New Internationalist

Between a rock and a hard place

Issue 380

Nepal’s 4.5 million Dalits have always been the poorest of the poor. But now they face an additional problem: in the latest escalation of the nine-year civil war, they are caught between the Maoist guerrillas who see them as an obvious ally, and the army of King Gyanendra, which has been cracking down on the Dalits because it says they are Maoist supporters. Sagar Bishwakarma (below), President of the Dalit NGO Federation and founder and Executive Director of the Dalit Human Rights Organization in

I come from a very remote part of Nepal; in the western region of the country bordering Tibet. My family belongs to the blacksmith caste – my father and grandfather made agricultural tools for the upper-caste people. I was the first generation in my family to get an education.

Even as a small child I was assertive about my rights. There were four Dalits in my class at school. The teachers used to tell us about the social system by saying, ‘So you see, Mr Sagar is from a blacksmith caste – he cannot enter the temple or eat with higher caste people. Mr X, on the other hand, is from a higher caste…’ We suffered the same discrimination as all Dalits – we were not allowed to drink the same water or use the same soap as the higher-caste people or enter the temples.

In 1990, the village celebrated Dassain, a national festival. It was organized by the Brahmins and everyone was asked to make a contribution. The higher castes were asked to contribute ghee (clarified butter) while the Dalits were told to contribute their physical labour. I decided I would no longer put up with this and together with my four friends and my elder brother we asked that the Dalits should also contribute ghee. I was 17. There were big confrontations and we were beaten up.

I think it was at that point that I decided to dedicate my life to the Dalit movement. In the beginning my family did not support me. They were afraid for me. But my father then realized that what I was doing was important and he allowed me to continue my studies. I worked to support myself. I studied law and eventually went to Kathmandu to do a BA. But there I came across other kinds of discrimination. One day I wrote a story for a national newspaper and they refused to publish it because I was a Dalit. So I set up my own magazine. In 1995 I formed an organization called the Dalit Human Rights Organization. I wanted to interest the international community and to link Dalit rights with democracy – there was no democracy in Nepal at that time. Other human-rights organizations began to see that caste was a human-rights issue; that the poorest people in the poorest communities are always Dalits. International agencies gave us a small fund and we realized that we had to start to empower Dalits politically – otherwise we would have no bargaining power.

In 2003 I founded the Dalit NGO Federation to bring together the different groups working on these issues. Dalits have little political representation; none in the Lower House and a limited amount in the Upper House. I was determined to change this. I built links with the International Dalit Solidarity Network and publicized the caste situation in Nepal internationally. At the end of last year we held an international conference in Kathmandu. People came from all over the world and we issued the Kathmandu Dalit Declaration, which is a very comprehensive statement of what needs to change if caste discrimination is to be eradicated.

The current situation

The current situation in Nepal with the effective suspension of democracy is very difficult for the Dalit people. We feel very insecure and unable to speak out. In the villages, people have been beaten, arrested and killed. To date, 22 Dalit activists have been arrested. One of my colleagues has been badly beaten. Around 50,000 people have been internally displaced from their homes and are living in appalling conditions. They are unable to claim even the most basic humanitarian rights; their children are unable to go to school and they cannot work. In addition, the aid that does come is given to the higher caste people and not to the Dalits. A recent study has shown that only two per cent of the funds for Dalit issues reaches Dalit communities.’1

The only good thing about the situation is that it has given us new opportunities to draw the world’s attention to the situation of Dalits in Nepal and to build alliances with other pro-democracy groups within the country. I believe that Dalit rights in my country, like the rights of women and of indigenous peoples, are closely linked to democracy. Without democracy we cannot claim our rights. Without democracy Dalits cannot hope for change. And I believe that such change is possible.

  1. Research commissioned by the Nepal Development Forum and carried out by Jagdish Chandra Pokhrel.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Between a rock and a hard place

Leave your comment