13 MIN READ
This week, Subhash Nepali offers some of his own journey as a student, writer, and Dalit activist who runs a writing project called Dalit Reader. We learn some of what it was like to be a talented Dalit boy growing up in Arghakhanchi district, struggling against bullying boys with hierarchical mindsets and teachers with low expectations. We learn of how Subhash learned to write not in school, but, as many Nepalis have done, by responding to letters from loved ones living far away. We learn of the painful frustrations that spurred Subhash to start writing articles and launch a project to train others to write advocacy articles. The power of writing is a theme that runs throughout this essay.
Good writers are able to help readers see the action of a story, to hear the voices of those involved, and to feel the story’s emotions. That’s exactly what Subhash does here.
In the second half of the essay, Subhash recounts why he cares so much about helping Dalits write their own stories. He describes the types of writing he finds effective and the types of writing he finds less helpful. This is an essay that should be read by Dalits as well as non-Dalits. “Writing, I believe, can connect us,” Subhash writes, “and guide us to create the real social harmony we desire so much.”
Thanks to Subhash bhai for so artfully writing from his own perspective and so thoughtfully giving us rich and useful ideas to contemplate.
Subhash Nepali currently works as Economic and Sustainable Development Advisor with the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office. He has written several analytical papers and a few journal articles on issues of caste and Nepal’s socio-economic development. He has occasionally written for The Kathmandu Post, Kantipur Daily, and Naya Patrika Daily.
For the last five years, in collaboration with national and international public scholars and social activists, Subhash has been leading the Writing for Social Justice course on a voluntary basis to mentor aspiring Dalit and non-Dalit writers and/or academic activists to write op-eds on Dalit issues and magnify the voice of the voiceless Dalit community. He is deeply motivated by a sense of the need for equal opportunity, equitable redistribution of resources, and giving “voice” for those living in lesser developed areas from all sections of society.
I write to reclaim my pride as Dalit and produce knowledge against caste-based violence
I did not plan to become a writer and neither did my school teach me writing.
In school, I often faced caste-based violence, and I had to spend my time and energy fighting back. In class nine, on the way back home from school one day, I innocently touched the school bag of a tenth-grade student. He and two other Bahun friends hit me, leaving me injured. In the bag, he was carrying sweets sent home by his father. My touch, they believed, polluted the sweets.
“I thought he was a good boy,” my Nepali language teacher responded when my mother complained about a physical assault by classmates when I was in the sixth grade. On the way home back from school, an hour’s journey by foot, a group of boys had called me “bokre,” a slur for my ‘lower’ caste status, and I responded strongly. They punched me in my face. The teacher did not question the bullies, but his statement to my mother was loaded with a subtle message that ‘lower’ caste boys were too confrontational.
As I rethink my relations with the Nepali teacher, I see no point in why he would motivate me and teach me writing. The school’s teachers taught writing to selected students they thought had the potential to win prizes in inter-school writing competitions. For teachers, I was an ignorant, irascible boy from a family with no educational background.
In seventh grade, away from a classroom context, my relations with writing changed. One day, my mother asked me to respond to a letter from my father who worked in India as an unskilled migrant. I wrote back, simply copying his style. Later, I began to read the many letters written by my relatives to their families back home and write responses. Letter writing became a regular task. I especially liked the letters from my ‘bhenaju’ (brother-in-law), who was a soldier with the Assam Rifles in the Indian Army, and emulated his style. He often wrote about the hardship and the pain of being separated from his family.
During my time in school, I enjoyed reading heroic stories from religious and mythological books more than the assigned textbooks. I read extracts from the Bible and the Ramayana. I admired the protagonists who fought and defeated villains. As I dived into the reading, I metamorphosed into heroes and fought the bad guys. While reading the Bible, I empathized with Jesus Christ and thought of educating people the way he did. While reading the Ramayana, I associated myself with Ram as he fought Ravan. I did not comprehend these books fully, but reading them allowed me to channel the anger and pain that arose from the daily experiences of caste-based discrimination and violence.
