Nepal’s Dalit rights movement ‘pressing ahead’ despite government backsliding


Nepal’s government has pledged to come up with an inclusive plan to ensure that payments from the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) benefit all, including the most marginalized, Reuters reports:

Sindhu Dhungana heads the REDD Implementation Center, a government body tasked with overseeing the development of Nepal’s REDD strategy and the benefit-sharing plan. He said the government would include the input of people at the local level when preparing and implementing the plan.

“Principally … the benefit-sharing will be fair and equitable in principle and at an operational level,” he said.

Suvash Darnal

Despite recent backsliding on the issue, the Dalit rights movement is pressing ahead at every level, notes Carl Gershman,” President of the National Endowment for Democracy. He visited Nepal recently to attend memorial events in honor of Dalit rights activist Suvash Darnal (right), who was killed in a car accident in Washington in 2011.

In Parliament, Dalit Members of Parliament are preparing shadow bills on the critical issues of land reform, employment, housing, health care, education and the defense of political rights and freedom of assembly and association, he writes for The Kathmandu Post:

At the state level, the Samata Foundation is developing a leadership academy to train new Dalit members of Provincial Assemblies. Training and protection are also being provided to the thousands of Dalits who have been elected to positions on local councils but who are being blocked by old-line forces from carrying out their responsibilities. And, of course, there are continuing efforts to address the critical long-term need for youth education and capacity-building.

“Darnal had the ability to make the Dalit issue come alive for Americans, partly by drawing parallels with America’s own history of slavery and racial discrimination,” Gershman adds. “Darnal called for a program of ‘affirmative action’, an idea that was developed in the US after the civil rights movement to highlight the need for proactive measures to address the deeply rooted problem of racial inequality.”

In 2018, Nepal’s new leadership is expected to face challenges in its internal political restructuring – specifically, “giving Nepal a stable, democratic and development-driven good governance” – and in its engagement with its neighborhood, notes a recent analysis from the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, warning that failure could push the polity into directionless chaos.

“Raising resources for investments for economic growth will call upon the Nepali leaders to work out a development-oriented foreign policy and create a truly inclusive polity where the alienation of the marginalised communities is transformed into engagement and involvement for nation building,” it adds.[1]

The government of Nepal has declared that the empowerment of marginalized communities is a key objective. But bringing Dalits into the political process demands the inclusion of “previously disregarded perspectives, voices and interests,” according to the Nepal National Dalit Social Welfare Organisation (NNDSWO – a NED grantee.)

Dali political participation and representation “creates a virtuous cycle of trust, involvement and policy responsiveness of and towards their constituencies where in the past there was little or none” and “enhances democratic accountability as well as institutional legitimacy,” the group states in an extensive report, Dalit Representation in the National Politics of Nepal.

There are three prerequisites for meaningful Dalit representation, the report suggests – 1) representation in adequate numbers; 2) a strong link with intra-group inclusion; and 3) the establishment of a political and institutional space:

  • The first prerequisite is an adequate number of Dalit representatives in the body politic. What makes for such a number is yet to be determined. The minimum number should be as per population ratio, the proportional representation. The Constituent Assembly Committee on State Restructuring and the State Restructuring Commission in Nepal, for example, proposed an additional percentage above proportional representation for Dalits as a compensation for extreme historical marginalisation. Such an additional quota, a form of constructive over representation, has yet to be discussed within the top leadership of political parties.
  • The second prerequisite for meaningful representation of Dalits is addressing the internal dynamics of the Dalit community. While being a common target of discrimination on the ground of caste, what constitutes as ‘Dalit’ is not a homogenous group. There are differences in deprivation and discrimination across region, sex, caste and class that need to be addressed. Representation has still not been fair to all Dalit subgroups despite the instatement of a mixed electoral system and inclusive provisions in electoral law. The link with inclusion can only be ensured through the inclusion of dispossessed subgroups. For this purpose, the state and national leaders, including Dalit, should agree on some criteria to ensure the fair distribution of posts and positions in political offices for Dalits, as representatives rather than an emerging elite.
  • The third prerequisite is the creation of sufficient political and institutional space. Dalit representatives need the freedom to deliberate and act on behalf of their community. This is a challenging task especially when longstanding exclusionary norms in political institutions need to be replaced by inclusive ones. A plead for separate institutions for Dalits in all respects will prove counterproductive in the long run while some special provisions are required to ensure the equitable participation of Dalits and its representatives, to meaningfully recognize their struggle and contribution.

[1] See also Nepal’s Divisive New Constitution: An Existential Crisis. Asia Report no. 276. 2016. Brussels: ICG.


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