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Patriarchy and the caste system are present today in Nepali society in such a way that the attitudes and opinions expressed by an individual regarding these issues can indicate if they possess any iota of progressiveness.
If acts of untouchability and discrimination stemming from the caste system, and the oppression of women that patriarchy breeds, were infrequent occurrences, we could consider the matter at leisure. But since society is afflicted with these problems from head to toe, these issues are revealed every day. A few cases come to light while others are hidden away -- that is the only difference. Whether it is patriarchal injustice unto a woman or caste-based discrimination against a Dalit, society quickly divides into two groups. A majority of people stand against the victim, employing either harsh or civil language, dressing up their opinions with principles, or putting forth pointless opinions. They cover themselves with a veil of civility and social harmony.
Only a small group stands on the victim’s side.
Intellectuals who often rush to the front to give long speeches on justice remain so quiet in these instances that it can seem as if they haven’t even uttered their first word yet. If patriarchal, caste-based or any other kind of exploitation can be contained within a room or a neighborhood, and the victim’s voice suppressed, then everything is considered to be fine. But as soon as the victim prepares to scream out in pain, everyone from the rental room to the hallowed halls of the state is implicated. In such instances, it is the state that is stripped nude to the most terrifying degree. This has been the way of things for years now.
Recently, the incident of mediaperson and actor Rupa Sunar not being allowed to rent an apartment due to her caste has come to the spotlight. When she filed a lawsuit against the landlord Saraswati Pradhan, insults rained down on her. Since this is the age of social media, that is where the outpouring took place. It was surprising to see the disparaging comments from several prominent individuals. Former secretary Bhim Upadhayay called the victims nasty names; former Tribhuwan University registrar Sudha Tripathi described ‘Dalit intimidation’; and Nepalipana, a digital media outlet, published, without any basis, in fact, the allegation that Rupa had received Rs 15 million. Hydrologist Ratna Sansar Shrestha and actor Manisha Koirala promoted this false narrative. The Kathmandu committee of the Newa: De Dabu organization released a statement against the victim. In the end, the person who was supposed to be prosecuted by the state was instead freed by the education minister and dropped home in his vehicle.
As in the past, the silver lining, in this case, is that, barring some exceptions, all responsible media organizations advocated against the oppression, and a sizable contingent of young non-Dalits stood up for justice.
The number of women who have been raped and murdered in the past year is far greater than the number of Dalits who have been murdered. Compared to those events, the incident between Rupa Sunar and Saraswati Pradhan is rather ordinary. But the opinions expressed, the activities conducted, and the state’s attitude have been deadly. Therefore, a serious discussion on a few aspects related to the incident has become necessary.
Who is Rupa Sunar?
A singer, an anchor for Image Channel and a media person, Rupa Sunar is also a youth leader of the organization, Jaat Vyavastha Unmulan Morcha Nepal (Caste System Abolition Front Nepal). She is that same young person who stands for justice. She has never been involved in any non-government organization. If a revolutionary woman experiences injustice simply because she is a woman, will she not speak out for justice? How could she, a person involved in a group dedicated to dismantling the caste system, remain quiet when she herself suffered caste-based discrimination? What reasonable person can object to her attempt to find justice through the peaceful method of the established law of the land? How can it be a conspiracy to transparently ask for assistance from the entire state?
Listening to Saraswati Pradhan’s statement, her character does not seem to be that of an oppressor or of somebody who is conniving. She has repeatedly said, “I was shocked to hear that she was a Kami, and after consultations, I told her I could not rent her the apartment.’ Regardless of what discussions she held, perhaps she does not know that it is a serious crime, according to the constitution and existing laws, to deny rental accommodations based on caste. How is it possible that those who claim to work for the betterment of society don’t understand that saying, ‘I cannot rent you my apartment because you are a Newar or a Madhesi or dark complexioned', is a crime? If a crime takes place because the perpetrator does not possess an understanding of the law, or has not yet arrived at a progressive consciousness, then the law should be explained and awareness raised through punishment. How does insisting that no crime has occurred resolve the problem? Even if Saraswati Pradhan and her family did not know the law, there can be no hesitation to say that a crime has taken place. The nature and severity of the crime are different issues.
Here, another issue must be clarified. Is the conflict or problem between Rupa Sunar and Saraswati Pradhan’s family socially allied or antagonistic? Without a doubt, this conflict is fundamentally allied because these are both women oppressed by the patriarchy, and Dalits, as well as Newars, are communities oppressed by a state founded on Nepali hill upper-caste Hindu arrogance. In this sense, this is a conflict between one oppressed person and another similarly oppressed person. But caste is such a system of organization and thought that it creates division and discrimination between oppressed groups, to the extent of even abusing their human rights.
Therefore, even though generally, the process of criticism and self-correction is employed to resolve conflicts arising between two sets of the oppressed, since caste-based discrimination abuses fundamental human rights, the oppressor among the two sets of the oppressed must accept necessary punishment. Just as, for instance, the husband’s oppression of his wife in a poor household can never be excused as a family matter, even though they both belong to the oppressed class. If this kind of measure is not taken to solve problems, long-term alliances among the oppressed will become impossible in a casteist, patriarchal society. Neither will it be possible to transform the evils existing within the oppressed.
The Newar-Dalit relation
Newar is a nation with a caste system of its own. The caste system that started during the Lichchhavi era, later reinforced by Jayasthiti Malla, exists within the Newars. The caste system in the Khas-Arya and Madhesi communities was not enforced by Jayasthiti Malla; that was established through a separate process. The Muluki Ain of 1854 established two categories of so-called ‘untouchables’ within the Newars -- water wasn’t acceptable from either but one group’s physical touch necessitated ritual purification while the other group didn’t.