During my time at University, I read literature illustrating struggles between workers and their employers. These books not only inspired me to fight back against caste-based discrimination but also provided me the language to manage my anger and pain. I cried when I read Basain, a novel by Lil Bahadur Chhetri. In Agnidiksha, I found myself in the soul of a young brave boy who sacrificed his life for liberation. Later, Martin Luther King Jr, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, and Ahuti became my models for writing. King’s I Have a Dream and Thomas Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence provided me with models for both persuasive writing and critical thinking. I wrote poems, stories, and speeches emulating them.
Among all these, Mohan Bikram Singh’s thin book, Pema Lama Prashnottar Mala (Pema Lama Question and Answer series) triggered critical thinking in me. I began to question everything — God’s existence, social injustice, wealth distribution, and especially hierarchy. Every day, I walked an hour and a half to and from college. On the way, I often avoided company and was lost in thought, just seeking to answer a single question — why does hierarchy exist? To my dismay, even after 20 years, I have not yet found the answer, but the questioning still brings me ideas and gives structure to my writing.
For my first job after my studies, I visited remote areas in both Nepal’s plains and hills, talked to poor and socially marginalized groups, and wrote about the injustice and discrimination they faced. When I wrote reports and analytical papers, I always tried to illustrate the lives of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. I tried to draw a picture in words of a representative character to show the problems the community faced. Eventually, I found my professional space was too limited to raise the voice of the grassroots, especially those who have experienced humiliation and poverty. I turned to writing for newspapers.
In 2013, I got an excellent opportunity to improve my writing skills with a Fulbright scholarship to study at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. At Georgetown, everyone — advisors as well as professors — stressed the importance of writing skills for both academic and professional success. One of my professors who taught World Affairs and Media put additional emphasis on writing as a way to communicate complex issues. This made a deep impression on me. I prioritized improving my writing and data analysis skills to communicate complex caste issues. Using all the resources available at the university, I worked on my writing. Eventually, I started publishing op-eds in Nepali newspapers on socioeconomic development and inequalities.
“Can you write op-eds on Dalit issues? We are happy to fund you by collecting donations among ourselves.”
This plea by Dalit activists to a non-Dalit writer came as a sharp slap in my face. In 2014, a group of Dalit compatriots said this to a non-Dalit writer during a conference in Virginia, USA. Upset that Nepali newspapers did not publish opinion pieces on Dalit issues, they asked him to make a difference. But the voice landed in my ears like thunder. Even with my privilege to study at an American university, I could not win their trust to write on Dalit issues. This shook my world.
In Nepal, at the time, only a few writers wrote on Dalit issues, and among them, only a couple questioned Brahminical hegemony and the structure that sustained caste-based violence for centuries. Many writings narrated stories of caste-based violence, but they often failed to engage the other side in the discourse. They often retained a Brahminical perspective.
“Non-Dalit writers often write to boast about how great they are. They write about taking their Dalit friends into their house and eating at the same table with them,” a renowned Dalit writer and politician once publicly criticized writings by non-Dalit writers on Dalit issues. None dealt with Dalit knowledge, resistance, and lived experiences.
Writers from Dalit communities, too, had flaws. They mostly expressed anger at discrimination, humiliation, and violence. “I often get scared reading articles on Dalit issues. They spit out fire,” my sociology professor used to say, pointing out how Dalit writers unintentionally alienated their readers. I realized that to influence opinion- and decision-making, we had to engage knowledge producers and policymakers who know nothing about Dalit struggles and often resisted understanding them.
In 2017, a bright young man responded enthusiastically when I shared my frustration about Dalit writing in a meeting with a Kathmandu-based NGO. Shiva Hari Gyawali, I later learned his name, showed me an article that read, “My family did not object when I took a Dalit to our kitchen. Urban residents do not discriminate.” Another read, “Caste-based discrimination will end once people are educated.”
