Crisis of research on Terai Dalits
Crisis of research on Terai Dalits
It was in 1963 Nepal introduced theLaw of the Land (Naya Muluki Ain) and with it the caste system got formally abolished. However, the hierarchically structured caste system has not changed much. The prevalent practice of untouchability substantiates this very fact. Still, castes are arranged hierarchically—according to the extent of their purity and the purity is expressed in terms of pollution, interdining and intermarriage.Dalits (untouchables), who are mostly Hindus, are still discriminated against by the upper caste Hindus because of the deep-rooted beliefs fostered ironically by the religion itself. They have the lowest social status in the Hindu social structure. They cannot be called a homogenous group as their heterogeneity extends to language, religion and culture. They are divided into three broad regional groups:
1. Hill Dalits (Kami, Sarki, Damai, Gaine and Badi)
2. Terai Dalits (Tatma, Musahar, Bantar, Dushad (Paswan), Dhobi, Chamar (Ram), Chidimar, Dom and Halkhor)
3. Newar Dalits (Kusule, Kasai, Pode, Chyame and Halahulu).
Some Newar Dalit groups (such as Kusule and Kasai ) filed an application at the Dalit Commission, saying that they no longer should be treated as Dalits.
Among these regional groups, the Terai Dalits are considered socially, economically and politically backward than the other two. The Terai Dalits, as any other caste-origin Hindu groups, have some distinct cultural features like hierarchical structure, hereditary basis of membership, endogamy and purity and pollution. However, it is mysterious and at the same time sad to note that there are hardly any literature on them written from an anthropological perspective. Except for a few scattered notes by noted scholars like Frederick H Gaige and Dilli Ram Dahal, there is virtually no detailed anthropological study on Dalits of the plains, which focus on their traditions, culture, language and socio-economic conditions.
Some NGO/INGOs have attempted to conduct researches on them but have failed to capture their anthropological aspect. The Terai Dalits constitute over 35 percent of the total Dalit population, which is no doubt a sizable population. This suggests the need for extensive researches from an anthropological perspective. Researches can pave the way for raising the living standards of these communities. Without uplifting their socio-economic status, overall development of the country will merely remain a mere illusion.
On the contrary, substantial amount of literature is available on Hill Dalits and Newar Dalits. Many noted scientists and scholars, both foreign as well as domestic, have carried out research on them.
The much-awaited Dalit Commission was established nearly a year ago with an aim at uplifting the socio-economic status of the so-called untouchable communities. Since it is at a very nascent stage, it will be unfair to comment on the Commission’s activities. It has enlisted 15 distinct cultural groups in the list of Terai Dalits. Even today, they follow the strict hierarchical division within them, with Tatma (Tanti or weaver) as the highest group and Halkhor (sweeper) as the lowest group. Some studies have indicated a high degree of untouchability practised among the various Terai Dalit groups. For instance, a Musahar does not accept the cooked food or water from a Chamar and vice-versa.
Intercaste marriage is considered a taboo i.e a Musahar cannot marry a Chamar and vice-versa. Among the Terai Dalits, the Halkhors and the Doms are worst hit by the caste-based discrimination. If a Tatma accidentally has a physical contact with a Dom, the former purifies himself/herself by sprinking water. Moreover, the Doms are not even allowed use the tubewell belonging to the Tatmas. This kind of practice, which has been going on since ages, triggers a debate on Dalit solidarity. Dalit activists since the restoration of democracy in 1990 have been persistently harping on Dalit solidarity, which now seems a far-fetched idea.
Similarly, a major chunk of the Terai Dalits still live on the “ailani” land (unclaimed public land) and hardly have enough food to eat. They have sufficient food for only three months, and rest of the months they heavily rely on the “bataiya” system (crop sharing).
Similarly, the political participation of the Terai Dalits in various tiers of the political system (Municipality, Village Development Committee, District Development Committee and national level) as a whole is minimal in Nepal. Not a single Terai Dalit has been elected as a member of the Lower House. There is one Terai Dalit member in the Upper House but he was nominated by the King.
Unlike the Hill Dalits, whose occupational dimension is slowly breaking down because of modernization, the Terai Dalits still eke out their livings by following their traditional occupations. People belonging to the Musahar community are survived by their traditional occupations i.e. earthwork and catching rats. Chamars are still following their traditional occupations i.e shoemaking, skinning of dead animals, tanning and scavenging. But following the Chamar movement initiated by a few NGOs a couple year back, some of them abandoned their traditional occupations. The movement definitely brought some social change but economically it was not beneficial for the Chamars. Similarly, the Doms earn their living solely from traditional occupations i.e weaving bamboo baskets (dhakiya).
These findings were gathered from a recent survey done by one of the leading consultation firms in conjunction with an INGO. The study basically concentrates on three communities—Chamar, Musahar and Dom in the Maithali belt of Nepal.
Like in previous five-year plans, the Tenth Five Year Plan has heavily emphasised poverty alleviation. But can the state be able to alleviate poverty without raising the living standard of the Dalits? Similarly, Education For All till 2015 will be a distant reality without raising the literacy status of the Dalits.
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