anbir Kami, 56, is a permanent resident of Jugal Rural Municipality of Sindhupalchok District, approaching the southeastern tip of Nepal. He moved to the capital of Kathmandu with his family in 2015.
Kami, a Dalit who works as a metalsmith, has experienced caste-based discrimination since childhood. He still encounters it but has learned to live with it. He doesn’t let it get to him anymore. “Back in the village, I got shamed many times by my neighbors, and even while at work because of my caste. I used to get anxious all the time,” he says.
As a matter of course, Kami recalls, he would go out to one of the water spouts very early in the day, carrying a bucket that he hoped to fill for their day’s use. “We were not allowed to fill water with others, so I used to go to the water spouts with my mother early in the morning to get water,” he says.
In Nepal, people are broadly classified into four castes, or groups of social hierarchy according to the Hindu tradition. At the top sit the priests and academics, collectively called the Brahmin. Below them are the Kshatriya, to which rulers and warriors traditionally belong. They are followed by the Vaishyas, the class of artisans, farmers, and traders.
Beneath everyone belong the Shudras or the Dalits, the lowest-class citizens in the country. They are still considered by many in modern-day Nepal to be “untouchable,” meaning they can’t enter the houses of those with a higher standing in society nor are they allowed inside temples for worship. At the same time, higher-caste people do not eat with or drink from things that have been touched by those of lower caste.
In 2015, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, wreaking havoc across the country. Kami’s village in Sindhupalchok wasn’t spared, and before long, he had decided to move to the capital hoping for a shot at a better life, bringing with him his wife, sons, daughters, and daughter-in-law.
Kami was hopeful. It was the city, after all, rich with opportunity and home to the country’s more refined, educated crowds. Maybe he wouldn’t have to face such harsh discrimination anymore. Maybe he and his family could finally live without always hanging their head in shame over something they had no control over.
He had assumed—wrongly, as he would quickly find out—that caste-based discrimination was limited to the rural hinterlands.
In fact, just putting a roof over their heads proved to be tough for the lower-caste family, as landlords routinely turned them away. “It was difficult to get a room on rent,” Kami recalls. “Looking for a job was even more difficult as untouchability was prevalent even in the city area.”
As it turns out, even among the educated, middle-class circles of Kathmandu, caste-based prejudice remains alive and well.
When asked why he never filed complaints about this discrimination to the authorities, Kami was dumbfounded: Do the police look over such issues?
“Why would they arrest someone for commenting about my caste?” asks Kami. “I’ve been facing such abuse for a long time and now I’ve learned to live with it. Rather than complain about the issue, I would rather just stay away from these so-called high-class people.”
For decades, Nepal has struggled to abolish caste-based discrimination and untouchability. When the Civil Act of 1963 was introduced, its biggest focus was to make caste-based discrimination a punishable offense.
Six years later, in 1969, the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination came into effect, which Nepal ratified, signaling its international commitment to equal rights and dignity for all.
But caste-based discrimination continued to hound the country, necessitating even more legal safeguards. In 1990, the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal provided protection against every form of discrimination.
More than two decades later, in 2011, the Act on Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability came into force and criminalized all forms of discrimination—based on custom, caste, race, religion, tradition, culture, rituals, origin, community, and occupation—and untouchability, with provisions for imprisonment for up to three years.
The Constitution of Nepal promulgated in 2015 also ensures Right to Equality to people from every community. In fact, Article 40 explicitly grants protection to the rights of people from the Dalit community, who make up 13.12 percent of the country’s population. Moreover, it also promotes positive discrimination in order to uplift their socioeconomic condition.
More recently, in 2018, Nepal passed the country’s Penal Code, which provides additional layers of legislation against any form of discrimination. In particular, Section 160 of the Code says there shall be no discrimination on grounds of origin, religion, color, caste, race, sex, physical condition, disability, condition of health, marital status, pregnancy, economic condition, language or region, ideology, or other similar grounds.
Meanwhile, Section 161 makes an explicit reference to the equality of economic opportunity, saying that no person shall purchase, sell, or distribute goods or services from or to only any person belonging to any particular caste, race, or community.
But despite these legal provisions, acts of discriminations and violence against lower-caste people like Dalits continue across the country.
To compound the problem, people like Kami who belong to marginalized communities are far behind in terms of education and inclusion, so such issues of discrimination hardly come out, especially for legal challenge.
