Nepal retains its centuries-old caste system. Dalits, the discriminated people under this system, suffer from restriction on the use public amenities, deprivation of economic opportunities, and general neglect by the state and society.
More than twenty Dalit caste groups exist in the country at present. Identifying a caste group is problematic. It requires a study of diverse cultures of different ethnic groups and geographical areas. Thus even the government classification system is open to question.
In view of the still unsettled system of classifying Dalit caste groups, estimating the Dalit population is difficult. One estimate puts the number of Dalit people at 13.09 % out of the total population of 23,151,423. This means that the total Dalit population is 3,030,067, with Kami the largest group with 29.57% and Halkhar the smallest group with 0.12 %. Dalit women comprise 51% of the total Dalit population.
Dalits are discriminated against on the basis of caste and untouchability. They are not only discriminated by the so-called higher caste people in the Hindu system, but also by people within the same caste. Dalit women suffer much more than Dalit men.
Two studies  show that most Dalits suffer from discriminatory practices involving food and drink (38.9%) and prohibition of entry into houses, temples and other public places (28.3%). Both studies show that incidence of castebased discrimination is higher in the western region than in the eastern region of the country. It means that the form and extent of discrimination against Dalits are positively correlated with the extent of development of the area where they reside.
Social and cultural discrimination
Dalits are discriminated in the religious and cultural spheres. They are not allowed to practice Hindu rituals, norms and values in the same manner as other castes. To escape from this discrimination, they converted into Christianity. And yet even within their Christian communities only those belonging to higher castes can become religious leaders or occupy key positions in the church.
Traditional caste-based occupation and forced labor
Dalits have been relegated to do caste-based work as black/goldsmith, tailors, shoemakers and street cleaners, all are considered of low social status. Poverty and lack of other means of livelihood force the Dalits to continue their traditional occupations. Dalit women and children are also forced to work in the households of their landlords. They do not get justifiable wage for their labor. If they do not work for others, they work as help of their husbands in the traditional jobs of Dalits. Those working in Haliya Pratha (bonded labor) or Khala Pratha (forced labor) are not even earning from their work. They may get food grains.
Dalits who are able to get a wage-earning job suffer from unfair wage system. They get much less than their non-Dalit counterparts. Dalit women, on the other hand, get lesser wage than Dalit men.
Lack of modern technology skills and financial resources prevent them from getting employed in new industries or trade in the market.
Dalits who change from traditional occupation to wage labor do not
therefore necessarily improve their economic conditions.
Discrimination in education
Untouchability is practiced in schools, be they government- or NGO- supported schools. Teachers do not take care of their Dalit students. In remote areas of Nepal, Dalit students could not sit beside the so-called high-caste students. There are documented cases in NGO-supported schools of isolating Dalit students when eating school-supplied food, and treating them badly. Scholarships for Dalit students are inadequate if not irregular.
Likewise, the so-called high-caste teachers do not want Dalits to become teachers because they do not want to do the traditional gesture of giving respect to them. They also do not want to eat and drink together with them as is the custom among teachers.
Competent Dalit teachers are discouraged from occupying higher executive positions in schools.
Denial of entry
Dalits are denied entry into the houses of higher castes, temples, hotels/restaurants, teashops, food factories, dairy farms and milk collection centers, among others. They can go to schools, offices and work places. However, there are newspaper reports that in some schools in Jumla region, Dalit students sit outside the classrooms.
The denial of entry into private houses of higher caste people extends to their cowsheds in the case of the far western Nepal. They have a belief that if a Dalit enters the cowsheds and touches the rope of cows or buffaloes and the water pot, the animals will die or will give less quantity of milk.
The prohibition on entering temples prevents the Dalits from participating in the religious activities inside the temples. They have to be content with worshipping outside the temple building. Dalit women who enter the temple are humiliated by the temple priests as well as by higher-caste people.
A Dalit who drinks tea in a teashop has to wash the cup used otherwise the proprietor will beat him/her up.
Low participation in activities of the government, nongovernmental organizations and donors
Government officials generally ignore, and at times ill-treat, Dalits seeking services from the government. Treated like second-class citizens, services are generally delayed. They are also abused by addressing them with disrespectful words (such as using the word tan instead of Hajur or Tapain).
