Off the Record 012: Caste out

Issue 012 • 25 June 2021

It’s June 25, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal. 

I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week. 

You can read Off the Record for free by visiting this link or subscribe on our website to receive this newsletter in your inbox every Friday. 

Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from Kathmandu as we emerge tentatively from a nearly two-month-long lockdown. Daily Covid-19 cases continue to fall and the consensus is that Nepal is over the hump. Prohibitionary orders across the country have been relaxed with Kathmandu Valley now entering a “smart lockdown”, which basically means that private vehicles are now allowed on the streets on an odd-even number plate basis and stores are allowed to open on certain days of the week for certain time periods.

But there is also the fear that with the lockdown basically lifted, a third wave could be on the horizon, especially with the Delta variant that’s been detected in a large number of cases and the government’s failure to obtain vaccines for the general public. Masks and social distancing are still recommended.

The monsoon continues to lash the country with rains, but unlike last week’s disasters, there have been few landslides and floods with no loss of life. Although, Manang district is still under siege from the swollen Marshyangdi river. Houses and bridges are still at risk of getting swept away.

It is not just the rains that are causing havoc; the Supreme Court too has dealt a major blow to the machinations of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and President Bidya Bhandari. Since dissolving Parliament on May 21, Bhandari, upon Oli’s recommendation, had twice expanded the Council of Ministers, inducing new faces from the Janata Samajbadi Party, which had stepped in to support Oli’s UML party remain in government. But on Tuesday, June 22, a divisional bench of Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana and justice Prakash Kumar Dhungana, responding to half a dozen petitions, annulled the appointments of 20 new ministers, many of them from the Janata Samajbadi Party. The court decided that with Parliament dissolved and elections announced for November, the Oli government had effectively been reduced to a caretaker and could not take consequential decisions. Currently, Oli only has four other ministers in his Cabinet— Bishnu Paudel, Krishna Gopal Shrestha, Basanta Kumar Nembang, and Lilanath Shrestha.

This marked the third time in recent days that the Supreme Court has acted against the Oli government. Earlier, on June 11, the court ordered the government to refrain from implementing the amendment to the Citizenship Act. The amendment had been passed by Presidential ordinance and all ordinances must be passed by Parliament within a month of its meeting. The court decided that if a new Parliament elected in November does not pass the amendment, all citizenship certificates issued in the interim would become void and lead to legal complications. Again, the passage of the amendment was a major demand of the Janata Samajbadi Party.

Then, on June 18, the court issued an interim order asking the government to not implement its decision to export construction material mined from the hills and rivers. The decision, announced via the annual federal budget, had been widely condemned for sacrificing the environment to offset the trade deficit.

Despite these rulings, the Oli government appears undaunted and is moving forward regardless. On Thursday, June 24, President Bhandari appointed 20 individuals to constitutional bodies like the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, the Election Commission, and the Public Service Commission. The Oli government had recommended their names on May 9 but without a Parliament, constitutionally mandated parliamentary hearings could not be conducted. President Bhandari waited the requisite 45 days and then made the appointments, which is certain to also be challenged at the Supreme Court. Most notably, all of the three appointments to the Inclusion Commission, which is supposed to oversee inclusionary measures, are from the dominant Khas-Arya community.

So political upheaval is expected to continue in the coming days, especially with the Supreme Court likely to decide soon on whether the May 21 dissolution of the House is constitutional. But let’s put all that political malarkey behind, and take a look back at this past week’s biggest story, a tale of prejudice and entrenched discrimination that has taken on an oddly ethnic color.

The deep dive: Caste out

On Sunday, June 20, Saraswati Pradhan was arrested by Kathmandu police for refusing to rent out her apartment to Rupa Sunar, a Dalit journalist. Sunar had filed a police complaint against Pradhan, alleging caste-based discrimination, leading the police to take her into custody for investigation. Pradhan was released three days later on June 23 after the public prosecutor refused to file a case against her citing a lack of evidence.

Pradhan was released to a cheering crowd of neighbors and well-wishers, primarily from the Newa community. Krishna Gopal Shrestha, the education minister, arrived in his government-issued car to pick up Pradhan. They both waved to the gathered crowd like celebrities before departing.

