In May 2020, when the world was reeling under the onslaught of Covid, the killing of George Floyd in the United States had stirred the US and the world. This is also believed to be the reason behind the defeat of Donald Trump in November that year. However, two days before Floyd tragically succumbed to strangulation by a racist white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a Dalit youth, along with his five friends, was lynched to death in Rukum west district in Nepal.
The youth, Nabaraj BK, wanted to marry his upper-caste girlfriend, who had called the boy to pick him up, but was chased and beaten to death by the family members of the girl when he came to the girl's village along with five of his friends. The couple did not have the approval of the girl's family for the marriage as the boy belonged to the untouchable caste. The killings had drawn international attention, and the United Nations had condemned the incident. In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet expressed shock over the incident and said, "It is distressing to know that caste-based prejudices remain deeply entrenched in our world in the 21st century."
Earlier, in 2016, Ajit Dhakal Mijar, an 18-year-old young Dalit youth, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. His father filed a first information report, alleging it to be a murder and named three accused. Ajit was in an inter-caste relationship with a girl who belonged to the so-called "dominant caste." However, the police registered the death as suicide. Ajit's father refused to believe the version of the police and took the exhumed body to the hospital, where the corpse is still preserved in a morgue at a Teaching Hospital in Maharajganj, Nepal, as his father refused to perform the last rites until he gets justice. The lower court has acquitted the accused, and the deceased's family has pinned hopes on the Supreme Court.
These dastardly incidents come at a time when the Dalits in Nepal have achieved some mobility and representation in Nepali's administration, giving them some voice after the abolition of the monarchy in 2006. Caste in Nepal has a deep-rooted history and continues to play a significant role in the country's social, cultural, and political landscape. The caste system in Nepal is primarily based on the Hindu varna system, which categorizes people into different social groups or castes. Although the transition to a federal democracy has facilitated perceptible mobility for the Dalits in Nepal, most of whom had to face worse casteism than their Indian counterparts.
Nepal has made efforts to address caste-based discrimination through legal reforms. The Interim Constitution of Nepal (2007) and the subsequent Constitution of Nepal (2015) explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination and provide affirmative action measures for marginalized groups, including Dalits. However, implementation remains a challenge.
These changes have led to increased discussions about identity, inclusion, and social justice, including caste-related issues. It's important to note that while caste continues to be a significant factor in Nepali society, there are ongoing efforts by activists, civil society organizations, and the government to promote social inclusion, reduce discrimination, and create a more equitable society. One such organization is the Dignity Initiative, an organization that works for Dalit rights.
The Mooknayak spoke to Rup Sunar, who runs the Dignity Initiative. Rup belongs to the Sunar community of Nepal, a caste classified as "untouchable" in Nepal. He says that there has been a paradigm shift in caste practices in Nepal, at least in urban areas. Earlier, when Nepal was a kingdom, people used to openly commit violence. Dalits willing to eat or have tea had to do it outside the eatery and had to wash their own utensils and glasses afterward, even in urban areas. But these things are no longer practiced in cities, although they are still prevalent in rural areas.
Rup also mentions that caste discrimination may not be as blatant as in the days of the monarchy, but people have to find some pretext to commit caste-based atrocity. For example, in the case of the Soti village massacre in which Nabaraj BK was murdered along with five of his friends, the girl's family accused the slain victims of human trafficking.
Despite all these hiccups, the Dalits are overcoming resistance and have steamrolled their way into success. Prakash Saput is one such Dalit singer who has attained success and made a name in the folk music industry. Earlier, singers from the dominant castes used to hijack the songs of Dalit singers by appropriating them in their names, but today it has become difficult to do so because of awareness and Dalit assertion.
Rup, who has done an extensive study on caste and political representation, points out that the interim constitution (2007) had provisions for the representation of Dalits. "The constitution provided for 40% seats from the first-past-the-post system and 60% from the proportional voting system. This was a quite meaningful arrangement as under FPTP, it's very difficult to find a ticket for Dalit to contest an election. On top of that, they lack financial backup to contest the election. Whereas under the proportional system, parties allocate certain seats for Dalits and they are elected as the electoral strength of the party. Meaning that if parties get 100 seats under proportional representation, 13 would have to be allocated for Dalits."
However, the 2015 Constitution established a federal system with three levels of government: federal, provincial, and local. The mixed electoral system reversed the arrangement of the interim constitution and reserved 60% of the seats in the parliament for the First-past-the-post system. Additionally, they also reserved seats for the dominant Khas Arya group. Rup says that although there has been a perceptible improvement in the representation of the Dalits, this arrangement has undermined the reservation system and needs to be more inclusive.
Besides, there is 9% reservation for the Dalit community, who account for around 14% of the total population of the country. To address the underrepresentation of Dalits in the reservation system, a fair allocation of 13 out of every 100 seats is imperative. This adjustment reflects the proportion of their population and necessitates amendments to the electoral system.
So, while democracy has proved to be an enabler for Dalit assertion and awareness, much needs to be done when it comes to securing the rights of the most marginalized community of Nepal. Emerging artists, civil rights activists, and growing representation in the parliament provide some hope.