Debating the discourse of discrimination against Dalits with JB Biswokarma

- JB Biswokarma, Simone Galimberti | 2023-05-02

‘The state must be inclusive, society needs to respect every member of the society equally regardless of gender, caste and ethnicity, and create an environment where everyone can have a dignified life.’

The Constitution of Nepal has been praised as one of the most progressive charters and has been regarded as an important milestone to achieve social inclusion and equality, uplifting social, cultural and ethnic groups that have been discriminated against and excluded from political power. 

While the rights enshrined in the Constitution clearly provide for safeguards to ensure the rights of such minorities, there are other provisions, especially in the electoral system, that are more worrisome because they seem to go against the principle of representation.

It is an important issue because Dignity Initiative, an NGO focused on the rights of Dalits, recently published a new study that offers a view of the current status of political representation of Dalits in both the federal and provincial parliaments. For example, at the federal level in the House of Representatives, only 5.82 percent of the seats belong to Dalits. 

In order to better understand how one of the most disadvantaged groups are still not fairly represented, I contacted via email the principal author of the study JB Biswokarma, a researcher, writer and Chairperson of Dignity Initiative, who is also associated with Martin Chautari.

Reforming the electoral system is going to be key if we want to have a real level playing field in matters of inclusion and representation. Probably there are lots of misunderstandings about the complex issues surrounding ways to ensure that the most excluded groups can have a seat on the decision making.

As I wrote before in this column, it is going to be essential to have a national conversation about social inclusion and equity where all the stakeholders, members of minority groups as well as representatives from groups already predominantly represented in the state, listen to each other and find a common way forward. Meanwhile, efforts in advocacy and campaigning by groups like Dignity Initiative remain paramount. JB Biswokarma explains the future plans of Dignity Initiative, including the importance to focus on localizing the SDGs and building the next generation of political leaders among Dalits. 

Can you give the readers some background, your career trajectory and your work in the field of social justice and inclusion? 

I am a researcher and writer. I have worked in various national and international organizations. I have been constantly writing articles for newspapers and magazines on contemporary socio-political issues from Dalit and marginalized perspectives. I worked for Jagaran Media Center as a media theme leader, wrote for Mulyankan magazine for six years, served at UNESCO Office in Kathmandu as a project coordinator on Right to Information, and as a senior research officer at the Governance Facility. I have authored a research-based book Dalit in Nepali Media: Participation and Contents and written several policy papers, book chapters and journal articles, and edited books, journal, and policy reviews among others. I served as a visiting faculty at the Kathmandu University in the Bachelors in Media Studies Program, and have been working as a Civil Society Faculty for International Honors Program (IHP) run by the United States-based School for International Training (SIT) since 2016. Currently, I am leading ‘Dignity Initiative’ a research organization which has been exclusively working in the field of research and knowledge production, academic activism, creating critical discourse, policy analysis and advocacy on Dalit issues in Nepal. 

The study you recently published portrays a grim picture of the representation of Dalits in provincial and federal politics. Participation of Dalits in politics at all levels seems to be regressing. One of the reasons you highlighted in the study is the fact that Khas-Arya were included, at the time of the constitution drafting process in the proportional representation list as well. Could it be said that their inclusion was also due to a very “charged” and polarized environment at that time? The complex issue of quota for a better representation of disadvantaged segments of the population was not properly discussed nor understood or perhaps there was a lack of political will to do so. Can you elaborate?

It is a fact that the Dalit and marginalized communities were historically excluded from the political spheres including the major positions of the state mechanism by the enactment of discriminatory legal provisions. They were intentionally excluded, discriminated against, and kept aside from exercising political rights. As a result, the Dalit and marginalized communities are constantly barred from holding or exercising political power that has been held through hegemonic power-relation of the ruling elites and so-called higher castes. They were suppressed and denied political positions. On the one hand, they were politically excluded, economically deprived and kept in an exploitative labor relation, and discriminated and humiliated in every step of their life.

