The Nepalese caste system historically functioned as the basis of the feudal economic structure. The caste was largely codified by Manusmriti who divided four varnas: the dominant Brahmins (priests and scholars), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaishyas (merchants and traders), the Shudras (laborers) and the Dalit outcasts (untouchables). Although castes are based on various professions, untouchability evolved later. Even after a decade-long civil war, the fall of the monarchy and the caste system may technically no longer exist in a fledgling democracy, but the practice is still alive in Nepal.
A recent video by Rupa Sunar, a Dalit journalist, went viral on the internet, in which she claimed that Saraswati Pradhan (a house owner) refused to rent her an apartment citing her so-called lower caste. Thus, she filed a complaint against Pradhan in accordance with the 2011 Act on Discrimination and Untouchability Based on Castes. Pradhan, however, was released. This event gives us the opportunity to understand that the caste system is still intact today. More strongly, the social media arguments that followed reflect society that it will be a long time before existing casteism changes.
Dignity and denial
In fact, there is a commitment to fight castism on paper. Nepal’s constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. These rights cannot be taken away because all human beings are designated as rights, without any form of discrimination. But, this incident showed how the so-called low caste people still fight for their basic human rights, a life of dignity and equality.
However, there is a big misconception and biased narrative in some media coverage. Some commentators and social media users have been defensive in calling it “left” or “liberal” propaganda and argued that there is no caste discrimination because the owner is simply exercising his right over private property. Online media platforms continued to cause controversy and disseminated information accusing Sunar of receiving 15 million rupees from the European Union.
Another discussion of the reservation system has spread by relating it to the present case, opening the door to some interesting analogies. “Reservation” is an unpopular word in Nepal and is accused of “reverse discrimination”. Vague accounts such as “non-Dalit students fail to prosper economically in Nepal because ‘lower castes’ have monopolized government welfare schemes” circulate around internet users. However, these complexities cannot be used to avoid addressing caste discrimination and pushing the real problem under the rug. This backlash highlights a curious case of selective indignation and denial of casteism.
Reservation for Dalits and bypass
About 260 million people in South Asia are “Dalits”, or members of so-called lower castes, and are therefore treated as “untouchable” by their social superiors. According to the Human Development Index, the Dalits who constitute 20 percent of the total population are the poorest community in Nepal. More than half of Dalits live below the poverty line and also have lower life expectancy and literacy rates than the national average. Thus, the caste reservation policy was adopted in Nepal. The weaker section connotes a section of society that is deprived of basic rights and regimes provided by law.
The reservation in the Nepalese context is used as a tool to raise the standard of living of this part of the society by promoting their social, educational and economic interest. But, the notion of caste reserve is currently fabricated with substandard arguments that undermine the identity and dignity of the class to which government schematics are provided as a reserve. According to arguments advanced by relatively dominant sections of society, reserved people proudly use their inferiority and backwardness, but when it comes to being addressed by such labels which are synonymous with their inferiority, the lower section is offended. This is just a deliberate attempt to scandalize the entire reservation system and deviate from the real issue.
Basically, the seriousness of the act of denial is based on its effect on the group of victims. Discrimination based on caste was not discussed until a few years ago. Despite the legal provisions in place, cases of caste discrimination rarely end up in court; much less result in conviction. Discussions about the experiences of minorities are increasingly common. Yet at every step the dominant castes have denied them empathy and there is widespread denial of castism as if it is past. But, just because there is denial, that doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist.
The point of hypocrisy is that when Nabaraj BK, Tikaram Sunar and Ganesh Budha were murdered because of their caste, it sparked a nationwide anti-caste movement, but in the case of Saraswoti Pradhan against Rupa Sunar , people easily take the practice of untouchability. Do you have to lose your life to get proper treatment for caste-based violence? Isn’t denial of a victim’s right to humanity and dignity on the basis of last name enough to qualify as caste discrimination?
The ruling class of Nepalese society constitutes a huge political and administrative force in the current context. They are more or less in power and it is a nature of power that he does not tolerate criticism. When this class is asked complex questions about caste discrimination, they try to run away chanting the same old and outdated songs of discriminatory values and customs. This is why Nepal is considered a country imprisoned by its past. With an attitude and beliefs like this, the incident will be interpreted and dissected in many ways in the coming weeks and perhaps forgotten in the long run, but the general denial of caste discrimination in Nepal could continue.