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Caste-based discrimination: A call for equality and change

Caste-based discrimination: A call for equality and change

The caste system, the world’s oldest surviving social hierarchy, has left an indelible mark on societies, particularly in Nepal. Stemming from distinctions in professional roles that often lead to the derogation of certain professions, the caste system determines one's social standing from birth, making it nearly impossible to alter or move between caste categories, with the exception of inter-caste marriages. This article delves into the historical roots of the caste system in Nepal, its socio-economic implications, and the persistent challenges posed by caste-based discrimination.

The caste-based system creates a hierarchical structure within society, with far-reaching consequences. Studies in 2005 revealed that while the ‘upper castes’ constitute only 35 percent of the general population, they make up 98 percent of all army officers, highlighting a stark imbalance. 

The system also leads to the creation of a status-governed personality, stigmatization, and the maintenance of the status quo with control over state privileges. Caste-based practices reinforce fatalism, legitimize exclusion through religious preaching, and perpetuate continuous discrimination for the benefit of a privileged class.

Multifaceted challenge across socio-political spheres

In Nepal, Dalit participation in administrative bodies reveals a significant gap, with national statistics highlighting notable income inequality between Dalit and non-Dalit households. Dalit households, unfortunately, earn less income, underscoring their status as the most disadvantaged caste group in the country. Shockingly, advancements in maternal health services have disproportionately bypassed the Dalits, further exacerbating their challenges.

Recognizing the need for inclusivity, efforts have been initiated to address the underrepresentation of Dalit women in formal sectors, striving for their proportional participation. Despite these efforts, the struggle persists, reflecting the broader issues faced by the Dalit community. Reports on political and electoral participation in South Asia provide valuable insights into the challenges hindering Dalits from actively engaging in governance and decision-making processes. The complex interplay of social, economic, and political barriers continues to impede the full integration of Dalits, emphasizing the urgency of comprehensive and collaborative solutions.

They are significantly underrepresented in governmental and decision-making bodies, which makes it difficult for them to influence laws that directly affect their lives. When the socio-political scene is analyzed, the results of the local elections in 2022 paint a shocking picture. In Madhes, out of 1,271 wards across 136 municipal levels, the Dalit group elected only one mayor and two deputy mayors. This basic portrayal is worrying, especially in light of the larger picture.

When one looks more closely, the data shows even more differences. Dalits obtained only 33 ward chairperson posts out of 136 local levels, demonstrating a weak representation even at the grassroots level. The state of affairs in national politics is still depressing. 

Not a single Dalit was elected to a seat in the Madhes, even though 32 MPs were chosen using the First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system. In the same way, only one Dalit person was elected out of the 64 Provincial Directly Elected Members of Parliament.

These statistics show how critical it is to address Dalits’ underrepresentation in sociopolitical domains. The biased results of the elections in 2022 highlight a structural problem that prevents Dalits from being fairly and equally included in decision-making processes at all levels of government. The lack of Dalit voices in positions of leadership raises questions about the political system’s responsiveness and inclusivity, necessitating investigation and corrective action to guarantee a more inclusive and participatory democracy.

In society, recognition or identity based on one’s status becomes the source and justification for discrimination. Institutionalized discrimination reinforces the status quo, sustaining special advantages for the powerful. Subordination thus becomes an outcome of institutionalized discrimination, reinforcing the existing social order.

True equality is only possible by dismantling discriminatory practices that perpetuate advantages for one group at the expense of another. The concept of equality is inherently tied to the notion of change, as progress can only be achieved by challenging and transforming the conditions that justify discrimination.

What should be done?

The state must take proactive measures, including the realization, recognition, entitlement, commitment, accessibility, and enjoyment of rights. Monitoring indicators of full and practical realization is essential to ensuring tangible progress.

The judiciary should adopt a proactive and human rights-sensitive approach. It plays a crucial role in upholding and protecting the rights of marginalized communities, ensuring justice is served without discrimination.

The general public and advocacy groups need to internalize the concept of equality through awareness and education programs. Active participation, public interest lawyering, lobbying efforts, and publicizing discriminatory practices are vital in challenging the status quo.

Nepal has taken legislative steps to address caste-based discrimination, such as the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offense and Punishment) Act, 2011. The Constitution of Nepal explicitly condemns discrimination based on caste and untouchability, emphasizing the right to equality and social justice.

In Conclusion, Caste-based discrimination continues to plague Nepalese society, impacting the lives of millions. It is imperative to recognize the historical roots, socio-economic implications, and pervasive practices of discrimination that persist. Achieving equality requires a commitment to change and a dismantling of institutionalized discrimination. The state, judiciary, and the public all play crucial roles in fostering an inclusive society where every individual enjoys equal rights and opportunities. Through collective efforts, Nepal can pave the way for a future free from the shackles of caste-based discrimination, embracing the principles of equality, justice, and human dignity.

The author is pursuing BA LLB at Kathmandu School of Law