Baitadi, Nepal- As a school student, she was not allowed to drink water from the same tap or utensil as everyone else, often necessitating a 20-25 minute journey home to quench her thirst. As a young adult, she experienced physical violence while attempting to enter a temple in Baitadi.
Meet Saraswati Nepali, a dedicated champion for Dalit rights in Nepal. Her journey reflects the challenges and progress in Nepal's transition from a monarchy to a democracy, offering hope for equality and civil liberties for all. Born into a Dalit family in the Baitadi district of far-western Nepal, Saraswati's early experiences of discrimination, such as being denied access to the same water sources and utensils as others, shaped her path as a prominent advocate for Dalit rights. The Mooknayak engaged in a conversation with Saraswati, shedding light on her incredible journey and the current state of discrimination.
Nepal, a neighbouring country of India, is a fledgling democracy that was under the rule of a monarchy until 2007. The arrival of democratic rule in any country augurs a ray of hope for civil liberties for every citizen. As a Hindu kingdom, Nepal recorded the worst human rights violations and blatant untouchability in the country.
When Nepal entered the list of democratic nations, it facilitated the rise of several Dalit activists like Rup Sonar and Saraswati Nepali. Saraswati was born in a village in the Baitadi district, located in the far west of Nepal. She is the youngest of four siblings, which includes three brothers. Saraswati was only six months old when her father passed away. Her family, like other Dalits in the country, was poverty-stricken.
Saraswati’s first encounter with the caste system was when she went to a school in a neighbouring village. She was not allowed to drink water from the same tap or utensil as everyone else, often meaning that to quench her thirst, she ran home, which was 20-25 minutes from her school. Consequently, she also used to miss classes because of the time taken by her in commuting.
“There was widespread segregation in those times. There were different streams for drinking water, no temple entry, even at the eateries, Dalits were not allowed inside and were served outside the eateries,” recalls Saraswati.
She credits her elder brother for initiating her into activism, as he was quite active in the social movement. “Puran Singh Dayal, a former MP and a prominent Dalit rights activist, used to come to our home, and I used to listen to the conversation between him and my brothers, and gradually, I started participating in the movement. I joined the Janandolan against the Rajshahi,” says Nepali, 42.
She came to the forefront of the movement when her brother joined the Nepalese army and left activism. Narrating her activism, she says that she, along with Puran Singh Dayal, a former parliamentarian, worked for Dalit rights and demanded equal rights for them at school, offices, and temples. Her activism was facilitated by the transition of Nepal to democracy, and in 2010, her constant efforts ensured that many landless Dalit families received 2 ropanis (2,500 sq ft) of land per family. Not only this, she also advocated that the husband and wife have an equal share in the land they received from the government. Being a human rights activist, rescuing bonded laborers at many places came within her wheelhouse.
Her zeal for human rights also brought her to India in 2007, where she participated in a padyatra for land rights organized by Ekta Parishad from Gwalior to Delhi.
Her commitment to human rights came not without backlash, and she was often retributed for raising her voice against injustice. She recalls, “A few years back, a Dalit laborer was brutally beaten for inadvertently dropping the tin while loading it on a vehicle. When I raised this issue, I was also beaten by men, who said you are responsible for the Dalit movement in the area.”
But by that time, it was not the first time she had been beaten; she recounts, “In 2001, we tried to forcibly enter a temple in Baitadi. I, along with many others, was beaten black and blue in that attempt during the Rajshahi. Recalling the rigidity of that time, she says, “I was told that the caste and its practices cannot be tampered with as it has been created by God, and man has to follow it. If you want equal rights, go somewhere else, outside Nepal.
But the pleasing fact is that hardships faced by her have been recognized nationally and internationally. This year in August, she was honoured by the United States government, and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken presented her with the Global Anti-Racism Award in Washington, D.C. Although elated by the award, the determined Nepali says that she does not work for awards, but when her efforts are recognized, she feels acknowledged and is enthused to work for the downtrodden people of her country.
Although Nepal is gradually coming to grips with democracy, the audacity of the feudalists and casteist people persists, particularly in rural areas. Thirteen percent of the population of Nepal is Dalit, and in the constitution, which came into force in 2015, they have been given equal rights and provided reservations in politics, government jobs, etc.
Saraswati says that after the abolition of the monarchy, the environment has become more conducive to raising a voice against caste discrimination, unlike during the Rajshahi (Monarchy) when one did not have the freedom of expression. It can be hoped that the implementation of the Constitution proves to be a watershed era in the history of Nepal and is an enabler for dedicated activists like Saraswati to uproot caste-based discrimination.