The Struggle for Dalit Rights in South Asia

Have you ever had a theme assert itself over and over in a very short period of time, as if the universe was sending you cosmic hints to pay attention? In my case, the message right now involves social justice and Nepal. I’m actually writing this from Kathmandu, Nepal where I will be spending the next month working on a new research project focused on religion and ecology in the Himalaya, and coming fresh off the heels of helping to organize several Nepal-focused events back in my home of New York.

One of my day jobs is working as a researcher at the India China Institute in New York City, and it was through here that I was involved in helping with a series of events on Nepal, starting with a roundtable on ‘Social Justice and Dalits in South Asia‘ with three leading Dalit activists from Nepal (Sarita Pariyar, Rem Bishwokarma, and Padam Sundas), and moderated by Dalit legal scholar Smita Narula. For anyone not familiar, Dalits, historically called “Untouchables”, are those people deemed by caste-based Hindu societies like India or Nepal to be polluted and therefore “untouchable” by high caste Hindus, especially Brahmins. Over the centuries this practice has created something akin to a cross between Jim Crow segregation and hereditary servitude across South Asia.

The roundtable discussion offered an important insider look at contemporary Dalit rights politics and social justice organizing in Nepal from the perspective of folks working on the ground in these struggles. It also helped paint a bigger picture of the context of caste-based discrimination in South Asia for someone like me who grew up in the Midwest and has no lived experience with caste-based society. The International Commission for Dalit Rights (ICDR) estimates there are nearly 260 million people globally facing some form of caste-based discrimination. For perspective, this would be akin to 80% of the US population facing caste-based discrimination!

This event was followed a week later by a book release and talk with Nepali author Aditya Adhikhari, whose new book The Bullet and the Ballot Box: The Story of Nepal’s Maoist Revolution was being released (2014 Verso). The book chronicles the political struggles and dynamics in Nepal between 1996-2006, and focuses on the Maoist political critiques of both the former monarchy and the social inequality found across Nepali society. What started as a marginal and largely peasant-based Maoist uprising in 1996 became a full-fledged political revolution by mid-2000, with the Maoists gaining enough support by 2006 to not only control much of the countryside, but to even win a majority in the newly former Constituent Assembly, signaling the end of the monarchy and a new era in Nepali politics. Suddenly Maoist arguments about political inequality, caste-based discrimination, and critiques of neoliberal economics and development policies were center stage in popular politics.

Source: Public domain, (Attribution via Wikimedia Commons)
Source: Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the main issues that stuck in my head from the talks on social justice and Dalits, as well as the Maoist political struggle, was the questions of the relationship between religion and society, in this case caste and Hinduism in South Asian societies. One of the questions that was raised historically by the famous jurist and Dalit scholar B. R. Ambedkar (pictured at podium), and which came up again in the recent events, is the ultimate goal of these political struggles for rights in caste-based societies. In essence, the debate is between whether the goal is to make the Hindu caste system more egalitarian, so that caste no longer locks one into a certain social class and economic position, or is it to abolish the notion of caste as an ideological system entirely?

This is a critical question, since the engagement with religion is very different depending on the answer. As Ambedkar argued in Annihilation of Caste, and later wrote in reply to Gandhi: “The Out-caste is a bye-product of the Caste-system. There will be out-castes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the Out-caste except the destruction of the Caste-system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu Faith of this odious and vicious dogma.” In the context of contemporary South Asia, and especially Nepal and India, this question has double significance due to the dominance of Hinduism. Nepal is approximately 80% Hindu, and India recently elected a Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, as its new Prime Minister. The repercussions of the abolition of caste are hard to imagine, given how deeply ingrained they are.

This was one of the central issues that Ambedkar and Gandhi argued over—was the goal to reform Hinduism or abolish caste altogether. In this regard Ambedkar, a Dalit who converted to Buddhism, favored abolition, while Gandhi, himself a Hindu Vaisya, preferred reform. The problem was that if you abolished caste, what would hold Hindu society together? Or put slightly differently, where would Hinduism derive meaning without caste-based distinctions and hierarchies to divide the pure from the polluted, or the holy from the profane? It would be like doing away with sin and redemption through Jesus for Christians. It was this loss of order and control that caste provided which led Gandhi to argue in the journal Navajivan that “I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the Caste System.”

Almost 80 years after Ambedkar argued for an end to caste-based discrimination, the fight continues. There has been progress in gaining rights and political empowerment for some Dalit communities, but much more still needs to be done. Making progress will require serious engagement and reflection on the part of religious communities in South Asia about the intersections of social justice and religious practices in the 21st century, and how we can re-imagine our religious traditions and practices to keep them meaningful without having to succumb to social injustice or caste-based discrimination to do so. After all, this is not just a Hindu issue, but a global social justice and human rights issue–two topics that communities of faith have played important progressive roles in throughout history.

Image Source: Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

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3 thoughts on “The Struggle for Dalit Rights in South Asia

  1. Hi Chris,
    Thanks for this post and mentioning the very important debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar which continues in different forms in contemporary India. On a related note, the post also throws light, in a different way on the all-pervasive resilience of caste of which almost all of the religions inhabiting South Asia partake in. The fact that one finds Roman Catholic Brahmins also referred to as Bamonns and Muslim Dalits (different from the South Asian Islam’s hierarchical relations evident through categories such as Ashraf, Ajlaf) is a testament to the chameleon-like adaptation as well as immobility, which you note, that is symptomatic of the caste system irrespective of the religious sensibilities. Contrary to popular assumptions, much of the caste-based discrimination in India is perpetuated by castes that are not usually dubbed as ‘high’ such as Kammas and Reddys in the South and OBCs (other backward castes) across India.
    As you rightly point out, it is an issue that requires global attention but does not, unfortunately, get the attention one wishes it did under the rubric of human rights discourse.

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