And it’s over. In the blink of an eye, I somehow reappeared in the United States.
I am still in the process of sorting through thousands of memories, mental images, and learning experiences, and I must admit that I am not getting very far. (Perhaps that is why I have struggled to write this particular blog entry.) I feel like I should be able to wrap up this experience in Nepal into a neat package with a Dalit-made, handloom bow on top. But for some reason, I have not yet reached that sense of closure.
When I think back to what I expected to get from this particular AP Fellowship, one word stands out in my mind. Answers. As I wrote in my first blog entry back in May, I have studied caste. I have read essays from great Dalit leaders and thinkers, wrote papers referencing research from the great academic minds, and even drew on personal knowledge that I attained from my Indian-American upbringing in order to truly understand the caste system. But as I learned more, concepts such as caste, pollution, and “untouchability” became more confusing. I felt awkward making generalizations about this complex and pervasive hierarchy because there seemed to be more exceptions than rules. Before leaving for Nepal I had a numerous questions, and very few definite answers.
Now that I have returned, with four months of “real and practical experience” working for the Jagaran Media Center, I can confidently say that I have even more questions and even less answers. I do not know whether it can be attributed to significant differences in geography, culture, or even national politics, but I can say that caste and caste based discrimination is a different monster in Nepal when compared to India.
But throughout all of my efforts in trying to make sense of caste hierarchy, there is one brief conversation that I had in my last week in Nepal that gave me a simple undeniable truth that I had been looking for – an actual answer to a question (perhaps many questions) that I had about untouchability. I was speaking with Lalbahadur B.K. a member of the Bishwakarma caste. Before our conversation I had briefly pondered why the Bishwakarmas were even classified Dalit because their traditional occupation has always been metal working. Bishwakarmas are skilled artisans and craftspeople who work with brass, iron, steel, and even gold, as opposed to the stereotypical Dalit laborers who deal with animal skins, carcasses, or human excrement. In my conversation with Lalbahadur I explained my thought process and asked him his opinion. I wanted to know if he had any idea why Bishwakarmas were Dalit.
His explanation went something like this, “We are Dalit because they [members of higher castes] call us Dalit. We did not choose this status.”
He did not go into Hindu Theology. The words “pollution”, “untouchable”, “hierarchy”, and even “caste” did not come out of his mouth. He didn’t even get political. His answer was simple, but said so much. No matter how much one attributes caste hierarchy to Hinduism, it is individuals who keep the system as a tool for oppression. Actual human beings, for whatever reason, feel the need to degrade and demoralize their fellow man. They may do it in the name of tradition and religion, but regardless of their justification, they do it.
I find this frustrating. And I know that this situation has been prevalent through many parts of the world. Individuals create divisions based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, caste, sexual orientation, and the list sadly goes on.
I know it will be a while before I can clearly articulate what I have learned and what I have gained from this Advocacy Project experience. I feel incredibly lucky to have seen all that I’ve seen and to make so many friends throughout my time in Nepal. But at the same time I feel a responsibility to inform others of the situation of the Nepali Dalit and, by creating international awareness of this key political and human rights issue, maybe change will slowly occur. I am armed with a million questions, and only a few answers, but that just might be enough.
Posted By Ted Samuel
Posted Oct 10th, 2007