Thursday, September 27, 2007

Battle for Inclusion

battle for inclusion

Miles to go together

On September 17, 2006 in Silghadi, a town in far western Nepal, the Dalits were attacked after they entered a temple they gained access to after years of struggle. What ideally should have been a dawn of a new beginning gave way to violence. Finally an agreement was signed between Dalits and non-dalits giving Dalits the access to the temples. But is everything just as fine as it seems? Ekchhin visited Silghadi to take stock of the latest situation and bring home to MS the lessons learned.Mohan Rai 19. September 2007

This little hill town of Silghadi looks calm. It’s difficult to imagine the Shaileshwori temple incident occurred here. The people seem complacent and do not want to talk about it. “It’s over”, they say readily, even before you can ask them. “Now the Dalits can enter the temple just as anyone”. If you try to persist, some will even tell you to your face that they do not want to talk about it because it's all over. But all is not well in this beautiful, seemingly simple, little hill town.

This becomes obvious when you visit the temple. The atmosphere is quiet except for the occasional tolling of the bells and the low beating of the drum by an old Dalit man who sits at the corner of the entrance of the temple and who does not like to identify himself as a Dalit. There is no hurly burly, no strong smell of incense. If you are fortunate you will meet about ten people at a time and if you want to come across a Dalit worshipper you will have to wait and watch, and sometimes even pray. It's hard to believe that six months back a community fought with another to enter into this temple. But what becomes harder to believe is that it has now become accessible to all.

Accessible but not really accessed

“Before (the incident) one member from almost every Newar household, especially women, used to come for puja every morning. Now the number of worshippers have decreased very significantly”, observes a local journalist, who does not want his name mentioned.

What about the Dalits who hard won their rights to enter the temple? “Dalits are working class people. So they don’t get much time for doing things like worshipping in a temple. Most of them pay visit only during major festivals, which is twice a year”, explains Mahesh Taylor of Equality Development Centre (EDC), one of the two Dalit organisations that played a key role in the Shaileshwori movement. But some argue there is another reason too. “Many Dalits in the surrounding villages still fear that the goddess will somehow punish (them if they enter)”, says the anonymous journalist.

Of course many non-dalits have no qualms about Dalits or any other people entering the temple. You will even find many—especially the younger lot of Dalits as well as non-dalits - who do not bother to visit the temple and do not care who goes into it or who doesn't. Others are willing to accept it as an inevitable change brought about by time. But there are many non-dalits who have not come to accept the fact that the Dalits have started entering the temple. “They (Dalits)just wanted to attack our faith”, says Netra Man Shrestha, secretary of the Shaileshwori Area Development Committee (SADC) and one among the18 arrested (non-dalits) by the local administration on charges of disrupting peace and security in connection with the activities in the aftermath of the temple incident where around 50 Dalits were injured.

The Shaileshwori temple in particular is special to the local Newars, they take it for their own and they have invested quite a lot in its development and maintenance. Moreover, they are resentful that though the movement was waged for gaining access to the Shaileshwori temple, the Dalits wanted to enter other temples too once were given the access to Shaileshwori.

Why did the non-dalits agree to sign the agreement then? “The non-dalits agreed to a compromise under very compelling circumstance. Dashain was very near. And some government employees had been arrested on charges of disruption of peace and security. Their families would have to observe the festival with them in jail. The government employees could lose their jobs”, explains Shankar Thapa, editor of Doteli Aawaj, a local tabloid.

The Dalits’ struggle for access to temples in Doti dates back to at least 2000 A.D. That year human rights activists Daman Nath Dhungana and others were in Silghadi for a seminar against caste discrimination. Dhungana said he would stand at the entrance of the Shaileshwori temple holding the then constitution open and the Dalits could enter into it. However, as they went towards the temple it was discovered that the temple premises had been sealed by the army. The then prince Dipendra had come out of nowhere and was paying homage to the goddess. By the time the prince left, a crowd of non-dalits had gathered at the temple premise and the attempt ended in a scuffle. “Very few realised at that time that such a rash action would not solve the problem”, says Naresh Ale, another anonymous local journalist.

The Dalits continued with their struggle in varied ways: organising common feast, mass gatherings, public debates etc. However, observers say there were apparent lapses in this advocacy. In the period after, the Dalits slowly became more organized and strategic. In May 2006, the Dalits held a conference and formed a Dalits’ Rights Network to fight untouchability. The network did campaigns at district and grassroots level.

