The excessive use of force by our police against peaceful protests staged by various Dalit lawmakers and activists demanding a Dalit-friendly constitution reflects both the oppressive and suppressive mentality of the present government and of the so-called upper caste citizens who have played a dominant role in the country’s governance for centuries.
Media news emerges daily on Dalit issues such as Dalits not being allowed to drink from the same wells and taps, not being allowed to enter temples, or not being able to drink from the same cups at tea stalls. For how long can we, or should we, close our eyes? There has been a backlash of violence from the higher castes against those who challenge untouchability and against efforts to organize and fight discrimination with official policies.
This long established form of social segregation may be compared to the crime of apartheid. Dalits are denied entry into upper caste houses, temples, restaurants, teashops, and food factories. They have suffered atrocities and injustices for centuries not just by society in general but the practice has been institutionalized by the state itself excluding and marginalizing them in the policy and decision making process. Are the Dalits not human beings? When will we end this oldest social discrimination? Is it not a crime against humanity? Is it not a gross violation of human rights of a significant proportion of our population?
Statistics demonstrate that there are 4.5 million Dalits in Nepal – almost 20 percent of the total population. There are more than twenty Dalit caste groups, and eighty percent of the Dalit population lives below the poverty line. How can society as a whole, its laws and the state neglect them and their needs? Are there not serious implications and consequences whenever development policies and programmes are formulated? The halting of caste discrimination was an important issue in all our past democratic struggles and revolutions: it has been part of the manifesto of the political parties, and an election slogan. Why then does it still exist? Have we done anything positive to solve the problem?
Rampant untouchability despite law
The Dalits have already attained equal status at least as far as black letter law is concerned. Not long ago, an amendment to the Civil Code accepted that untouchability practices and boycotts or restrictions against any person on the basis of caste, religion or class constituted a crime. The Interim Constitution accepts the right to protection from caste-based discrimination and untouchability as a fundamental right.
Moreover, a recent parliamentary act, the caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Act 2011, criminalizes caste-based discrimination and untouchability in both private and public spheres. So far so good. However, Dalit communities continue to suffer: they face discrimination in housing, in schools, and in access to public services. They are denied access to land, are forced to work in degrading conditions, and are routinely abused at the hands of the police and upper-caste community members. Their cases are often not reported, investigated or prosecuted properly. Dalits have endured discrimination for centuries and this discrimination continues today. Does it not bring shame on us all in the 21st century? Is it not time to end this centuries-old social practice? The passing of laws has been a great achievement, but it is however only the first step towards safeguarding effective protection of Dalits rights.
First, our new constitution must go much further than its predecessors in securing the rights of Dalits. Dalit voices must be reflected within the constitution without prejudice. Are Dalits not citizens of Nepal? Caste discrimination involves massive violation of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. Caste-affected communities are denied a life in dignity and equality. Nepal has committed to several international human rights treaties and mechanisms which oblige the state to enforce the rights of victims of caste-based discrimination. It will be a gross failure to uphold our international legal obligations if the new constitution fails to secure the rights of Dalits, untouchable and of other vulnerable citizens.
Second, there is an important question for all us to consider. Can constitutional and legal provisions alone suffice to eradicate this evil social segregation? From our own experiences, the straight answer is no. Making laws alone is not enough. Despite the fact that untouchability was officially banned in our country nearly six decades ago, discrimination against Dalits remains pervasive.
Our attitude towards Dalits must change. The dominant and oppressive attitudes and manners of so-called high caste individuals must change. Economic, social and development policies must be formulated based on equality towards Dalits. A strong enforcement mechanism for existing laws must be introduced, and Dalit abusers must be punished. However, to have any real impact, systematic reform and change, education and creating public awareness are critical. To achieve this, we must teach our children from the beginning to respect and tolerate others. We must teach our children that all human beings and individuals are equal and born free.
Finally, each one of us together with stakeholders in society such as the media, NGOs and civil society and the Dalits themselves are the key to achieving change. Are the so-called leaders and activists who are advocating the rights of the Dalits acting above partisan interest? As Ambedkar said,’ ‘Ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle of reclamation of human personality.’ The Dalit rights struggle must be a battle for all of us aimed at building a new country, a new society and a new way of life based on respect and values between different castes, cultures, religions and political beliefs. Are Dalit rights activists truly serving the real interests of Dalits? Are all Dalits united and able to establish a common voice and common agenda? We should, and they must, give serious thought to these important questions.
In a free and democratic society, every citizen, irrespective of his caste or social origin is entitled to exercise his or her constitutional, civil and political rights that enable him to live with dignity and respect. The country must evolve concrete plans and policies that implement laws and programmes to respect protect and fulfill the rights and dignity of the Dalit. The demand for proper inclusion of Dalit rights in the new constitution must emerge as the common voice of us all, the common agenda and must be seen as the crucial key if we wish to establish a human rights-based and just society. As Goethe famously stated, ‘Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do’. The evil social practices widely known as ‘hidden apartheid’ in our country must be brought to an end.