‘They Like Our Music, Not Us’: Nepali Dalits Unite to Fight Prejudice

Kami, Damai and Sarki youths are determined to end culture of denial and silence and revive their rich heritage.

Khukuri has historically been the symbol of Gorkha valour and pride. Now, the makers of the machete-like knife with an inwardly-curved blade seek pride for themselves.

Ambedkar on the lips, Nepali Dalits of the Indian subcontinent have joined forces to launch their first ever united, cross-border fight against prejudice and to work towards building pride in their caste heritage.

On March 3, over 50 members of the Kami, Damai and Sarki castes from Nepal and India came together in Siliguri, a trade town in sub-Himalayan West Bengal, and shared with each other stories of oppression, discrimination and everyday casteism. The day-long conference ended with the formation of the tentatively-named International Kami, Damai and Sarki Cultural Heritage Forum. (While Bhutani representatives could not attend the meet, the purview of the forum also includes the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese, the Lhotsampas, who are largely Hindus.)

“This forum will work towards safeguarding the rights of the Nepali Dalits of these three countries, where caste discrimination is a major issue,” said Jitu Gautam of Nepal who chaired the meeting. “We will try to ensure our Dalits have access to rights guaranteed by the constitution of respective countries. We will jointly press upon our governments for action.”

“If the local governments fail us, we will take the support of international bodies, and even knock on the doors of the United Nations,” added Gautam, who is a member of Nepal’s Parliament/Constituent Assembly and former minister of state for general administration and industry.

Apart from fighting caste-based discrimination and casteism, the forum is expected to conduct research on and document Dalit history and legacy. “Much of our shame stems from our ignorance about our rich heritage, and confining our caste conversation around discrimination only,” said Shekhar Sewa, the chief convenor whose brainchild the cross-border initiative is. “It’s time now for us to know who we are and to take pride in our rich legacy.”

A drafting committee of about 30 members has been entrusted to decide on the scope of the organisation, its frame its structure and laws, in the next three months.

On razor’s edge

“The khukuri – the insignia of the Gorkha Regiment – is made by us, the so called ‘low-caste people’ for whom this is an ancestral trade,” said Mithilesh Baraily Kami, co-ordinator and member of the steering committee. “The Kamis forge the iron and give it the strength and sharpness. The shining leather sheath is the contribution of the Damais and Sarkis.”

The khukuri is not only a war weapon, but also an object of everyday utility. “No religious ritual is complete without the khukuri. People flaunt their bir (brave) Gorkha identity by sporting a khukhuri badge next to their heart, or on their hats.”

Yet, the khukuri-makers go unsung. The heart that wears the khukuri has no place for the blacksmiths who forge them. “Forget the recognition for their contribution, they are treated as untouchables. If, in case of urban areas, they get entry into the upper caste homes, an inter-caste marriage with them is a no-no. What more, the word “Kami” has been reduced to an unutterable word, like a swear, and many of us feel ashamed to refer to ourselves as Kamis, and take refuge in other euphemistic titles,” said the 31-year-old Baraily Kami.

Young people like Baraily Kami and Sewa are now increasingly coming forward to assert their caste identities, to fight prejudice with pride.

Shekhar Sewa. Credit: Anuradha Sharma

Like music, hate musicians

The idea of an international body came to Sewa, a resident of Sikkim, from the need to preserve heritage, more than to fight oppression.

“We create music. We dance. We make gold ornaments. We forge iron and we beat copper, and we tan the leather. It’s a rich, rich legacy,” said Sewa (39), who is also the president of All Sikkim Scheduled Caste Welfare Association. “Yet, instead of feeling proud, we are forced into feeling ashamed of ourselves.”

The son of a post-master, he was never encouraged to take up music, his caste profession. But Sewa went on to form a Damai samaj (society) in his village and also formed a team of musicians from all walks of life – students and professionals included – to play the naumati baja, a group of nine traditional musical instruments played generally at weddings, and toured with them in the state and outside.

Seven years ago, he started the Kanchenjunga Naumati Sanstha in his village, Martam, to promote the naumati baja. The tradition was almost on its way out in the Indian Himalayas, as the number of people who play these instruments was on the decline.

“People are giving up caste occupations to pursue blue- and white-collar jobs in a wide range of fields,” said Sewa. “The new generation knows little about their great heritage. I am not advocating that people should go back to their caste jobs; we need to know, understand, revive and preserve our heritage, for culture’s sake. If we don’t, who will?”

Sewa’s experience while travelling with his naumati baja troupe moved him to take his fight far and wide. “It was at my upper-caste friend’s wedding that I got the first shock of my life,” he said. “We were guests at the wedding, and we also played the traditional wedding music. The hosts and other guests just loved our performance. It was all fine until the time for the feast came. We were asked to eat separately, at a hotel. This was at my friend’s wedding, in my village! It was very insulting.”

Sewa refused to accept the arrangement and any food. “It was not so much about the food as it was about our dignity. I protested, the hosts were ashamed,” he said.

The more Sewa travelled, he saw that it was the same everywhere. “Separate arrangements for food, and for stay, we would get just hay and pillows sometimes. We are people pursuing music for passion, not because it’s our caste job. They like our music, not us.”

But instruments don’t play themselves and Sewa and his troupe are often invited to perform at weddings, a trend that is witnessing a revival in Nepali weddings in this region (Sikkim-Darjeeling). “I always make it a point to call out caste discrimination, politely, and never accept any form of undignified treatment,” said Sewa.

A group of naumati-baja musicians in Kalimpong. Credit: Anuradha Sharma

Dalit water impure

While constitutions of all three countries guarantee equality irrespective of birth, caste discrimination is rampant among Nepali Hindus.

