Human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) provides human society a genuine basis for understanding and applying the general concept of democracy. The norms and values of almost all of the Articles in the UDHR have been incorporated into world's democratic constitutions. Even transitional democracies have mentioned a lot regarding their citizens' political, civil and socio-economic rights, trying to be as proximal to the UDHR as possible.
No ideology today can isolate itself from the UDHR. In order to concretize the concept of democracy to a larger extent, the specifications of human rights contained in the UDHR are what all nations should promise to conform to.
More than five million Dalits belong to the most marginalized and oppressed community in Nepal. They are still in search of the human dignity that is the rudimentary aspect of the UHDR. In over 3,900 villages, the practice of caste system is deep-rooted. Dalits are treated as 'untouchables' by the so-called upper-caste people in the rural parts of the country. They are not allowed to enter public temples, teashops or hotels. They are extremely exploited and forced to live the life of sub-humans.
Dalits are often disdained and misbehaved. Such practice is strong in far-western Nepal and the terai bordering India. But Dalits cannot express the psychological torture caused by such de-humanizing behaviour. There are obviously notable reasons for their helplessness. They are politically, economically and socially the most excluded community of the country.
Dalits to this day do not have access in policymaking. A few individual Dalits handpicked by major political parties or other elites represent their favour-providers rather than the Dalit community. As they are the victims of mass poverty and illiteracy, they remain outside the mainstream politics though they cast their votes every time election is conducted.
This political exclusion of Dalits has had far-reaching effects on their socio-economic condition. Low socio-economic status, mainly caused by their political exclusion, further de-humanizes them. Absence of Dalits' political representation at national level deprives them of decision-making power. This in turn further marginalizes them. Such practice creates more convenience for those discriminating them.
What is most embarrassing in this context is that it has been more than four decades since the declaration of Muluki Ain (civil act - 1963) by King Mahendra. Although he banned the practice of untouchability, it has not been implemented to this day.
The Panchayat regime did not have any concept regarding Dalit issues. It worked rather within conservative and autocratic frameworks. But the successive governments formed following the restoration of democracy have clearly lacked a genuine vision for the Dalit community. The documents of major political parties do not provide any evidence that they have any sufficient analysis on Dalit issues. The Nepali Congress and the CPN (UML) have nominally mentioned Dalits in their election manifestos. Those interested in knowing what these major political parties think and plan to do for mainstreaming Dalits feel disappointed when they read the party documents. However, top leaders often mention the names of Dalits in their speeches. But the Dalit wings of their own parties are marginalized within their party.
As far as the state's efforts regarding Dalit issues are concerned, the National Dalit Commission (NDC) formed in 2002 is in a dormant state. Nobody knows what it has been doing so far. Nor are they in a position to give any concrete answers. Some observers say it is not an autonomous body of the state and is under the secretary of the Ministry of Local Affairs though the NDC claims otherwise. However, what is true about them is that they are also affected by the nation's political instability.
As an effort to uplift the Dalit community, another government department under the Ministry of Local Affairs, the Dalit Develop-ment Board has been assigned the duty of implementing Dalit programmes launched by the government. The Board has been distributing scholarships to college level Dalit students. But besides such nominal efforts, the government has not declared any major policy for the Dalits. The National Dalit Strategy Report formalized by the government in 2002 is mainly based on INGOs and donor-based reports. The government itself has never launched any national research programs on the Dalits. The National Dalit Strategy Report itself proves how superficially the government has dealt with Dalit-related information. It is a strategy report without any strategy.
The international community has recently begun to show interest in Dalit issues. But unless the Nepalis themselves take this issue seriously and honestly, I/NGOs cannot do much.
Should the Nepali policymakers, development agents and intellectuals take Dalit agenda as lightly as before or only as an opportunity to personally benefit from it, the plight the Dalit community will worsen further, complicating multilateral contradictions and conflicts. There is a need to plan and work for the mainstreaming of the Dalit community in practical terms.
About the Author: The author is a lecturer in mass communication and journalism,in Kathmandu. This article was published in the 'Kathmandu Post' daily on December 13, 2005.