Caste discrimination in Nepal is costing Dalits their lives, even nine years after the enactment of the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Crime and Punishment) Act of Nepal, 2011. Discrimination against Dalits remains prevalent and enduring. Since 2011, there have been at least 11 recorded cases of Dalit deaths involving issues of caste prejudice.
On May 23, Dalit youth Nawaraj BK and his friends were lynched in Soti, Rukum. Nawaraj had been seeing an ‘upper caste’ girl, whose family disapproved of the relationship. When Nawaraj and 18 of his friends went to Soti Village on May 23 to bring his girlfriend home as bride, they were attacked by villagers and chased into the Bheri River. Only 13 survived. Six bodies, including Nawaraj’s, were recovered from the river. A five-member probe team set up by the government is investigating the case. News media in Nepal have also reported that former Home Minister and a leader of the ruling party Janardan Sharma has family ties with the Shahi families involved in the murder.
Speaking in parliament, Sharma said that the Dalit boys were responsible for the Nawaraj BK case in Rukum. He portrayed the incident as just a clash between villagers and 19 boys, with his take being that the villagers had chased the boys, who jumped into the Bheri River, with some of them subsequently drowning. Indignant lawmakers interrupted his speech. Sharma later issued a statement claiming that his speech had been misinterpreted and that he was committed to supporting the investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Dalit lawmaker Man Bahadur Biswakarma claimed that the boys were beaten to death, tied with ropes, and dumped into the river.
Another case is that of 13-year-old Angira Pasi of Devdaha, Rupandehi, where the local ward chair and community ordered the marriage of Angira and her rapist, 25-year-old Birendra Bhar. Birendra’s family did not approve of a Dalit daughter-in-law. The next evening, her body was found hanging from a tree, under suspicious circumstances. Police had initially refused to register the case, but they later detained Birendra Bhar, his mother, Akali Bhar, and his aunt Shitali Bhar in connection with Angira’s death.
Long list of fatalities
While Nawaraj’s and Angira’s cases have gripped the national attention, they are but the latest in a series of deaths resulting from caste-based violence. The following is a chronological list of cases that have occurred since the enactment of the Caste Discrimination and Untouchability Act.
Nawaraj BK, age 21, and five others, Rukum
May 23, 2020
On May 23, 21-year-old Nawaraj BK and 18 of his friends from Jajarkot travelled to Soti Village of Rukum to bring his girlfriend home as bride. Nawaraj was a Dalit, but his 17-year-old girlfriend was from a ‘high caste’ Thakuri Malla family. Nawaraj’s relatives as well as Bheri Municipality spokesperson, Parbati BK, have said that the girl had asked him, over the phone, to come to her village. When the group reached Rosy’s home in the evening, the girl’s mother emerged from the house, shouting racial slurs at them. She also sought the help of her fellow villagers. According to Saroj Khadka, one of the surviving members of Nawaraj’s group, around 70 villagers chased them, wielding canes and sickles and pelting stones. The villagers chased them all the way to the banks of the Bheri River, which flows between Nawaraj’s village and Soti. Witnesses have said that the police stood to the side and watched Soti’s villagers beat the boys. The next day, Nawaraj BK and Tikaram Sunar, 20, were found dead on the banks of the Bheri River. Over a span of 10 days, police recovered the bodies of Govinda Shahi, 17, Lokendra Sunar, 18, Ganesh Budha Magar, 19, and Sandip BK, 17. The families of the deceased lodged a complaint accusing 20 people, including the ward chair, Dambar Bahadur Malla, of the murders. Police have detained 18 people in connection with the crime.
The Ministry of Home Affairs has formed a five-member probe committee headed by a joint secretary of the ministry. Dalit activists and members of civil society have expressed concerns that the committee might manoeuvre the case in favour of Soti’s Shahi community who lynched the six boys. It has been reported that to teach the Dalits a lesson, Mahendra Shahi, ward chair, was himself involved in the massacres. Former Home Minister and leader of the ruling party Janardan Sharma is reported to have family relations with the Shahi families involved in the murder.
Nepal’s parliament is yet to form a special parliamentary panel to probe the incident. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, the National Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International Nepal, and Human Rights Watch have demanded an impartial investigation of the incident.
