DSD Team Shares Research on Dalits at the BNAC Conference in Oxford

DSD Team Shares Research on Dalits at the BNAC Conference in Oxford

DSD Team Shares Research on Dalits at the BNAC Conference in Oxford

The Britain-Nepal Academic Council, an association of UK-based Nepal scholars and researchers, organised a conference, branded as ‘Nepal Study Days’, in Oxford on 13-14 April 2022. Team members of the British Academy-funded Oxford University DSD research project attended the conference and shared their research.

A special plenary session themed ‘Dalits’ was organised in which three papers were presented by DSD researchers and their collaborators. In the panel chaired by Prof. David Gellner (Oxford University), Gopal Nepal and Ujjwal Sundas of the Samata Foundation presented online a paper entitled ‘Changing Dynamics of Discrimination based on Caste and Practice of Untouchability: An Intergenerational Experience’

Applying a qualitative method, they studied stories of Dalits in Nepal covering the last 70 years and compared lived experiences of different generations – categorised as Babyboomers, Generation X, and Millennials – of Dalit men and women. Their paper dealt with social changes from the comparative point of view of different generations’ experiences of the caste structure.

The paper pointed out that “The older generations experienced a higher degree of oppression. The middle-aged Dalits were less suppressed, and were given access to education and other opportunities. Dalits from the younger generation do not experience explicit discrimination in the same way. Many of the youngsters from the millennial category have not experienced extreme form of discrimination today.”

Their conclusion was that, though there have been changes in the society in caste-based discrimination and practice of untouchability, progress falls far short of expectations. The paper reminded us of the stubborn nature of traditional values as an obstacle to reform. They suggest the need for tackling the problem jointly by Dalits and non-Dalits, and for more work to be done in academic and practical fields for sustainable changes.

Gopal Nepali is the DSD project’s research assistant and has recently carried out fieldwork in Nepalganj.

The second paper in the session was presented by Rakshya Ram Harijan, who works at the Chief Attorney’s Office, Madhesh Province, Nepal, and by Dr Krishna Adhikari of the  University of Oxford. It was titled ‘Facing Multi-Layered Deprivation: The State of Dalits in Nepal’s Tarai’.

Their paper argued that despite recent reforms the entrenched historical exclusion and oppression of Dalits has resulted in them being relegated to the lowest socio-economic position in Nepal. Referring to the first author’s lived experience and the second author’s ethnographic observations in Kapilvastu and Nepalganj respectively, they described how Tarai Dalits are left behind the Hill Dalits in terms of social and economic status, overall representation, and level of everyday social exclusion. The study pointed out that Tarai Dalits are rarely studied in Nepal.

The paper concluded that Tarai Dalits are neglected on multiple fronts, including in Dalits’ own agenda: “The Tarai Dalits’ agendas are neither included in the Madhesi rights movements, nor are they fairly represented in the Nepal’s mainstream Dalit movements.” The paper suggested that these movements, as well as governments at various levels, need to pay special attention to addressing the multi-layered deprivation that the Tarai Dalits face.

Krishna is the co-investigator of the DSD project and has carried out extensive fieldwork on Dalits in Nepal prior to and during the Covid-19 Pandemic.

The third and final paper in the panel was presented by Prof. Michael Hutt, SOAS/Oxford University, on ‘Dalits as subjects, Dalits as authors’. Michael’s paper was based on the preliminary library research on the representation of Dalits in Nepali-language literature. Michael found that Dalits are strikingly under-represented in Nepali-language literature until the late 20th century—both as the subjects of texts and the authors of texts. He said, “A category of Nepali-language writing labelled dalit sahitya only began to emerge after 1990.”

Earlier Nepali-language texts produced by non-Dalits portrayed Dalit characters and Dalit-related issues.  Now there are Dalit writers, and a few of non-Dalits also continue to write on Dalit issues.  The paper argued, “It is possible to discern a progression in this literature from what Laura Brueck (2014) calls ‘narratives of pity and condescension and fetishization’ to texts that display at least a measure of ‘Dalit consciousness’.”

According to the paper, what counts as Dalit sahitya and the authoritative representation of Dalit issues is yet to be defined in a more agreeable manner. Michael is leading DSD’s special work package ‘Representations of Dalits in Nepali literature, with special reference to West Nepal.’

Krishna Adhikari

20 April 2022