July 12, 2020
When 21-year-old Navaraj set out to marry the girl he loved, I suspect he had certain admonitions. A Dalit boy was cruising through treacherous waters when he dared to dream beyond his allowance and wished to marry Sushma Malla, an upper-caste Hindu. He knew the dangers this blatant disregard of the societal rules spurred. Perhaps this is why he was accompanied by 18 of his friends.
It is the year 200 BC. A scholar named Manu penned down the laws of the society in his text ‘Manusmriti,’ a legal book Hindus swear by. Amidst many other rules that eventually became the hard truth and basis of the society, the most entrenched is the division of people into four-tier varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. These divisions, apparently, were made according to the occupation of the person, but on a much deeper level they were said to reflect accumulated merit in past lives or as it is commonly known ‘Karma’.
It is the year 2020. Navaraj and five of his friends were stoned to death by upper-caste Hindu men. 2500 years later, Manu still reigns as the law-maker of society.
This week the world saw the death of another minority at the hands of a white police officer. Hashtag Black lives matter was seen doing rounds of the internet, and a sad tale of 400 years of oppression with no promising end to it suffered another traumatic blow, this time through shortness of breath. The entire world mourned George Floyd’s death and sparked anger, fumed by the entitlement of the majority. This story of the far west, however, struck a melancholy note closer to home: a west much nearer than America.
Navaraj hailed from Jajarkot district of mid-western Nepal. Another horrific account from Rupendehi district cites the hanging of a 12-year-old Dalit girl who was raped by a 25-year-old upper-caste man. Whether society is immune to these stories or just indifferent to it is hard to tell, but cues from everyday language point towards the latter. Today, the white police officer is being condemned for abusing his power in a world where the supremacy of a certain race had been decided upon years ago. To this I ask, where is the condemnation of the upper caste Hindus that participate actively in the oppression of Dalits?
These ‘lower caste’ Hindus carry at least 2000 years of generational trauma within them. For centuries now, they have been deemed untouchables. To be segregated from the society solely on the basis of birth is highly problematic and sheds light into a deeper well darkened by the shadows of entitlement. While Dalits have suffered centuries of laceration and tormentation, upper-caste Hindus have inherited centuries worth of power, status and control along with a disdain for the lower castes. They are often seen lazily residing on their invisible high thrones and looking down upon certain sections of the society.
Factually, today may be the 21st century, but in principle Nepal and a few other South Asian countries scream medieval times. We are stubbornly stuck in a time where power is easily shifted from one generation to another. Branded at birth, we must live within these invisible lines to survive and to be accepted. Many are automatically deemed kings and the unlucky few must live with guilt and shame for something that isn’t possibly in their control. So ashamed are they of being born in a lower caste that they are often found eliminating their surnames from introductions.
“Tapai ko naam ke ho?”(What is your name)
“Ram ke?”(Ram what?)
“Ram nei bhanum na…”(Let’s just say Ram…)
A few who stir up the courage to challenge this draconian rule are met with an untimely death at the hands of upper-caste fathers and brothers. Might it be the threat of this easy claim of superiority slipping away that has led to a continuing prevalence of the caste system in 2020? It is imperial to implore the roots of this behaviour that ignites murderous anger among the upper caste. Perhaps a nodule of shame is stirred and is then repeatedly injected with phrases like “What will people say?” If so, this pooling of shame and anger has incited acts of violence that are somehow justifiable in the heads of the perpetrators.
“How dare he?” they say.
For them, the ‘sinner’ must be crucified lest more lower caste members dare to be anything other than what they are permitted. These killings are, then, a warning. A deadly dangerous warning to all others: you will be met with the same fate if you question society.
Kami. Damai. Achut. Dum. These are some of the commonly used terms used to describe them with obvious demeaning meaning behind it.
Shooting. Lynching. Burning alive. Beating. Force feeding human faeces and urine. Parading naked in public. Rape. These are some of the common punishments prescribed to the lower castes.
Casteism is a form of racism. So deeply it is set in our beliefs that a world without caste seems improbable. So subtle is our indifference towards them that we often fail to identify and call out problematic behaviours. We teach our kids about their place in the society, not explicitly but through actions and words often uttered freely in the safe walls of our houses.
Popular vlogger Sisan Baniya explains how subtle casteist ideology is and how children as young as six years old indulge in such behaviours. Hide & Seek, a seemingly harmless game played by children, is called lukidum in Nepali. One seeker, or the dum, must search for the rest of the players who are hidden. To be touched by the dum implies elimination from the game. Even though in today’s world this usage of dum may be a learned name passed on from generation to generation, the etymology is still highly toxic and problematic. A concept has been drilled into our subconscious. To be touched by a dum is to die.
Progress in any society only occurs when the minds of the masses are willing to unlearn certain things that would easily pass as acceptable. It is not acceptable to corner someone based on their caste. It is not acceptable to reduce someone to their caste. In an ideal Nepal, the caste system would cease to exist, but we are far from where we aim to be. We are, in fact, just starting to dismantle generations worth of rules and entitlement. For now, let’s start with unlearning what we were taught.
To their “How dare he?” let’s say “Why not?”