In Pictures: The Dalit Quest for Dignity in Nepal

The social and political changes in Nepal since the 1950s provided Dalits a context for constructing a new political identity. TR Bishwakarma was a pioneering Dalit activist and poet who was involved in Dalit politics from the beginning of the democratic movement in Nepal in the 1950s. In the photo, he gives a speech after the Muluki Ain, the first unified civil code of Nepal, came into force in 1963 under King Mahendra. At that time, Dalit activists welcomed the developmental and anti-discriminatory agendas that the new Panchayat government introduced. By the 1980s, however, TR Bishwakarma led a more radical path to Dalit emancipation and also authored the first demand for reservation. Mithai Devi Bishwakarma. Kathmandu, 1963.
11 December, 2016

The struggle for dignity fundamentally shapes the experience of Dalits in Nepal. According to the official 2011 census of Nepal, the country has a Dalit populationof approximately 3.6 million people, or 13.6 percent of the total population. The Dalit community in Nepal consists of 26 castes—seven of which are Hill Dalits and 19, Madhesi Dalits. Although the government of Nepal has made some efforts to address issues of caste-based discrimination and untouchability, such as the establishment of a National Dalit Commission in 2002, the enactment of the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act in 2011, and the inclusion of the rights and protection to Dalits under the fundamental rights of the new constitution, these measures have not been enough. Nepali Dalits continue to battle discriminatory practices in their socio-economic and political lives. According to a submission for the United Nations universal periodic review (UPR), made by the Dalit Civil Society Organisations’ Coalition for UPR and International Dalit Solidarity Network in November 2015, Nepali Dalits continue to face various forms of discrimination. These include police officers who act with impunity and refuse to register first information reports (FIR) of caste-based discrimination, along with the poor implementation of the Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability (Offence and Punishment) Act, 2011, and the sexual violence and exploitation of Dalit women.

Dalits in Nepal have historically been a landless community. The caste system in Nepal worked by maintaining this inequality between the upper castes and lower castes and ritualising  discriminatory practices, such as the denial of access to public water distribution systems and the creation of separate water taps for Dalits, as everyday practice. Against this history, Dalits in Nepal strove to reject the identity that those from the upper-castes had imposed on them. Before the democratic movement in Nepal, public spaces in Nepal were not secular.  Dalits did not have any political representation and were denied access to education. Dalit activism in Nepal began in the 1950s with the emergence of Dalit organisations that aimed at social reform, such as the Samaj Sudhar Sangh—founded—in 1952, which organised the Pashupati temple entry movement of 1954. It also focused on setting-up schools to increase the access of education for Dalits and empower them. With such efforts, Dalit activists sought to create a space in which the exclusion of Dalits from public life could be challenged. is a platform for photography in Nepal, which was founded by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati and Bhushan Shilpakar in 2007. It brings photographers and visual story-tellers together through workshops, publications and exhibitions. In 2011, set up the Nepal Picture Library, a digital photo archive that comprises a small team of four people. It attempts to document an inclusive history of Nepal and its people by encouraging individuals and families to contribute their photographs and stories to the archive. In 2016, the Nepal Picture Library organised a photo exhibition with its partners at the Patan Musuem in Kathmandu. The exhibition opened on 27 September and ran till 26 November. It included around 80 images spanning over 66 years from approximately 20 sources, all highlighting the Dalit experience in Nepal.

These pictures, both historical and contemporary, reflect the nature of the social, economic and political struggles that Dalits in Nepal have been facing. They also illustrate the manner in which the community has moulded its identity around its rich cultural past. Speaking about the inspiration behind this exhibition, Diwas Raja Kc, the curator of the exhibition, said, “For the poor, picture-taking and document-making happen at the points of encounter with the state or other forms of authority. And when we think of archives as a collection of such records, we have to think about why our archives are the way they are, why they hide more than they show. Archives are linked to power—so when it comes to building a history of the marginalised, the silenced, and the oppressed, it is never simply a matter of discovering good sources. Making the subaltern speak in history is necessarily a political project anchored in the present.”

Diwas Raja KC is an independent scholar whose research has focused on various social movements in South Asia, especially examining issues of gender, sexuality, and labor. He is also a part-time documentary film editor and a commentator on visual culture.