Nepal: Caste Discrimination because of Sociocultural factors
In one side, the whole world including Nepal is suffering from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), and people are dying due to its severe and incurable impact on human health status. On the other hand, street protest rallies are going on in several parts of Nepal against the MCC compact, the government’s supervision of the coronavirus crisis, caste-based discrimination by the so-called higher caste on the lowest Dalits caste. But two recent lethal incidents, the cruel death of Angira pasi in Rupandehi district on May 22, 2020 and the heinous killing of six people in Rukum West district On May 23, 2020, have drawn the attention of the whole world towards Nepal, resulting in street protests amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as demonstrating the miserable condition of profoundly rooted social inequalities in the Nepalese society. Despite outlawing caste discrimination and untouchability as a formal legal reform in 1963 by the late king Mahendra, prohibiting any forms of discrimination owing to the caste, race, sex and religion by the formulation of the Constitution of Nepal in 1990, passing the Bill on Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability by the Government of Nepal in 2011 , having access to the benefits of the reservation system by women, Ethnic groups, Madhesi, Dalit, Disabled, and the people belonging to remote areas under the Constitution of Nepal (2015), the caste-based discrimination has not yet abolished from the psyche of the so-called upper caste in Nepal. Given these, nevertheless the caste-based bigotry in Nepal is now illegal, there is still a kind of widespread prejudices in the Nepalese society, urging for the proper implementation of the law to fully address the domestic violence—such as homicide, rape etc.—and the discrimination based on the caste and ethnicity in Nepal.
The caste-based discrimination has not yet abolished from the psyche of the so-called upper caste in Nepal.
Classically, the identity of an individual in Nepal is painfully defined as a combination of caste, ethnicity, and religion, forcing restrictions on marriage and occupation and resulting in an institutionalized social, cultural, political and economic discrimination in relation to low-caste people. The Nepalese caste system, predominantly based on the classical Hindu Chaturvarnashram model, is the traditional system of social stratification of Nepal—comprising of four general social classes or varna, namely Brahmins (e.g., higher castes; jobs: priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (higher caste; jobs:warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (middle caste; jobs: farmers, traders and merchants) and the Shudras (e.g., lower castes; menial jobs: labors, servents, peasants). Also, based on the Nepali Caste Pyramid, the fifth division of the caste system, whose ‘out-caste’ members are called Dalits (the lowest of the low; jobs: sweepings), and are assumed to be impure and physically “untouchable.” Depending on the above-mentioned division of the Nepalese society based on the Hindu customary, Dalits belong to the lower caste category, and thus considered as “untouchables.” Many in Hinduism believes that the division is generated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation. Under the hierarchy system, those lying on the top are more socially (politically, economically, culturally) powerful than those nearer to the bottom, and thus fewer people at the top than at the bottom. Over time, one of the historians, such as the Prime Minister (1846-1877), Junga Bahadur Rana, through the promulgation of the Muluki Ain National or Civil Code of 1854, has again restructured the state under the four-fold caste hierarchy: “(a) Tagaddhari (Sacred thread wearing or Twice-born), including the Bahun-Chhetris; (b) Matawali (Liquor drinking, i.e., indigenous peoples); (c) Pani nachalne choi chhito halnu naparne (Castes from whom water is not acceptable and contact with whom does not require purification by sprinkling of water); and (d) Pani nachlne choi chito halnu parne (Castes from whom water is not acceptable and contact with whom requires purification by sprinkling of water), including Sarki, Damai, Kami, Gaine, Sunar, Badibhad, Cunara, Pode, Hurke and Cyamakhalak” (Macdonald 1984:282). However, the late king Mahendra (11 June 1920 – 31 January 1972) has tried to abolish the caste-based discrimination and untouchability through the amendment of the National Code in 1963. Similarly, the Nepal Constitution of 1990 precludes discrimination based on caste, race, sex, and religion. Interestingly, various researchers have found that there has been small, but active, participation from the Dalit community during and the post-war Maoist conflict period in Nepal. So, the present constitution of Nepal, effective from September 20, 2015, is more progressive towards Dalits than the previous constitutions of Nepal because the former Maoist force arrives to the power with the commitment of bestowing justice to the Dalit communities. However, the barbaric killing of Nabaraj BK, 20, who is attempting to elope with a 17-year-old girl from a higher social caste– Malla clan, along with his five other friends, namely Sanju BK, 21, Lokendra Sunar, 18, Tikaram Sunar, 20, Govinda Shahi, 17, and Ganesh Budha, 17, has again revealed that members of lower castes and Dalits are yet facing the discrimination on the basis of castes regardless of the Government’s endeavors to safeguard the rights of marginalized castes. Similarly, detecting Angira Pasi hanging from a tree after her rape once more reveals that caste-based impairment is terribly ingrained in the Nepalese society even in the 21st century. Thus, these are social and cultural factors which treat certain group of people as forever inferior label because of their exclusive birth into a specific social group based on the historical background and religious rationale, hence signaling the caste-based discrepancy in the Nepalese society.