Angira Pasi, age 13, Rupandehi
May 23, 2020
A 13-year-old Dalit girl, Angira Pasi, was raped by 25-year-old Birendra Bhar. On May 23, the ward chair and members of the community held a meeting and ordered the marriage of Angira and her rapist Birendra. Birendra’s family would not accept a Dalit as daughter-in-law. The same evening, Angira was found hanging from a tree, under suspicious circumstances. Police have claimed her clothes were torn and that she was not wearing slippers. Angira’s mother claims that Angira was murdered and hanged to make the death appear as a suicide. The police initially refused to register the case, but they later detained Birendra Bhar, his mother, Akali Bhar, and aunt Shitali Bhar in connection with Angira’s death.
Sabita Pariyar, age 20, Baglung
June 28, 2018
Thirty-one-year-old Rabi Khadka (aka Indra Bahadur Khadka), of Kaulegauda, Baglung, murdered 20-year-old Sabita Pariyar, who was pregnant with Khadka’s child. Rabi Khadka had been unwilling to face society over his intercaste relationship. He had left the village with Sabita. The next day, the jeep he was driving plunged into the Kaligandaki River, and the police could not recover their bodies. A week later, Khadka contacted the police, telling them that he had miraculously escaped the accident. Sabita’s mother, Radhika Pariyar, filed a case against Khadka. On January 30, 2019, the Baglung District Court convicted Khadka of murder and abduction and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. A police investigation concluded that Khadka, an ‘upper caste’ man, had been motivated to commit the crime out of fear of possible ostracization by his community for bringing home a Dalit woman.
Sangita Biswakarma, age 17, Udayapur
October 31, 2017
Sangita Biswakarma eloped with Yubaraj Karki because they were in love. When she moved to Yubaraj’s house after marriage, Yubaraj’s family members came to know about her Dalit background. The family could not accept her and hatched a plot to kill her. On October 31, 2017, Sangita’s body was found in the forest, hanging by a tree. Police assumed she had committed suicide. Sangita’s family registered a complaint against the Karki family. The villagers also suspected that the Karki family might have murdered Sangita. Social pressure led the police to investigate the case. The Karki family left the village after the incident. Three years later, the police arrested Yubaraj’s brother Sujan Karki, from Katari, Udayapur (he had returned home from Darjeeling). After his arrest, Sangita’s husband, Yubaraj, and father-in-law, Nain Bahadur, were also arrested from Kathmandu. They confessed that they’d murdered her for lying about her caste.
Asmita Sarki, age 23, Jhapa
January 20, 2017
This was a case of an intercaste couple committing suicide together. Asmita Sarki and 25-year-old Ishwar Bhattarai were found hanging by a tree on the banks of the Biring River. The bodies were hanging from a single noose tied to a tree.
The girl’s parents had already fixed her marriage with a person from Biratnagar. Because Iswhar was ‘upper caste’ and Asmita a Dalit, they had not been able to find social acceptance for their relationship. DSP Keshav Kumar Thebe of the Birtamod Area Police Office said prima-facie that the deaths appeared to be suicides since the couple were found hanging from a single noose, and that they were holding each other even in death.
Laxmi Pariyar, age 32, Kavre
December 13, 2016
Laxmi Pariyar was active in the consumer committee and various local-level groups in her village. Hira Lama, a local, had antagonized and assaulted Pariyar on various occasions. On December 9, 2016, a verbal confrontation occurred between Hira Lama and Laxmi Pariyar. Hira went home to get his mother, and the Lama family began to verbally abuse Pariyar with casteist slurs and assaulted Pariyar. They tied her to a pole in the premises of Suryodaya Secondary School and tortured her. Local shopkeeper Nirmaya Tamang was also an accomplice in helping the family tie down Laxmi Pariyar. They force-fed her human faeces.
The next day the Lama family made false accusations against Laxmi–that she had killed her neighbour’s cattle. When the police got involved, they chose to overlook the assault on Pariyar, and instead, made her pay a fine. Laxmi was bruised and wounded from the assault. She died four days later. Two days after her death, the Kavre District Police announced at a press conference that Laxmi had died by suicide, despite there being no such mention in the report they themselves had prepared the day of her death.
