based caste system that has been forced on them for centuries. No, the main problem for Dalits is social discrimination. If discrimination were eliminated, the Dalits could profit from their skills -- go ahead and thrive on their own abilities.
But here’s the problem – the uneven percentage of Dalits who have odds stacked against them. 47% of all Nepalis are under the poverty line, out of which 90% are Dalit. In terms of education, 33% of all Nepalis continue past the SLC level but only .04% of Dalits continue past the SLC level. Every political party can boast of Dalit representation, but none of the Dalits in those parties have a powerful enough position to have an impact on party decision. Out of 601 members in the CA, only 51 are Dalit. And within the assembly itself, the Dalit members have not been given any important roles. There is no meaningful representation of Dalits in the judicial system.
My position is that, since the State has been responsible for keeping Dalits downtrodden in the past, it is now the responsibility of the State to rectify that system by including special clauses in the new constitution that will assure Dalits of special rights—not only based on proportional representation.
But it’s not just external powers that are keeping the Dalits down. The Dalit community itself needs to find a unified voice and rise up to insure that the State includes new provisions in the constitution.
In the last several years, many of the cultural and ethnic groups have unified and focused on insuring that their voices are heard. The Dalits need to follow suit.
The Nepali government owes us for past grievances. The Nepali rulers followed the Indian custom of using the caste system. Jayasthiti Malla divided Nepal into four groups and many sub-castes. The religious law he wrote presented prevented the Sudra group [the untouchables] from touching water used by upper castes. Different occupations were forced on the Dalits, which remains in place today. Then, when civil codes were introduced, the same religious laws were applied to the codes – thus extending Dalit servitude. So it’s the State who must rectify the injustice they put into law many years ago. The time has come for the Nepali government to make things right.