Kathmandu: The National Dalit Commission, a constitutional body tasked with promoting Dalit rights, is housed at a quiet, rented building in Kupondole. This is the Commission’s central and only office. At its quiet, compact compound, several small trees abound. Chauffeurs and bodyguards could be seen conversing with each other. Stakeholders come in quietly and hold meetings throughout the day, and leave just as quietly at the end of the day. The office’s interiors are largely nondescript. And for a constitutional body that is supposed to research widely, it has a resourceless library. The office is currently equipped with only 21 employees, out of a total of 30 posts, according to its website.
Over the last few years, Nepal has witnessed several instances where the rights of Dalits have been infringed upon. It is so commonplace that Dalits are still denied rent, barred from entering temples, and even raped and killed. Amid this sorry state of affairs, the work done by the Dalit Commission has come under scrutiny.
The commission was without a head and other key members for five years since the country got a new constitution in 2015. The officials were appointed only in December 2020. The process of appointments had a fair share of skeptics but it nonetheless came as a relief to the Dalit community. But even as the commission has filled its leadership vacuum, it seems to be lacking in a concrete strategic plan and is opaque when it comes to communicating its activities.
The body that is constitutionally mandated to “making noise” about Dalit issues has only been “mumbling”, says Bishwo Bhakta Dulal, alias Aahuti, who is an author, columnist and Dalit rights activist. For Pradip Pariyar, chair of Samata Foundation, an NGO advocating for social justice, the state of the commission is a reflection of a “politically divided civil society with NGOs and the Commission following suit.”
Devraj Bishwokarma, chairperson of the Commission, cites two of the “major hurdles” in working towards its constitutional and legislative mandates—lack of employees and adequate funds.
He wants at least 40 employees working in the commission’s central office and 17 in the, until now non-existent, provincial offices. He wants more funds for the Commission’s goals that is, among others, “to collaborate with entertainers, religious figures, and politicians to spread awareness about Dalit issues”.
But, contrary to Bishwokarma’s claims, the commission didn’t seem to spend the funds it was allocated. Out of the total allocated budget of 4,43,45,000, it managed to spend only Rs1,29,42,917—Rs9,94,00 as capital expense and Rs1,28,43,517 as current expense—in the fiscal year 2019/20.
The problem of a lack of adequate employees in the commission, however, is true. Although the Supreme Court decided to reinstate the dissolved House of Representatives, it has yet to rule on the 38 appointments to 11 constitutional bodies, including to the Dalit Commission, made by the KP Oli-led government after amending, through an ordinance, provisions relating to the Constitutional Council.
But the commission’s current composition, which includes one chair and four members, is not inclusive enough, say critics.
“We don’t see inclusivity from among the Dalit community in the appointments,” Pariyar said. “While all the members are dalits, they are from the Khas-Arya background.”
Chairperson Bishwokarma said the commission plans to enlist surnames of Dalits which they share with non-Dalit counterparts. “If a man used to write Bishwokarma in his name, he can now adopt Koirala as his surname, after we verify it and enlist it in the Nepal Gazette,” he explained. “We wanted to reach all of the 753 local levels for this campaign but logistical limitations remain a problem.” He says the Commission intends to continue to run the process in intervals and regularly update the verified list.
But Aahuti is skeptical about the Commission’s plans on this front. “It is a matter of individual choice what surname one wants to adopt,” he said, adding that he isn’t sure whether that is what the Commission should be mulling over right now. Aahuti believes these are peripheral issues and that changing identities by adopting a different surname doesn’t really change structural political, economic, and culutral issues relating to the Dalit plight.
One of the duties of the Commission mandated by the National Dalit Commission Act 2017 is to research on current legal provisions relating to Dalit interests and make recommendations to Nepal government to reform such laws. Bishwokarma, the chairperson, says the commission doesn’t think there are any such problematic legislations. He finds the problem lying elsewhere—in the bureaucracy, which he thinks was familiar to the Muluki Ain more than the current Muluki Criminal and Civil Codes, and where a biased mindset still endures.
