Casteism in Nepal is a centuries-old social class system. This system oppresses lower-caste communities and gives power to upper-caste, educated Nepalis. Historically, the caste system justified the subjugation of lower castes, allowing upper-caste Nepalis to use their status to gain security and power. Roughly 260 million people in South Asia are “Dalits,” or members of lower castes, and are therefore treated as ‘untouchable’ by their social superiors. Dalits in Nepal face social, economic, cultural and political marginalization and routinely fall victim to both institutional and structural discrimination. Despite legal provisions intended to eradicate caste discrimination in Nepal, hate crimes and acts of violence against the Dalit community are rampant. The discrimination and violence Dalits experience severely limit their access to equal education, employment and housing opportunities.
Inadequate Legal Protections
After the monarchy was overthrown, the Nepali constitution explicitly banned discrimination “on grounds of origin, religion, race, caste, tribe, sex, economic condition, language, region, ideology or on similar other grounds.” When the Civil Act 1963 emerged, its primary focus was to make caste-based discrimination a punishable offense. The Untouchability and Discrimination Act and the Constitution of Nepal both provide legal protections for Dalits. Yet, discrimination against marginalized communities in Nepal—particularly Dalit people—remains prevalent.
Despite the instituted legal provisions, cases of caste-based discrimination rarely make it to court, much less result in a conviction. In the rare case of a conviction, perpetrators often avoid jail and walk free after merely paying a small fine. “The discriminatory practice of excluding Dalits from all social practice is so deep-rooted that victims have not been able to speak up for their rights which has resulted in such a few numbers of cases in court,” says Durga Sob, President of the Feminist Dalit Organization.
Discrimination Exacerbated by COVID-19
Discrimination against Dalits is embedded in Nepal’s social fabric. COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown have only exacerbated incidents of violence and prejudice. A global crisis such as the pandemic not only exposes existing structural inequalities but also deepens their effects. The lockdown has not prevented violence against Dalits from taking place; there were at least 31 documented cases of physical violence against Dalits during the lockdown period. In particular, an incident on May 23rd in Soti Village, Rukum triggered a nationwide anti-caste movement against casteism in Nepal. The movement, called “Dalit Lives Matter,” is inspired by the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States. That day, Nabaraj BK, Tikaram Sunar and Ganesh Budha were murdered in Rukum–a hate crime committed out of caste-based prejudice.
Especially Vulnerable Groups
As previously established, state-imposed discriminatory practices are historically embedded in Nepal’s social fabric. As a result, marginalized communities including Dalits and Indigenous Nepalis bare much of the burden from the country’s political and economic turmoil. According to the Human Development Index, Dalits are the poorest community in Nepal. Over half of Dalits live below the poverty line and 45.5% struggle to make ends meet. Not only are Dalits much poorer than their upper-caste counterparts, but they also have life expectancies and literacy rates below the national average. Dalits routinely lack access to religious sites, face heavy resistance to inter-caste marriages, use separate water sources and suffer many additional forms of discrimination.
Among the Dalit community, women face more violence and marginalization than men. Females are deprived of control over resources such as land, housing, money or education. They are also extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
The centuries-long egregious treatment of the Dalit community in Nepal incited nationwide protests and the “Dalit Lives Matter” movement. To effectively put an end to the violence and oppression of casteism in Nepal, beneficiaries of that system–wealthy upper-caste Hindus in Nepal–must use their privilege to uplift and liberate the Dalit community.
– Shreeya Sharma