But in a recent incident, Rupa Sunar, a journalist from the Dalit community, filed complaint to the Metropolitan Police Circle of Singhadurbar on June 17 last month, under the 2011 Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability Act, alleging the landlady, named Saraswati Pradhan, of refusing Sunar rent because of her caste. Pradhan was arrested, but was eventually released three days later by the Kathmandu district attorney on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The case was never taken to court.
However, the incident had once again ignited debates on social media. Many privileged upper-class people were defending the landlady’s move, saying that it was her property, after all, so she is allowed to decide freely whom to allow rent to. Other people were condemning the house owner’s move as wrong practice.
Social media got even more inflamed when people discovered that Krishna Gopal Shrestha, Minister for Education, Science, and Technology, picked up the accused landlord from police custody himself.
Pradip Pariyar, Executive Chairperson of Samata Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) advocating for the rights of people in the Dalit community, said that they still receive a lot of complaints from Dalits: being refused rooms for rent, being turned away at temples, and marriage issues due to caste, among other untouchability issues.
“Despite strict laws in place, when it comes to implementing them, Nepal is still far behind,” says Pariyar. “To fight discrimination and untouchability-related issues, authorities like the Nepal police, government lawyers, human right defenders, and even the media need to take the matter seriously.”
On May 23, 2020, a Dalit youth named Nawaraj BK, along with some of his friends, were lynched in Soti, Rukum. Nawaraj had been seeing an upper-caste girl whose family disapproved of the relationship.
When Nawaraj and 18 of his friends went to Soti Village on May 23, seeking to bring his girlfriend home as bride, they were attacked by villagers and chased into the Bheri River. Only 13 survived. Six bodies, including Nawaraj’s, were recovered from the river.
The killings sparked a conversation around caste-based atrocities and triggered a number of protests from political parties and civil society. Even international organizations, such as the UN and Human Rights Watch, condemned the killings, calling for a free and fair investigation.
Soon after, the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter swept over Nepali social media, bringing much-needed attention to the discrimination lower-caste people suffer from in the country, and as a way to come up with means to combat this prejudice.
But with time, the incident got old and faded out of the public’s collective memory once more.
Data provided by the Nepal Police indeed show that such cases are on the rise. From July 16, 2020 to July 15, 2021, 62 complaints regarding caste-based discrimination were filed. During the same time frame in the year prior, the country only logged 31 such complaints.
According to Senior Superintendent Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, spokesperson for the Nepal Police, the authorities do act soon after receiving complaints of caste-based discrimination. But often, these cases prove difficult to investigate. “Some people claim to be the victim of caste-based discrimination but while investigating, it turns out that the issue arose due to personal matters.”
Nevertheless, he urged the general public to inform the police if they face or witness discrimination. But Pariyar, of Samata Foundation, points out that this is much easier said than done.
Dalit rights activists say that there are different layers to the problem. First, the police often don’t entertain cases filed on any sort of discrimination, either due to political pressure or just a general culture of taking such issues lightly.
Second, even when police take complaints, many get dismissed without having the opportunity to stand trial. Finally, the very few complaints that make it through all the administrative hoops eventually fall in the face of legal scrutiny for lack of compelling evidence.
A former employee of the National Dalit Council, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirms that mostly only educated lower-caste people in cities try to raise their voices about discrimination. The situation is much worse in rural areas, where Dalit people have no idea about their rights and the facilities and services provided by government.
The National Dalit Council is a Nepali constitutional body established with the goal of providing safeguards against the exploitation of Dalits and to promote and protect their social, educational, economic, and cultural interests.
“Lower-caste people from rural villages don’t realize that they are being victims of discrimination,” the former employee says. “They have gotten very used to being excluded by the people of society.”
“They are even deprived of basic things like education and jobs. As many NGOs are based in the city area, they have no idea about the actual situation in rural Nepal,” the former employee adds.
Meanwhile, Kami, after arriving in the capital, was struggling to get a room to rent. Instead, he decided to lease a land for five years and built a small cottage in Kageshwori Manohara-6, a district in east Kathmandu, where he is currently staying with all his family members.
Despite facing caste-based discrimination, Kami remains very optimistic and feels that change might come in future, though he is unsure how many more generations it will take to end prejudice in Nepal.
“I just hope our grandchild will not have to face the sort of discrimination that we had to face,” he says. ●
Shuvam Dhungana is a reporter based in Nepal. He has written for a number of mainstream media outfits in the country, including The Kathmandu Post, The Record Nepal, The Himalayan Times, and myRepublica. He tweets @dhungana_shuvam.