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Dalit lives matter

Gyan Basnet

10, August, 2015- Jagaran Media Center

  • The new constitution must go further than its predecessors in securing Dalit rights
The excessive use of force by the police during peaceful protests by Dalit lawmakers and activists demanding a Dalit-friendly constitution reflects the oppressive mentality of both the government and of the so-called upper caste citizens,  who have played a dominant role in the country’s governance for centuries. News reports about Dalit issues appear daily in the media, such as their not being allowed to fetch water from communal wells or taps, enter temples or drink tea from the same cup  used by regular customers at tea stalls. For how long can we, or should we, close our eyes to these happenings? There has been a violent backlash from self-proclaimed higher castes against those who challenge untouchability and against efforts to organise and fight discrimination with official policies.

This long established form of social segregation may be compared to the crime of Apartheid. Dalits are denied entry into houses of the so-called upper-castes, temples, restaurants, teashops and food factories. They have suffered atrocities and injustices for centuries and not just from society in general; this practice has been institutionalised by the state by excluding them from the policy and decision-making process.

Caste-based untouchability is not a crime against humanity but also a gross violation of the human rights of a significant proportion of our population.

According to researchers, there are around 4.5 million Dalits in Nepal, which is almost 20 percent of the total population. There are more than 20 Dalit caste groups, and 80 percent of the Dalit population live below the poverty line. How can society and its laws and the state neglect them and their needs? The elimination of caste discrimination has been an important issue in all our past democratic struggles and revolutions.

It has been part of the manifesto of the political parties and a common election slogan. Why then does caste discrimination still exist?

Untouchability despite law

Dalits have attained equal status as far as the law is concerned. Not long ago, an amendment to the Civil Code accepted that the practice of untouchability and boycotts or restrictions against any person on the basis of caste, religion or class constituted a crime. The Interim Constitution accepts the right to protection from caste-based discrimination and untouchability as a fundamental right. Moreover, a recent parliamentary act, the Caste-based Discrimination and Untou-chability Act 2011, criminalises caste-based discrimination and untouchability in both the private and public spheres. So far, so good.

However, Dalit communities continue to suffer: they face discrimination in housing, schools and access to public services.

They are denied access to land and are forced to work in degrading conditions besides being routinely abused at the hands of the police and upper-caste community members. Such cases are often not reported, investigated or prosecuted properly. Dalits have endured such discrimination for centuries, and still do. Does it not bring shame on us all in the 21st century? The passing of laws against untouchability is a great achievement, but it is only the first step towards safeguarding Dalits rights.

Law and society

First, the upcoming constitution must go much further than its predecessors in securing the rights of Dalits. Caste-based discrimination involves gross violation of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. As Nepal has signed several international human rights treaties and mechanisms, it is obliged to ensure the rights of victims of caste-based discrimination. If

the new constitution does not secure the rights of Dalits and other vulnerable citizens, it will be a gross failure on Nepal’s

part in upholding its international legal obligations.

Second, there is an important question for all of us to consider. Do constitutional and legal provisions alone suffice to eradicate this social segregation? From our own experiences, a straight answer is a ‘no’. Making laws alone is not enough. Despite the fact that untouchability was officially banned in our country nearly six decades ago, discrimination against Dalits remains pervasive. Our attitude towards Dalits must change. The dominant and oppressive attitudes and manners of the so-called high-caste individuals must change. Economic, social and development policies must be formulated based on equality for Dalits. A strong enforcement mechanism for the existing laws must be introduced, and Dalit abusers must be punished. However, to have any real impact, systematic reform and change, education and public awareness is critical. To achieve this, we must teach our children early on to respect and be tolerant of other people. We must teach our children that all human beings are equal and born free.

Put into practice

Finally, each one of us such as those in the   media, NGOs and civil society and the Dalits themselves are key to change. As B.R Ambedkar, an Indian Dalit politician, once said, “Ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle of reclamation of human personality.” The struggle for Dalit rights must be a battle for all of us, and it must be aimed at building a new country, a new society and a new way of life based on respect of different castes, cultures, religions and political beliefs.

In a free and democratic society, every citizen, irrespective of caste or social origin, is entitled to exercise his or her constitutional, civil and political rights to live with dignity and respect. The country must evolve concrete plans and policies to implement laws and programmes to respect, protect and fulfil the rights and dignity of Dalits. The demand for proper inclusion of Dalit rights in the new constitution must emerge as a common voice and a common agenda. It must be seen as crucial to establishing a human rights-based and just society. As Goethe famously stated, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” The practice of untouchability in Nepal must be brought to an end.

Basnet holds a PhD in human rights

from Lancaster University, the UK and

is an advocate and researcher

Posted on: 2015-08-11 08:54

http://www.ekantipur.com/the-kathmandu-post/2015/08/10/oped/dalit-lives-matter/279413.html

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