When negotiating identity is compulsion

- Weena Pun, Kathmandu
When negotiating identity is compulsion

May 1, 2014-

For the first few years after she moved to Kathmandu, 23-year-old Lalita hid her caste identity from everyone: friends, colleagues and strangers. Growing up as a Dalit in a small town in Jhapa, she knew that urbanity did not necessarily mean goodbye to caste hierarchy. Until grade nine, fellow classmates used to bully her because she was born to a Damai family.

But anonymity has its drawbacks. Lalita was welcomed and even respected as long as she pretended to be a non-Dalit, but she had to silently listen to her friends talk about how they did not believe in caste and everyone except Damai Kamis were welcome to their houses.

“Pretending to be a non-Dalit was suffocating. I could not fight back,” says Lalita.

Lalita started losing self-respect and lived in constant fear of being found out and then ostracised. In the midst of her Bachelor’s degree, she decided to ‘come out’, albeit in certain circles. She still hides her Dalit identity from her house owners, for fear of being evicted. For the same reason, her name here has been changed.  

Like Lalita, thousands of Dalits in the Capital are forced to negotiate their identity, disclosing here and concealing there. For behind the facade of glitter and wealth, progressiveness and liberalism, people still find excuses to exclude Dalits from their kitchens and puja rooms.  

“In urban areas caste-based discrimination has shrunk from public to private spaces,” says Robin Malbul, a resident of Dhapakhel, Lalitpur who has pretended to be a Chhetri once for two months.

While growing up, the 29 year old’s non-Dalit friends would not even show him the direction to their houses. Shopkeepers would drop noodles on his hands splayed below away from the counters. Now friends invite him to their houses but make sure he remains and eats in the bedroom.  He has never been barred from visiting temples but if non-Dalits organise a puja or yagya in their own houses, they do not let him near the mandap.

Malbul says that those who still discriminate against Dalits are usually from inside the Valley, with houses and roots here. “And education does not make a difference. Educated youths are scared of their parents and this society,” he says. Once Malbul fell in love with a Newar girl, but after she made it clear that she wants nothing from a Dalit boy, he stayed away. Lalita, too, had a Brahmin suitor, educated abroad, but once he found out she was Damai, he told her he could only go as far as flirting and maybe a relationship but not a marriage. Asked why such a reaction, the man answered ‘his family’.

Sociologist Sambriddhi Kharel, who has been researching urban Dalits, says that the deep-rooted notion of pollution and impurity, with its origin in Hinduism, is to blame. City dwellers have become selectively progressive, embracing inter-caste marriages, as long as Dalits are not one of the partners, and hobnobbing with people from all backgrounds, except Dalits. Discriminatory attitudes are most prominently in display when Dalits come seeking rooms. “As a result even the politically conscious, militant Dalit activists walk around with two visiting cards, one with a Dalit surname and the other with a non-Dalit one,” says Kharel.   

Pseudo surnames do protect Dalits, but only to a certain extent. The toll they take on their psyche is incalculable. Malbul knows of an engineer who invited none of his non-Dalit friends to his wedding in order to keep his fake public identity intact. Times certainly are changing, but years of harrowing discrimination have sown the seeds of inferiority in Dalit psyche. Two weeks ago when Lalita returned to Jhapa to celebrate the new year, a Brahmin girl invited Lalita to her house. Lalita could not enter.

“Like Janajatis, Dalits too have internalised the caste hierarchy,” says Kharel.     

Solutions do not just lie in policies. As Kharel found out, for a lot of families, tradition trumps the constitution. Educating and lifting the economic status of Dalits will help. Armed with a Bachelor’s degree and valuable land in Lalitpur, Malbul says he has a ‘symbolic’ power to fight discrimination with.

But the need of the hour seems to be an aggressive, massive national campaign, in the scale of the crusade against polio. Every person, including Dalits, has to learn to detach hierarchy from caste. Unfortunately, that will take generations, too slow for those living now, like Lalita and Malbul.

Published: 02-05-2014 08:53

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