The Kavre District court passed a light sentence on the accused. Hira Lama and Kaili Tamang received an eight-month sentence and had to pay a fine of NPR 20,000. Nirmaya Tamang received 8 months imprisonment.
Ajit Mijar, age 18, Kavre
July 14, 2016
Dalit youth Ajit Mijar, a higher secondary student in Panchkhal, eloped with his girlfriend Kalpana Parajuli, a 17-year-old girl from a ‘high caste’ Bramhin family. On July 9, 2016, they tied the knot. They started living in Bhaktapur, at Ajit’s sister’s house, because they knew their intercaste marriage would not be accepted in their village. Kalpana’s family registered a First Information Report (FIR) against Ajit. As per Nepali law, the marriage of anyone under the age of 20 requires the parents’ consent. On July 10, the police summoned both families to discuss the issue and convinced them to bring the couple back to the village. When both families and the couple gathered at the police station, Kalpana’s family and the police forced the couple to separate. Kalpana’s sister Samjhana Parajuli threatened to kill Ajit if he did not leave her sister in three days. So Ajit and Kalpana started living with their own parents. On July 13, Ajit had gone to the market, after attending college, to buy a recharge card. He never returned home. The next day, Ajit was found hanging by a bus station in Dhading, 80 km away from his village. By the time Ajit’s parents reached Gajuri Police Station on July 15, the police had already buried Ajit’s body. The police refused requests to exhume the body and hand it over to Ajit’s family. With support from the National Dalit Commission, Ajit’s body was exhumed, and the police made Ajit’s family members sign an agreement stating that a post-mortem had been conducted on his body. Ajit’s family brought his body to Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu for post-mortem, where it was determined that the cause of death was not suicide, as had been claimed by the police. Ajit’s family refused to take his body away unless they got justice. The police never investigated the murder, nor have they booked the culprits. Ajit’s body remains in the hospital to this day.
A parliamentary committee’s field study on the case found that the Nepal Police had produced a fake report on the murder. The government of Nepal announced a relief/compensation package worth Rs 1 million for Ajit’s family. The court said Ajit had committed suicide and that the claims of the plaintiff could not be established independently and objectively, giving the accused a clean chit.
The government’s report of the case: Fact Finding Report of Mijar Murder case_ Kavre
Rajesh Nepali, age 15, Parbat
April 14, 2014
On April 4, 2014, members of two castes of a Dalit community clashed over issues related to intra-Dalit hierarchy. It occurred when the bratabandha of the son of a local resident, Chandra Bahadur Sunar, was taking place. The host, from the Kami community, asked the Sarki guests not to touch the daal that had been served in the feast. Rajesh, who was not even a guest at the party, had been inside his house. But when he stepped out to inquire about the ruckus nearby, he was assaulted by members of the Kami community. Rajesh died while undergoing treatment at Manipal Hospital, Pokhara, on April 14. The police rounded up a dozen people from both communities and pressed muder charges.
Shiva Shankar Das, age 21, Siraha
January 31, 2012
Shiva was in love with a 20-year-old girl belonging to an ‘upper-caste’ family. Their relationship was known in the village. On January 29, the girl’s brothers threatened Shiva, demanding that he end the relationship or “prepare for his funeral”. Since he did not break up with her, Shiva was beaten up by seven of the girl’s relatives on January 30. The next day, Shiva went to meet with the girl to get back his phone, which had been taken by her relatives the previous day. He returned home around 8.30 pm, crawling on his hands and knees, and told his family that he had been poisoned by the Chaudhary family. He died on the way to hospital. The police refused an FIR request from Shiva’s family, deeming it a suicide, instead. The police prepared a report and forced Shiva’s father to sign it with his thumbprint, without even reading the contents of the report. The locals protested, but the police cremated Das on their own. The accused Chaudhary family was close to the then Home Minister Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar.
