Democracy Dialogue held by the Dignity Initiative, Butwal, Nepal, 29 July 2018

Participants: 42 (28 male, 14 female), including members of the provincial parliament, former members of the Constituent Assembly, local politicians, civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists and members of municipalities

Introduction

Organised by the Dignity Initiative, this dialogue was held in Butwal, the capital city of Province No 5 of Nepal. A total of 42 participants participated, including members of the provincial parliament, former members of the Constituent Assembly, local politicians, civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists and members of municipalities.

Entitled “Democracy for Dalit: experiences and expectations”, the programme focused on how one of the most marginalised communities of Nepal, which suffers a number of discriminations based on their caste, perceive democracy and what their expectations are from democracy.

While touching base with the fundamental tenets of democracy, such as participation, freedom of speech and access to justice, this event focused specifically on how participants have experienced the recently held elections at the local, provincial and federal levels and whether or not these elections met their expectations, thereby seeking their ideas and suggestions. To facilitate the discussion, a factsheet for these elections comprising disaggregated data based on caste and ethnicity was presented at the beginning.

Key Issues raised during the session

  1. Definition and concepts of democracy

Nepal introduced democracy for the first time in 1951 but it could not survive even for a decade as then King Mahendra put a ban on political parties and introduced the party-less Panchayat regime in 1961. Democracy was reinstated in 1991. However, soon after Nepal began practising democracy, it came across an armed conflict waged by the Maoists. After a decade-long political turmoil, Nepal finally became a republic as the monarchy was overthrown in 2006. These political developments have been instrumental in shaping the perceptions of democracy among people.

Democracy, in general, is perceived as a system that allows people to enjoy their freedoms -freedom to speech, freedom to organise, freedom to take part in elections and many more. For the Dalits, however, this is not enough. For them democracy is also a system that could ensure their dignity and respect and also bring about changes in traditional power relations, thereby ensuring their equitable share in the direction of state affairs.

  1. Key problems/Issues in our context

Although Nepal has practised democracy for over two-and-a-half decades now and has been a republican democracy for a decade, democratic rights and privileges have not been enjoyed by Dalits as it had been expected. They have not had a meaningful and equitable share in state institutions. The outcome of the elections held in 2017 is proof of the exclusion of Dalits from political representation, which is deemed crucial for policy-making in the changed political scenario. Their representation in the federal and provincial parliaments is just 7.78 per cent and 5.5 per cent, respectively, far lower than their share of the national population (13 per cent).

The major issues raised by participants were the following:

  • There is a general tendency among political parties to 'use and discard'. Political parties encourage Dalits to join uprisings and fight against the state, but they sideline them when it comes to seizing opportunities within the state apparatus.
  • Dalits are treated merely as a vote bank. They are either allured with false aspirations or threatened by the dominant caste group who holds political power, and either way they are compelled to vote in favour of these dominant demagogues.
  • Constitutional provisions on Dalits representation are easily bypassed by political parties. While the proportional electoral system is meant to ensure equitable representation of Dalits and other under-represented social groups, these provisions are not taken seriously; in most cases, they are encroached upon by dominant caste groups.
  • There is no meaningful representation of Dalits in state institutions. Although some Dalits have found opportunities in state institutions, they are not in a position to make decisions to advance the cause of Dalits, because they are a small minority. Inclusion is largely tokenistic.
  • Dalits are looked down upon. First of all, Dalits are not recognised for their leadership abilities. Even if they are elected to any position, their leadership is not well accepted among non-Dalits, which results in a loss of confidence among Dalits leaders.
  1. Key Civil Society Responses
  • Dalits should continue fighting for their rights. Despite political changes, there is still a long way to go in fighting against social ills. Dalits cannot do it alone; both Dalits and non-Dalits should do it together.
  • Dalit leaders should be able to think beyond their party line. While it is understandable that political leaders have limitations, all Dalit leaders must unite on Dalit issues in order to have a collective voice.
  • Acknowledge achievements. Dalits have scored some significant achievements. For example, the 2015 Constitution of Nepal enshrined Dalits' rights as fundamental rights. Dalit representation in certain positions has become mandatory. Therefore, the focus should now be on how these provisions can be implemented effectively and institutionalised to maximise outcomes.
  • Build competence. Those who get elected have a rare chance to influence policy at whatever level they are in. Therefore, they should build adequate competences and be able to convince others to join their cause. They should approach decision-making very carefully, from a ‘two-steps back for one step forward’ perspective, and they should be able to disclose their 'note of dissent' needed.
  1. Challenges/Issues to Civil Society Responses
  • Caste-driven mindset. Nepali society is heavily influenced by the caste system, which has a great impact on leadership. The hierarchical structure of Nepalese society hardly accepts the leadership of Dalits, who are ranked at the bottom of the social structure. While barring Dalits from getting recognition for their leadership, the caste system has helped the dominant caste maintain a monopoly over leadership.
  • Scattered Dalit population. While Dalits comprise 13 per cent of the total population of Nepal, they are not a majority in any electoral district. This has posed a challenge for Dalits to win elections on their own.
  • Intolerant leadership. Party leadership, which is overwhelmingly held by non-Dalits, is becoming increasingly intolerant regarding issues of concern for this marginalised group. Their issues have been misinterpreted as anti-national. In such context, it is very difficult for Dalits to go beyond their party line.
  • Three layers of challenges for Dalit women. Few Dalit women have been able to get elected. Those elected have faced unique challenge, different from those faced by their male counterparts. They have had to think first as women, secondly as Dalits and thirdly as party cadres. Negotiating between these three realms is a difficult task, particularly when issues are not in sync across them.
  • Lack of commitment. Political leaders and policy makers have made lots of commitments towards Dalits. However, these are not realised in practice when it comes to providing opportunities to Dalits.
  1. Support needed by civil society for responding
  • Resources, including information and funding
  • Backstopping support from like-minded national and international stakeholders
  1. Additional comments

A democracy literacy programme for grassroots Dalits and non-Dalits would make a democracy dialogue more effective. Such literacy programme would help raise awareness among Dalits while sensitising non-Dalits on the issue of Dalits.

Recommendations

To civil society:

  • Strongly raise Dalit issues in all appropriate forums
  • Play a catalytic role to create an enabling environment for Dalit leadership
  • Put pressure on the state for the effective implementation of legal provisions and other policies meant for Dalits

To other actors:

  • Political parties should take Dalit issues seriously and ensure them representation proportional to their share of the population
  • The state should revise the election system to incorporate 'mobile districts' for Dalits, so only Dalit candidates would compete for designed positions.
  • Dalit CSOs should work to enhance leadership skills and competences with a focus on the next election.