We were both frustrated. We discussed how to bring about change and avoid patronizing and ignorant ways of writing on Dalit issues. We co-authored an article, Bibhedbiruddha baikalpik rajniiti (Politics against discrimination) in Kantipur Daily’s Saturday edition, Koseli. The article stirred a conversation on caste issues for some time. That was good but one article couldn’t do enough. We needed more serious Dalit writings.
It was in this context that Dalit Reader was born. It was a writing workshop that initiated Writing for Social Justice (WSJ) courses based on voluntary contributions from writers and Dalit activists. We piloted two 12-week writing workshops. Now, in the third batch, 26 aspiring Dalit and non-Dalit writers are receiving training and mentoring support to write about caste issues.
The appeal of these initiatives for emerging writers has been profound, and so have the results. “I had a lot to say about the discrimination and humiliation I faced. But I did not have the skills and confidence. Now, I can at least write about them,” a Dalit participant shared. A non-Dalit participant recounted, “I never thought that the caste problem was this complex and so deep. This course has not only enhanced my writing skills but also changed my perspective.” To date, WSJ participants have published many articles in mainstream Nepali newspapers, giving voice to otherwise unpublished experiences and ideas.
In the WSJ course, we do not deny the importance of personal narratives that deal with individual frustration, anger, humiliation, and empathy. On the contrary, personal narratives can help achieve a number of social justice objectives: they can become a means to channel strong emotion, reclaim Dalit pride, and document Dalit knowledge; they can be useful evidence for policymaking; and they can help communities see life through someone else’s perspective. Achieving these objectives, however, requires effective writing skills.
In these courses, I strongly emphasize that our writers need to learn to write about complex issues of caste-based discrimination and violence in an engaging manner. Dalits have experienced the violence of caste, but most non-Dalits cannot see anything besides harmony in society. We need a way to make non-Dalits read Dalit experiences, change their mindsets, and bring about change. For this, the importance of training and mentoring aspiring writers and changemakers cannot be overstated. Only through investing in skill development can emerging Dalit writers communicate complex caste issues in a powerful way. Good writing skills, I believe, can do this work.
In the WSJ course, we, therefore, pay special attention to Dalit perspectives. Our participants learn to be mindful of their own position and their readers’ positions. They also learn to apply the perspective of those who are at the ‘lower’ end of the hierarchy — Dalits in this case. “I must assess my position in writing and get ready to take a justice angle,” one of our facilitators said about his approach.
Magnifying the voices of those at the bottom, too, gets special attention. Non-Dalit writers often write for Dalits more than they listen and read them. This needs to change, too. Reading Dalit writings and engaging with them in public discussions can empower them and magnify their voices. But this has to be done in the right way. One of our facilitators explained it like this, “Giving space to speak and listening to those at the bottom instead of taking their space and lecturing them can amplify their voices louder.” Listening and reading them, too, are ways to give voice to voiceless Dalits.
At present, those who have been silenced the most need the tools, skills, and platforms for speaking up the most. We need to provide many more Dalits with the training to share and make sense of their experiences in effective, impactful ways. Only then can they collectively tackle the many challenges they face as they deal with grave structural injustices and inequalities.
Empowering one individual writer at a time is a powerful method for tackling the many challenges faced by those seeking greater social justice. My life itself is an example. A far larger mass of writers and intellectuals can follow these few individuals and influence Nepal’s policymaking and knowledge production for the health of the nation. For our society to tackle the many complex problems of social change and move toward greater justice, any small step we take, any humble contribution we make will count a great deal.
Our journey has just started. In the WSJ courses, emerging Dalit and non-Dalit writers are learning to narrate experiences of caste-based violence and resistance in effective ways. Now, we face greater challenges: we need to translate our narratives into policy papers and knowledge works, and we need to reach out to remote areas where caste-based violence is more persistent.
Nepal’s education system has failed Dalits, including me. But writing helps heal the traumatic memory of caste-based violence that I face even today. It can do the same for many more Dalits while they write to bring about change. My non-Dalit friends can help by learning to make the violence of caste more visible through their writing and by producing knowledge respecting Dalit perspectives. Writing, I believe, can connect us, and guide us to create the real social harmony we desire so much.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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