The Nepalese caste system, predominantly based on the classical Hindu Chaturvarnashram model
Furthermore, understanding the essence of problems helps to dig out solution for a particular issue under consideration. While solving issues, one should be ready to face challenges because the solutions of a problem are embedded on the problem itself. Since it is a clash between the lower caste and the so-called upper caste inside the Nepalese society –like the racism between the white and the non-white in the United States, it is challenging ,but not impossible, to address such chronic issues since it is deeply rooted in the spirits of people like an established culture in the communities where we live in. So, challenging the caste-based inequality is the key and the foremost step while attempting the prevalent and ongoing struggle to end the domestic violence. Dalits should talk and keep talking to raise their voices about their barriers until the positive solution is met because staying silent against crimes is also committing a crime; but, I know, the dialogue will be painful. Since a lot water has already flown and kept flowing through the rivers, like Bheri, Karnali, Bagmati, Gandaki, Kali etc. In this sense, Nepal is in the process of structural and social transformation towards the direction of making a peaceful, equitable, fair, and impartial society. However, the world history reveals that it takes time to reach at the root of the problem and to address them properly and efficiently. Hence, one should be patient while dealing with such sensitive issues. Secondly, according to the United Nations Network on Racial Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, the policies related to the human rights such as economic, political, social,,civil, cultural, and labor rights, as well as the right to development, should be made in such a way to address the causes in addition to solving the effects of caste-based discrimination through the proper understanding and probable positive and negative consequences of laws, social norms, traditional practices and institutional responses for the realization of the human rights of the excluded and marginalized populations, such as Dalits, in Nepal. However, the weak implementation of Nepalese laws and policies is slowly pressing a gear to enforcing the ban of the caste discrimination in Nepal. Thirdly, Dalits should be empowered ,through affirming their social rights, to make them accountable and access services as rights-holders and establish obligations for the government ,state and all other concerned parties as duty-bearers to terminate the structural inequalities, such as caste discrimination. Fourthly, the doctrine of participation and social inclusion of Dalit communities in different sectors of the Nepalese society, such as economic, political, cultural, religious, administrative sectors,helps first reduce and then abolish the systemic patterns of caste-based discrimination and inequality.But, the so-called higher-caste people, such as Bahuns and Chhetris, dominate all major political parties,and Dalits have the least political participation at local, regional and national(central) levels despite the constitution of Nepal is committed to promote inclusive democracy, and broaden the participation and representation of Dalits and other marginalised groups . Consequently, socially enforced restrictions, dehumanizing human beings referring to untouchability, behaving Dalits with lack of respect for their human virtue and equality indicate that socioeconomic, political, cultural factors are still responsible in Nepal for the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in Nepal.So, it is imperative to promote equality and ensure inclusive development, abolishing the caste-based discrimination from Nepal.
Interestingly, various researchers have found that there has been small, but active, participation from the Dalit community during and the post-war Maoist conflict period in Nepal.
