Though the term ‘Dalit’ is most common in Nepal, India and South Asian countries, it is not a common term in western countries and USA. To begin with, Dalit literally means “oppressed” and is a term for the members of lower castes which are often subjected to untouchability in South Asia including India and Nepal based on manusmriti- an ancient legal text based on Dharmashastra of Hinduism.
Last week I attended 2017 Annual Summit organized by International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR) International organized on October 27, 2017, in Washington DC. ICDR is a non-profit organization based in DC that works with a grassroots and diaspora-driven global organizations against caste-and descent-based discrimination, exclusion, and injustice. The annual summit brought together researchers, policy experts, academicians and advocates voicing against caste- and descent-based discrimination to have meaningful discussions and discourses on Dalits issues.
As an Atlas Corps Fellow from Nepal in the US, the issue of Dalits presented in the event was not completely new, but it was interesting to learn about the Dalit issue among the south Asian diaspora. During one of the presentations by an Indian Student of Dalit descent who is doing research on how youth of Asian-American can be engaged in promoting diversity and equality, she mentioned that most of the 2nd generation Dalit diaspora are ignorant about the caste system as it is irrelevant in the US and they seemed not to care anymore. Even parents who had faced different forms of discrimination don’t really want to educate their children on what it is to be Dalit. She stressed until and unless all Dalits including the Dalit diaspora in the US come together the issue of Dalits will remain the same.
Dalit & Discrimination:
‘D’ of Dalits also means discrimination that ranges in various forms and extends from birth till death. People in South Asia are born with ‘caste’ and no matter what position you attain in society one cannot change his/her ‘caste’ and related hierarchy in the caste system. Caste is so engraved in Nepal and India that hold equal importance as socio-economic status.
What does it mean to be Dalit in Nepal?
Though over the decades, there has been considerable progress in terms of Dalits rights, we still hold the same mindset against Dalits. There are domestic laws against caste-based discrimination in Nepal including Nepal Constitution emphasizing on ‘eliminating discrimination based on class, caste, region, language, religion and gender and all forms of caste-based untouchability’ but, this merely can change the mental impression of people and system that has ingrained since centuries. However, positive changes in the situation of Dalits are evident in some urban parts whereas rural villages remained unchanged.
Past Karma & Caste discrimination
The caste is based on the Hindu idea that a person’s positioning in the social hierarchy is ordained by his or her deeds in the previous life since Hindus believe in rebirth & reincarnation. The current social status of an individual depends on the good or bad deeds (Karma) committed by that individual in past lives.
Escaping away from Dalit Identity
In Nepal, most of the Dalit change their surname and adopt the surname of upper Brahmin caste to escape from the caste-based discrimination and isolation but that this does not change their caste. Instead, this camouflage action of some Dalits was perceived by higher caste people as their reluctance to accept their identities and unwillingness to crusade against Dalit rights.
I still remember the incidence of acid attack of 2015 where a 16-year old girl and her friend were attacked by a Dalit man in a tuition center at Kathmandu. It was later revealed that the man disguised his caste and presented himself as some other caste to befriend the girl. Upon knowing his caste, she decided to stop talking with him and eventually cut off a friendly relationship with him. Acid attack was, therefore, an act of vengeance after the girl stopped talking with him and, as per him, her family members shamed his family for being ‘Dalit’. Over this incidence, the question is why he had to hide his caste and what made him do this? I believe he might have feared that revealing his identity means all forms of seen and unseen discrimination which will eventually lead to fewer friends, isolation, social stigma, low opportunities and no respect and dignity in society.
Adopting other religions
As another means of escaping from inequality based on caste hierarchy in Hinduism, Dalits are changing religion and converting themselves to Christianity, Buddhism, and Muslim to have a sense of equality and dignity. According to John Webster (Religion and Dalit Liberation:1999), changing the religion is one of the ‘strategies’ the Dalit communities adopted in their struggle to secure social justice and equality. However, religious conversion does not ensure inequality and dignity. For instance, in India, Dalits converted to Christianity with a view to escape the curse of caste-based discrimination which they had suffered for centuries, had failed to find equality since upper caste converts to Christianity refused to look at Dalit converts without caste prejudice.
Caste-based discrimination Against Human Rights:
Caste-based discrimination runs contrary to the belief that “all human beings are free and equal in dignity and rights” as stated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, it is against the Article 2 ‘Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.’ Therefore, as any human being, the dalits are equally entitled to live with dignity and rights. Rather than attempting to dehumanize them by categorizing as ‘untouchable’, ‘impure’ or ‘less human being’, we have to create awareness against discrimination and join an effort to ensure the prosecution of persons who commit crimes against members of descent-based communities.
However, one of the participants in the event shared that ‘Law against Caste’ is not possible in case of India because caste comes from Hindu ideology which is based on reincarnation. Supreme court often denies prosecuting the people who commit crimes based on caste, as judiciary bodies are reluctant to interfere in someone’s space. Hence, Dalits issue remains as a complex social issue that needs serious attention by the government and until it is addressed by the government and the people, we cannot create a place where all human beings will be treated with equality and dignity.