Reservations. Affirmative action. Quotas. Positive discrimination. Special rights. Whatever you choose to call it, special consideration for jobs and school admission on the basis of gender, race, caste, or ethnicity, is controversial territory indeed.
It is also one of the key policy demands being articulated by Dalit activists in Nepal. They argue that the only way to halt and reverse the age-old pattern of exclusion and repression is to guarantee qualified Dalits a place at the table in government, a seat in the university classroom, job opportunities at the highest levels.
Even a cursory look at the composition of virtually every decision-making body in Nepal makes the glaring social handicap of Dalit status clear. Indeed, in 1999 there were no Dalit cabinet members or party leaders, and only 4 out of 265 MPs were Dalit (Source: Jagaran Media Center). More recently, Dalits have been left out of key commissions, and have even been snubbed at large civil society gatherings—the very forums that purport to voice the democracy agenda and fight for Dalit rights.
Something needs to be done, and reservations seem like the most expedient answer. But how deep would such a policy reach? And how nasty would the upper-caste backlash be?
Recent developments in India provide some clues as to how Nepali society might respond to such a move. In May, heated protests erupted when the Indian government passed a bill setting aside 27% of university seats for Other Backward Castes (OBC), which are relatively better-off than Dalits, but still considered socially disadvantaged. Angry students responded by fasting and clashing violently with police.
Critics complained that there is no consensus on what proportion of the Indian population is made up of OBCs, and at any rate, fully one-half of the seats at India’s most elite technical schools that have been reserved for Dalits remain vacant. Moreover, the protestors claimed, caste reservations ignore the fact that poor and oppressed people outside the ranks of the lowest castes are not benefiting from these special provisions.
Like India, Nepal is a desperately poor place where census figures have been hotly debated. Officially, 13% of Nepal’s population is classified as Dalit, but civil society puts that figure much higher, somewhere in the 23-25% range. Statistics that to us may seem trivial have deep consequences in terms of opportunities and resource allocation. The census is indeed highly politicized and is yet another means of institutionalizing Dalit inequality.
Even Dalit activists question the Indian model, but for very different reasons. First, there are no guarantees that Dalit political leaders, by virtue of their caste, will be responsive to the needs of the Dalit community. Indeed, while India has even elected a Dalit President (KR Narayanan, 1997-2002), caste discrimination persists in its most extreme form in the subcontinent’s giant. And the empty Dalit places in India’s top schools suggest that universal high-quality primary education might be a higher priority than university reservations.
However, although the Indian model is by no means perfect, something like it is clearly necessary in Nepal. Nobody is pretending that reservations are a magic wand that will reverse centuries of discrimination, but they are a step that will correct some of the most glaring instances of prejudice, as well as an important form of compensation for past (and present) injustices.
Nepali activists are seeking to learn from the shortcomings of the Indian model (and the American and Canadian models, for that matter) and put forward a comprehensive package of reforms that really get at the root of social inequality while acknowledging the need to place Dalits in the upper echelons of society right now.
One innovative idea is to institute a constituency recall on MPs elected under a reservation system. This would hold Dalit legislators directly accountable to Dalit voters, who could remove their representative if he or she were seduced or shackled by the money and influence of higher-caste patrons.
Of course, no matter how innovative the mechanism, the fundamental pitfall of special rights is that they tend to reinforce, and sometimes perpetuate, existing divisions and prejudice. They are not a stand-alone policy. Nepali lawmakers and activists need to work together to devise effective ways of addressing discrimination and exclusion holistically and on multiple levels. This is by no means an easy task, but based on what I’ve seen of the drive and dedication of my colleagues here in Kathmandu, I am hopeful that such a solution is within reach.
Posted By Nicole Cordeau (Nepal)
Posted Jun 29th, 2006