16-22 June 2017 #863

Not free, nor fair

Centre for Investigative Journalism, 12 June

Phase One of the local elections has been hailed ‘ground-breaking’ for the large number of women and Dalits elected, but some Dalit communities in Bajhang can only dream of being able to vote freely, let alone run for office. 

During the 1997 local elections, some 35 Dalit families of Kailash VDC of Bajhang, voted for the RPP’s contender for Chairman. The Dalit vote played a vital role in the RPP’s victory, and infuriated non-Dalit supporters of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML.

In retaliation, the Dalits were not only socially excluded, some 120 families were deprived of the customary practice of getting the traditional khalo grain received in return for services rendered to their landlords, thus putting their survival at stake. Shivu Kami, who led the Dalit community in favour of the RPP during the election, says, “We  regretted casting our vote as per our landlord’s will. Non-Dalits 

Almost all Dalits are financially poor and are glued to the traditional belief that non-Dalits are their rulers. Therefore, they do not want to disappoint their landlords while casting votes.

Afilala Okheda

Lawmaker

manhandled us, misbehaved with us. We could not even walk freely in the village any more.”

Kami said Dalits were forced to touch the feet of the higher castes, honouring them for being their guardians. “The higher castes were gracious enough to forgive us by accepting our assurances we wouldn’t repeat the mistake,” he said sarcastically. 

Interestingly, 16 years later during the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, the majority of Dalits in Kailash VDC, still could not vote freely because of fear of punishment. Indeed, 18 Dalit families of nearby villages were thrashed for defying political pressure and not voting for NC and UML candidates. Among them was Giri Damai, now 62, who recalls: “They threatened to chase us out and demolish our houses.” 

The issue was partially resolved by some non-Dalits of a neighbouring village. This time, Dalits are still fearing similar harassment. “Let’s see what happens during this election because we know one or the other party is sure to intimidate us,” says Padam Damai. 

The underlying reasons why Dalit voters are not free is because they represent such an important vote bank, but half the 22,194 Dalit people in the district are illiterate, 1,683 Dalit families are landless and 1,063 families are homeless.  Of the landless Dalits, 2,848 are classified as Haliyas (bonded labourers) by the District Land Revenue Office. Many families have been in servitude for generations and are vulnerable because the land on which they built their houses belong to non-Dalits. 

Lawmaker Afilal Okheda says, “Almost all Dalits are financially poor and are glued to the traditional belief that non-Dalits are their rulers. Therefore, they do not want to disappoint their landlords while casting votes.”     For 65-year-old Chakhudi Damai, elections have always brought trouble. “Whoever wins is not a matter of concern for us. After all, we are always victimised, elections have no meaning for us,” she says. 

In the 2013 CA elections, NC and UML cadres clashed at the voting centre in Chainpur as each side tried to snatch ballot papers from the Badi community, which had been wined and dined by both parties in exchange for votes. This time, too, alcohol is flowing freely as parties try to win Dalit votes.  

Former Dalit representative of Bajhang,  Dharmaraj Bi Ka, asks: “How can we expect Dalits to cast their votes in a free and fair manner when they don’t own the land on which their houses are built?” 

Even non-Dalits who are poor are similarly intimidated by landlords to whom many are indebted. More than 14,000 out of 34,000 families in Bajhang live below the poverty line in Bajhang. 

Says Birendra Bahadur Singh of the District Coordination Committee: “A feudal culture still prevails. I have seen several instances of well-off families coercing the poor to vote according to the will of the rich.”

CDO Keshav Bahadur Thapa says only self-reliance will guarantee free elections: “People cannot exercise their voting rights freely until and unless they stop relying on others for food.”

Abhisek Shahi in Bajhang

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