Moreover, Dalits have been facing caste-based discrimination, social exclusion not only in Nepal, but also in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka because caste system is originally a Hindu-Indian issue. When Hindu people move to Nepal, they inherit the system with them together. The problems faced by Dalits are directly pertinent to the Hindu caste system, which reveals the principle of inequality based on the caste classification. The caste system based on the Hinduism prohibits social, economic, religious, political rights to Dalits. It also prevents rights to education, property, and business, thus making Dalits illiterate, asset-less, and poor. The severity of caste discrimination in Nepal is quite intense because Dalits may still become the victims of bonded labor(e.g., Tharu indigenous people of Western Nepal may work as Haliya partially due to presence of some traces of the remaining kamaiya system and may be due to unemployment problems in Nepal; though it has been abolished in Nepal in 2002), forced prostitution (e.g., women of the Badi caste, from south-west part of Nepal, were compelled– due to lack of employment opportunities– to offer sexual services to local kings, religious leaders and landlords; however, neither the Hindu caste system has a prostitute caste, nor is prostitution in Nepal legal.). In this case, the presence of some remaining remnant of previous nature of work performed by the bonded labor and forced prostitution might be some reasons for the continuation of the caste-based discrimination in Nepal. More importantly, Dalits have still been facing prejudices–such as entering sacred places and temples, collecting water from public taps,participating in different social gatherings (e.g.,rebuttal of participation on upper caste’s marriage ceremony, denial of funeral rites, discrimination at quarantine sites etc., imposing restrictions on occupations and marrying people from higher castes)– from the so-called upper- caste people. Regarding occupation, Muluki Ain legitimates Hindu caste system and caste discrimination as proposed by Manu Smriti. Primarily, Manu Smriti accepts that Brahmins are born out of the mouth of Brahma, one of the Hindu trinity gods, the creator of the universe. So, Brahmins are pure like gods. Since Kshatriyas (Chhetris) are born out of hands of Brahma,they are inferior to Brahmins (Bahuns), but are physically powerful, and rise as warriors. Similarly, Vaishyas (Baisya) are born out of the hip, and they are somewhere middle in the caste hierarchy.However, as Dalits are born out of the feet, they are the most inferior group. In this way, Muluki Ain validates caste discriminatoryidea via Manu Smriti, setting the foundation for discrimination of Dalits and Janajatis and the rise of Brahmins as a ruling class. Consequently, the proposed marriage before occurring both incidents becomes unacceptable to the so-called upper-caste people. Here, it should also be noted that all above-mentioned factors make social mobility almost impossible and accelerate institutionalized social, cultural, political, and economic discrimination about low-caste people, always keeping victims under the poverty level. More importantly, one of the severe impacts of poverty through the caste system is to create a viscous cycle of caste of poverty to maintain the caste discrimination. Consequently, caste has dominated virtually every aspect of Hinduism and social, political, cultural, economic aspect of life for centuries, assigning each group a particular place in such a complex hierarchy division, and thus provides a foundation and continuity for the caste discrimination.
The problems faced by Dalits are directly pertinent to the Hindu caste system, which reveals the principle of inequality based on the caste classification.
However, Dalits have been suffering from the ill practice of caste discrimination, surprisingly more than sixty years after legally provisioning the criminalized caste-based discrimination, including “untouchability.” According to the Nepali human rights organization, nearly 27 incidents about the caste-based discrimination or violence have been reported this year, despite Dalit activists argue that there might be more unreported cases because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This again implies that the lower castes are more vulnerable to corona virus. Similarly, the South Asia director, Meenakshi Ganguly, says, “Nepal has laws against caste-based crimes but they are rarely applied, and often the police refuse to even register cases – such as rape – when the victim is a Dalit.” For example, the Nepali police initially refuse to register the case of Pasi, who is ostensibly reported to be raped and murdered, arguing that she has tried to commit suicide herself. In addition, even though the new constitution of Nepal (2015) caters the “right against untouchability and discrimination” as a fundamental right, and considers the establishment of a National Dalit Commission to foster the rights of Dalit, the government has not nominated any commissioners yet. More importantly, Janardhan Sharma, the Representative of Western Rukum district for the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), tries to save Soti villagers stating that the groom and his friends approach to marry an underage girl, signaling probable signs to defend the perpetrators–assuming some of suspects are apparently from his relatives and political allies. Given this scenario, the Soti incident is another manifestation of the continued prevalence of caste-based discrimination in Nepal , urging for a nonpartisan probe of both incidents, according to UN. In addition to the comments from the United Nations and the European Union about recent murders of Dalit people in Nepal, one of the preceding