Understanding Untouchability and Caste Question in Nepal

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

As I started from Delhi to visit Kathmandu to participate in World Conference against Untouchability organized by International Humanist Union, London and Nepal Dalit Commission along with Society for Humanism in Nepal, the issues raised by one of respected Dalit rights activist Mr Hira Lal Vishwkarma’s assertion that manual scavenging
does not exists in Nepal and that it is a lucrative business in Kathmandu. The statement was contradictory as it admitted that ther is manual scavenging but what shocked me was his further emphasis thatthis work is now done by the Brahmin and Kshetris too as this has lots of money. In the conference I raised the issue and Mr Bishwkarma responded to it in the similar way as he had said in his response to a group mail circulated among the Dalit groups. Many of our friends working on manual scavenging in India were very disturbed with this as how come a person speak of such a language. During the conference, I had the opportunity to interact Hira Lal Bishwkarmaji and other friends and in the next few days, I decided to explore things further by meeting diverse groups of people and that too from different regions of Nepal. That apart, I tried to find it with the people in Kathmandu valley who are engaged in the sanitation work employed by the municipal corporation and government hospitals mostly. Most of the places, I found the output of the toilets are linked to local open nullah and just as you pour water, the entire excreta is flown into it. Most of the places it was stinky and dirty too. So, if not today, I feel Kathmandu city will have a dangerous situation if the sewage situation is not dealt with. Despite denial of people, one question that always haunted me as who clean toilets and latrines in Nepal ? If manual scavenging does not exists here, it means there is no caste system or the country has developed a fairly good sewage model on the lines of European countries only then there was a possibility of non existence of manual scavenging. On both the counts Nepal remain negative. The sewage system need to be seen and the caste system of brahmanical variety exists in Nepal in much stronger way than it is in India. It need to be understood and seen where it is not visible and why Ofcourse, Nepal is a very diverse country and caste system differ in forms and actions in each regions and hence all cant be put in the same bracket. Yet, I was never satisfied by the arguments that friends who suggested me, ‘ I should not look Nepal from Indian eyes and that they were different’. As a person who has been visiting Nepal for long and love that country the issue of Dalits, discrimination and caste system can not be put aside simply under the nationalistic boundaries when the issue has become international and need people’s response. Yes, it is true that the ‘big’ brother attitude of Indians with their ready made solution would not work in Nepal and it is clear that they have to find answer within their national frame work satisfying the international laws too which speak against injustice and are for social justice.

For next two days, I decided to explore on my own and met a number of friends from hills, Tarai and Newari community and what transpired in our conversations was absolutely eyeopening and will definitely give a new direction to the movement for social justice and participation of various Dalit communities in nation building. These conversations of mine with Nepal Communist Party leader Mr Tilak Pariyar, leader from Dom community and now Central committee member of Naya Shakti Mrs Sunita Dom, Dalit activist from Tarai Mr Amar Lal Ram, activist from Badi Community Mr Gopal Nepali and a conversation with Deula community members engaged in sanitation work at the outskirts of Kathmandu will be put online soon and will definitely help create an understanding of the issue and take the discourse further.

I visited Deula community locality in the Indraiani colony in the Maharajganj region of Kathmandu city to have a firsthand look to the issue, I was shocked to say the least. I thought that Hira Lal Vishwkarma ji is right because the houses were great and in much better place unlike India. Over 25 families were living and each one had well established home of nearly three storied construction. Some of them had bigger than that. They claimed there was no untouchability with them when I asked pointed question. Most of them were working with municipality to clean roads, public toilets and hospitals. A government job provided them about NR 10,000 to 15,000 which they considered a better job option. I was a bit frustrated. At the town, I met a gentleman Mahadeb Deula who runs a public toilet at the Vasundhara chowk. The human excreta from his public conveniences is flown into the open drainage which stink all the time. Mahadeb pay NR Three Thousand for the contract and earn around NR 7000 a month. He has no issue with untouchability as he says he does not face it. We go along with him to his Indraiani Colony of Deulas. Bheku Lal works with Mahanagar municipality and his day start from early morning at 5 am and finish at 8. Later he has to go again at 1 pm and finish at 6 pm. At this age of about 50 he gets about NR 16,000/- per month. Kanchi worked in Mahanagar Palika and now retired. Its not good work but they don’t get anything else says a young boy who is working in a hospital. He could not study after high school. Another girl Pushpa is a 9th drop out and sit at home. I asked her as why she not pursued her study, she had no answer though the young boy of the community clearly mentioned that they do not get any other work.

