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Caste-based attacks spur outcry over social discrimination

Lekhanath Pandey Kathmandu
June 16, 2020

Despite a legal ban on caste-based discrimination, experts say that prejudice is still rampant in Nepalese society. Two fatal attacks on members of the lowest Dalit caste have sparked a new wave of protests.

Nepal caste system
Image: DW/Kilian Schütze-Alinsky

Two incidents of caste-based discrimination, which led to the murder of seven people, have rocked Nepal, leading to a new wave of street protests, and highlighted the Himalayan nation's deeply entrenched social inequalities.

Both cases related to marriages between a member of the lowest Dalits caste, and a person belonging to a higher caste. On May 23, Nawaraj BK, a 21-year-old Dalit boy of Jajarkot District's Bheri Municipality, along with 18 of his friends, went to Soti village of West Rukum district in order to marry a 17-year-old girl from the higher Malla clan.

Read more: How a farming project in Nepal is smashing caste bigotry

When Nawaraj and his friends reached Soti, the girl's relatives and local villagers brutally attacked them, leaving six youths dead and 13 others injured. Their bodies were found next to the nearby Bheri River in the days following the incident. According to police, the villagers had thrown the bodies of the boys into the river after killing them.

Three separate charges – murder, attempted murder, and crimes of caste-based discrimination – were filed against 31 people, including an elected representative, on Sunday. Three others were charged with complicity in the murders, including the girl and her mother, according to local newspaper Kantipur.

The prime factor leading to the crime in Soti was clearly the prevailing caste differences between the two families, according to Umesh Shrestha, a journalist who recently visited the scene of the crime in West Rukum district.

"If the boy was from a caste higher than the Dalit, the villagers in Soti wouldn't have attacked them in such a way," Shrestha told DW.

Just a day before the Soti incident, in Rupandehi district of southern Nepal, a 13-year Dalit girl, Angira Pasi, was allegedly raped by a 25-year-old neighbor of a higher caste, Birenda Bhar. Residents of the village and a local representative, Amar Bahadur Chaudhary, decided that Pasi should be married off to the rapist, and sent to live with the perpetrator.

Local media reported that Bhar's family members severely beat the minor, and two days later, she was found dead, hanging in a tree. Pasi's family has claimed that Bhar's family beat her to death and framed the girl's suicide.

Ongoing discrimination

The caste-system classifies people into four social hierarchies in Hindu tradition: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra. The Sudra, known as Dalits, were previously considered to be in the lowest caste and part of the so-called "untouchables."

Read more: Dalit caste protests in India hit Mumbai

Nepal legally abolished the caste-system and criminalized caste-based discrimination, including "untouchability" – ostracism of a specific caste – in 1963. That ban was reiterated in the new criminal code, enacted in August 2018. The new constitution, which was signed into law in 2015, provisions the "right against untouchability and discrimination" as a fundamental right.

However, despite the ban on such discrimination, Dalits still face prejudice when entering sacred places and temples, gathering water, and at social gatherings. They are also still barred from marrying people from higher castes.

'A pandemic of the caste system'

Such incidents are a "pandemic of the caste system," said Dalit rights activist and former National Women Commission member Dhana Kumari Sunar.

As social distancing has become a standard method of containing the spread of coronavirus, people like Sunar fear that it could strengthen the relevance of the deeply-rooted caste system. "We have long faced caste-based discrimination," she told DW. "Now, the social-distancing norms could be a pretext to justify the pariah practice."

The cases of Pasi and Nawaraj are among almost two dozen cases of caste-based violence and discrimination that the Nepal Monitor (nepalmonitor.org) has recorded since the nationwide coronavirus lockdown was implemented on March 23.

Such incidents are not new, however. In August 2016, Ajit Mijar, a local of Kavre district, was found hanging in Dhading district, northwest of Kathmandu, just a week after he married a woman from a higher caste. Officials reported that he took his own life, but his family still refuses to retrieve his body from the hospital in Kathmandu, because they believe he was murdered.

Read more: Two Dalit children beaten to death in India for defecating in open

Fighting Nepal's caste system

Protests and calls for justice

The latest incidents have drawn severe condemnation from various groups, including the National Dalits Commission, the National Human Rights Commissioner (NHRC) and the United Nations (UN).

The Soti incident was "yet another manifestation of the continued prevalence of caste-based discrimination in Nepal," UN resident coordinator Valerie Julliand said in a statement. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, also called for an impartial probe of both events.

The events also sparked street protests organized by Dalit groups, in defiance of the social distancing and lockdown measures in the capital city Kathmandu. Political parties have also ushered in the formation of a government fact-finding committee to investigate the two cases.

Janardhan Sharma, who represents Western Rukum district for the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), claimed that Soti villagers may have become furious and confronted the groom and his friends as they approached the village, because he was coming to marry an underage girl. Dalit communities and opposition parties, however, have accused Sharma of trying to defend the perpetrators, some of whom are reportedly his relatives and political allies.

The ruling party came to power with the promise of providing justice for communities such as the Dalit. Western Rukum was also previously considered the heartland of the Maoist insurgency, which had the objective of ending social discrimination and structural inequalities. Almost 17,000 people died in the decade-long rebellion, before the NPC came into power through a peace accord in November 2006.

Read more: Ram Nath Kovind as India's Dalit president - symbolism and reality

Pressure from above

Despite the ban on such discrimination, the legal measures to stamp it out are not enough to end such violence, if authorities do not take swift action against the perpetrators, according to Mohna Ansari, a spokeswoman for the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal.

"Those who have the power to take action are those from higher castes. Until authorities take this seriously, nothing will change," Ansari told DW, adding that Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has been silent on the incidents, despite having made several public appearances in the last weeks.

Sunar aslo believes that people of higher castes have the power to speak up for Dalits and end caste-based discrimination. "Until and unless higher-caste people actively support our movements to end this, cases like what happened in Soti will continue to take place," she said.