From the moment Pradhan was arrested on Sunar’s complaint, social media exploded. While one section decried the discrimination that Sunar had suffered, others claimed that Pradhan’s actions did not constitute caste-based discrimination and that she was free to rent out her private home to whoever she wanted. Still others argued that Sunar was defaming the Newa community and that because of her actions, no one in Kathmandu would ever rent out their homes to Dalits.

Perhaps all the noise was a deliberate attempt to skirt the issue but at the heart of the matter is simply that Rupa Sunar was discriminated against because she is a Dalit.

In the audio of the phone call that she has since released, the landlady can clearly be heard saying that she cannot rent the apartment out to Sunar because of her ama’s (mother or mother-in-law) concerns. Sunar asks if it is because of her caste and the landlady responds in the affirmative, before going to tell her to not take the refusal too seriously and to come around to visit them sometime. Many have seized upon this seemingly polite refusal to say that the landlady isn’t a bad person and that she was simply compelled to act in the way she did because of her ama. They’ve also pointed out that Pradhan is nearing 60 and is thus old, so she should be allowed her outdated beliefs.

If I may put it simply, that’s all bullshit.

Politeness does not excuse any kind of prejudice or discrimination. Polite casteism is still casteism. In fact, I would argue that polite bigots are the worst kind of bigots, because their honeyed words mask the ugly face of prejudice. At least with angry bigots, or loud bigots, or unabashed bigots, you know where you stand. But not all bigots are evil caricatures. All too often, bigotry wears a mask of normalcy. When discrimination is normalized and baked into the social fabric for hundreds of years, anyone can be prejudiced; it takes effort to fight those demons.

Old age does not excuse discrimination either. Sure, old people can hold hopelessly outdated views but they need to be educated. Discrimination of the kind against Dalits, where they are considered untouchable, is inexcusable, no matter how old the person might be. Such beliefs must be interrogated.

Many have argued that it takes time and effort to root out such discriminatory attitudes and that society won’t change in a day. Of course, that goes without saying really. But without people like Sunar, who are not willing to suffer in shame and silence, that change will never come. And it is not as if Sunar’s is an exceptional case. Sadly, her experience is common to many of Nepal’s 4 million Dalits.

Deepa Nepali has been pursuing a caste-based discrimination case against her landlord for two years. “They don’t ask about money; they ask about my surname,” she recently told Setopati. In 2018, a sitting Member of Parliament, Kalu Devi Bishwakarma, spoke before the House of her experiences with caste-based discrimination while attempting to find a rental apartment in Kathmandu. In 2019, writing on Setopati, Gauri Nepali had recounted a conversation eerily similar to what transpired between Sunar and Pradhan. Translated and republished on The Record, she wrote:

“And what is your caste?” the landlord asked.

“Damai.” I responded.

“See, my parents are old. They are set in their old ways of thinking. We don’t care what your caste is. But we don’t want to hurt our parents in their old age. That is why we can’t rent to a Dalit. Please don’t be offended.”

No one wants to be called a casteist or a bigot, so they resort to banal platitudes, saying it’s not me, it’s our old parents, please don’t be offended. Just like Sunar was told, na risau la nani.

The discrimination that Dalits continue to face isn’t just a rural phenomenon, as it is often made out to be. And it isn’t just limited to “uneducated” folks. Discrimination is often just as rooted in the urban educated elite.

There is also the narrative that with time and modernity, things are changing and that discrimination is becoming a thing of the past. But every year, stories like Sunar’s continue to emerge. Society might be changing but old habits die hard and old prejudices often last longest. Even among the educated and the young, prejudice is often excused by resorting to mental gymnastics. This time around, the argument has been that Saraswati Pradhan is free to not rent her home out to anyone.

But that is not true. She is not free to refuse to rent to someone based solely on their caste. Clause 166 of the National Penal Code prohibits discriminatory behavior on the grounds of caste, providing punishment of a maximum jail term of three years and a Rs 30,000 fine. The Caste-based Discrimination and Untouchability Act lists a whole host of instances that can be considered discriminatory and liable for punishment. So the refusal to rent, based solely on an inalienable characteristic like caste, is clearly illegal.

