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Early this week, the bodies of Nabaraj BK, Tikaram Sunar, and Ganesh Budha were recovered from the shores of the Bheri River, downstream of Soti Village, Rukum. On May 23, Nabaraj and a group of his friends from Jajarkot had gone over to Soti to bring home Nabaraj’s girlfriend, Rosy Malla (name changed), as Nabaraj’s bride. But the group of 19 men were hounded and chased by Soti’s villagers to the shores of the Bheri River. And now the villagers are trying to piece together a tragedy, one born of caste-based prejudices that still permeate Nepali society.  

Nabaraj was a Dalit, Rosy, a Thakuri. Nabaraj, 21, a native of Jajarkot, was a popular athlete who regularly competed at volleyball and track events in both Jajarkot and Rukum. When Rosy’s parents learned about their relationship, of two-and-a-half years, first the parents, and then the villagers in Soti, did all they could to prevent the couple from continuing the relationship. The inhabitants of Soti Village, Chaurjahari Municipality, are mostly Thakuris and Magars.

But the couple were determined to get married. When Rosy’s parents and fellow villagers got wind that the couple were thinking of getting married, her family lodged a complaint against Nabaraj at the police office in Chaurjahari, arguing that the girl was not of marriageable age according to Nepali law. The marriage law requires that both bride and groom be at least 20 years old.

Citing the law, Nabaraj was produced before the police, on April 29, on charges of attempting to marry a child. The police later released him on the condition that he was not to proceed with the marriage. The charges rattled Nabaraj, but the couple continued to meet and remain in touch.

After the police case, and because of the pushback from the people in Soti, Nabaraj’s hopes for the marriage started to fade. So he tried to focus on his career, instead. Already shortlisted for a police position, he was waiting to take his final oral test, but the test was deferred owing to the lockdown. 

“I will get married only after I’ve been selected for the police job,” Nabaraj had told his parents.

But then, according to area locals and Nabaraj’s relatives, Rosy asked Nabaraj to come to Soti and take her to his village to get married. A Bheri Municipality spokesperson, Parbati BK, also believes Rosy had asked Nabaraj, over the phone, to come to her village. 

On May 23, Nabaraj and a group comprising 18 of his friends from the nearby villages headed for Soti. Shortly after the group reached Rosy’s home, in the evening, Rosy’s mother, Prakashi Malla, emerged from the house, shouting racial slurs at the group. “It seems like you dums need a nasty beating,” she yelled. She continued shouting, to wake up her neighbours and to notify them of the group’s presence. Her warning calls woke up the villagers. And together, wielding sticks and pelting stones, they chased Nabaraj’s group all the way to the banks of the Bheri River, which flows between Nabaraj’s village and Soti. 

Nineteen youths were attacked and injured in the incident, and 12 of them were subsequently corralled and handed over to the police. Some in the group, including Nabaraj, wanted to escape at any cost, thinking the mob would kill them. On the morning of May 24, Nabaraj’s body was found on the shores of the Bheri River. On the afternoon of the next day, the body of another youth, Tikaram Sunar from Chaurjahari, was found on the shores of the Bheri River, some 30 km downstream from where Nabaraj’s body was found. On May 25, the body of yet another youth, Ganesh Budha of Jajarkot, was found by the shores.

One member of the group has safely returned home. But no one knows the whereabouts of three others. Nabaraj’s friends say he and the others were thrown into the river by Soti’s villagers. But the locals involved in the attack have told the police that Nabaraj’s friends jumped into the river of their own accord.

The police have arrested Rosy, her parents, and the chief of Ward 8,  Dambar Bahadur Malla. (Soti Village lies in Ward 8). Both the parents and the ward chief have been arrested on charges of murdering the youths. Dharma Singh Bista, a police inspector in Rukum, says the police are investigating the matter. The bodies of the deceased have been taken for postmortem to Jajarkot.  

As per her briefing to Bheri Municipality Mayor CP Gharti, Nabaraj’s mother, Urmila, says Rosy had summoned her son to marry her, before Soti’s villagers murdered him. 

Nabaraj’s case is not an isolated one. From time to time cases like his, where violence is perpetrated on Dalits, garner the attention of the Nepali public. In 2006, Nepal was declared a country free of caste-based discrimination. To discourage caste-based discrimination and untouchability in society, the government has announced programmes that provide rewards for inter-caste marriages. But caste-based discrimination remains pervasive across the country, primarily in the mid- and far-western regions. Dalits are still not allowed to enter the houses of upper-caste communities, touch upper-caste people, and attend public functions. 

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Hard data on discriminatory practices is difficult to come by, as the government has not prioritized the documentation of cases pertaining to caste-based discrimination. But researchers say at least 25 Dalits have been murdered for breaking caste-based norms since 2011. Of them, at least five murder cases were related to inter-caste marriages, according to Shiva Hari Gyawali, a researcher who keeps a close tab on racial-discrimination cases. 

For example, Ajit Mijar, a local from Pachkhal of Kavre, was found murdered in Dhading within a week after he married an upper-caste woman, Kalpana Parajuli, in August 2016. It was reported that Mijar had committed suicide. His body is still lying at TU Teaching Hospital, Maharajgunj, because his family don’t want to receive the body. They disagree with the state’s narrative that the young man committed suicide. They believe he was murdered.

Just a day before Nabaraj was murdered, Angira Pasi of Devdaha, Rupandehi, was killed. Birendra Bhar of the same district was in a relationship with her. Locals had pressured the boy’s family to accept the relationship. The boy agreed to accept Pasi as his wife, but she was killed four days after the marriage. The boy’s family say Pasi committed suicide. But others are not buying the  argument. They think Pasi was killed for having married someone of a different caste.

The murder of Dalits for their attempting marry people of other castes in Rukum and other places in western and far-western Nepal says a lot about how the former rebels, who are in power now, have done nothing to stamp out caste-based discrimination. Rukum was one of the bastions of the Maoist insurgency, where, in 1996, the Maoists initiated programmes to end social discrimination and oppression. For Dalits it is  especially worrying that a ward chief who was once a cadre of the Maoist party and championed social reform has now been charged with participating in the killing of Nabaraj. Further, when the entire country is denouncing the murder, former Maoist leaders like Janardan Sharma, who are now the part of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, have remained silent—because the accused perpetrators are reportedly their comrades. On his Twitter account, Sharma recently extended best wishes to the Muslim community on the occasion of Eid-al-Fitr. But there is no mention at all about the recent killings in his home district.  

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Dalits in Nepal continue to get physically assaulted, humiliated, and outright killed. Dalit girls and women are sexually exploited and face societal reprisals if they raise their voice against sexual exploitation.

“The political system has changed. Nepal became a republic with the abolishing of the monarchy. But people’s traditional mindset has not yet changed,” says Parbati BK. “Innocent Dalits continue to get killed because of their caste.”