Dalit women development programs of the government or donor agencies are elaborated without the participation of the Dalit women themselves. This leads to the implementation of development programs that are not applicable to the Dalits.
The so-called social boycott, a practice of exclusion of people from their families and group, is normally resorted to in cases of
Weak exercise of political rights
Key positions in political parties are mostly held by higher-caste people. Dalits, prevented from holding these positions, are always discouraged from exercising their political rights. Political leaders pay lip service to Dalit communities in order to collect votes. Political parties mobilize the Dalits only to serve the interest of the party. Political parties, like Nepal Dalit Sang (Nepali Congress) and Nepal Dalit Jatiyal Mukti Samaj of the Communist Party of Nepal/United Marxist League, are considered pro-Dalits. But these parties never encourage Dalits to become candidates themselves, resulting in few Dalit representatives in the National Assembly. There are only four Dalit representatives nominated in the parliament. The voices of the Dalits are hardly heard, and the representatives are instead used by different political parties.
Representation of Dalit women in party politics is almost negligible. Though the constitution of Nepal has reserved seats for women, which is limited to 5% of the total seats for national and local elections, political parties deny any seat to Dalit women. At the same time, Dalit women are not empowered to use the opportunity granted by the Constitution.
Atrocities against Dalits
Dalits suffer from a number of atrocities such as battering, mental torture, rape, break-up of inter-caste marriage, false allegations, etc. Higher-caste people do not hesitate to beat Dalit women in public places, if they are found to break laws, or norms and values of the Hindu tradition.
The struggle of the Dalits in Nepal against discrimination suffers from a number of obstacles.
Unity among the Dalit organizations is a big obstacle. They all share a common vision: equitable and just society for the Dalits. But with Dalit caste hierarchy and intra-caste discrimination, they lack unity to be able to achieve the goal.
Coordination between the Dalit movement and other movements like womens movement and the indigenous people's movement is lacking. Without solidarity among them, the Dalit movement cannot be strengthened.
Communication gap between local communities and central government is another obstacle. The eight-point program, launched by the previous Prime Minister in June 2001 supposedly meant to eliminate untouchability by helping the empowerment and economic upliftment of the Dalits, is an example. Punishment for caste-based discrimination is highlighted in this program. But since the Dalit communities are unaware of this program, the Dalits do not benefit from it.
The 1990 Constitution of Nepal prohibits any form of discrimination on the basis of caste, race, sex and religion. Such forms of discrimination are punishable by law. But the reality is that all these forms of discrimination are still in practice. Ex-Minister Padma Narayan Chaudharys adverse reaction in the case of the Chamar social boycott in the Terai district regarding the Chamars collective decision to stop disposing animal carcasses, a dirty and stigmatized occupation, is an example. If the leaders or policymakers themselves prevent the implementation of laws, how can they make proper laws with appropriate punishment in case of violations?
The Dalit problem cannot be resolved overnight. Its solution requires a combination of action on the part of the Dalit communities, the government, and the political parties. The Dalit issues should now be treated as political issues that deserve the attention of government bureaucrats and politicians. Laws against the discrimination of the Dalits should be properly enforced, and government programs for uplifting the economic and social status of the Dalits should be fully implemented.
Anita Shrestha is a staff of the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO).
For further information, please contact: Feminist Dalit Organization, P.O.Box 4366, Kathmandu, Nepal, ph 0977-01-520982or 543986, fax 0977-01-520982, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
This is based on an estimate using the official 2001 Census made by the Feminist Dalit Organization (FEDO). This estimate does not include the Newars. They are considered to be part of the indigenous population.
See Sharma, Khagendra, Gyanu Chetri and Sita Rana, A Modest Study of the Current SocioEcomonic Situation of the Lowest Status Caste and Tribal Communities in Nepal, Save the Children (Kathmandu: Save the Children-US, 1994), and Bhattachan, Krishna B., Kamala Hemchuri, Yogendra B. Gurung, Chakraman M. Bishwokarma, Existing Practices of CasteBased Untouchability in Nepal and Strategy for a Campaign for its Elimination (Final Report), ActionAid Nepal (Kathmandu: ActionAid Nepal, 2001).