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Nabaraj BK and discrimination against Dalits

Nepal’s anti-Dalit discrimination laws are strong and progressive. However, caste discrimination is a prominent feature of social interactions. The government regularly fails to prosecute individuals who engage in it

Nabaraj BK and discrimination against Dalits

In 2020, 21-year-old Nabaraj BK and five of his friends were murdered following BK’s attempt to elope with his girlfriend. The 17-year-old girl was an ‘upper caste’. Despite being criminalized in 2011, caste discrimination continues to be prevalent in Nepal. But, on  Dec 5, 2023, the West Rukum District Court sentenced 24 individuals in connection with the case to life imprisonment. Two other perpetrators were each slapped with two years of jail sentence and a fine of Rs 50,000 for the crime of untouchability. But can the milestone verdict be a deterrent for discriminatory practices in our society?

“Caste discrimination is a mindset. One verdict won’t bring about the kind of attitudinal shift that’s necessary to end it,” says Tanka Bahadur Bishwokarma, executive director of Dalit Welfare Organization (DWO), an NGO. According to the annual report published by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Nepal Police registered 39 cases of caste-based discrimination in the fiscal year 2020-21 compared to 29 in the previous one. Bishwokarma says Dalit rights are regularly violated but most cases go unreported. “People don’t want to report discrimination as they feel it’s a lot of hassle and will yield no result,” he says.

Dalits are subjected to social exclusion. They are denied access to temples, and homes of the so-called ‘upper caste’. In many places, they aren’t allowed to fetch water from communal taps. The stuff they touch is considered impure, and people refuse to eat or drink ‘contaminated’ food and water. They aren’t invited to weddings and religious ceremonies. In rare cases where they are, they are often asked to sit separately. Infraction of caste boundaries leads to violence in many cases.

A rapid assessment report of the situation of Dalit communities following the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal found that Dalits were discriminated against during the distribution of relief materials. They got less aid than those from ‘higher-ranking’ castes. The assessment team found discrimination limited Dalit’s access to shelter, food, health, water, and sanitation. An Amnesty International report released after the earthquake also raised concerns over caste discrimination in relief work in Nepal.

Discrimination might not be as blatant as it once was, especially in urban areas. But it makes its presence felt in various covert ways. Dalits are routinely denied rooms for rent. In 2021, Rupa Sunar, a journalist, was refused a flat as she was from a ‘lower caste’. The police didn’t register the complaint at first, doing so only after the case got public attention. The accused, Saraswati Pradhan of Babar Mahal, Kathmandu, was then taken into custody. But the then Minister of Education, Science, and Technology, Krishna Gopal Shrestha, went to the station in his official car and had Pradhan released. He even posed for a photo with her in front of the media and drove her home.

The problem is caste discrimination is not considered a serious offense, say activists. It’s often even justified in the name of tradition. There is a lot of political pressure to let things slide when cases do come out. Even in Nabaraj BK’s murder case, the odds were stacked against justice. Senior advocate Dinesh Tripathi says justice prevailed despite resistance, enhancing the court’s credibility. He hopes the case will set a good precedent and pave the way for the building of a society with zero tolerance for discrimination.

On paper, Nepal’s anti-Dalit discrimination laws are strong and progressive. In 1969, Nepal signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. In 2006, it was declared an untouchability- and discrimination-free country. In 2011, the country criminalized caste discrimination. Article 24 and 40 of the constitution of Nepal 2015 has provisions against discrimination and ensures Dalit’s political, economic, and social rights. 

However, caste discrimination is a prominent feature of social interactions. The government regularly fails to prosecute individuals who engage in it. Dalit Rights Activists say the police often try to mediate conflicts stemming from discrimination instead of registering FIRs. They aren’t considered human rights violations but mere altercations, says Bishwokarma. “The sense of impunity is strong and it gives people the power to discriminate.”

A maid, who works in Ratopul in Kathmandu, on the condition of anonymity, says her employers will be furious if they find out she’s a ‘damai’—a caste categorized as ‘untouchable’ in our society. “I have changed my surname. Nobody will give me work if I tell them my real name,” she says. She lives in constant fear of being exposed. Most families she works for are clear about their preferences: they will reluctantly accept ‘pani chalne jaat’ (those from whom you can accept water) to do their chores if Brahmin or Chhetri maids aren’t available.

Tula Narayan Shah, a political analyst, says centuries-old caste discrimination is rooted in tradition whereas governance and judiciary are relatively new structures. Nepal’s first written law, the Muluki Ain (National Code), came into effect in 1854 and was based on the caste system. A new Muluki Ain was promulgated in 1963. It had relatively more caste-neutral language and outlawed certain forms of discrimination. The first constitution of Nepal, with anti-discriminatory clauses, was only introduced in 1948.

“The issues of race, gender, class, caste, etc. all stem from an unwillingness to let go of old customs and an ineffective implementation of new rules and regulations. It’s a global phenomenon,” he says.

Tripathi, the senior advocate, says fear of the law is important to end caste discrimination. The victory in Nabaraj BK’s case has sent a strong message in favor of equality. But it’s important to give continuity to the activism and solidarity that was shown in this case. Shah also asserts the need for stronger activism for aggressive implementation of anti-discriminatory laws. He believes there is less caste discrimination today than a couple of decades ago but the progress is mostly limited to urban areas where in-migration has led to a healthy mixing of cultures.

Nabin BK, admin and finance officer at DWO, says social media has made caste discrimination pervasive. Earlier, people had to say things face-to-face. There would be, if not much, a slight hesitation. But now, anyone anywhere can say whatever s/he wants to, through Facebook comments, posts, and online content. Everybody who has an opinion can put it out there. “People are quick to act on and defend their biases. They do so with reckless abandon as they are behind a screen; it gives them so much power,” says BK.

On the other hand, Sabitra Pariyar of the Feminist Dalit Organization, another NGO, believes discrimination persists as people know there will be no repercussions. There is also little participation and representation of Dalits in politics which means their issues are largely unnoticed or sidelined. Worse is the fact that our religion makes allowance for discrimination—against women and Dalits alike, she adds. “Discrimination is still how people in our society assert their superiority,” she says, adding the only way to change that is effective implementation of stricter laws that penalize discrimination. Unless that happens, Dalits, relegated to the lowest rung of society, will continue to face unimaginable atrocities.