I am taking interest in hate speech in the country. The trigger was a report recently launched by UNESCO, a blueprint that offered interesting propositions on how schools and education in general can play a role in countering it.
Hate speech is a phenomenon that is dangerously spreading both on-line and in real life. While there is a general concern within the society about the consequences and repercussions of such massive rise in hate speech, I feel there is a need to go deeper into this issue.
I wanted to understand about the connections between hate speech and forms of entrenched discrimination experienced by groups of citizens that have been historically excluded from power. Among them, Dalits have been facing intergenerational discrimination and hate speech can become a powerful instrument that can further affect them.
Complex, sensitive issue
The issues at stake are complex and sensitive at the same time. Because there is no legal definition of what constitutes hate speech yet, deterring and countering it becomes daunting. The UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech defines hate speech as “any kind of communication in speech, writing or behavior that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender or other identity factor.” Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), of which Nepal is a signatory, affirms that nation-states must prohibit by law “any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence”.
The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), founded in March 2000, has the mission of working at “global level for the elimination of caste discrimination and similar forms of discrimination based on work and descent”. Its Executive Director, Meena Verma, a campaigner and human rights activist, went directly to the point. “Caste-hate speech is at the root of caste-based violence, injustice and a multitude of serious human rights violations in Nepal, India and other parts of South Asia,” she told me in an email interview. Dr Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, defines caste-hate speech as “a way of humiliating and dehumanizing people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy by addressing them as if they were unworthy human beings.” In his 2021 Report to Human Rights Council, he affirms that “hate speech in social media is spreading and strengthening. Minorities are overwhelmingly the main victims of hate and incitement to violence and discrimination.”
Interestingly, IDSN published in 2021 a major report on the issue, “Caste-hate speech: Addressing hate-speech based on work and descent”. The publication not only recognizes how caste-hate speech is an “unexplored phenomenon” but also offers, together with a very comprehensive analysis, legal analysis and some key recommendations.
“It is imperative to ensure that caste-hate speech, which includes caste bias and stereotyping, is never tolerated and is explicitly addressed in everything from education materials to media and online platforms as well as in our homes and public spaces,” Verma further said.
Dr Fernand de Varennes in his Foreword to the report on UN Forum on Minority Issues has called for “the amendment of national laws to cover hate speech based on caste”.
This is a key argument also made to me by Verma. “The first step to addressing caste-hate at the international and national level, is to ensure that it is fully recognized as a distinctive form of hate-speech and explicitly mentioned in legislation and policies to combat hate-speech,” she said.
Reason to worry
The situation in Nepal is certainly worrying and not only because the legal framework does not differentiate between hate speech and caste-hate speech. The situation is perturbing because discrimination against Dalits is still so rampant.
Rup Sunar, a senior human rights activist and one of the co-founders of the Dignity Initiative of which is the Executive Head, provided me with further insights. “Caste discrimination is a social crime, and there are constitutional commitments and dedicated laws in place to penalize those engaged in such discrimination,” he said. “However,” he further continued, “it is disheartening to observe the persistent occurrence of hateful speech targeting Dalits in Nepal, both in public and private spheres, as well as on digital platforms. The alarming reality is that even public officials are involved in hate speech against Dalits”. According to him, this doesn’t only perpetuate discrimination but also undermines the value of our democratic institutions. “Insulting remarks have sadly become commonplace, and there seems to be a lack of fear regarding the law and its consequences.”
According to Sunar, there is a direct link between incident of violence and discrimination occurring to Dalit population and episodes of hate speech. “Numerous Dalit youths across the country find themselves in police custody under false charges when they choose to marry someone from a non-Dalit background,” he said. “Tragically, their homes are set ablaze, they are subjected to physical violence resulting in death, and they are forcefully evicted from the places their ancestors have resided for generations”. In his view, such cases are being used as a tool to exacerbate the spread of hate speech against Dalits. “We cannot afford to delay amending the existing law to end this impunity and hold the state accountable.”