From 1947 to 1972, Nepal’s Dalit liberation movement was led by Newars like Srahasranath Kapali, Mewa Kapali, and Siddhi Narayan Khadgi. Over time, for different reasons, communities within Newars were no longer listed as Dalits, but that is a topic for a different discussion. If the land reforms of 1964 had not given land ownership rights to a large number of people in the Jyapu community then their conditions too might have been very difficult today, as the caste system previously did not allow them any land ownership.
As the city developed, pipes brought water to individual homes and it became difficult to keep track of the countless people who flocked the public shops. Subsequently, discrimination in public spaces lessened. But even today, within the Newar community, many only seem to feel safe when they create a community of their own caste. When Newar women from the so-called lower castes enter inter-caste marriages, they continue to suffer unimaginable pain. It is an illusion to say that caste exists only as a relic of the past among Newars. In truth, caste is fundamentally present. But, there have been some reforms.
Is it ever reasonable to hide a living truth? That’s why the agenda to weaken the Newar caste system, create equality, and take ‘Jhi Newa’ to new heights remains alive. This is one characteristic of the relationship between the caste system and Newars. Casteist thinking has become culturally pervasive because the system has been imposed on the Newars by the rulers for over a thousand years. This becomes clear if we look at the backwardness in the ways of life of the dyalaa and chyamkhal among the Newars.
On the other hand, Khas-Arya Dalits started entering the Bagmati Valley with Prithvi Narayan Shah’s state expansion and settled around the periphery. Sarkis, who were the first groups to become free from sharecropping the system, came in search of a market because there was no leather-working caste group among the Newars. It was Sarkis who habituated the average Newar to wearing leather shoes. A few Gandharvas came and they have all but assimilated around Kirtipur. Damais and Kamis did not come at first because there were Kapalis and Nakamis among the Newars who worked with fabric and iron.
The relationship between Khas-Arya Dalits and Newars is thus about 200 years old. Jyapus, who were downtrodden among Newars, were tenant farmers dependent on their so-called ‘upper-caste’ landowners, while Dalits were tenant farmers to temple guthis. This way Newar and Dalits became partners in the same economy. Today, among those who are being displaced from the Kathmandu Valley are the Newars and the same Dalits with whom they shared the space for more than 200 years. This is evident in the neighborhoods along the edges of the Valley. But though Newar and Dalits have lived alongside each other, Dalits face the same kind of discrimination and oppression from Newars as they face from Khas-Arya upper-caste Hindus. This is but the truth.
Whereas the Newars suffered the loss of language, land, culture, and their share in governance from the egotistical upper-caste Hindu state, the Dalits suffered under the oppressive grind of the caste system. Both groups want liberation because each group suffered in distinctly different ways. It is clear that if one group rejects the other, it will cause the destruction of both. It is necessary for Dalits to support the liberation of the Newar nation because it is a legitimate claim. Similarly, the Newar nation must embrace Dalit rights, in thought and indeed, because it is also an agenda of the Newar nation.
Newars have historically added to the inhumane weight of caste, and thus must be sensitive towards the Dalits, and must resolve to amicably end caste-based discrimination. That alone will be the formula for a lasting unity between two oppressed groups. It is important for both groups to emerge from their Panchayat-era slogan of ‘communal harmony’. The Panchayat taught the Dalits that ‘Newars are wicked,’ and it taught the Newars to think of Dalits as ‘thin majyu pin kujat’. Is there an alternative to building a new kind of social harmony that is based on equality between the two communities?
De Dabu’s statement and the minister’s actions
After Saraswati Pradhan was arrested, the Kathmandu district committee of the Newa De Dabu released a statement accusing the victim of a conspiracy. It is strange for a caste-based organization to speak out against a victim who is seeking justice through established laws. Sometimes it may be necessary for a community to take an initiative when it feels that a grave wrongdoing is about to transpire upon an individual. In such instances, the community should enter into an amicable dialogue with the concerned group. This was possible in this instance because the organization with which Rupa Sunar is associated is quite active in the same city. But to not pursue this course of action and instead release an incendiary statement to mobilize the community cannot be a normal course of events.
The statement does not reflect the developments in the Newar nation brought about by the work of people like Padma Ratna Tuladhar and Rajbhai Jakami. This was a movement born out of the actions of people like Padma Ratna, who took sticks and stones to their heads as they stood on the side of Dalits in one settlement after another. The statement also does not seem to reflect the beliefs of the president of the central committee of the Newa De Dabu. How did such a statement come about is a matter for internal discussion in the organization but does this indicate trouble brewing for the Newa national liberation movement, which had a tradition of collaborating with all oppressed people? Is the progressive wing of the Newa national liberation movement being sidelined? Have vested interest groups begun to infiltrate the movement? Such questions are bound to arise.
In these murky circumstances, Education Minister Krishna Gopal Shrestha has suddenly appeared. The government must defend cases in which it is the claimant. But that very government’s minister encouraging and freeing the defendant while discouraging the victim cannot be forgiven from a legal or moral standpoint. History will account for this. A Newar minister who has never shown any interest in contributing to the Newa national liberation movement, or in the destruction of Khokana and the bulldozing of Newa heritage by the outer Ring Road project is simply duping the Newar people for electoral politics. Minister Shrestha’s shameless actions have exposed how the state continues to foster the caste system. It has also made it clear that politicians in power will jump at the opportunity to employ the poison of communalism for the sake of electoral politics.
It is thus necessary for the oppressed and the true proponents of national liberation movements to remain alert to these intentions of the state and the parliamentarians.
Translated from the Nepali by Sandesh Ghimire. This article was originally published in Kantipur daily on June 26, 2021.
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