When asked if the commission has been conducting any research on its own, the chairperson’s remarks echo most of his other answers about the Commission’s performance—that the Commission “is trying and results are due”.
The Commission’s library is a tiny room where publications include FAQ pamphlets, brief introduction of the Commission, its annual report for FY 2019/20 and an outline of offences relating to discrimination and untouchability. Journals and research papers are nowhere to be seen.
When asked if the Commission might need to incorporate more innovative modes of spreading social awareness regarding Dalit issues, Bishworkarma offered some wide-ranging answers. He wants to mobilize the younger generation, especially from grade 8 to bachelor’s level where they undertake “practical classes on equality and progressiveness”. He also sees a need to change the curriculum being taught in schools and universities, so young children don’t grow up with a biased outlook when it comes to caste and identity. He wants to make the decade between 2021-31 a “decade of Dalit liberation”.
Incidences where Dalits are denied rent, barred from entering temples, and even raped and killed are commonplace in Nepali society. Amid this sorry state of affairs, the work done by the Dalit Commission has come under scrutiny.
Can we expect the Commission to complete these plans in his tenure? “Yes, of course,” he says. And, what does the Commission need in order to do that? “More funds from the government,” he reiterates.
But Aahuti isn’t satisfied with the answer. He doesn’t see lack of funds and employees as a reasonable excuse for the Commission to carry out its functions. “Constitutionally, the Commission’s work is almost entirely confined to making recommendations to the government,” he says. “However, the Commission is part of the state system, not the government.”
Aahuti further said that holding talks with different stakeholders within the Dalit community to reach a consensus and pressurize the government to fulfill those demands isn’t such an expensive task after all. “And if protests in the streets can bring about change, the Commission is in a more privileged position to fulfill its financial needs,” he said.
In January 2020, an interaction program was held among public and private stakeholders to discuss Dalit rights and agendas and the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a process by which the human rights record of countries are examined by the UN. The Commission had received the suggestion that the government, the Commission, and NGOs should be on a “common understanding” when it comes to the UPR. The commission hasn’t yet held any trilateral talks between these three stakeholders to come to a common understanding about the Review and the plight of the Dalits in the country.
In FY 2019/20, the Commission received 25 complaints. Fifteen of them were about caste-based discrimination, abuse, humiliation, beatings and contempt, while four were related to death or killings where caste was a major factor; 3 about abuse of Dalit’s constitutional rights; and one each about rape and inter-caste marriage. One complaint’s nature remains miscellaneous. The Commission has written to concerned agencies to conduct necessary investigations and take action in all such cases.
The Commission can also form working groups and committees to investigate on such cases if it finds through a preliminary investigation that Dalit rights were violated. But resources and manpower crunch have not allowed such investigations, Bishwokarma says.
“We usually write to the National Human Rights Commission or the Home Ministry if we think an investigation is needed in a case,” he says. “Then we write to them every month or so asking about the progress on such cases.”
But the commission certainly doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Activists also view with suspicion the roles of NGOs that can ideally keep sustained pressure on the Commission. For Rem Bahadur BK, chairperson of Jagaran Media Center, the problem also lies in the fragmentation of NGOs along party lines. “NGOs working on Dalit issues are very delineated along party loyalties,” he says, as someone who is a part of such organizations and forums himself. “Party loyalty determines which events the NGOs will advocate about and which they’ll turn a blind eye on,” he said.
Aahuti argued along the same lines. “Almost all NGOs working on Dalit issues have an official stance that untouchability and discrimination are the only problems that Dalits face today in Nepal,” he said, adding that the problems of Dalits extend to economic and political arenas which the state still hasn’t addressed through more comprehensive schemes.
Pariyar, of the Samata Foundation, said that the failure of the state mechanism and NGOs is a failure of the society itself. “The workings and the composition of the Commission and the NGOs working on Dalit issues is a reflection of the society we live in,” he said.