What surprises me was while those I met (I do not deny they having political influence) did not utter much about untouchability and discrimination, yet the issue is whether they realize what is discrimination when they do not get any other work. Now they are complaining that the work is not there as mechanization is happening and work is being given to contractors. ‘It is a fact that the contractors are mostly the high caste Hindus as Dalits do not have that much of money. These high caste Hindus take the contract work and employ the untouchables to do the sanitation work like cleaning of septic tanks, roads and toilets. They extract huge money and pay the people lowly’, said Mr Tilak Pariyar who is the Central Committee Member of Nepal Communist Party (ML).

But Padam Bishwkarama, who is editor of monthly journal ‘Dalit Sandesh’ as well as valley coordinator of Dalit Liberation Front of Nepal, says that Nepal’s Dalit question need to be looked carefully according to regions. He feels that the Parliamentary system is never helpful to Dalits and it coopt them. He talks of revolution and unity
of all the Dalits. According to Padam, Dalit question is not the issue of ‘Untouchability’ but that of participation at all level. Sometime the upper caste want to convert it into an untouchability issue which
is wrong, says Padam Bishwkarma.

However Gopal Nepali, who belong to Badi community of Nepal and one of the most marginalized and outcaste community feel that when we speak of proportionate representation system, it cannot be just in the context of Dalits and non Dalits as we assume. He thunders, ‘Where is my space as a Badi with in the Dalit movements. Where are jobs for us
in the government services, in Parliament or at the National Dalit Commission? They have formed a committee for the ‘welfare’ of Badis and therefore most of our friends feel that we do not need to have a space in the National Dalit Commission dominated by one or two communities’, he says.

Actually, manual scavenging in the hills were carried out by the Deulas who are part of Newar community which has a tribal status. You cannot really understand the peculiarity of the issue if you feel that it is a Newar issue as many of them have now become economically well off. Newar janjati itself has its own varna system and therefore
Deulas among them are the sanitation workers. In the hills there was not much manual scavenging but the towns of the hills like Kathmandu has this community engaged in the work. There is a dire need to monitor the work in the smaller town.

In Nepal, the tragedy is that the issue of manual scavenging has not become dominant because the whole Dalit discourse is dominated by the hill people while communities such as Doms, Mushahars, Chamars, Mehatars, Halkhors, which are mostly based in the the Tarai or Madhesh regions remain outcastes with in the movement. The crisis of Hills verses plain has also helped to aggravate the issue. The cultural gap is big and need to cover up. As Kathmandu valley has dominant hill people and definitely manual scavenging in hills cannot be compared to that in the Tarai yet one cannot ignore the dark realities. I am not sure how great is the sewage system of Kathmandu and elsewhere but definitely people clean street, toilets and some day the septic tanks and as suggested by many earning a ‘good amount’ but definitely now with the machines coming up in the market, it has affected the job and
bargaining powers of the community like Deulas as they only have the sole ‘monopoly’ over the sanitation work in Kathmandu. Now the contract work is taken by the powerful people who lease it to Deulas and make money at their cost and we feel that the community has gained a lot. When I tried to find out the reason of the community’s good
housing, I was told that Deula’s had land from the very beginning and they had built these houses long back as the land belong to them. It would be difficult for any sanitation worker to construct those kind of houses in todays time when everything is so expensive and there is no security.

