Nepali Dalit movement is divided over the word Dalit itself. Time and again questions have been raised about the term and its connotations. While a sizeable majority believes it should be replaced, the NGOs working in the same field think that changing the term makes no sense. For the commoners, however, it must be said that this term is laden with negative stereotyping.
The Dalit society is now in fresh discussion over a folk song by Pashupati Sharma titled Hami Nepali. One refrain of the song articulates the caste names Damai, Kami, Sarki, Damini, Kamini and so on. Debates in public forums and social media are split.
Even the Dalit elites and educated people adhere to their identity based on occupational names. Damai, Sarki, Kami suggest oppression. Why some want to establish them as identities is intriguing. The Hindu caste system forced Shudras to become artisans and they were used for menial jobs. They were asked to do metal works, sew shoes, stitch clothes, play musical instruments and so on. Based on their works, they were provided different jaat names like Gaine, Damai, Sarki, Badi and so on which never existed in classical Hindu law—the Vedas. To expand the suppressive model of social stratification, the ruling elites established and broadened the caste system later. This system became more rigid after the Civil Code (Muluki Ain) made these craftsmen untouchable.
Therefore, at this juncture, it is not necessary to inherit this pseudo-identity imposed from above. The proponents of using these nouns for identity are concerned about biological inheritance but the fact is that the heredity lineage flows via clan, not caste.
Caste-based discrimination is legally prohibited but remains entrenched because of the pervasive stigma attached with the naming pattern itself. Dalits often recount painful tales of mistreatment at the hands of strangers after disclosing their identity. One who would be using Tapai changes to modest Timi or lowest Ta in no time when the caste of the interlocutor is revealed. In general these nouns suggest negative traits like poor, filth, illiteracy, foolishness, untouchability and so on.
At a public gathering, Shyam Bahadur Kami (of Nalang in Dhading district) and Birkhe Damai (of Nuwakot district) hesitated to utter their surnames. Why? It’s because of the pervasive stigma and fear of discrimination. In their own words these conventional epithets that are their ascribed names are ‘socially shameful’. They sully the dignity of people.
Is it justifiable? Dalit youths are searching for their identity. They are beneficiaries in the sense that they are able to get citizenships under their surnames thanks to a 1995 government decision. But this has led to many other problems for Dalits.
The derogatory identity has become a source of misfortune for some 4.5 million Dalits in the newly declared secular state. Let alone villagers, sophisticated big city dwellers also would not always let a Kami or Sarki occupy their rooms as tenants. That is why Dalits are forced to change their caste names. A survey by Dalit Welfare Organization shows that many Dalits in the capital are living incognito. As a saying goes, “When you cannot change the situation, you have to change yourself”.
Surprisingly, the editorial of a popular national daily wrote of the ‘lower caste’ a few days ago. Former Lower Castes and Untouchables in India are today known as Other Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes respectively. Nepali Dalits also need to seek dignified new names.
Pashupati Sharma’s efforts to raise artistic voice against caste-based discrimination are admirable, but his choice of words leaves a lot to be desired. An artistic creation should not jeopardize social harmony. At the same time, it is vital for Dalits to channel their energy to replace their imposed identity. Otherwise, the practice of caste-based discrimination could be perpetuated for the foreseeable future.
The author has a Masters in Conflict, Peace and Development Studies
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