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A Dalit backlash

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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IN more than a decade of democracy, there has been only one Dalit elected to Parliament in Nepal, Suvash Darnal says with a wry smile. "Democracy and democratic parties have failed us," he adds.

Reeling out figures, he says that a study on Dalits in Nepal by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) ActionAid International, has listed 205 social, economic and cultural disabilities still suffered by them. There is no reservation for Dalits in either government jobs or in education, there are no land reforms, and there are hardly any Dalits in the leaderships of political parties, he says.

A recent survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in Nepal on discrimination and forced labour reveals the complete exclusion of Dalits in leadership positions in all the institutions of the state. There is not one Dalit judge anywhere in the country; no Dalit among the 205 Members of Parliament; no Dalit Minister, administrator, businessman or trader; no Dalit leader in professional and cultural bodies or in civil society organisations. The only Dalit in a leadership position identified by the ILO survey was an office-bearer of the Nepal Teachers' Association.

While the 1989-90 democracy movement brought political democracy to the country, social oppression continued in the rural areas, where almost 85 per cent of the population lives, said Darnal. The democratic policital parties reduced the Dalit problem to a development and cultural issue. The 1990 Constitution states that all people are equal but does not have a single provision to protect Dalits from social discrimination. Nor does it have any provision to help Dalits overcome their backwardness. When some members of Parliament wanted to introduce a private Member's Bill in Parliament in the early 1990s to protect Dalits and punish those who discriminate against them, it was not even allowed to be tabled, Darnal said.

The Maoists are the only ones who have addressed Dalit's problems as a political issue. "This is the reason for their popularity in rural areas, especially among Dalits and other oppressed castes," he adds. The Maoists have banned untouchability and other humiliating social practices, have punished those who insulted Dalits and, for the first time, given land to Dalits, he said.

It is for the first time that any political formation has given power to Dalits. He claims that over 10 per cent of the Maoist government's personnel are Dalits, while much of the Maoist army consists of Dalits and members of other lower castes. "You cannot imagine what changes in village power relations come about when the Dalit youth get guns in their hands," he said.

Adds Hari Roka, a political activist of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist, or UML) who is living in exile in New Delhi: "The old political and social structure of the villages has been destroyed completely in the course of the Maoist insurgency. The feudal power relations in the villages may never come back again." But he says that this social process was started by UML cadre way back in the 1950s in social reform movements.

Darnal says that Dalits today are better organised even in areas where the Maoists do not have full control. There are over 500 Dalit organisations in Nepal, ranging from movements to NGOs, user groups and clubs. This has had an impact on the democratic parties too. The UML has recently included a Dalit in its central committee, as has the Rashtra Prajatantra Party. There is still no Dalit in the Nepali Congress leadership, nor in the Jan Morcha, a Maoist group that does not support the insurgency.

"In 1990, no political leader could hope to win elections if he spoke up for Dalit rights. Today, no political leader can ever speak openly against Dalits and most political parties have committed themselves to educational and employment reservations for Dalits and a Bill to protect them from oppressive practices," Darnal says.

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