August 10, 2010
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles and leaps fences,” says Sunita Sahi, 19, as she looks out the window of a bus. Her gaze falls on a young couple, kissing. “We were also in [an] affair,” she says, gesturing to her husband who sits next to her, caressing her hand. “But our families and society did not accept us.”
Sahi married Bimal Auji, 22, one year ago.
Sahi has a fair complexion, an oval face and a slim body. Her looks give away her caste. She is a member of the Thakuri caste. Sahi is from Kanchanpur in the far-western district of Nepal, nearly 400 miles from Kathmandu. Today, she and Auji live in Kathmandu. Auji is also from Kanchanpur, but he comes from a different background. To Sahi’s family, he is “untouchable.”
In Kanchanpur and throughout the country, inter-caste marriage is a sensitive issue. Here, people are still divided based on the ancient tradition of caste. But after carrying on a secret affair for two years, Sahi and Auji say they decided to go public with their relationship.
When news spread that a lower-caste man had proposed to an upper-caste woman, Sahi says her parents were determined to prevent the wedding.
“But our love was like an unbreakable chain,” Sahi says. “Nobody could separate us despite [the] torture,” she says as Auji shows the scars on his arms and hands — remnants of a fight where a group of villagers, including Sahi’s brothers, attacked him.
“I don’t care about the attacks by her family, I only care for her,” Auji says.
Gyanu Gaire Sarki, local activist for the rights of Dalit or “untouchable” people, says this is a typical scenario. In villages throughout Nepal, hypergamous, when a non-Dalit man marries a Dalit woman, and hypogamous, when a Dalit man marries a non-Dalit woman, couples are victimized for breaking the self-imposed barriers of a caste-based society.
“Many inter-caste couples, like Sahi and Auji, leave their villages due to the fear of being abandoned by the community and loss of reputation among relatives,” Sarki says. “I don’t think this problem is going to end very soon.”
The government here has banned caste-based discrimination in the constitution and even offers a cash prize for inter-caste couples willing to come forward. Still, discrimination and violence remain common and one high-level state minister was recently caught forcing an inter-caste couple to separate in his home district.
On May 18, 2006, Nepal became a secular state after centuries of being the world’s only Hindu kingdom. The new government created an extensive discrimination clause in the constitution, noting that discrimination based on caste is now illegal here. In practice, however, the traditional caste system continues to divide society, forcing couples like Auji and Sahi to face physical abuse and discrimination at the hands of their families and communities.
One year ago, Sahi and Auji left home without informing their parents. They eloped in India. Both families found out about the marriage a week later when the couple returned to Kanchanpur. Immediately, Sahi and Auji began receiving threats from Sahi’s family.
“I was physically attacked by relatives of my wife’s maternal home three times,” Auji says. “They even threatened to kill [me] if I did not leave Sahi.”
Auji says his family members are not against the marriage.
As the threats continued, the couple decided to leave their village.
“I sobbed my heart out for days when we left our village for a far-off place, leaving all our relatives,” Sahi says. “Had my family not gone against my will to marry the guy whom I loved to bits, we would have happily stayed there.”
The couple moved to Kathmandu and found themselves in a position similar to many other inter-caste couples – evicted from their homes and villages. Jagaran Media Centre, JMC, an NGO working for Dalit rights, recently released a report that revealed that dozens of couples were forced to leave their homes and villages in 2008 after marrying a member of a different caste. According to the report, there is no data available about this issue on the national scale.
“Our society deems inter-caste marriage as a crime,” says Bijul Bishwokarma, chairman of the National Dalit Commission, a group fighting for the rights of so-called untouchables in Nepal.
Bishwokarma hails from the Dalit community.
“Upper-class people still treat Dalits like dogs,” Bishwokarma says. “This is all because of traditional mindsets and discriminatory behavior in existence [for] ages.”
Like Sahi and Auji, Ram Thapa and Binita Nepali, from Syangja, a district in central Nepal, have been living with Nepali’s sister in an apartment in the capital for six months. Thapa, an upper-caste man, went against his parents’ wishes and married Nepali, who is from a lower caste.
“One day, a group led by my husband’s maternal uncle caught me while I was on the way to meet my friend and tried to set me [on] fire,” says Nepali, who weaves bedsheets at the apartment to earn a living. “Another friend accompanying me risked her life and saved me from their clutches.”
Her husband has become a taxi driver.
“My mother-in-law also tried her best,” she says. “Two times she came to my house with other women and threatened my parents after knowing that I am marrying with her son, but luckily I was not there on both the occasion[s]. Once she met me while working in [the] paddy fields and grabbed [me] by [my] braid and started to pounce on me.”
Dalit activists say violence against any person in the name of inter-caste marriage is intolerable.
“Nobody is above anybody,” Sarki says. “Human beings are created equal. But it is tough to convince people with orthodox followings. Our old, adamant principles for following the traditions handed out by ancestors are to blame for putting off inter-caste marriage.”
A new government program is trying to abolish caste-based discrimination by offering a financial incentive to inter-caste couples willing to marry openly. The Finance Ministry is offering a large gift of 100,000 rupees, $1,350 USD, to each couple opting for inter-caste marriage. To date, the program has received minimal attention with only one couple getting the incentive – Moti Bishwokarma of Achham and his wife, Usha Basnet of Kathmandu, both 28.
“Moti and Usha are the only couple receiving the money released by the Finance Ministry under inter-caste marriage title,” confirms Keshav Kumar Ghimire, an accountant for the District Administration Office. “The fact that only one couple applied for the cash prize, even in the capital, reflects [the] poor implementation of the program.”
Activists say government efforts to promote inter-caste marriage are scant.
“All the laws, rules and declarations haven’t been implemented,” says Ram Bahadur BK, the chairman of JMC. “Merely announcing [a] reward for inter-caste marriage won’t do. The government should first find out the root cause of the problem and try to address it.”
Nepal’s state minister and Dalit advocate, Jitu Gautam Darji, says the government is tough on those who discourage inter-caste marriage. He adds that many members of the current government are campaigning for a new anti-caste system.
“The government has directed the local administration offices to strictly punish anyone involved in forcing people to leave [their] village or home on the ground[s] of inter-caste marriage,” Darji says.
Efforts to convince the public that the government is committed to breaking down the barriers surrounding inter-caste marriage were weakened recently when a high-ranking government official forced a woman in his home district to divorce her lower-caste husband.
State Minister for Industry Dan Bahadur Chaudhary directed the District Administration Office in Kapilavastu to separate Sarita Chaudhary, 25, from her husband, Taulan Kohar, 28. The couple eloped in Mumbai, India, nine months ago then returned to Nepal. In April, the woman was removed from her in-laws’ home against her will and sent back to her parents.
Her family had objected to the marriage because the groom hails from a lower caste. Chaudhary, the state minister for industry, refused to make any comments about this situation.
Editor’s Note: After the publication of this story, both Sahi and Auji got jobs and their case received national attention. A television documentary was made on their story and the prime minister’s special cell on violence against women has taken this case.