Kathmandu: Nepal’s legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, but Dalits still face discrimination on regular basis, not just in rural settings but also in urban areas. An incident last month wherein a Kathmandu-based VJ was denied a flat in rent because of her caste is a case in point. It illustrated just how pervasive casteism is in the country’s urban settings.
Discrimination against Dalits takes place in many different forms: from prohibition of entry into temples and children being ostracized in schools to forced labor and denial in providing a flat in rent. These forms of discrimination underscore the sheer magnitude and banality of casteism in Nepali societies.
Why casteism is still so rooted in the country despite its legislations rendering it illegal was a subject of a discussion program, titled Dalit ra Kotha Bhada (Dalits and the Issue of Room Rent). The program, which took place in Kathmandu on Tuesday, was organized by Jagaran Media Center, an NGO working towards Dalit rights. Despite the name of the event, which puts extra focus on room rent, the discussion explored other relevant issues related to Dalit rights as well. Moreover, discrimination faced by other minority groups was also discussed at the event.
At the event, many Dalit and human rights activists took time to decry the poor implementation of the legal provision, venting ire against the “apathy” of law-enforcing agencies, while others attempted to diagnose the root of the problem.
“It is not just about the crime being committed but also about the dignity and respect that has been walked over because of untouchability.”
“Many so-called upper-caste landowners claim that renting out house or flat to someone is a ‘private affair’, which they take as an excuse to perpetuate discrimination,” said Mina Swarnakar, a representative from National Dalit Commission.
Dinesh Tripathi, Senior Advocate at Supreme Court, said that it is “miseducated” and “misguided” people who uphold discrimination based on caste.
The unanimous question that arose during the discussion was on the incompetence of the authorities in booking people who commit caste-based crimes, which is constitutionally punishable.
A problem that spans across caste, gender and physical ability
Over the past few years, a series of heinous caste-based crimes have come to the forefront in Nepal. In May 2020, Angira Pasi, a 13-year-old dalit girl from Rupandehi, was raped by a 25-year-old man from her own village. The adolescent girl was forced to marry her rapist, not long after which she died by suicide. That same month, Nawaraj BK and five of his friends who had gone to another village to ask for a higher-caste girl’s hand in marriage were brutally killed. Then there was the case of Rupa Sunar last month where then Minister of Education Krishna Gopal Shrestha escorted the alleged perpetrator from her holding. Many commentators declared that caste was nurtured by the state itself.
“These crimes need more investigation and prosecution as it clearly is a constitutional crime,” said Tripathi, the Senior Advocate.
Swarnakar believes that it’s high time everyone spoke up against discrimination that often takes place in broad daylight. “We will have to make some unsettling noise if we want to see a better life for the next generation,” she said.
Writer Shiva Pariyar hinted that Dalits not just deserve justice but also social justice. “It is not just about the crime being committed but also about the dignity and respect that has been walked over because of untouchability,” he said.
Activists from other minority communities also talked about similar situations faced by the groups they advocate for.
Pinky Gurung, president of Blue Dimond Society, which works for the rights of LGBTIQ community, said the discrimination that people from the queer community face because of their gender identity has made it extremely difficult to get a flat for rent.
She added that the rejection they have to face started from their own houses and families, leading them to seek shelter somewhere else. “People from my community are compelled to pay more than necessary in order to have a roof over their head,” Gurung said.
Devu Parajuli, central member of National Federation of the Disabled – Nepal, had similar grievances, only more acute. “We are usually denied flats for rent because of our disability,” he said. “And the ones we are not rejected from are not disability-friendly.”
What needs to be done?
Tripathi believed that a legal overhaul is necessary to combat the perennial problem of discrimination against Dalits and minorities. The existing law must be “scrapped”, he said, and a new and better law needs to be formulated, one that takes a closer look at the cases of discrimination, cognizant of their seriousness.
Meanwhile, Pinky Gurung said proper laws alone may not be enough. “Along with proper laws, it is also important to convince the communities regarding the atrocities of discrimination,” said Gurung, “or else the society won’t see any change.” For this to work, she said, “Education is necessary but more than that it is the awareness among people that is going to help eradicate discrimination.”
Parajuli underscored the urgency with which voices against discrimination should be raised. “We need to make some noise, grab people’s attention and start demanding equality,” he said. “Or else we will never be heard.”