Saraswati Pradhan’s defenders say that this is not about caste-based discrimination but about Rupa Sunar’s decision to go public and defame an entire community, which she never did. How it acquired a communal color is quite difficult to parse but social media exacerbated the issue with Facebook pages posting inflammatory content that clearly drove the debate towards ethnic conflict. Many landlords in the Kathmandu Valley are Newa, as it is their ancestral home, so perhaps they saw it as an attack on their rental rights. The Newa community is notoriously close-knit and is quick to mobilize when it feels like its rights are being trampled upon. We saw this with the protests against the Guthi bill and again, with protests demanding that they be allowed to hold massive jatras during the lockdown. So perhaps the Newa community came to Pradhan’s defense as a communal act but perhaps it is also not necessary to expend more words attempting to justify something so woefully misguided.

Because at the end of the day, Dalits do not just suffer housing discrimination; they continue to face prohibitions in public space and violence, both physical and systemic, in all spheres of public and private space. And they continue to get killed for their caste. Last year, Nawaraj BK and five of his friends were killed in Rukum when they attempted to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage. The same year, 13-year-old Angira Pasi, a Dalit girl from Rupandehi, was forced to marry her rapist by the local authorities. The rapist’s family did not want a Dalit daughter-in-law and Pasi was found hanging from a tree a day after the marriage.

Dalits continue to die at the hands of other castes and they continue to be denied water, marriage, and accommodation. The Dalit experience is not one that can be discounted, for it has a deeply troubling history that exposes all that is wrong with Nepali society. The legacy of the Hindu caste system is not one that is going away any time soon. People like Rupa Sunar cannot be silenced and it is in filing a police case, bringing the issue to national attention, that incremental steps can be taken towards a society that is free of prejudice.

But this really should not be an issue for debate. Attention and discussion are to be expected but it is distressing to see so many young people defending Pradhan’s actions while decrying Sunar’s. Caste-based discrimination is alive and well in Nepal and eradicating it will require a lot more than lip service.

From The Record archives:

Supriya Manandhar and Dewan Rai on Dalit deaths and the longevity of caste

Sarita Pariyar on untouchable stories of touchable vaginas

Gauri Nepali on Dalits in urban life

Sarita Pariyar on the old weight of caste

On The Record this week:

Prashanta Khanal on how urban design and planning failed cycling in Kathmandu

Janak Raj Sapkota details his writing journey and provides writing advice 

Aishwarya Baidar on why Nepal’s stock market is booming amidst a pandemic

Happenings this week:

Saturday - Nepali Congress’ Krishna Chandra Nepali Pokhrel replaced CPN-UML’s Prithvi Subba Gurung as chief minister of Gandaki Province after the latter lost a vote of confidence in the provincial parliament. Gurung was an Oli stalwart and his loss does not portend well for Oli and the UML in the province.

Sunday - The Mahakali river, fed by the monsoon rains, entered settlements in eastern Kanchanpur district, displacing at least 35 families.

Monday - A mob vandalized the eastern sector office of the Chitwan National Park after a tiger mauled a woman to death. Rangers had to dart the tiger in order to retrieve the woman’s body from the forest.

Tuesday - The Supreme Court annulled the appointment of 20 new members of the KP Sharma Oli Cabinet, leaving him with just four ministers.

Wednesday - The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority filed a corruption case against three members of the Tax Settlement Commission, a government body formed to settle the tax liabilities of big businesses. Chudamani Sharma, Umesh Dhakal, and Lumba Dhwaj Mahat are accused of embezzling Rs 1 billion.

Thursday - President Bidya Bhandari appointed 20 individuals to numerous constitutional bodies, despite the fact their nomination itself is being currently contested at the Supreme Court. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, architect of the 10-year civil insurgency, remarked at a separate event that the monarchy was better than the current president.

Friday - Alleging that the Supreme Court’s decision to annul the appointment of his ministers could’ve been politically motivated by certain actors, namely Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Prime Minister Oli said in typical fashion, “भोलिपल्ट कुखुरो हराउनु छ भने अघिल्लै दिन धादिङमा स्याल कसरी करायो?” (If the chicken was going to disappear tomorrow, how did the fox cry out in Dhading yesterday?) He was referring to Dahal’s pronouncement in Dhading on Monday that the court was going to annul the appointments.

Read of the week

Mansplaining, misogyny, and trolling on Clubhouse’ — Nirvana Bhandary writes about toxicity on the new social media app, Clubhouse


Follow the Dalit Reader on Facebook for stories about the Dalit experience

That’s all for this week. I shall see you Friday on the next edition of Off the Record

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