Saraswati casts net wide for justiceA Dalit activist from Nepal gets global recognition for her struggle against systemic discrimination
Dalits were still strictly prohibited from entering the places of worship, but in 2001 they were defying the ban in Baitadi district in Nepal’s western mountains.
They tried to forcibly enter a temple, and were beaten back by people who considered themselves of a superior caste. One of those agitating was 20-year-old Saraswati Nepali, and ever since it has been a lifelong struggle till her receiving the US Department of State’s Global Anti-Racism Champions Award in Washington DC last month from Antony Blinken (pictured).
“It was a surprise and an honour,” says Nepali, now 42. “It also made me realise that discrimination is present all over the world, be it ethnic, racial, or caste-based. It is our duty to keep on fighting for justice and equality.”
The irony is that not many people have heard of Saraswati Nepali within Nepal and her relentless activism.
In 2017, Nepali was a UML deputy mayor candidate from Dashrathchand Municipality. Despite getting 3,100 votes, she lost to Meena Chand of the Nepali Congress.
“I lost because of my last name,” recalls Nepali. “Baitadi people were not ready to see a Dalit woman as deputy mayor. People were concerned that temples would be inaugurated by a Dalit if I won.
Not one to give up, Nepali stood again for mayor in 2022. She lost again but got more votes than the previous time. “The locals accepted me as a leader but not my leadership,” she admits.
Nepali was born the youngest child to a Dalit family in Baitadi in the isolated far-western mountains of Nepal, one of Nepal’s most under-served districts and one where caste-based discrimination is still deeply entrenched.
Growing up with discrimination at every step, rebellion was not a choice for Saraswati Nepali but the only way to survive. The social ostracisation she faced from a young age left a lasting impression and ignited a passion for activism that would later define her life.
Her father Nanda died when she was only six months old, but her three older brothers became her guardians and encouraged her to pursue education. She was eight when she started her formal education.
At night, she used to tag along with her youngest brother Prakash who used to paint slogans against caste-based discrimination on walls and other surfaces in the village.
At 15, she met Dalit activists like Puran Singh Dayal who had initiated a movement to enter eateries that prohibited Dalits. Back then, Dalits had to drink tea outdoors and wash the glass themselves.
By 22, Nepali was already affiliated with the National Dalit Network and Dalit Development Society. Having witnessed and sometimes experienced first-hand the worst of caste-based discrimination including bonded labour, landlessness, and Dalits being forced to scavenge on carcasses of animals, Nepali took her activism to the streets.
Under Nepali’s initiation, Baitadi outlawed bonded labour in 2007, a year before Kathmandu did so nationally.
“She is a rebel with a cause that her own country has not recognised yet,” says fellow activist Puran Singh Dayal, remembering Nepali joining him at the temple agitation more than two decades ago.
Nepali had previously also won the Darnal Award for Social Justice in 2018. The US State Department said in its citation: ‘Saraswati has played a crucial role in Dalit social justice movements to acquire land rights, gain access to education, and obtain equal justice from the courts.’
But there is only so much activism can do, matters of discrimination and inequality like many other problems in Nepal are political in nature and need political solutions. Which is why Nepali has chosen electoral politics.
“All my life, I have been on streets shouting, now I want to be in a decision-making position,” says Nepali. “If given the chance I can bring about social reform.”
Nepali hasn’t given up on Baitadi which she calls her ‘janmabhumi’, (birthplace), her ‘gyanbhumi’ (the land where she was educated) and her ‘karmabhumi’ (her place of work).
“One day, I will surely win the hearts and minds of voters,” says the ever-positive activist. “I will then use political power to eradicate our country of social ills.”
Translated by Pinki Sris Rana from the Nepali original published on himalkhabar.com