Heather Gilberds

Heather Gilberds (Jagaran Media Center – JMC): Heather has always been a strong advocate for independent media development and activism. Her interest in grassroots media and development stemmed from travel in South-East Asia and extensive involvement in community radio. On return to Canada Heather worked in radio at the University of Alberta’s campus station. At the time of her fellowship, she was studying for a Master’s degree in communications at Carleton University.

The legacy of untouchability

09 Aug

The English word “caste” is derived from the Portuguese “casta” meaning birth or difference. Caste generally encompasses all of the activities of life – duties, rights, occupations, fates – which are fixed on the basis of heredity. Unlike the term “race”, caste does not utilize genetics as the basis for difference and discrimination; caste differentiation is based solely on historical constructions. The most prominent and enduring outcome of the history of caste-based social structure is the legacy of untouchability. In this tradition, hereditary is written on skin, and hands imprudently placed cause torture, death and war.

Within the caste system of both India and Nepal, the lowest castes – the untouchables – are called Dalit. The word Dalit comes from the Sanskrit ‘dal’ meaning to break into pieces, to shatter. The history of caste-based social order in Nepal is complicated and confusing. Suffice it to say that untouchability customs have prevented Dalits from entering temples and hotels, marrying outside of caste, sitting in or near the home of someone from an upper caste, sharing food and water, and attending public spaces including educational and medical facilities. Historically, transgression brought severe consequences that were legally and politically sanctioned, including banishment, imprisonment, and death for the Dalit. Punishment was also severe for an upper caste person who willingly broke rules of untouchability and often resulted in a loss of caste and demotion to Dalit. Traditionally, the only way to overcome being a Dalit was to live a life that observed all caste-based regulations with the hope that karmic forces would enable rebirth into a higher caste.

I recently went with three journalists from Radio Jagaran to a village in Rupandehi district where they were covering a meeting regarding a Dalit discrimination case. In the village of Sikhtahan, a Dalit man who farms the land of a Brahmin landowner was accused of breaking the custom of untouchability. According to Hindu customs that observe caste stratification, an animal owned by a Dalit or “untouchable” is also untouchable. In this case, the Dalit man owns a pig that grazes on his share of the land. Traditionally pigs are only owned by so-called lower castes as higher caste people believe them to be filthy animals. Allegedly the pig, unaware of the regulations governing caste decorum, touched its snout to metal dishes belonging to the Brahmin landowner. This rendered the dishes permanently tainted and therefore unusable. The landowner demanded compensation from the Dalit for the dishes and indicated that the man would suffer severe consequences if he didn’t pay to buy new ones. However, the history of caste division has ensured that Dalits are the poorest people in Nepal, a fact which continues to hold true, even in this current age of “equal rights”.

Uma from the JMC regional office in Butwal commented that it would have been better if many journalists from the station went to the meeting so that the issue could be covered by many different programs. However, the village is in a remote area that cannot be reached by public transport and Radio Jagaran could only find two people who were able to take us on motorbike. So, it was only Madan, Deepa, Dinseh, and myself that were able to go. The village is located approximately 25 km from Butwal, but it took us an hour and a half to get there on the monsoon-washed gravel roads that snake throughout the Terai. We drove past a number of dusty towns, villages etched with red clay houses and thatched roofs, and vast stretches of farmland textured by varying shades of green before we reached Sikhtahan. We arrived to find the Dalit man and the alleged dishes surrounded by journalists, the Brahmin landowner, as well as numerous other people representing one or the other side. The meeting was called to attempt some type of peaceful resolution which would hopefully result in the landowner relinquishing his demand for payment. After an hour, the Brahmins refused to answer any more questions, issued threats to the Dalit man, and left on their bicycles. The journalists, who had hoped there could be some kind of resolve, subsequently left. On the way back to Butwal, they expressed concern that harm would come to the Dalit man at the weekly bazaar. They felt helpless to intervene, “even the police cannot help; they are friends of the Brahmins. what can we do?” they asked.

This is clearly a story that expresses the continued existence of blatant caste-based discrimination. Most areas outside of major cities are still highly segregated according to caste. Untouchability is commonplace and Dalits are forbidden from entering temples, holding positions in public offices, collecting water from communal taps, and entering the residences of non-Dalits. Breaking taboos of untouchability carries severe consequences including rape, beating, and lynching of Dalits. Jagaran Media Center and Radio Jagaran place great importance on illustrating and evidencing a society that, in the spaces between lofty declarations of equality and promises of social inclusion and political representation, remains highly stratified along lines of gender, ethnicity, and caste.

Posted By Heather Gilberds

Posted Aug 9th, 2008


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