Manbir Sunar, age 31, Kalikot
December 10, 2011
Manbir Sunar was beaten to death by Dip Bahadur Shahi and Min Bahadur Shahi for touching the fireplace of a local restaurant. Manbir had wanted to light a cigarette from the fireplace of the restaurant, which was owned by Jash Bahadur Shahi, an ‘upper caste’ man. The National Human Rights Commission and the Informal Sector Service Centre said that the two had got into a drunken brawl. However, both rights organizations did describe the incident as a case of caste-violence. Manbir’s death triggered protests in the district. A caucus of Dalit members of the Constituent Assembly also protested in the House. They threatened to stall meetings until Manbir had been declared a martyr. The government later announced a compensation of Rs 1 million for the victim’s family. Min Bahadur Shahi, Deep Bahadur Shahi, and Jas Bahadur Shahi, who were taken into judicial custody, were later released.
Sete Damai, age 50, Dailekh
August 31, 2011
On August 30, a group of nine masked men attacked the family of Sete Damai at midnight. They stabbed Sete on the chest, and he died before he could be treated. The men had attacked Sete’s family simply because Sete’s son Santa Bahadur Nepali had eloped with a girl belonging to their community. Santa was in love with Raj Kumari Shahi, who was from the same village. They had eloped from their home and gotten married on August 13. The girl’s family had previously attempted to separate the couple. Even after they had eloped, the girl’s family continued tormenting the boy’s family. Santa’s family filed a complaint with the police, but in vain. The Shahi family had even issued death threats to Sete Damai’s entire family, right in the presence of police. On August 30, Santa and Raj Kumari had returned home, which was why the group of men attacked the family that night. The attackers fled the scene when neighbours came to the family’s aid. After much lobbying and advocacy, on June 12, 2012, the Dailekh District Court sentenced Bindakala Shahi, Jeevan Shahi, and Krishna Bahadur Khatri to life imprisonment, while Tul Bahadur Chanda, Ganesh Bahadur Singh, and Man Bahadur Shahi were handed five-year prison sentences. Subash KC and Dilli Khatri, on account of being minors, were given 10 years in prison. Prem Bahadur Shahi was sentenced to five years in prison, but his sentence was halved because he was a minor.
Obsessions with purity
While killings of Dalits have taken place over various accusations, most cases have to do with inter-caste relations between men and women, the violence being more pronounced when the man is Dalit and the woman ‘upper caste’. That a family or a community’s hatred for intercaste intimacy should lead to murder says much about the larger issues around casteism, normalization of violence, and fixation on caste purity.
“The Brahmanical patriarchy seeks to control women’s sexuality and maintain caste purity,” says writer Sarita Pariyar. “Under this system, relations are to be allowed only within castes, to keep them separate and thus maintain a hierarchy.” Similarly, researcher Smita Magar says, “The patriarchal position that women do not have the agency to choose sexual partners also plays a role in this violence.” From such a perspective, consent would not validate intercaste relationships.
Historical legacies also continue to plague Nepali society. “To understand the violence against Dalits today, we have to look at the role that the state played in the past. The state itself used to define who could be killed,” says Magar. “Intercaste marriage was illegal under the Muluki Ain, and although political structures have changed since then, that idea still lingers. There is also the internalized concept of superiority, where rather than awareness that one is committing a crime, people feel they are the ones punishing others for wrongdoing. In their minds, they are just doing what the state used to do in the past.”
It is ironic that Nawaraj’s case took place in Rukum, one of the epicentres of the Maoist movement. The Maoists had, backed by the gun, prohibited caste discrimination and established a trend of intercaste unions among their ranks. Post-conflict, many of these unions dissipated. Since deterrence through physical retaliation for caste-based discrimination was gone, and there had been no cultural change in terms of perspectives on discrimination, caste-friction reared its ugly head again.
Policies and panels
The Caste Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2068 (2011) was the first separate Act enacted to criminalise and punish caste-based discrimination. The punishments it prescribes are minimal: three months to three years in prison and a fine between a minimum of Rs 50,000 to a maximum of Rs 200,000. For public office holders committing the offence, the Act also provides for upping the severity of these punishments by an additional 50%. The Act was adopted unanimously by the then interim parliament.
