Nonviolent Journey of the Nepali Dalit Movement

Author: Ganesh Bishwakarma

According to the 2011 Nepal census, Dalits constitute 13.6 percent of the total population (or appr. 3.6 million people) of the country. Placed lowest in the Hindu caste hierarchy and deemed ‘untouchables’, the Dalits in Nepal have a long history of struggle against this discriminatory practice.

The Dalit issue in Nepal is not about tensions between religions, races, languages, or geography. It is the lack of Dalit representation at the state’s policy and decision-making levels coupled with the tokenistic representation of Dalits within political parties and elected offices. On the economic front, Dalits face problems related to landlessness, unemployment and exploitation. Approximately 42 percent of Dalits fall below the poverty line while their literacy rate stands at just 52 percent.  These problems are further compounded by the prevalence of impunity for perpetrators of caste-based violence.

Since its inception, the Dalit movement in Nepal has been a nonviolent struggle against caste-based untouchability, discrimination and exclusion. The reasons behind the nonviolent nature of the Dalit movement in Nepal are the following. First, the realization about the need for unification and progressive apprehension of the Dalit movement. Second, the solidarity among progressive forces supportive of the Dalit cause. Lastly, an understanding that progressive politics and political interventions can solve the issues of the Dalits and that political and economic problems can be resolved through systemic change led by political parties. Reservations, therefore, is viewed as a suitable way to address the problems faced by Dalits.

Peaceful journey of the Dalit movement

From 1940 to 1950, the Dalit movement in Nepal advanced as an ethnic movement and does not seem to have had a clear political outlook even though it was tied to the 1950s democratic revolution. From 1960 to 1963, some changes to the Muluki Ain (Civil Code) brought to strengthen King Mahendra’s power appears to have been viewed positively by the then Dalit movement. In 1967, fragmented Dalit organizations came together under the Dalit People’s Development Council. However, its leadership could not fight against the then autocratic Panchayat system. Under the influence of the Indian Dalit movement, the first national Dalit Conference was held in Kathmandu in 1972 which demanded reservations for the first time in Nepal. In 1979, King Birendra then formed a Constitutional Amendment Committee, which nominated Hiralal Bishwakarma as a Dalit representative. But the Constitution barely prioritized the issues of Dalits. In the current political context though, the Dalit movement appears to be moving forward with the strategy of consolidating the movement and taking steps to address emerging problems faced by the Dalits in Nepal.

Despite facing various challenges since the 1950s, the Dalit movement in Nepal has continued to defend its achievements particularly after the nonviolent People’s Movement of 1990. Based on the notion that political leaders should voice the concerns of activists, unity among the UtpiditJatiya Utthan Manch, the Dalit People’s Development Council and a part of the Ethnic Equality Society succeeded in giving the Nepali Dalit Movement a new direction for nearly a decade (1990 to 2000). Additionally, the nonviolent Dalit Movement led and facilitated by the Dalit Civil Society, succeeded in establishing untouchability as an agenda of national and international debate. In order to guide the Dalit movement towards the right direction, political parties formed a Dalit People’s Organization during the 1950s, embracing it as an integral part of the party’s work at present. As a common front for these organizations, the Joint Political Dalit Struggle Committee remains in force today and works in coalition with the Dalit civil society. This Joint Political Dalit Struggle Committee that had led the historic 2006 April Uprising also campaigned in the Constitution making process from 2008 till 2015. As a result, the Constitution of Nepal 2015 made some historical achievements in the favor of Dalits.

Why did Dalits in Nepal adopt a nonviolent approach to achieve justice? 

  • History matters:

There is no history where Nepali Dalits have taken a violent approach in achieving their political goals. They have been in the hold of feudalism for ages and for a long time, the discrimination against Dalits was blamed on their ‘fate’ rather than systematic oppression against them. This prevented rebellion for the Dalit cause. The Dalits rather believed in the leadership of the political parties and hoped for transformation. This historical legacy can be observed till date within the Nepali Dalit movement.

  • Belief in Dalit leadership and a sustained and continued struggle:

The Dalit leadership never encouraged the Dalit community to engage in an armed movement for justice. Rather the leadership inspired community members to continue fighting nonviolently either through civil society or through close engagement with various political parties. Instead of instigating rebellion over the systematic oppression, the Dalit community believed in guidance of their political leaders and hoped for gradual democratic justice.

  • Social and political vulnerabilities in terms of organizing and campaigning:

The Dalit movement was not led by any specific ideal or parties. It operated on a common front of lenient Dalits who rejected the path of armed movement. Since Dalits are dispersed across the country, they had less chances of concentrating their voice and stance as a prominent political party. Lack of unity of Dalits themselves has also prevented a violent rebellion for their cause.

Achievements of the Dalit movement

The Nepali Dalit Movement, built on the foundations of a seven-decades-long nonviolent struggle, has been able to make some progress. One notable achievement is that it has raised the consciousness of Dalits nationwide to become organized on both political and non-governmental fronts. The Dalit issue has been established as a central theme in Nepal’s political and academic discourses. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 has addressed some issues that were raised since the beginning of Dalit Movement in Nepal such as reservation in politics, and Nepali bureaucracy as well increasing Dalit’s access to education, health, and other social development sectors. As a result, political parties have been compelled to ensure Dalit representation within their parties. Thousands of political and social leaders from Dalit communities are now able to oppose the oppression and discrimination they face. Although low in number, the admittance of Dalit employees has also increased in state agencies. However, a fair and proportionate representation of Dalits in every state organ as envisioned by the Constitution is yet to be fulfilled.

Way forward

In order to address the existing problems of Dalit communities, the laws and policies in Nepal must provide opportunities to involve them in mainstream political, social and economic decision-making processes in all state organs from the local to central level of government. An effective implementation of Constitutional rights can contribute to creating a favorable environment for their equal participation and proportional representation.

Also, considering the immediate as well as long- term success of the Dalit movement, the years 2021 to 2030 must be declared as the ‘Dalit Rights Decade’. The objective of this declaration must align with the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development Goals i.e., ‘Leave No One Behind.’ As discussed above, the major problem delaying the full potential of the Dalit movement in Nepal is scattered attempts towards fulfillment of their agenda. The Dalit movement, therefore, should practice coalition building and must consolidate their agendas through various forms of collaborations, joint campaigns with media, Civil Society Organizations and other relevant groups in the country. This approach may also connect progressive and non-biased population with the Dalit movement. A consolidated approach can aid the sustenance of other strong civil and human rights movements in Nepal as well.


The views, opinions and graphics expressed in the piece above are solely those of the original author(s) and contributor(s). They do not necessarily represent the views of Centre for Social Change.

Mr Ganesh BK is Chairperson of the Rastriya Dalit Network, which includes the Dalit Women’s Council, Dalit Students’ Council, Haliya Rights Forum, Dalit Representative Forum, and Untouchability Assessment Centre. The Network offers trainings and orientation workshops to Dalit rights defenders who work for these organisations.

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