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Closing ranks

Gyanu Adhikari
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Civil activists in Nepal launcha national campaign against discrimination against Dalits

Loaded agenda:Changing mindsets in Nepal.
Loaded agenda:Changing mindsets in Nepal.

Navaraj Sunar and Samjhana Subedi from Pida village in Dhading, a district adjacent to Kathmandu, had a love marriage. But the union brought them beatings and threats from the villagers, who rejected their relationship because Navaraj belonged to a “lower caste” and Samjhana was a “higher caste” woman. Eventually, the couple as well as all the Dalits in the village were driven out of the village. But none of the attackers was punished because of political influence. This was in July last year.

That same month, a group of “higher caste” men attacked Ram Bahadur Sarki, a Dalit in Bardiya, a district in the Nepal’s southern region bordering India, for touching a glass they used. He died from the beatings.

Citing many more incidents of crimes against the Dalits, civil society leaders recently launched a 12-day national campaign against discrimination to coincide with two historical dates for Dalit movement: the passing of an anti-discrimination law in 2011 and the declaration of Nepal as an “untouchability free” country in 2006.

“Several incidents of caste-based ‘hate crimes’ in recent years show that despite the laws, Dalits, especially those in rural areas, continue to bear the brunt of this social evil,” said Rem Biswokarma, an activist who runs an NGO that promotes coverage of Dalit issues in the media.

“We have very progressive laws, but the rigid culture weakens the laws and constitutional provisions,” he added.

The campaign, which is being supported by aid from the European Union, started with a discussion on the role of the media; it was attended by prominent journalists, media entrepreneurs and country’s Minister of Information and Communications Madhav Poudel. Ironically though, the large group of television journalists assembled at the event left immediately after the Minister finished his speech!

Several participants noted that it was the government-owned newspaper, Gorkhapatra , which gave Dalits issues the highest priority. During the course of the heated discussion, Maoist politician Binod Pariyar Pahadi alleged that the private media is biased against the Dalits. To this, R.K. Manandhar, owner of Image television channel, protested and asked the Dalits to first stop calling themselves ‘Dalits’ for the “sake of the self-esteem of future generations”.

Political commentator Shyam Shrestha claimed that the provisions for Dalit rights in the draft constitution prepared by the lapsed Constituent Assembly was “the most progressive in South Asia”, something which drew the ire of the status quoists who worked to foil the Assembly. More than eight per cent of the lapsed Assembly members were Dalits, a historic high compared to their almost non-existent presence in previous parliaments.  

Activism by the Dalits alone, however, will not prevent discrimination against them unless it becomes a common agenda of all parties in Nepal as well as in the entire South Asia region, said Mr. Biswokarma.

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