Caste remains a primary criterion to judge the manner, competency and beauty in Nepal. I am talented, good mannered and beautiful until I disclose my caste
“Are you a Newar? You look beautiful.” A man of my age, who had been following me for a few minutes in the street of New Road, asked. He asked another question as I delayed revealing my caste identity and the question was related to work. “I am a medical student and work as an assistant pharmacist,” I said. He further praised me for choosing a good profession. Then, because I was somewhat impressed by his polite conversation and compliments, I thought of revealing my identity. I told him I am a Pariyar, a caste that belongs to Dalit community.
Within a moment, the same person, who had a lot of good things to say about my appearance, education, and profession, changed his tone and behavior. He responded: “Oh, that’s the reason you were talking with me for a long time. If you were from good family or from ‘higher’ caste, you wouldn’t have talked to a stranger this way.”
This is not the first time I have been hurt by a few “higher” caste persons. My co-worker refused to sit with me to have lunch after he knew my caste. A neighbor, who comes in our house to sew her clothes, sprinkles “holy water” before returning to her house, to “purify” herself. Such acts of humiliation and discrimination are uncountable.
The caste trap
For far more people than non-Dalits may realize, caste remains a primary criterion to judge the manner, competency and beauty in Nepal. I am talented, good mannered and beautiful until I disclose my caste. In fact, many “higher” caste people will decide how talented I am after they learn my caste. My identity is fixed with my caste. Many Nepalis are not satisfied until they ask you about the caste if they have met you for the first time. Indeed, the very act of introducing oneself is shaped by casteism for most individuals. And, even though non-Dalits stand to benefit from it, they too are trapped by the system even when they don’t want to define themselves by caste.
The caste system continues to persist for many in our daily lives despite its legal abolition back in 1990. The 1990 Constitution of Nepal made caste-based discrimination punishable crime for the first time. The Caste Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act 2011 prohibits discrimination both in public and private places.
The most alarming aspect of the persistence of caste system is that the problems go far beyond what is visible, the crimes far beyond reported or punished, the daily humiliations too many to recount. It continues to have far-reaching effects on the lives of Dalit community and individuals, from marriage and intimate relationship to business and community life, and from educational and professional opportunities to a whole host of social justice issues.
As I grew up, I kept hearing that these discriminatory practices will disappear, at least for me, if I am educated and economically successful. My teachers and village leaders told me certain variables such as education, wealth and income determine the basis of social ranking. But economically secured status and university degree have not made much difference when it comes to my social identity. I am ultimately judged by my caste in the end.
Many Dalits work hard to educate themselves and raise their economic status. Their literacy rate is 53 percent, which is an increase from 33.8 percent in 2007. Alongside their education, Dalit’s income and economic status have gradually improved. According to the 2002 report of Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), 46 percent Dalits were below the poverty line whereas it has reached 41 percent by 2019. The statistical data of the budget year 2067/068 BS illustrates that there are 1,605 Dalit civil servants in Nepal. As per the Flash Report of 2072/73 BS of the Ministry of Education, 5,948 Dalits are teachers.
Unfortunately, excelling in school and university education by Dalit and raising their economic status have not changed their plight in substantive ways. Dalits continue to face invisible and subtle forms of caste-based discrimination. In 2017, Kishor Panthi wrote in his blog that a landlady, Jamuna Bhattarai, refused to rent room to a Dalit student, Ganesh Pariyar, preparing for MBBS in Kathmandu after knowing his caste. She did so in the pretext that she needed the room for herself. Many more such incidents go unreported. Although it is hard to offer evidence for legal remedy, the prejudiced intention can be felt easily.
Who needs to change?
Nepali society is still deeply embroiled in caste-based prejudices. Dalits are humiliated and discriminated in rural and urban areas, where forms of discrimination can be different. Dalits face outright violence in rural areas. They are beaten for touching water taps or for calling “higher” caste individuals by their names. In urban areas, this discrimination is more subtle and invisible, but there too they are denied access to services and facilities. For example, Dalits can face different hurdles if they are buying land in non-Dalit neighborhood.
The problem is that many who believe in and may even practice caste system are not ready to change or question it. And this system has been transferred from one generation to the next. Dalits are the only ones fighting to change the practice and those who fight against the caste system are discouraged and humiliated by their fellow caste members. Sweeping majority of “higher” caste is not ready to change yet as they benefit socio-economically from sustained discrimination.
Caste system is rooted so deeply in our society that people continue to view Dalits as impure. Even the laws that ban caste based discrimination have failed to stop such discriminatory behavior and change the mindset of people.
The incident I shared above remains a haunting experience in my life. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of social challenges for Dalit citizens. Until and unless non-Dalit society understands and realizes the enormity of this problem and actively changes its mindset, this social disease cannot be cured.
The author is a participant at Dalit Reader’s Writing for Social Justice Workshop