What could be the identity of a Dalit? An untouchable? A marginalized and socially excluded person who suffers systematic discrimination and therefore lives a vulnerable life under abject poverty? Recently in a talk program organized by Dalit NGO Federation (DNF), a Dalit activist decreed that the issue of identity was something that Dalits might fight, since they no longer want to live as untouchables or poor. So, untouchability, marginalization, social exclusion, and poverty are the terminologies that identify Dalits, right? Wrong. Although it is very true that a large portion of population in Nepal suffer untouchability and are stricken with abject poverty, providing policymakers with a technical term called ‘Dalits’ to define their target groups, mere sympathetic development jargons do not identify them aptly.
Indeed, while existing development policies have sympathized over their vulnerabilities, they have underestimated the contribution, capabilities and potential of the people whom they refer to as Dalits. In fact, the so-called Dalits are great artisans who still earn their livelihood from traditional occupations such as iron-work, leather-work, sewing, music, cleaning, and so on. These occupations played a vital role in running a society under an agrarian economy. Their occupation is what gives Dalits their identity. However, the process of development in Nepal, predominantly controlled by the urban elites, does not acknowledge their traditional skills. Unfortunately, the Dalit movement in Nepal has also ignored the occupational identity of artisan peoples.
Yet, things do not always stand still. To be sure, identity politics has already been injected into Nepali polity, as is evident in movements spearheaded by indigenous communities and Madheshi people. Recent changes in the structure of society, particularly in terms of power and opportunity, have bolstered identity politics in Nepal. Categorically, political development at home and changes in the international scenario caused by globalization are prime factors in fostering identity politics in Nepal.
Following the reinstatement of multi-party democracy in 1990, political consciousness expanded throughout the country, drawing the attention of all kinds of people, even those from the lower strata of society. They began believing in the strength of organizing. People began getting organized based on their ethnicity and geographic origin to explore the reasons and remedies of exploitation and exclusion. Political parties also formed ethnic and geographic wings.
As we know, geo-ethnic wings of the Maoists party played a vital role during the ten-year insurgency. Alongside, the NGO Movement post-1990s also promoted geo-ethnic consciousness. Hundreds of ethnicity based NGOs, backed by donor agencies, began advocating for the rights of socially excluded people. With this political development, a new sort of discourse came into being, raising questions on the existing power structure of Nepali society. Identity and dignity now began to be seen as a primary agenda of development, for which structural change was deemed important.
Globalization, on the other hand, led Nepali society towards a new opportunity structure, offering global markets to the people and products of Nepal. Traditionally, Nepali society is based on a hierarchical caste-system that prescribes jobs to people based on their caste. However, in the wake of globalization, traditional opportunity structure began falling apart. Market economy took over the traditional agrarian economy. People were forced to earn money not only to survive, but also to be able to consume global products available at their doors. Because of the limited opportunities available at home, people began migrating to Gulf, Japan and the West to earn their livelihoods. Jobs became a matter of obligation; people could barely survive in their caste-prescribed occupations. In effect, people from so-called high-castes also began adopting iron-work, leather-work, and other such occupations deemed menial earlier and therefore prescribed to so-called low-caste people.
Following the changes in the power and opportunity structure, Nepali society is gradually moving towards a horizontal structure, different from its traditional vertical makeup. There has been a conceptual change in the notions of purity and profanity that were the essence of the prevalent social structure. No person is ready to admit that she is inferior simply because of her caste or gender; such discrimination is intolerable. With the horizontalization of Nepali society, people have been striving for a new identity with the ultimate aim of attaining power and position, providing impetus to identity politics.
What does identity politics mean for the victims of caste-system called Dalits? It means a lot. Broadly speaking, identity has not been the primary agenda of Dalit movements in Nepal. As discussed earlier in this article, the identity of Dalits has been associated with either untouchability or poverty; their strength has not been acknowledged. Identity politics for Dalits is therefore a deconstruction of their social existence based on their core competence in artisan skills that greatly contributed to the prosperity of Nepali society under agrarian economy.
With high caste people adopting traditional occupations of Dalits, the very notion of untouchability has proved irrational.
Although Nepali society has undergone structural changes in terms of power and opportunity, some fundamental tenets are still alive. As demonstrated by recent studies, changes in the Nepali society have failed to bring about substantial result for Dalits; in some cases the horizontalization of social structure has been detrimental for them. While untouchability is brutally rampant, their traditional occupations–for which they had been treated as untouchables–are under duress from market economy. With the so-called high caste people adopting the traditional occupations of Dalits, the very notion of untouchability itself has proved irrational.
However, they continue to practice untouchability mainly because they do not want to give up the power and privilege that they had been entitled to as people of high castes.
Changes in society demand changes in the modality of movement as well. The Dalit activists of Nepal therefore should be aware that a traditional approach will not lead them to their destiny. Along with the traditional rituals of caste-culture, Manusmriti has become a new martinet in the ‘invisible hands’ of the market. The issue of identity for Dalits has therefore become compelling. They should take pride in their traditional occupations, and should be able to boldly claim their rights over their artisan skills in order to establish their identity in a new social structure. To be sure, it is only through their identity as artisans that the present day Dalit will be able to achieve dignity.