However, it would not be fair to blame to the social movements in Nepal, most of them dominated by caste Hindus who needed a few ‘Dalits’ to ‘showcase’ to their donors. As Mr Hira Lal Vishwkarma told me about a big organization working on Land Rights actually worked to ensure land for Brahmins and Kshatriyas in a village, in the name of
‘land reform’. It was shocking, said Hira Lal ji that when he found that Dalits and Janjati people did not get any land under the claim ‘land to the landless’. Perhaps, it is here we must realize the importance of the caste and merely citing ‘class’ will not work. Nothing wrong in helping the landless people of all the castes but then why ignore the Dalits in this entire ‘class’ exercise. One has to agree that the Dalit issue need to be understood beyond mere symbolism even though many times they are important particularly in the regions where they have been denied participation and right to be as a human being with dignity. Of course, the Dalit movement needed as much
variety and inclusion of the most marginalized communities which are victim of untouchability even with in the communities claim to be Dalits. These questions cannot be place under the carpet in the pretext of internal issues of the community or non-serious.

But can Dalit issue be just participation and not discrimination and untouchability. We do understand the political participation but what happens where Dalits are just a minority or that too of a miniscule variety whose voices do not get heard in the din of ‘majoritarian’ politics? So, it is not just issue of participation but an issue of
human rights which has protection under all the international covenants. Participation of Dalits as proportionate to their population in polity and political structure is one issue but the issue of untouchability and those who are on the margins cannot be brushed aside under any pretext as Tilak Parihar says that the Communist Parties failed in it as the representation inside the party was a matter of great concern. He pointed out that though the
revolutionary politics fought for the Dalit rights and fight against feudal oppression yet in terms of representation they failed the Dalits. He also said that parties failed to understand the Dalit issues and its complexity. ‘I was the member of the previously constituted ‘Constituent Assembly’ and have seen in those discussion that those who got elected in the name of Dalit communities only raised the issue of their communities and not others. Therefore, I never heard issues of Doms, manual scavengers or those of the Tarai Dalits, as majority of us were from the hills. It is our failure’, he says. Obviously, the issues of Dalits and Janjatis have to be resolved within the framework of Nepalese constitution and with maintaining the unity and integrity of the country. Last year an important leader of Dalits from Madhesh region visited Indian and tried to create an opinion about the Dalits in Nepal but now the Dalits in that region complain that the minister has forgotten the Dalits of other communities and only play his caste card.

Amar Lal Ram belong to Chamar community from Saptarni district ofMadhesh region. The influence of Saint Raidas and Baba Saheb Ambedkar is now on the community. ‘The youngsters are going to school but participation in the job is very low. In the Tarai, it is the Paswans who dominate and they do not care for Dom, Chamars and Mehtars. In fact, 25 families of Doms face social-economic boycott from the Yadavas in the region who want these families to leave their homes and settle elsewhere’, says Amar. We too had an economic blockade several years back but now things are settled, he said. ‘Why is there a blockade’, I asked. ‘ We live in the towns or in the villages and when we do not follow their diktats they threaten us. Secondly, now with a little money, they feel we are obstacles and need to be thrown away so that they can live without seeing us or touching us.’ But is there any manual scavenging in your region and if yes who are engaged in it, I ask. According to Amar, even after the government’s efforts, manual scavenging is there and mostly mehtars, halkhors and Doms are engaged in it. ‘ If there is any death of an animal, people will not pick up as they will only wait for a dom, he says and add that our pain is that while the upper castes have been willful against us but the powerful communities of Vishwkarmas and Parihars have taken our share as they are heavily present everywhere from government bodies to NGOs to IGOs. In fact, this sentiment is reflected by Gopal Nepali too who said that when the government appoint a committee and yes it is a committee he says not a commission yet it was not liked by dominant dalit leaders here. What do we get he says. As a person from Badi community which is less than forty thousands in Nepal, Gopal is the first person doing his M.Phil from Tribhavan University, says with pain visible on his face that we remain untouchables even today. Though, none know my caste in Kathmandu but if I inform any one about my caste that I belong to Badi community, I might not even get a house and people won’t even like to share space with me. Our pain is that our women and men were into music profession. They danced and yes the feudal exploited our women too. Later it became for all when there was no employment so many came in the prostitution and exploited by all. How Hippocratic it is that we are untouchables but there is no
untouchability in sex. Yes, untouchability exists in our water, in our kitchens and at the marriages, he says painfully.

