KATHMANDU, NEPAL — In Nepal’s impoverished Sudurpashchim province, where Deepa Nepali grew up, caste-based discrimination is routine for Dalits like her. When she moved to Kathmandu for university studies, she thought these experiences were behind her. But Nepali faced discrimination from the moment she took her first steps in the big city.
As soon as her first landlord discovered her caste — which in Nepal is easily identifiable by someone’s last name — she was evicted. That was the first of eight evictions she faced in Kathmandu, where rental agreements are often accorded only verbally.
Whenever she refused to leave, Nepali says, landlords threatened and verbally abused her. One cut access to drinking water and threw her things out of her room. “They did not have any humanity in them,” she says. The stress of constantly needing to move has interfered with her studies, and now her two-year degree will take five.
“Whenever we try to open a door for our dreams, this society tries to close that door in the name of caste,” she says.
Nepal’s Constitution punishes caste-based discrimination with up to three years in prison and 200,000 Nepali rupees (1,500 United States dollars) in fines. However, society is still largely tolerant of discrimination against Dalits, who rank at the bottom of the caste hierarchy associated with traditional Hindu culture and make up about 14% of Nepal’s population of 29 million, according to the 2021 census. Experts say Dalits struggle to prove discrimination in court and judges often don’t take the cases seriously, resulting in a low number of people deemed guilty for the offense.
Of the 263 cases of caste-based discrimination filed in Nepal’s district courts in 2020-2021, only 27 received a guilty verdict — and only after defendants appealed to the high court, according to the Office of the Attorney General. In the same period, of the four cases heard by the Supreme Court, only one resulted in a guilty verdict.
Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
Even when the defendant is deemed guilty, the court usually passes the minimum sentence, says Prakash Nepali, legal adviser at Samata Foundation, an organization that advocates for the rights of Dalits in Nepal. “It is very difficult to gather evidence for caste discrimination and untouchability,” he says.
In early 2020, Nepali filed a complaint against one of her former landlords which resulted in the arrest of the landlord, his wife, daughter and another tenant, but they were promptly released on a bail of 35,000 rupees (263 dollars). Then the Kathmandu District Court cleared them of all charges. Nepali appealed, but the ruling was confirmed by the High Court.
“[The defendants] claimed that a dispute over the water bill, being loud and unclean were groundlessly framed as a caste issue,” says Ram Bahadur Mijar, Nepali’s lawyer. “They brought a Dalit witness to attest that they don’t engage in caste-based discrimination.”
Mijar adds that the lack of definitive proof was also an obstacle. “Discrimination happens through words and behavior,” he says. “How do you show the hurt in self-respect?”
Nepali has taken the case to the Supreme Court, which has accepted her petition but has yet to set a date for a hearing. “I have a feeble hope that the court will give a decision in my favor and justice will not die,” Nepali says.
Sundar Purkuti, spokesperson for the National Dalit Commission, says that laws are poorly enforced because Dalits are still poorly represented in Nepal’s institutions. “Although Parliament declared Nepal a discrimination- and untouchability-free nation, that did not produce any effect in practice.”
Sunita Neupane, GPJ Nepal
Tul Prasad Bishwokarma, who is a Dalit and member of Parliament, says he experienced the same kind of discrimination as Nepali even after being elected. “[When I] introduce myself as a parliamentarian, I am met with excitement; but after I say I am Dalit, their faces darken,” he says. To him, discrimination persists because tradition and practice still prevail. In order for things to change, he says, “we’d need to file a lawsuit against the entire society.”
In March, following his and other Dalit members of Parliament’s initiative, Parliament unanimously approved a resolution recommending the government implement measures to ensure anti-discrimination laws are enforced and to include Dalits in all levels of government.
Shiva Hari Gyawali, a researcher and Dalit rights activist who is lobbying to change the law to put the burden of proof on the defendant in cases of caste-based discrimination, says that traditions can and have changed in Nepal.
For instance, sati — the practice of burning a widow alive along with her deceased husband — is now mostly obsolete after a law banning it was passed in 1977 and was strictly enforced.
“If the legal provisions that are being implemented in the structure can be strictly followed, Dalits can have justice,” she says.
That is Nepali’s hope. While many of her friends hide their caste identity and change their last name in social media to avoid discrimination, she says, she refuses to do so. “If the same sun rises for me and others, and if the air we breathe is the same, then there must be equality in every opportunity society provides,” she says.