By Ajay Shankar Jha Rupesh, ILF Nepal Country Representative and Executive Director of PDS-Nepal
The recent murder of a young Dalit man, Nawaraj BK, and his five friends was a tragic reminder for the world that caste discrimination is still very much alive in Nepal. The murders sparked protests around the country calling for justice, and the issue goes far beyond this act of violence. Discrimination against people considered lower-caste has all too often meant that they are ignored as victims of crime and their abusers enjoy impunity. At the same time, like other marginalized communities, people considered lower-caste are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and mistreated in the criminal justice system. Dalits are the first punished and the last protected.
The caste system has traditionally defined social order in Nepal: Dalits, who make up between 13 and 20 percent of the population, occupy the lowest rung of this social order. Historically, this meant that Dalit men, women, and children were considered “untouchable” and were denied education, healthcare, public amenities, and economic opportunities. This discrimination has locked Dalits into a continued cycle of exclusion, poverty and violence for centuries.
The caste system in Nepal was formally declared unconstitutional in 1951, and caste-based discrimination was criminalized in 2011, but the legacy of systemic discrimination lives on today. Poverty rates are much higher in Dalit communities and education rates are lower compared to other groups. In addition, there are very few Dalit leaders in government: as of 2018, Dalits made up only around 8% of parliament.
This social structure is reflected in Nepal’s criminal justice system. While marginalized people are underrepresented in the police force, courts, and other powerful institutions, they are overrepresented in the prison population. While statistics about Nepal’s prison population are scarce, according to a survey PDS-Nepal conducted in 2017, “lower-caste” people (Dalit, Janajati, and Madhesi) represent a larger portion of the prison population than “upper-caste” groups (Brahmin, Chhettri).
Around the world, discrimination, lack of access to education, and increased rates of poverty impact a person’s ability to access justice. For the Dalit community in Nepal, these factors increase the rates at which Dalits are arrested, while limiting knowledge about their legal rights, and reducing access to defense lawyers. Additionally, bail is commonly required in Nepal for people accused of even low-level crimes, disproportionately impacting Dalit defendants who lack the resources to pay. Thus, the poorest and most marginalized people suffer even more, languishing in jail awaiting trial. The resulting job loss and stigma exacerbate the cycle of poverty.
Yet, the justice system doesn’t have to be this way: quality legal aid can help level the playing field. More than 70% of our PDS-Nepal clients belong to marginalized communities and without legal aid, would not have access to a lawyer. When people accused of crimes have access to effective lawyers, they are less likely to be tortured, less likely to be subject to discrimination, and more likely to be released ahead of trial.
The fight to end caste discrimination in Nepal is far from over. We must continue to support Nepal’s marginalized communities and the many organizations that are fighting for their rights. In the criminal justice system, we must ensure that everyone has access to a quality lawyer who understands the particular challenges faced by underserved communities and will advocate for dignity, fairness, and justice for all.