Print Edition - 2015-08-16  |  Free the Words

Paying a moral debt

  • We need to support Dalits in their struggle to better their economic and social status
- Jagannath Adhikari

Aug 15, 2015-

I was in the far western hills when the Dalits intensified their protests in Kathmandu for stronger inclusive provisions in the constitution. I was studying the rehabilitation problem of the Haliyas (almost all of whom are Dalits) and whether they had become economically independent and free from enslavement in recent times. When we were in Doti, a Dalit lady—who had devoted a great part of her life fighting for Haliya freedom—told me in an emotional tone that the police had used excessive

force; some Dalit leaders and protestors whom she knew personally had been injured. I felt utterly ashamed to hear this; maybe because I had seen the Haliyas’ problems firsthand, which deepened my anger at our social structure; or maybe because I belong to a group which has exploited and oppressed Dalits, even though I personally may not have had any role in it.

Shocking discrimination

I have seen social and economic exploitation of Dalits since my childhood. I think many of us have seen this. But the level of discrimination towards Dalits in the Far West shocked me. Even though this has declined significantly in recent years—at least in the pubic space because of social movements against untouchability and discrimination—it still remains entrenched in society.

Some of the discriminatory practices appear similar to the racial segregation that existed in the US and in South Africa in the past. For example, separate temples were built for Dalits and non-Dalits. This is still followed today. Until recently, there used to be two lines for the mid-day meal in schools—one for Dalit children, and another for non-Dalit children. Dalit children were served food on a piece of paper, while non-Dalit children got plates. Discrimination appears to have ended at least in schools, as I saw Dalit and non-Dalit children sitting together. But in a few cases, I was also told that Dalit children were asked to sit at the back of the classroom.

The Haliyas seem to be in a precarious economic situation. Kept landless for generations in an agrarian economy, one can easily guess the kind of predicament they are in. They have to work as per the terms and conditions of their employers, which eventually push them into a “slavery” situation of different forms. The Haliyas ploughed the land and provided caste services to the so-called upper caste households in lieu of interest for some small loan taken in the past, which could be several generations ago.

This allowed many members of the so-called higher castes to pursue other interests like education, as they were free of the burden of doing daily physical work on their land. This education, in turn, helped them gain access to government jobs and political positions. Therefore, whatever progress the higher castes have made in Nepal is thanks to the Dalits. In a way, members of the higher castes should feel morally indebted to the Dalits for their progress. But this does not seem to be the case.

Empty rhetoric

I am sure that the Dalits knew about these unfair terms and conditions of employment and discrimination in private and public spaces even in the past. Despite this knowledge, they followed this system for a long period because of their need to survive. I strongly believe that they have no “false consciousness” of their condition or are passive in their struggle for freedom and improvement in their lives. On the contrary, they have always been fighting, and more overtly now because of congenial political and social conditions.

Dalits—especially Haliyas—need the support of the political class in their struggle for freedom, social and cultural equality, and economic development. The government’s proclamation of Haliya freedom and cancellation of the debts which had kept them enslaved for a long time was a step forward. But this seems to be empty rhetoric rather than reality. Haliyas need economic, social and political support at every step of their lives, at least for some time before they can stand on their own feet. Freedom without real economic support has pushed many of them into a very fragile and difficult position. This has severed whatever goodwill or moral economic relations they had with their previous employers or patrons.

Moral obligation

The government has announced an economic support plan for the freed Haliyas, but because of the way in which they have implemented it, it will never help them to become free. For example, there are now 16,000 government-identified Haliyas in 12 districts—most of them in the hills in the Far-West and the Mid-West. There is a general consensus that the number has been underestimated. Government rehabilitation programmes only benefiting about 500 Haliyas annually. In this way, it will take at least three decades to reach all the Haliyas of today. But by that time, their population will have doubled.

The slow pace of rehabilitation is surely not due to a lack of resources. All the Haliyas can be supported under the present economic package for less than Rs. 3 billion, even though the extent of this support is, in fact, not enough. Such a budgetary allocation should not be a problem for the government. While we know that the government can come up with a large sum of money at short notice when asked by the army or the political class, it is reluctant to allocate a reasonable budget for the welfare of the Haliyas or other marginalised classes. This all shows that the political class is not interested in solving these problems.

Nepal’s Dalits deserve better. We all have a moral debt towards them, which we need to pay at this important juncture in Nepal’s history. It is true that in this majoritarian democratic political system, Dalit efforts alone will not enable them to get what they deserve. For this, we all need to support them in their struggle to be free, participate in the state apparatus and get benefits to improve their economic and social


Adhikari is a social scientist researching various aspects of development

Published: 16-08-2015 10:17

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