Addressing caste discrimination and untouchability questions are important to create an egalitarian society but it is important to handle them with great sensitivity. A solution which might be applicable in the hills might not be applicable in Tarai. The issue of Newari community is entirely different. Constitution of Nepal has recognized Dalit as an issue and as communities. Positive side is that constitutionally, they did not use the term ‘scheduled castes’ and scheduled tribes’ as in India but Dalits and Janjati which is positive as it will remind people of the historic wrong. Padam Bishwakarma is very clear about that when he says that Dalit question cannot be resolved unless we talk of honorable compensation for historical wrong done to us but do the revolutionary politics understand it, I ask. He says, yes, the only answer to discrimination against Dalit is the revolution against the feudal caste structure as Parliamentary democracy will not bring our true representatives and there the success of a few is shown as the model for all.

While Tilak Pariyar candidly understand that these brahmanical Marxist parties are not really Marxists as they fail to understand Dalit question and only talk of class when caste is an important factor of oppression in our society, Ms Sunita Dom, who is now in Nayi Shakti party of former prime minister Babu Ram Bhattarai, exposes the character of the ‘revolutionary’ parties when she said that her father being an important member of the Central Committee of the Maoist Party faced caste discrimination. It was sad that party leaders would not eat along with him and he was always served in a separate plate outside the dining hall. This is scathing attack on the brahmanical desease that exists inside these closed quarter of ‘revolutionary’ parties. I was shocked to hear this from a woman who hail from Dom community who are even untouchables among untouchables. Most of these parties have kept their door closed for the Dalits but as both Tilak Pariyar and Padam Bishwkarma mention that the revolution happened in Nepal because Dalits supported and participated in it. My point was that is great but why you need Dalits as rag pickers of your parties and not at the highest level. How come people are unable to come to the highest level despite sacrificing their lives.

Yet, it is also true that merely condemning the parties will not work. Nepal’s Dalit now look for change through revolution alone. Those who are ‘mainstreamed’ in NGOs and INGOs may have a few success stories while mainstream political parties busy with their vote calculations, Tilak Pariyar is simply not satisfied with the constitution. It talks a lot but gives nothing. For the 275 strong Parliament, 165 Members will come through First Past The Post system while rest 110 from Proportionate Electorate System. Now, most of the mainstream parties says that constitution is giving everything as per proportionate at every level (it is mentioned in the constitution and Nepal that way shows inclusive constitution but it has a long way to go) but there is no assurance of reservation or protection of seats for Dalits in FPTP as no seat is reserved for them. It means that a majority of seats would be open for manipulations during the elections and prone to encourage corrupt practices as happens in India. Among all this proportionate, how do we ensure that Badi, Gandharba, Chamars,Halhors, Doms, Mehtars and many other communities get their due. How will there be a representation of Deulas from among the powerful Newar community.

Nepal’s Dalits are separated from each other on regional lines. There might not have been any interaction with them and definitely the brahmanical political parties whether Congress variety or revolutionary one cannot escape from being blamed. As far as social movements is concern, the big INGOs have spoiled independent movement to grow and very unfortunate part is that upper caste still play patronizing role in ‘developing’ Dalit movement. We still here
discussion similar to ‘return to Vedas’ of Vivekanada and that varna system was ‘scientific’ and was based on your work and not that of birth. People quote copiously from religious texts to prove that Vedas are sacrosanct and everything is a late entry. That shows the influence of Brahmanism on thoughts and process of politics, academia
and society. While Ambedkar is reaching there yet being used in a very ‘limited’ way as both the revolutionaries and Congress variety of parties have realize the danger to the brahmanical order from a radical Ambedkarite movement. The oppression has been very high and people were made to believe that they are fighting a ‘class’ war and not a brahmanical caste oppression hence villages are isolated and deeply entrenched in caste system.

We would not like to give our solution to Nepal as it has to come from their communities and within the frame work of its constitution but unless Nepalese parties understand the whole issue of Dalits and their participation, things will not succeed. Nepal revolutionary politics will not succeed unless it understands the aspirations of those communities who have been denied their dignity and rights for centuries. In the 21st century, Nepal need to show the world that in our continent revolution is not possible without smashing Brahmanism and the illegitimate social order that it has created to suppress the Bahujan working masses in our societies.