One great opportunity has been missed one more time.
Rupa Sunar was subjected to caste-based discrimination in Kathmandu. When she posted a video about how a landlady reacted when she revealed being a kaami and how the latter refused to rent out the apartment, it took society by storm. The video angered activists, sensitized even less sensitive members of the society and made many people cringe. Sunar received widespread attention, sympathy and empathy. Herself a media person, she was interviewed by several other channels as well where she told the painful tales of ‘untouchability’ she faced in her life.
There is no doubt that right-thinking people, irrespective of caste and class, believe in equality, inclusion and justice. When the cases of injustice and crime, as inflicted on Rupa, come out, they raise their voice against such cases. Sadly, such people are few. Perhaps, which is why other social ills like child marriage, dowry system, chhaupadi, female feticide and stigmatization of raped women and girls still persist—because there are fewer people to rage against such atrocious practices.
The very idea of untouchability must be treated as a heinous crime. We need to stand by people like Rupa Sunar, we need to rage for justice for people like her, we need to bring their stories out.
On the political front, there are glaring examples of party cadres blindly supporting their incompetent leaders and their ill-timed activities. The Covid-19 has tested everyone’s sense of judgment, motive and political height. Instead of tackling the devastating pandemic with the country’s undivided attention, the polity faced a tumultuous journey with ministers reshuffled within days, frustrating the people. No wonder, we have very few wise leaders.
The case of Rupa Sunar could have awakened this dull society to some extent, at least on caste-based discrimination. Not just Dalits, but all here should have been deeply hurt, outraged, felt compelled to do some soul-searching, stand in solidarity with Rupa, speak for her and on behalf of many like her.
Initially, many rose in rage but soon they lost the intensity.
Why did this happen?
A few factors contributed to this effect. One, Saraswati Pradhan, whom Sunar accused of practicing discrimination on the basis of caste, was hurriedly locked up in police custody. This instantly created a division among onlookers. ‘Was it necessary to drag her to custody?’ They asked. ‘She was not fleeing the scene after all. Moreover, look at her age, and background! They had not yet finalized the renting deal.’ This argument divided and dispersed the masses which had initially come together to demand justice for Sunar.
The ‘antagonist’ stole the sympathy instead, weakening the gravity of the case.
Sunar continued to be in the media limelight. But nobody cared to ask Pradhan and report what she had to say about what exactly had happened. Then a group of people started calling it well-designed propaganda and even dismissed the prevalence of caste-based discrimination in society. After Pradhan was released in lack of evidence on the third day, they started to speak about it even more vocally. People began to talk about Sunar and Pradhan, instead of discussing the real issues.
Then Rupa Sunar was portrayed as a young empowered lady. Saraswati Pradhan was spoken of as ‘a naïve Newari woman.’ One clever, another innocent.
Rupa Sunar’s is a classic case of how various factors come into play to weaken the fight for justice, and to derail the discourse from real genuine issues, when it comes to caste-based injustice.
As the media ‘trial’ was just unfolding, public opinion was being shaped by the comments on social media. Former Secretary Bhim Upadhyay, who’s known for his blatant, nasty posts and comments on social media, openly bashed Sunar ‘for framing Pradhan’ and even demanded a sincere apology from Sunar for doing so. Noticeably, he has a huge fan following. People reacted to his Facebook post with various comments. Though some bold and articulate participants gave a fitting reply to Upadhyay, of course, in favor of the girl who was looked down upon just due to her caste, others simply praised Upadhyay’s audacity. Even those who claimed to be ‘low caste’ backed his argument. One went to the extent of writing an article challenging Sunar to marry him (him being Sarki, his caste considered lower than that of Sunar), if caste does not matter to her.
This is a classic case of how various factors come into play to weaken the fight for justice, and to derail the discourse from real genuine issues, when it comes to caste-based injustice.
Rupa’s case has once again shown that people do not let go of their dogmas so easily. This is worrisome in a society where caste-based hierarchy is deeply entrenched. Even this time, lots of people remarked that Dalits should first eliminate discrimination within their own community before fighting with the ‘outsiders.’ The implied meaning: What happened to Rupa Sunar is not a big issue. This keeps happening.
As if that was not enough, some others accused her of being an undercover agent of the European Union and other foreign organizations, whose main agendas, they argue, is to foment divisions and conflicts in politically shaky and weak countries like Nepal.
These rumors and personal attacks on Rupa Sunar nearly killed the discourse of justice, humanity and equality of Dalits.
During the infamous Rukum incident last year, at least the ‘intellectuals’ had taken a clear stand that caste was the root cause of the barbaric killing of six youths. Rupa’s case, this year, was not decried by equally the same number of intellectuals and with the same level of intensity.
Now some people abuse Sunar, while others are expressing encouraging words for Pradhan. This is the worst way to treat this grave issue. Leaving this rift wide open is the worst thing that can happen.
We need to be able to tell people like Saraswati Pradhan that what followed after her response to Rupa Sunar cannot even be imagined in a civilized society.
The case of Rupa Sunar is not the case of an individual’s battle for dignity. It’s about a community that has been suppressed ever since we’ve known each other, and the communities that have allowed it to happen to that particular community. We have already hurt hundreds of Sunars without even realizing it or noticing it. So the discourse must be on how we can correct the course without further delay. Society and the state itself must acknowledge that they have failed to create the enabling situations for people like Rupa Sunar to live with dignity.
You don’t have to hate Pradhan to love Sunar. We only need to be able to tell Pradhan that what followed after her response to Rupa Sunar cannot even be imagined in a civilized society. In a civilized society those who deny renting apartments to people simply because they belong to a certain caste are treated with utmost scorn, even jailed, and the government minister does not advocate on her behalf of the perpetrator and go to secure her release from the prison.
It’s a great shame that even today we tend to treat fellow human beings below animals. How can we not be responsible for this? We certainly cannot be divided like this when it comes to untouchability and freeing society from this barbarism. The very idea of untouchability must be treated as a heinous crime.
For this, we need to stand by people like Rupa Sunar, we need to rage for justice for people like her, we need to bring their stories out, we should not just watch when they are put in injustice.
Anjali Subedi is a journalist based in Kathmandu. She writes on social and human rights issues.