One of the major problems is that there is a lack of accountability mechanisms and this is a global phenomenon as also highlighted in the IDSN’s report. While the most serious cases might get under the radar of the law enforcement agencies, there are still a massive number of episodes of discrimination that are being almost normalized and accepted by the society.
But what about Nepal’s international obligations? For example, the government submitted its latest report to The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination(CERD) in 2018 though it was supposed to submit a subsequent report in 2022 but missed the deadline, explains Sunar. “They are saying that they will submit soon, but not sure when,” he further said. To understand more about it, I tried to contact the secretariat of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination within the Human Rights Council in Geneva. I got a very elusive response and a second attempt to understand any possible timeline for the Government of Nepal to submit its report went unanswered. The real problem, according to Sunar, is not just failing to meet internationally binding deadlines. “More than that, the concluding observations received from the CERD committed have not been acted upon. There is a huge gap in its implementation,” he said. “The only way forward”, he explained, is “the government must act on the recommendations made by the different human rights mechanisms and submit the periodic reports in a timely manner”.
Sunar has more to say in relation to the accountability mechanisms. “There is a need for establishing strong monitoring mechanisms at the national level to oversee the progress made toward the implementation of the recommendations.” Also, he added, there has to be a strong coordination mechanism among the government bodies- at all tiers of government. “It appears that there is a serious gap to this end.”
I asked Verma about practical, concrete paths ahead to fight caste hate discrimination. “Technical assistance, such as training tools for the public and private sectors, legislation review, promotional strategies and other effective methodologies to monitor and combat instances of caste-hate speech online and offline must be made available,” Varma said. At the end of the day, we need to get to the bottom of the problem. “The only way forward is to ensure that there is caste diversity and to ensure meaningful participation of Dalits in policy making, implementation and monitoring,” she said. Sunar totally agrees with this point.
We are well aware of the abysmal numbers of Dalit citizens elected locally and nationally. Deliberate exclusion from power is one of the major, if not the biggest, obstacles. Perhaps the ongoing talks to change the electoral laws, especially the proportional system, will be helpful. Yet none of the proposals being discussed take any stand in finding new specifically designed ways for Dalit citizens to have a better and fully equal representation at local and national levels.
Thus, quota can be one of the best tools to change the scenario. There should not be any controversy around them when power is so much unequally distributed.
We need a massive effort at societal level to ensure that Dalits are not deprived of their rights and freedoms. Talking about hate speech and its deep influences on caste relationships can be a way to start tackling a much bigger problem.
The current institutional framework does not work probably because despite the much-taunted spirit of inclusiveness of the constitution, the state apparatus does not reflect the rich diversity of the country. And except for usual lip services and speeches, there is no real desire to break the cycle of power imbalances that force Dalits out of the political game. The National Dalit Commission could do something but it is toothless despite being a constitutional body. “Its role is limited to undertaking study and providing recommendations and undertaking the monitoring and evaluation of the existing provisions,” Sunar explained. “It seriously lacks adequate resources (both human and financial) to perform these constitutionally mandated obligations. This means that the commission is under-resourced.They are not even able to oversee the implementation status of the recommendation of the human rights instruments”, he further said.
Thus we need a massive effort at societal level to ensure that Dalits are not deprived of their rights and freedoms. Talking about hate speech and its deep influences on caste relationships can be a way to start tackling a much bigger problem. Yet the risk is that only tokenistic efforts will be made, that public schools, already unequipped to carry out their basic functions, will be not only unable to oppose and counter hate speech but also incapable of doing it in the proper way. But schools should be the first “guardrails” that go to the bottom of an issue that is often far more convenient to be set aside, pretending it does not exist. Probably only a real reboot of learning in the country will allow the state institutions and the wider society to understand the real stakes of allowing unabated discrimination against Dalits to further metastasize.
Meanwhile, here is a hope that Nepal one day will have really inclusive institutions.
Views are personal.