untouchability crime

  • Many ‘unaware’ of discrimination law
- Weena Pun, Kathmandu
untouchability crime

May 31, 2014-

Fifty-year-old Kaji Pariyar of Kyamin village in Tanahun realised the existence of the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability Offence and Punishment Act (2011) only three months ago when the Ministry of Law organised a programme in his village.

The realisation, however, is not sufficient for him to report any act of discrimination he encounters to the authorities. “The book might criminalise caste-based discrimination, but you can’t eradicate prejudices just like that,” says Pariyar, who sews clothes across the border in Lamjung to earn a living.

Pariyar grew up and lives in a society deeply entrenched in caste-based beliefs and hierarchy. Whenever he participates in religious activities and it is time for a tea break, non-Dalits get up and gather far from him and his Dalit friends. Other times when he goes to a roadside tea-stall, the stall-owner, who knows he is from the Dalit community, tells him not to cross an arbitrary boundary.

“What is the benefit of complaining about this to police? We have to live in this society whether we like it or not. Complaints might just disrupt the social balance,” says Pariyar.

When the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act was enforced on June 1, 2011, everyone welcomed it as a much-needed legal protection for Dalits. Three years down the line, however, Dalits have had to reconcile with the fact that laws are only as effective as their implementing agencies, starting with those who report the crime to police.  

In contrast to the Country Code 1963 which defined untouchability as a crime punishable with a prison sentence of up to a year or a fine of Rs 3,000 or both, the 2011 Act is comprehensive in its definition of caste-based discrimination and untouchability, and in its procedure to lodge complaints. Anyone who witnesses discriminatory acts can report the crime to police. The penalty for practising caste-based discrimination has also been increased to a prison term of up to three years or a fine up to Rs 25,000, or both, depending on the nature of the offence. 

But as Pariyar explained, most do not bother reporting discriminatory acts for fear of disturbing social ‘harmony’. According to annual reports published by the Office of the Attorney General, 14 new cases against untouchability were brought to courts in the fiscal year 2012/2013, down from 19 in the previous fiscal year. In the period since the Act was enforced, convicts of only one case have been sent to jail. In August 2012, a man named Sete Damai was killed in Dailekh after his youngest son married a non-Dalit woman. Nine months later, seven people were convicted of the murder and sentenced to one year in prison, in addition to life imprisonment for beating Damai to death.    

Most Dalit rights activists blame police for unsatisfactory implementation of the Act. Dalit researcher Yam Bahadur Kisan says most police officers are unaware of the Act and if they are aware, they evade lodging first information report by saying that there are no rules and regulations following the Act.

“In strict violation of legal codes governing crimes against the state, most police officers do not want to report the crime at all, but emphasise on victims-perpetrators reconciliation,” says Kisan.

The notorious Rautahat incident of June 2013, in which a mob of non-Dalits attacked a Dalit settlement for entering a local temple, was settled with a party and a mass entry of Dalits to the temple. No one was punished as per the Act. 

“People, including victims, perpetrators and law enforcers, still do not know that caste-based discrimination is a crime. The government has failed to disseminate that information to common population,” says Rem Bahadur Biswokarma, chairperson of Jagaran Media Centre.

Published: 01-06-2014 09:19

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