Black lives matter but Dalit lives don't?
On 23 May, Angira Pasi, a 12-year-old Dalit girl, was found hanging after being forcibly married to a 25-year-old ‘upper-caste’ man who had raped her. On 24 May, Nabaraj BK, and his five friends were beaten to death and thrown into a river because Nabaraj dared to marry an ‘upper-caste’ Thakuri girl. On 25 May, a white policeman in Minneapolis in the United States kneeled on George Floyd's neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds, and killed him.
Three crimes in three consecutive days. One of them set off a worldwide movement that is fundamentally changing race dynamics not just in the US but around the world. The two other crimes in Nepal were the latest in a long list of casteist atrocities across the subcontinent perpetrated against a traditionally excluded community.
Millions continue to protest police brutality and deeply rooted systemic biases that unfairly and disproportionality affect black Americans. These protests have gathered up to 26 million participants, one of the highest turnout in any protest in US history. It has also generated more media coverage than any other protest in the last 50 years.
However, in an unsurprising turn of events, the crimes against Dalit people, just as heinous, just as frequent, have received disproportionately less attention, and have not led to any real reform.
The Rupandehi police refused to file Angira's case until it got national attention. They then detained her rapist Birendra, his mother, and aunt, but remain convinced Angira died by suicide.
Rukum police have detained 34 suspects in Nabaraj BK's case. The Home Ministry's five-member probe team from Kathmandu investigating it has deemed it pre-meditated caste-based violence. Serious repercussions are yet to follow.
A comprehensive report by the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) and the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN) shows the extent to which Dalits are marginalised in Nepali society.
A staggering 42% of Dalits live below the poverty line, in comparison to the national average of 25%. The Dalit literacy rate of 52.4% falls short of the national literacy rate of 65.97%, with Dalits comprising only 1.6% of Nepalis with SLC and above, and 0.8% of Nepalis with a Bachelor’s degree.
The picture is worse for Dalit women, who are discriminated against because of their caste and gender. Dalit women and girls comprise 21% of trafficking victims of Nepal. Dalit girls make up 62% of Nepali child marriages under 15-years of age.
"While there are similarities between caste issues in Nepal and race in the US, it is important to recognise that there are distinct differences in terms of its origins and how it manifests in everyday life,” says Dalit rights activist Sarita Pariyar. “It is good to see some Nepali are taking interest in race questions, however, they need to ask themselves about their own role in the caste questions as well."
Pariyar underlines the need to rethink relative privileges of other Nepalis and role in the persistence of caste-based injustices and inequities in Nepal. “This is important for reclaiming our humanity as well as just futures for all," she adds.
Pradip Pariyar, social activist and chairperson of the SAMATA Foundation, adds: "Nepalis in the US are speaking up for black lives but are silent about Dalit lives because we have never had conversations about caste in our family, in our society."
Although Dalits bear the brunt of casteism, ethnic discrimination also affects other marginalised communities in Nepal. Asked about this, all educated upper- and middle-class Nepalis interviewed for this article preferred to remain anonymous.
"My grandmother only wants a Bahun or Chhetri maid,” said one ‘upper-caste’ person in Kathmandu. Even though she is old and struggling with severe back pain, she would rather do all the work in her big house than hire a maid of another caste."
Another adds, "My grandparents refused to put Dasain tike on my father's office staff because he is Teli Madhesi." A Sherpa student complained to her school about Losar not being a holiday, but was ignored.
Pradip Pariyar argues that to tackle casteism, there must be representation. "Issues that affect Dalits are not even in the radar of non-Dalits,” he says. “I have talked to people who can stand up and bring change. Because they aren't Dalit, they aren't as concerned about these issues as they should be. This will continue if there is no representation."
However, the picture is grim. Dalits, despite making up 13% of Nepal's population, have merely 8% representation in the Nepal’s Parliament and comprise a meagre 0.8% of Nepal's civil service. As long as Dalits are underrepresented, activists say, they will remain silenced and powerless, and continue to be discriminated against, oppressed, murdered, lynched, raped, and forgotten.
Sarita Pariyar adds, "It is important to re-examine the idea and role of resources from within and outside of Nepal for inclusive development. In this, we need to have a genuine role of Dalits for ensuring effective distribution and use of resources."