prime ministers of Nepal, Baburam Bhattarai, has urged the protests, embracing a Dalit surname in a country if names are architects of caste. Peculiarly, one of the interesting factors in both cases is: both brides are under-aged women. In contrast, besides the strict restriction on the inter-caste marriage, uncommonly between Dalits and non-Dalits, there is also a severe prohibition between the intra-caste marriage exceptionally, which further assist to safeguard caste hierarchy and hence the caste-discrimination. Finally yet importantly, impunity for domestic caste-based discrimination and violence in Nepal is quite unreasonable, raising the doubt about the impartial investigation on both caste-based killing in Nepal by international communities, regardless of constitutional guarantees. So, one should be critically serious to save the good image of Nepal among international communities, revealing the truth of the two Dalit-related incidents. Again, some news and reports suggest that casteism is not only present in rural areas but is also prevalent in the capital city of Nepal, Kathmandu, too because victims claim that they could not find a rented house in Kathmandu. Given these examples, Nawaraj’s incident is not only one, which only faces discrimination based on the caste division. Most importantly, some Dalit activists cautiously doubt whether the investigations about attacks and incidents would be partial since people from high caste are in executive level, who may pollute the report of the high-level commission. Yet, preliminary investigation of the Rukum event reveals that a group of people under the leadership of the ward chair attack the group at their arrival in the village with the motives of killing victims. Eventually, the Home Ministry has established a five-member “high-level investigation committee”, led by the ministry’s joint-secretary, to examine the killing of Dalit youths in Rukum and the rape and killing of Pasi’s case. Accordingly, such horrific crimes signify the existence of footprints of the cast-based discrimination in Nepal, given the socioeconomic, cultural, political and religious factors.
In contrast, besides the strict restriction on the inter-caste marriage, uncommonly between Dalits and non-Dalits, there is also a severe prohibition between the intra-caste marriage exceptionally
Moving forward, obviously the above-discussed sociocultural, political, and cultural factors give rise to the situation of caste discrimination, humiliation, and social exclusion in Nepal, which is a heinous crime in the 21st century. Hence, one can easily anticipate that the caste system vigorously shapes the Nepalese society, nevertheless such discrimination is firmly restricted by the Constitution. In a country, justice is established offering equal access to power, resource and opportunity provisioned by the state for the social inclusion of Dalits through a means of reservation, which has been already introduced by the government of Nepal in different sectors of the country. Even though the Hindu religion is sometimes criticized heavily due to its discrimination against Dalits based on the caste system, people, in the 21st century — choose their professions based on their skills, not accordingly as the labor division under Manu Smrit, which the Hinduism does not oppose it. In this sense, this is the beauty of Hinduism, that allows to address the inherent problem under it, assuming every religion is man-made. Obviously, god cannot be cruel for some groups of people, and merciful to other groups of people. So, Hindu religion cannot and should not be a barrier to Dalits only.Interestingly, Nepal has now become a secular country under the Constitution Of Nepal (2015). However, given Rukum is an origin of Maoist insurgency and most political leaders involved in the people’s movement 2006 are in power under the current government, victims and their families should have rights to justice, without forcefully attempting to prove that Rukum is free from caste-based discrimination. That is, there should be a proper and strong implementation of law and orders in Nepal. This proves that the government of Nepal is pro-public, and is in favor of positive structural transformations to abolish the caste-based discrimination. Most importantly, the government and the concerned authorities in Nepal should be seriously watching the Dalit dilemma: the demotion to the Dalit class felling from grace and the relegation of high caste people into the Dalit group, in the name of Dalit to exploit state-offered benefits. The last but not least, since caste discrimination makes Nepal a socially distressed, economically backward, culturally ill-contrived and politically feudalistic nation, it is crucial to make her socially progressive, economically prosperous, culturally rich and politically trustworthy country through a proper address of structural and sociocultural issues, such as caste-based discrimination. Importantly, the punishment to victims should be such that they will be deterred to do such crimes in the future. Again, it is important to change the perception of people about castes positively in addition to addressing the Nabaraj’s and Pasi’s case, to fully resolve the caste-based discrimination in Nepal. Hopefully, we will have medications for COVID-19 shortly, but when will the Nepalese society be free from the virus of caste discrimination? I have been patiently waiting and looking for it. Finally, may all the passed souls under the caste discrimination rest in peace.
Even though the Hindu religion is sometimes criticized heavily due to its discrimination against Dalits based on the caste system.
Narendra Raj Tiwari ([email protected])
PhD student (Economics) at Texas Tech University
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