The attack on dalit worshippers

The movement gained momentum after a dispute between the Dalit women and the priest in a Shivalaya temple on Teej day on August 26, 2006. Following this the Dalits formed a 21-member joint struggle committee. After tough and repeated attempts, on September 16, 2006, the local administration brokered a two-point agreement that gave the Dalits the access to the Shaileshwori temple. The very next day Dalit worshippers entered the Shaileshwori temple while non-Dalits watched passively. But when the Dalits went on to enter the Radha Krishna temple, a smaller temple some 200 meters away from the Shaileshwori temple, they were attacked by a mob of non-dalits. Several Dalits were injured, especially while fleeing through a steep slope at the back of the temple. The mob also vandalised the offices of EDC and Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO). After this the Dalits intensified the movement and finally another agreement was reached on the 17th of October that gave Dalits access to the temple. The shortcomings of the Shaileshwori movement

Though the movement met with historical success, it has not gone uncriticised. Some contend that the organisations that led the movement failed to sensitize and involve the Dalits in the surrounding villages, particularly those in the 'Barha Barela'. Historically the Shaileshwori temple was established by the inhabitants of Bharha Barela, 12 villages surrounding the town and it is the people from there who still run the day-to-day activities of the temple.

Lack of wider participation of the local Dalits is one reason why many non-dalits consider the movement the miscreant act of a handful of Dalits from town engaged in NGOs. They see it as dollar-driven and one with vested interest. They are angry that the NGOs and INGOs working with Dalits or Dalit issues have tried to upset tradition. In fact, in a rally organised by the non-dalits on September 6, 2006, slogans demanding extermination of NGOs working on Dalit issues from the town, were chanted.

Others add that there were few efforts done to sensitize and hold dialogue with non-dalit community. Some organizations even contend that the Dalit organisations were so keen on making the movement a Dalit-driven one they did not really bother to involve these other organisations and acknowledge the role they could play.

Finally,when the agreement was signed, the non-dalits differed from the Dalits in the way they perceived the agreement. “Non-dalits thought it was a compromise. But some Dalits took it as a victory against the non-dalits”, recalls Shankar Thapa. And you will find many who argue that the Dalits moved too fast.

Of course, the Dalit leaders do not buy all these arguments. “It would not have been possible with meetings, workshops etc and with laws and declarations. We needed this kind of approach. The fact is we have never had a social movement in this country. We need more and diverse movements that will eventually give way to a social revolution”, contends Dharma Singh Bishworkarma, of FEDO and the president of the joint struggle committee. And some non-dalits agree too. “We talk of gradual change but how gradual should it be? I have seen this way all my life. What happened was inevitable”, says Ram Hari Ojha, programme coordinator of Human Rights and Peace Campaign Nepal (HURPEC), Doti.

The Dalits in EDC say the Dalits in the surrounding villages wanted to participate but could not because of pressure from their landlords. Most of the Dalits in the whole region do not have their own land and cultivate the land owned by non-dalits on share cropping basis. Dalits also say they had tried to involve non-dalit organisations and seek their support. They are very dismayed that these organisations did not get involved and support them. “Even the NGO federation did not support us, let alone others“, says Mahesh.

Dalits also see the conflict as a fight for resources. “Till now the non-dalits were using up all the property of and income from the temple. Some even misappropriated it. True 'Kariya' (the Dalits from Barha Barela who participate in rituals and other activities in the temple) Dalits from Bharha Barela received some but it was very little. Now we have demanded that Dalits should included in the SADC committee and that its accounts are made transparent”, says Adhiraj B.C.

How can Silghadi move forward?

The dalits can enter the temple but many have not accepted this fact. Six months have passed and the Silghadians have not really moved ahead. “Before the terms of the agreement can be realized in a real sense, it requires the involvement and acceptance of all the actors of the society, particularly the non-dalits. You cannot impose something upon a community even if it is ethically correct and legally binding,” Shankar argues, “there is a need to involve and sensitize the entire community rather than just the Dalits”. And this is obviously a tremendously arduous task. The Newars, who comprise almost 70 percent of the non-dalit community in Silghadi, are utterly traditional conservative elite.

“It is difficult but not impossible”, says Sachidananda Joshi of Samaj Sewa Doti (SSD). “For example, we have 100 non-dalit members in our organization. Through these 100 members we can start educating and sensitizing 100 families. But that takes time. What is important is whether we want to make it happen or not”, he adds. But the Dalits feel they have been oppressed and exploited for too long and do not really seem willing to reach out. They accept that the Dalits cannot do it alone. Some talk of involving political parties and other organisations. Others talk of forming an alliance of democratic forces. But they do not stress the importance of bringing non-dalits in particular on board.