“A positive aspect of the Act is that the government becomes the plaintiff in cases pertaining to caste-based violence,” says researcher and activist Shiva Hari Gyawali. “However, the burden of evidence lies on the victim, which is an impractical provision.” Regarding the many cases of caste violence not being registered by the police, he says: “If the police refuse to register a case, one can approach higher authorities for help. The National Dalit Commission can issue a directive to the police to register and investigate the complaint, but implementing the directive is not mandatory.”
Most incidents related to discrimination are non-physical. And the law does not make it clear what counts as evidence of humiliation, verbal abuse, or other kinds of discrimination, making those cases difficult to prosecute.
In 2012, the Parliamentary Committee on Women, Children and Social Welfare had formed a sub-committee to research caste-based discrimination, through a field study of 34 districts. Among the cases the sub-committee looked into were the killings of Sete Damai in Dailekh, Manbir Sunar in Kalikot, and Shiva Shankar Das in Saptari. The sub-committee brought Sete Damai’s killer to book and compensated Damai’s family, but took no action in the other cases. The sub-committee had also made policy recommendations aimed at providing access to justice, education, health, and communication for Dalits.
Then in August 2016, the cabinet formed a probe committee under the coordination of the then Minister for Youth and Sports Daljit Sripali to investigate the killing of Ajit Mijar in Kavre. After the killing of Laxmi Pariyar in December of the same year, the government came up with the structure for a high-level committee on the elimination of caste-based discrimination and untouchability. The government provided Rs1 million compensation to each victim’s family, but failed to implement the recommendations of the probe committee’s reports. The structure had a three-tier mechanism: a high-level mechanism, headed by the prime minister; a central coordination committee, headed by chief secretary; and a district mechanism, headed by the chief district officer.
Regarding the probe committee set up for the Nawaraj BK case in Rukum, Gyawali has this to say: “Such probe committees prepare reports and submit them to the government. The recommendations are never implemented, and in many instances the government does not make such reports public. The best solution is to form a powerful judicial committee that will not only look into the Rukum incident but many other caste-based cases. The committee can then come up with a long-term vision and plan to eliminate incidents of caste-based violence.”
Structural and cultural violence
Dalits have a low presence in state mechanisms, less access to state power, and are economically marginalized–all factors that further reify their social and cultural oppression. Dalits make up 13.8% of Nepal’s population. At the level of local representatives, beyond the Dalit woman ward member quota, Dalit representation is at 3.3%. Dalits are featured even less in executive positions. They make up just 1% of Nepal’s mayors. In parliament, Dalits have an 8% representation.
According to the International Development Partners Group, Nepal’s Gender Equality and Social Inclusion report of 2013, Dalits were the least included among lawyers at the time, accounting for 1.4% of total lawyers and 0.9% of total advocates. And according to the Judicial Council Secretariat, for the years 2017/18, Dalit judges accounted for 0.5% of the 394 judges across the three tiers of the judiciary. These statistics correlate with how caste violence is addressed legally in Nepal. Based on a study conducted by Shiva Hari Gyawali in 2018, a total of 72 cases of caste-based-discrimination were registered in court from 2011 to 2016. Of these, 40 were dismissed by the court.
Caste-based violence resulting in death or injury may elicit public outcry, but structural and cultural violence towards Dalits, being invisible forms of harm, evade the same scrutiny. They even find tacit acceptance. “In the aftermath of cases like Rukum’s, there is a tendency among people to announce their progressive stance by citing a willingness to interact with Dalits, eat food together, have Dalit friends, and so on. But when it comes to marriage, the same people will revert to ideas of gotra milnu parchha (caste compatibility),” says Magar.
In parallel to casual casteism exists the tendency among non-Dalits to sterilize issues around caste dimensions. This flat denial of caste privilege prevents the building of public consciousness about Dalits’ experiences. For Pariyar, Nepal’s intellectual class has let Dalits down. “Our centres of higher learning lag behind in terms of caste discourse. And all around, there is constant effort to legitimize Brahmanical thinking. That’s what informs notions of the superiority of the namaste over the handshake or of the usefulness of untouchability in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.” Pariyar believes that people are more concerned with maintaining a veneer of social harmony than with addressing casteism. “Talking about caste makes people uncomfortable. They don’t want to rock the boat. There is still little conceptual and theoretical engagement on the topic. The deconstruction of caste is yet to happen in Nepali society.”