On the other hand, they didn’t get any space to raise the voices to be heard in the decision-making processes. Thus, Dalit community demanded proportional representation as a compensation of historical discrimination against Dalit in every sphere of the state through which they can claim their rights in the law and policy formulation processes. At the time, the political parties and the state were compelled to hear their voices because of the movements of Dalit and marginalized communities as well as progressive political movements. As a result, constitutionally and politically, the principle of proportional representation has been accepted by the state as well the political parties. To make the state inclusive, a mixed method of the electoral system was written in the Interim Constitution (2007) where 40 percent seats were allocated for First Past the Post (FTPT) and 60 percent for proportional representation. Furthermore, in the cluster of the proportional representation, the dominant Khas Arya was not included. But the new constitution promulgated in 2015 saw a reverse of this accomplishment on two fronts. First, there has been a decline of the number of proportional representation seats to 40 percent from 60 percent (there was 60 percent PR seats in interim constitution) and second, there was no seat given to the Khas Arya in the Proportional Representation in the interim constitution, but the new constitution added a cluster of Khas Arya in the PR seat along with high priority. It has contributed to further increase of the number of representatives of Khas Arya.

Until and unless the representation of Dalit reaches 13 percent, other communities that are already “well” represented in politics should not be provided with such a type of “special” arrangement.

The provision to add Khas Arya in the PR cluster contributed to decline in the representation of Dalits in Federal Parliament as well as provincial assemblies. From the perspective of inclusion, these provisions contradict the constitutionally agreed principle of proportional representation.

As a result, Dalit representation in the parliament has been constantly decreasing, which can be considered as political regression from the perspective of Dalit community in Nepal. 

How did this happen? In the period of the constitution making processes, multiple suppressed voices were coming out loudly and, as consequence, the demands of the marginalized communities were strongly taken into public discourse. At the same time, the ruling elites had felt an unnecessary threat of losing hegemonic power. They tried to narrate the demands from Dalits and other marginalized groups as polarizing and divisive measures in constitution making processes. But those voices were just contributing to establishing an inclusive democracy where everyone could get equal rights.

Source: Dignity Initiative, 2023

In the process of finalizing the 2015 constitution, members of Dalit community had raised their voices to ensure not only proportional representation but also additional representation in the decision-making position as a compensation for historical exclusion and discrimination.

Source: Dignity Initiative, 2023

They shouted in the streets everyday demanding Dalit rights just before the promulgation of the new constitution. The key political players in the Constituent Assembly didn’t hear those voices because they basically served the interests of ruling elites and so-called higher castes. 

Better representations of Dalits and other vulnerable groups will happen when the rest of the society will also better realize the long-term implications of having structural injustices in place. What’s your view? 

I would argue that Nepali society was never cohesive and harmonious. It was a suppressive and oppressive society where the Dalits and marginalized communities couldn’t raise their voices against the dominant caste groups despite severe kinds of physical violence, discrimination and humiliation. They couldn’t claim the right to freedom, education, liberation and their participation in the political power. Whenever they struggled against such feudal autocratic and mono-ethnic socio-political power relations, or such protests were seen into political spheres, the dominant groups felt threatened. Hence, the narrative of destroying social harmony was created. Theoretically and practically, until and unless the suppressed voices and concerns are addressed, social harmony won’t be achieved. To establish such harmony and social cohesion in the society the oppressive social system has to be vanished and we need to create a society where everyone will have a dignified life. 

Frustration and dissatisfaction among the marginalized communities including Dalits, Madhesis, and indigenous nationalities, Muslims and Tharus has increased because the society hasn’t transformed as they have expected. It was assumed that all forms of exclusions and discrimination would be ended after restructuring the state. But, the unequal power-relation continued, dominant groups increased their domination in the state mechanism and the voices of Dalit and marginalized communities have not even been heard. It shows that the structure of the state reformed but the hegemony of the ruling elite continued. The huge hope of transformation of Dalits and marginalized communities has been ignored. Therefore, the dissatisfaction of the marginalized communities has increased. I assume that if the state doesn’t listen to the voices of dissatisfaction and aggression of the marginalized communities, the aggression will definitely increase. In such a situation, the dominant elites might feel challenged, which might lead to social conflict. But again as long as suppression, discrimination and exclusion exist, social cohesion and harmony won’t be achieved. Thus, the state must be inclusive, society needs to respect every member of the society equally regardless of gender, caste and ethnicity, and create an environment where everyone can have a dignified life.

What could be the way forward to change the status quo? Can stronger quota provisions in the constitution, and mandatory provision for seats for Dalits and other disadvantaged groups in the first past the post election be a solution?