Pani na chalne jaat. Upper caste Nepalis use this phrase – meaning “castes with whom you don’t share even water” – to refer to the Dalit communities. (Here is a hit song from the 2014 Nepali film Bato Muni Ko Phool in which the male protagonist is singing, telling his beloved to stay away because “Maile Choyeko Pani Chaldaina (water touched by me is impure)”.

“In Nepal, caste system is still prevalent,” said Gautam, who is also a Dalit activist. “In the urban areas, it may be slightly better, but in the rural areas, Dalits are treated abjectly. Untouchability is still practised. They have to use separate sources of water. They are not allowed to enter temples and homes of upper caste people, and sometimes even government offices.”

With the erstwhile Hindu kingdom replaced by democracy, Gautam feels hopeful that change will come, albeit very slowly. “It won’t go away in a hurry and we must put up a constant fight,” he said. “One good thing is that the Constitution has a separate provision for Dalits. Laws are in place to end untouchability and to give equal rights to them. We now have recourse to the law.”

Banyan tree of Gorkha identity

In 2016, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee announced the formation of three separate development boards for Kamis, Damais and Sarkis. These boards were among the 15 or so she announced for the various Nepali-speaking ethnic groups, also called Gorkhas, in the hills of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. (Practically, there is a board each for all ethnic, tribal, linguistic and caste groups in the hills, including the upper castes.) Her intention was to quell the Gorkhaland movement, which gathered new steam in 2014 following the creation of the Telangana state.

Politically, the move brought her dividends but she also drew criticism for using the “divide-and-rule policy” to break hill unity. She may have exploited the fault lines, but the divisions were not her creation. Prejudice, especially arising due to caste, runs very deep, even though in the hills of Bengal, the caste system does not exist in the traditional way.

Untouchability is not practiced and caste-related violence is not heard of, which most argue as basis to dismiss caste discrimination. In fact, there is no conversation surrounding caste in the political, or otherwise, discourse. The existence of everyday casteism and overt caste discrimination goes unacknowledged not only in Darjeeling and Kalimpong hills, but also neighbouring Sikkim.

When it comes to Indian Nepalis, also referred to as Gorkhas, the discourse has always been around the Gorkha identity; other identities have taken a backseat. “Gorkha nationalism dominates all other discourses,” said Kalimpong-based poet Pradip Lohagun. “The overarching Gorkha identity has no space for other identities. Gorkha nationalism is like that banyan tree that has not allowed weeds of any other discourse to thrive in its shade.”

However, the predominance of the Gorkha identity has been no safeguard against caste discrimination, just that caste is not talked about. “If just this one identity – the Gorkha – is enough; if everyone is a Gorkha, irrespective of caste, then everyone should be treated equally, no? Sadly, the reality is not that.”

There is no escape from caste prejudice, irrespective of one’s profession or economic status. “On the surface it seems like there is no discrimination. On regular days people mingle freely, go to each other’s homes, and also eat together,” said Lohagun. “But are inter-caste marriages even allowed? Another real test of everyday casteism is when there’s a social event, a religious festival, or a wedding. It is on those occasions when the caste identities matter big time.

Members of lower castes are expected to show discretion by staying away from the upper caste kitchens and gods. This is so ingrained that people do without even being asked, or otherwise they are explicitly told where to draw the line.

Hand-made copperware on display at Dinesh Sashankar’s shop in Kalimpong (Kalimpong Handicrafts). International Forum member Sashankar, for whom copper-smithy is a caste profession, also exports his craft to Tibet. Credit: Anuradha Sharma

Identity woes

Kalimpong’s Baraily Kami often gets asked his caste at weddings and his answer creates a stir. “I calmly say ‘Kami’—and not Biswakarma (the polite form that people increasingly use these days) and suddenly the mood of the place changes and people give awkward looks. Sometimes they even say, ‘Oh sorry! Sorry bhai.. didn’t mean to hurt.’ As if I’m suffering from some kind of affliction,” he said, laughing.

“We cringe to call ourselves Damai,” said Pallavi Pariyar, a 26-year-old doctor from Ravangla, Sikkim, also a member of the steering committee. “Though I did not face direct discrimination or a caste attack, thanks to my privilege, I grew up with the trauma of the cringing awkwardness I’ve felt on being asked my caste whenever I visited my friends. I would always try hard to not identify myself as a Damai. The air immediately changes after that.”

However, interestingly, many do not even like to speak about their discrimination. “A lot of Nepali Dalits are supremely sensitive about the discrimination they face being made public,” said an Indian-Nepali author, a Brahmin, who has written about caste prejudice in the Nepali communities, explaining why he did not want to be quoted.

Nepali Dalits of India also do not like to see themselves as “Dalits” – the international forum dropped Dalit from the name on the insistence of Indian participants. “For many, the image of a Dalit is a poor person in dire-straits that we get to see from the rest of India. Nepali Dalits from our hills are economically better; many hold white collar jobs and are successful in their non-caste professions. They shy away from the ‘Dalit’ label,” said Lohagun.

New hope

The International Forum – an apolitical body which also has members from politics – is an eclectic mix of the young and experienced and plans to work keeping in mind the unique problems in each country. “Dalit unity is the need of the hour,” said Pariyar.

Ending everyday casteism and building respect and dignity for castes who have contributed to the community with their skills and trade will be the focus, says Sewa. “The most important step is for us to take pride in our caste identities.”

In his own words: “Enough of feeling ‘low’.”

Anuradha Sharma is an independent journalist.