Nepal’s caste struggle
On 15 June, 24-year-old Rupa Sunar, a Dalit media person went to the house of Saraswti Pradhan in Kathmandu’s Babar Mahal with two friends. They discussed and agreed on the terms and conditions of a rental agreement. House-owner Pradhan apprised Sunar of the rules: that she should not make noise, should to be out late, and cooperate with her.
At the end of the meeting, Pradhan asked Sunar about her caste. Upon learning of her ‘lower’ caste status, she said that she would convey her decision after family consultation. Pradhan called Sunar’s friend an hour later, and told that she could not rent the room to a ‘lower’ caste person.
Sunar phoned Pradhan to confirm. She recorded the conversation: “I cannot rent you the room. Our elderly mother lives with us. She cannot share the house with a lower caste. But please let me know if other friends need a room.’
According to the 2011 Census, Dalits make up of 14% of Nepal's population. Many ‘higher’ caste people still do not consume food and beverages touched by a Dalit persons. To maintain ritual purity, the ‘higher’ caste families do not let Dalits enter their houses. In 2001, one study identified over 205 forms of such discriminatory practices.
The 1990 Constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination and
untouchability. But historically, most laws remain on paper only. Violations mostly go unpunished.
In 2011, the Constituent Assembly enacted the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offense and Punishment) Act. The Act prohibits caste-based discrimination ‘in any public or private place.’
For example, the act forbids preventing someone from entering a house or evicting them on the ground of caste or race. The act made caste-based discrimination a crime against the state. Hence, in the caste-based discrimination cases, the state becomes a party, which requires it to file the cases in court, investigate and defend them.
In January 2021, Nepal was re-elected for a second term on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), an international body responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights around the world.
But in Nepal last week, a sitting minister interfered with and obstructed a police investigation of a caste-based discrimination case. International human rights laws define caste-based discrimination as human rights violations.
On 17 June, two days after being refused the flat, Sunar lodged a complaint against Pradhan at the Metropolitan Police Office, Singha Darbar, accusing her of caste-based discrimination.
The police initially denied registering the complaint. Despite laws criminalising it, the Police, government attorneys, and judges often do not recognise caste-based discrimination cases as an offence, and in fact dissuade people from filing such complaints.
Only after the case attracted public attention did the police finally register Sunar’s complaint, and initiate an investigation. On 20 June, the Police arrested Pradhan, and put her in custody.
The case soon took on an ethnic colour, with some making it out to be a Dalit vs Newa issue. Some Newa organisations released statements asking the police to punish Sunar for disrupting social harmony. Former senior government officer Bhim Upadhyaya accused Sunar of fomenting societal tension. Instead of standing up against caste discrimination, the Mayor of Madhyapur Thimi on Monday called for Sunar to be prosecuted.
Sudha Tripathi, the former Tribhuvan University registrar, described Sunar as a Dalit ‘gangster’. Thousands of their social media followers shared these statements.
All Sunar wanted was a room to live in, just like anyone else in Nepal. Why was that such a problem?
As we know, the story did not end there. On 23 June, the Minister of Education, Science, and Technology Krishna Gopal Shrestha drove to the station in his official car, pressured the Police to release Pradhan and even posed for a photoshoot with her in front of media.
Nepal’s national flag fluttered from his ministerial vehicle as he drove Pradhan home. Not only did Minister Shrestha have no authority to handle this case, he misused state authority and state resources.
As the minister belonged to the same ethnic group as Pradhan, he abandoned his state responsibility and took a communal stance. Minister Shrestha’s triumphant pose with Pradhan ignited a firestorm of hatred against Dalits on social media, prompting users to vow never to rent rooms to Dalits.
There have also been threats of violence. Dalit activists have received death threats for speaking out. Dalit leaders and rights activists have called on the government to act against Minister Shrestha, and create a conducive environment for fair trial. Dalits and non-Dalits have even demonstrated in the streets to protest the state inaction and minister’s unlawful action.
However, Prime Minister K P Oli has been silent on the issue. On 24 June, he even assigned Minister Shrestha four additional portfolios. But his government has not done anything to assure the victims and the Dalit community a fair trial and protection of their lives and human rights.
The failure of state to assure the Dalit community of justice has made them feel unprotected and vulnerable. They fear that in the future no law enforcement agency will register and try cases of caste-based discrimination. They also fear the possibility of retaliation by members of ‘higher’ castes.
Nepal is a party to Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the
International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The ICERD specifically prohibits any form of state engagement in practicing, sponsoring, defending, or supporting any forms of racial or descent-based discrimination.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) is supposed to protect Nepali citizens from violations. However, after the government appointed the new NHRC members bypassing parliamentary hearing on 3 February, UN human rights experts have expressed concern about its independence. This is proven by its complacency about Minister Shrestha’s involvement in the Rupa Sunar case.
The Dalit community in Nepal is looking to international human rights groups, including the United Nations, to question the government’s accountability. Maintaining silence and inaction when human rights are violated will only escalate tension. Inaction will not create an environment for world-wide respect to human rights necessary for peace and justice.
Kunjani Pariyar Pyasi is a human rights lawyer. Binita Nepali is a graduate of International Relations and Diplomacy from TU. They are also the participants of Dalit Reader’s Writing Workshop.