I’ve been traveling into the far reaches of Nepal over the past several weeks working on a project for the JMC. Each place presents a new landscape, new people, and a sense that Kathmandu is extremely far away in more ways than one.
I spent a few of these days meeting Dalits who remain exploited by the caste system. They live in places so different from Kathmandu, where divides generated by caste remain physically visible. Take Phagire for instance. Phagire is 60 years old and lives in a small village in the far western district of Nepal called Doti. It’s a place where caste divisions remain a fundamental part of life. For Phagire, this means he’s strictly relegated to his lot as a musician entertaining farmers in the field. Paid only in grain, Phagire is unable to take any sort of work that would pay him money. This is a great problem for Phagire as he strives to provide a modest life for the grandchildren he inherited when his son died last year.
Phagire punctuates his sentences by referring to us as “God.” Something he has grown accustomed to through his dealings with the ‘upper caste’ neighbors. He explains proudly that the rhythm of his drum energizes the farmers in the field. Having borrowed 3000 Rupees ($46) to buy the plot of land where his family’s 7×12 foot mud house rests, his demeanor dampens when he tells us that this land, his life’s work, was recently sold out from under him.
It is a sad reality that these things still take place in 2007. Coming from Kathmandu where the focus is on the upcoming elections as an entry point for a Dalit agenda, I am curious as to whether Phagire intends to participate. I ask him if he’s aware of the elections and if he intends to vote. Though he’s never voted in his 60 years, he says that he will this Fall. But there is the problem. How will Phagire ever learn which parties promote an inclusive agenda and stand the greatest chance of helping him? Illiterate and without the luxuries of CNN or even radio, Phagire will most likely vote for whoever he’s told by the ‘upper-caste’ landowners. Though there are said to be awareness campaigns that will soon begin educating rural communities about the elections, how will folks like Phagire benefit if they can’t break away from their work to attend?
Problems are also visible in Eastern Nepal. Landless and paid in grain like Phagire, the Dalit settlement in Supteri remains dependent on the system that exists to oppress it. Asked if he had any hope that the elections could provide a hopeful future, 70 year old Bharosid alludes to another problem with the rural voting body. Though he has voted before, he explains that it is difficult to understand what each party has to offer him. He says that the party lines of his village are generally informed by which candidate comes to the village and throws the biggest feast.
Though Dalits represent 20 % of Nepal’s population, it’s evident that they can’t be considered as such at the polls. The Dalits from the villages are just too cut off from the political currents and modernity of Kathmandu, and they have been left behind in a place where education and employment opportunities are scarce if not non-existant. I now understand why it is so crucial that Dalits gain proportional representation in the government. Maybe then something can be done to monitor the discrimination that pervades these far off districts. Maybe then there will be room for places like Doti and Suptari in the New Nepal.
Posted By Devin Greenleaf
Posted Jul 15th, 2007