The issue of dalit discrimination has once again surfaced as a major talking point lately in social media in particular following journalist Roopa Sunar managing to get a Newar lady, Saraswati Pradhan, incarcerated for three days for the latter’s alleged refusal to rent out her room to the former on grounds of her being a dalit. The issue attracted wider public attention after minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha intervened by personally going to the police and having Pradhan released and brought home in his own car.
This incident set off an avalanche of debate in print and social media in support of both Sunar and Pradhan, with a few Kathmanduites rallying Kathmandu house owners never to rent out a room to Sunar. Minister Shrestha too was commended for having rescued the beleaguered lady from her confinement, although he also came in for criticism for having “abused his power” by preventing the case from taking its due course. Even PM KP Oli publicly rebuked the minister, and the latter too apologized for his “mistake”. But that does not change the fact that minister Shrestha has earned many plaudits mainly among the Kathmandu denizens for leveraging against the police excess in rescuing the hapless lady.
As the details of the encounter between Sunar and Pradhan emerged, it seemed more like a sting operation mounted by journalist Sunar in search of some publicity for herself, as some put it on Twitter. As the story goes, the prospective landlady, Pradhan, had agreed to rent the room and in doing so, had not asked the caste status of the potential tenant. It was at this point that Sunar apparently provoked the Pradhan lady’s habitual cultural bias by volunteering that she was a Kami by caste and asking if she would have any problem with it. While the Pradhan lady baulked, Sunar was video recording her reaction. It was that video evidence based on which the police had decided to apprehend and incarcerate Pradhan. The chronology of the event suggests that Sunar, a TV programme operator, was there more for a scoop than in a genuine hunt for a room.
While the Pradhan lady has moved the Human Rights Commission against the Sunar lady for her excesses against her, the latter, in turn, has sued minister Shrestha for the alleged abuse of power for intervening in the case and that is sure to give her more publicity.
The pervasiveness of dalit discrimination
A Pariyar wrote on Twitter that “we Damais do not drink water touched by a Badi. Should you (police) not be prosecuting all of us Damais?” Then, there was another Mahat who was categorical that “I am not going to rent out my house or shop with anybody with a surname of Sunar plain and simple.”These are straightforward confessions of dalit discrimination than what the Pradhan lady has been alleged with. Since the police found it fit to incarcerate Pradhan, by the same logic, the police must respond to these daring too?
The point here is that while inter-caste prejudice continues to be rampant in Nepal in the form of high caste snobbery verging on tribalism and sense of exceptionalism, it is the dalit discrimination expressed in terms of avoidance of physical contact or accepting water from them on grounds of being “ritually polluting” that is pervasive nationwide. What is even more astounding is the fact that this massive population of discriminated dalits, accounting for some 13 percent of the country’s population (2011), happens to be discriminatory themselves too. They too are hierarchically stratified, each of them treating those below them in the ladder ritually polluting and therefore “untouchable”. For instance, the Kami, the caste category of Roopa Sunar, happens to be the highest placed in the hierarchy and they consider all the other dalit castes to be polluting and treat them as “untouchable”. Similarly, the Sarki, the second in line, treat the Damai and all those further down as untouchable. A few years ago, here in Kathmandu at Baneswor, a Sarki house owner had evicted his Damai tenant when the latter’s caste status became known to the former. Thus, if a sting operation were to be mounted on Roopa Sunar too, in all probability she too would be found equally culpable and therefore, eligible for sharing the prison cell with the Pradhan lady.
Given the countrywide pervasiveness of such caste discrimination, if all those people practicing this exclusionary practice were to be put in jail like the Pradhan lady, maybe the whole of Kathmandu should be turned into a massive jail to make room for the tens of millions of such offenders in the country.
Given such cultural context in the country, it can be safely assumed that the police officers responsible for the incarceration of the Pradhan lady themselves too must have been fully familiar with (and practicing) this exclusionary tradition in our society. Therefore, instead of being carried away by the protestations of this media-connected, publicity-hungry complainant, they should have used the better sense of their judgment to bring the case to its peaceable end through reconciliation and counselling. After all, our policemen often reported having opted to allow even such grievous criminal cases like rape to be settled communally, knowing that the case would possibly end to the disadvantage of the victim.
Then there were at last two politicians too, both high caste Brahmins and possessed of distinctive educational and professional standing, who chose to be “politically correct” by siding with Roopa Sunar. While one of them wrote in a vernacular daily commending Sunar for her “daring”, the other one was emphatic on Twitter condemning minister Shrestha’s intervention and disdaining such “caste discrimination”. But both of them knew that caste discrimination remained chronic, pervasive and rooted in the feudalistic nature of our social structure and that you do not begin to solve this mighty problem by incarcerating a simple Newar housewife at Babar Mahal, particularly when the whole story reeked of the media-related Sunar staging a sting operation for some publicity.
Social structural nature of dalit discrimination
While Nepalese society continues to be stubbornly feudalistic in Hindu tradition under which people are segmented into hierarchically defined caste groups with various degrees of “ritual purity” or lack of it, the artisan castes come at the bottom of the ladder and are treated as untouchable. This collectivity of untouchables used to be known as Kamsel or lesser mortals at least in the Karnali region formerly and are defined as “serving castes” whose traditionally deriving role has been to render their caste-related and labour services to the higher caste households and in return, the latter are expected to take care of all of the former’s existential needs such as foods, clothing, shelter and other associated needs. This patron-client relationship is variously known in different parts of the country as baali ghar in the Gandaki region or lagi-lagitya in Jumla. Under this system, a baalighar or lagi household generally retains three artisan households in such relationship — one Kami household for fabricating or repairing iron-made farm tools, one Sarki for leather and woodwork implements, and one Damai for tailoring necessary clothing and ritual minstrel services –even as the former two also render labour services mainly for tilling land during planting seasons.
These artisan households are compensated in kind in seasonal payments of food grains after each harvest, supplemented by other in-kind largesse at regular intervals such as providing for various household needs including feasting during festivities. In order to ensure sufficient intake of such seasonal payments for themselves for their upkeep round the year, each artisan household too retains a manageable plurality of such baalighar or lagi households. Thus, the whole system traditionally destined these “Kamsels” to serving the chokhaa (ritually pure) castes and, by design, kept them utterly land-poor, if not landless altogether.
It is only in recent years that, with dalits becoming more organized and aware and assertive of their rights, this balighar system is slowly being substituted by daily wage payments in cash or kind. But it is nowhere near sufficient to dispense a more equitable treatment to the dispossessed dalits
For all these reasons, a village community in Nepal remains a binary landscape inhabited by two major segments of people, one comprising of ritually superior, land-owning, high caste and janajati (ethnic) households, and the other, a collectivity of artisan households, landless or utterly land-poor, untouchable, impoverished and generally deprived of access to social services, mainly education, that, in turn, forces relegates them to live in this servitude generation after generation.
While the nature of this patron-client relationship in the tarai differs considerably from that of the hills, the deprivations remain the same: generally landless, impoverished and dependent on high caste and landed households. Here, the dalit women also work as household help and are often subjected to sexual abuse too.
It is this adverse power relation between the dalits and the rest of the Nepalese society that has to change before the dalit standing begins to improve in the country. Such an intervention should at least comprise of measures to empower the dalit community economically through access to material assets and socially through access to decent education in particular. This in turn presupposes that the state makes a paradigm shift in its approach to national development that clearly accords the highest priority to this most dispossessed segment of the Nepali society. And this is where the attention of the government, political parties and individual politicians has to be focused. The incarceration of a Pradhan housewife at Babar Mahal would do nothing to change this abysmal equation.