However, some attempts have been made. On 21st of March the Dalit network organised a program and invited the members of civil society and representatives of political parties to tell them that they need to get involved. Political parties and civil society say they will. But the Dalits still do not seem to be assured of their genuine participation. The feeling, like before, is that they will have to do it alone. “We will resume the movement if they do not receive the compensation they incurred on October 16th from the state”, they say almost in a cautionary tone. If that happens without adequate initiative to hold dialogue and involve the non-dalits, it could lead to more conflict. Perhaps what is badly needed now in Silghadi is a third party that can initiate the process of dialogue both with the Dalits and non-dalits?

Dialogue can never be enough

In the long run, all the stakeholders, particularly the NGOs and INGOs, will have to give up the segregated approach of doing things: “The tendency has been to go only to Dalits to discuss Dalit issues. This can never solve the problem”, says Ramhari Ojha. “The NGOs and INGOs educated and sensitized the Dalits. But the non-dalits were left out”, observes Joshi. "Also, social inclusion can never happen without social acceptance and at the cost of social cohesion.”

However, not less important is to educate, aware and unite the Dalits. As long as untouchability exists within them, they will have a tough time fighting it without. They will also need to give up the hesitation and fear borne out of superstition before they can really savor the joy and experience the bliss of being at the inside of where gods reside. Finally, the temple entrance issue can—and should—never be seen and dealt with in isolation with the overall state of the Dalits. “When their non-dalits landlord started throwing their things out of their shops in the wake of the incident, the Dalits came to us urging to make a compromise”, recalls Keshab Pariyar, the president of EDC. Unless Dalits are empowered in other spheres, particularly economically, the long-cherished dream—and the right Dalits are entitled to by the virtue of them being human beings—to enter in temple will remain at best half-fulfilled.

Quotes: “They (Dalits) just wanted to attack our faith” Netra Man Shrestha
? “Dalits are working class people. So they don’t get much time for doing things like worshipping in a temple.”, Local journalist

“Non-dalits thought it was a compromise. But some Dalits took it as victory against the non-dalits”, Shankar Thapa

social inclusion can never happen without social acceptance and at the cost of social cohesion.”
“We talk of gradual change but how gradual should it be? I have seen this way all my life”. Ram Hari Ohja

“We will resume the movement if they do not receive the compensation they incurred on October 1st from the state”

MS director: Time for the stakeholders in the Shaileshwori incident to debate in an inclusive mannerThe Shaileshwori incident shows the complexity of inclusion andexclusion in Nepalese society. The access to the Shaileshwori temple is an important symbol of the Dalit's struggle for their rights as citizens, but it is also connected to the much broader issues of justice, recognition and self-determination denied to them for many years. MS believes that a movement which fights a history of grave inequality needs to risk confrontation with the rest of society at times to move forward. But it is extremely important to follow up on this kind of advocacy by attempts at inclusive dialogue in order to reach mutually agreeable solutions. MS strongly condemns the use of violence; whether against the Dalits or anybody else. Violence will inevitably disrupt any dialogue and peace building initiative. NGOs (international as well as local) need to follow their principles of poverty reduction, democracy and inclusion in a manner that considers the building of peace and management of conflict in the long run. The present state of the temple incidence indicates a strong need and cause for all stakeholders working for social inclusion to continue the debate about the issues of the temple in a truly inclusive manner and MS partner organisations in Doti, i.e. SSD, EDC and BSS, can and should play an important and active role in this process.

Timeline of the Shaileshwori incidence 2006

June 4-5: Dalit conference organised; Dalit Rights Network formed.
August 26: Dispute between the Dalit women and the temple priest In Shivalaya temple regarding accepting the offerings of the former; Dalit women approach the local administration
August 29: The local administration tries to resolve the conflict between the Dalits and the non-dalits unsuccessfully.
August 31: The Dalits submit a memorandum to the government, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and civil society organisations.
September 8: Formation of 21-member Joint Struggle Committee.
September 9-15: Dalits carry on with their struggle through mass gathering, sit-ins, meetings etc
September 16: Local administration calls for all stakeholders' meeting. The Dalits and non-dalits agree on a two-point agreement that gives the former the access to the temples
September17: The Dalits enter the Shaileshwori temple but are attacked when waiting to enter another temple.
September 18 to October15: The Dalits intensify their struggle in Silghadi and elsewhere. The issue attracts national attention. Social Welfare Council team visit Silghadi. The Joint Struggle Committee initiates the process of dialogue with other stakeholders.
October 16: The agreement, prepared through tough negotiation, is finally signed by both parties. The non-dalits involved in activities against the Dalits apologise.
October19: Non-dalits invite the Dalits for joint worship. The Dalits participate.

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