Concerning the proportional representation of Dalit and marginalized communities within this governance system, the constitution must be amended. It needs to ensure the proportional representation of Dalits in the decision-making positions. For this the electoral system must be amended. There are several options. First, constituencies to the Dalits must be reserved as per their population (14 percent seats) where only Dalit candidates can have competition and get elected. Second option can be about embracing a full proportional representation system. In such a case, all political parties must elect at least 14 percent Dalit in the parliament and provincial assemblies. Third, if we follow a mixed electoral system, there should be an option to elect Dalit from the first past the post and fulfill their proportional representation from the PR system. Laws need to be amended along this line. If we follow one of these options, Dalits can have at least proportional representation. 

I am concerned about potential backlash if the laws are amended. How to ensure that any “improvement” in the current “rules of the game” can also be accompanied by a national conversation? In short, how to have the full buy-in of Khas-Arya segments of the population? 

To ensure proportional representation and strengthen inclusive democracy, it is essential to have a wide range of discussion between Dalit and marginalized communities, and the state and political parties. It has been seen that the political parties are reluctant to discuss the issues of emancipation of Dalits, women and marginalized communities. Those parties never give priority to these issues in the party conferences and meetings. So, a substantive dialogue between Dalit and the political stakeholders is necessary to move forward in ensuring the proportional representation of Dalits in the decision-making positions. Similarly, proportional representation is not only the agenda of Dalits, it is also related to the representation of women, indigenous nationalities, Madhesis, Tharus, Muslims etc. So, these communities also must sit together, make a comprehensive strategy and common action plan for ensuring the proportional representation of all marginalized communities. It definitely helps to challenge the domination of ruling elites and Khas Arya, and foster inclusive democracy in Nepal. 

You are a key member of the Dignity Initiative. Can you tell me more about this organization?

Dignity Initiative is a research organization established by the Dalit researchers, academics, and activists. It has been working in the area of conducting intensive research on Dalits and marginalized communities, producing knowledge, and supporting the Dalit and marginalized communities’ movements. It also has been working to produce a critical mass from the community who can challenge the dominant narratives against Dalit, collecting data and evidence, and analyzing policies of the government and advocacy for ensuring Dalit rights. Furthermore, the organization is also planning to publish such research outcomes, policy papers, books and journals focused on Dalit issues to create a wider public discourse on the issues of Dalits and marginalized communities. 

Are you planning to work on a “political” academy for young Dalit citizens, a place for political empowerment and a platform where they can hone their skills as advocates and future politicians?

One of our working areas is creating a critical mass of political leaders from the Dalit community. Under this objective, we are constantly working with youths, researchers, writers and politicians. There have been very few numbers of leaders among the Dalits who have strong knowledge on the issue and smart strategies for fighting against the caste system. Increasing the numbers of such critical political leaders, researchers, writers, and academics is very important. The organization believes that as the Dalit agenda itself is political it needs to be resolved politically. So, we are backstopping the political leaders, elected representatives and concern to stakeholders. As you said, we have plans to create a platform where youth Dalit leaders can have intensive discourse on the political system, caste system, and strategic planning for building their leadership. 

The Dignity Initiative also focuses on the SDGs. I am a big believer that localizing the SDGs is the next big thing in terms of involving citizens to bring change at grassroots levels. What have you done in this regard? 

SDG has covered various components, but that hasn’t been translated to the local levels. Dignity has engaged in analyzing the SDG goals from Dalit perspective via status of Dalit vs intended outcome of the different goals of the SDG. Furthermore, the organization also has organized different programs among the provincial stakeholders to raise awareness on Dalit Rights and SDGs. 

What are your future plans? Are there more studies, research coming up?

The organization has disaggregated the data of the 2022 election of all three spheres of the governments. The disaggregation has provided intensive data by gender, and different caste/ethnicity along with Dalit community. An analytical report on the principle of proportional representation and result of the election from the Dalit and marginalized perspective will be published soon. Furthermore, the organization has been conducting an analysis of the implementation of federalism and Dalit rights. It will review and analyze the laws and policies made by the provincial parliaments from Dalit perspective. We are also currently planning to conduct other research for upcoming days.  At least there have been few Dalit representatives in all three spheres of the state. A collaborative and strategic initiative by the Dalit and other marginalized communities may contribute to increasing the Dalit representation in the decision-making positions.

Published date:  2 May, 2023

About the Author

Simone Galimberti Simone Galimberti

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