(This article was first published by the Red Elephant Foundation’s Ahimsa Project.)
“To be ‘Dalit’ means to be broken, but to bear this identity is to be defined by struggle and protest….The term converts the image of an empty, passive, voiceless mass of the poor into a movement of people united in struggle against their economic exploitation and cultural discrimination, demanding social justice and political equality,” writes Diwas Raja Kc in Dalit: A Quest for Dignity (2018), a book that presents a visual archive of Dalit lives, experiences, resistance and movements in Nepal. It was produced by NayanTara Gurung Kakshapati on behalf of photo.circle, a creative platform for photographers and other visual storytellers enquiring into Nepali history through the lens of social change.
This book came into my life soon after I participated in the South Asian Regional Institute on the Study and Practice of Strategic Nonviolent Action in Dhulikhel, Nepal, in March 2019. This week-long programme included interactions with Dalit community leaders who spoke about the physical and structural violence that Dalits have to face despite constitutional provisions meant to safeguard their rights as citizens. They continue to organize themselves and make collective demands through a democratic process that has produced significant gains but stopped short of ensuring full dignity. Even in urban areas, discrimination is far from being a thing of the past. Dalit students often have to conceal their caste identity when they are looking for a house to rent.
As I listened to them, I thought about the situation in India where atrocities against Dalits are commonplace. Untouchability was abolished decades ago but violence in the name of caste has not disappeared from our society. Dalits are still being denied access to clean drinking water, made to toil in fields without adequate financial compensation, kept out of senior positions in all sectors that reward caste privilege, murdered if they choose to marry someone higher up in the caste system, and raped if they do not comply with feudal landowners. Dalits have been rising up and speaking against every injustice, refusing to be thought of as powerless. They have had enough of being talked down to, misrepresented, and taken advantage of. They want to be in charge of telling their own stories.
“It would be fanciful to imagine that we could discover a trove of pictures taken by Nepali Dalits through which we could describe their understanding of the world around them, of their hopes and their struggles, of their identities and their histories,” writes Diwas Raja Kc. “Cameras were, for much of the 20th century, prohibitively expensive. Even the few Nepalis who owned cameras did not think to turn their lenses towards Dalit communities around them, leaving the bulk of the task to foreigners. Dalits themselves occasionally accessed the growing culture of studio photography and hired photographers for their own purposes of representation.”
This self-reflexive tone is consistently emphasized through the pages of Dalit: A Quest for Dignity. The reader is encouraged to think about the politics of consuming these images, and what one makes of them. It might be illuminating to watch whether one’s response is driven by curiosity, voyeurism, empathy, respect, solidarity or even indifference. With the proliferation of violent images on television and the Internet, it is not difficult to think that a large number of individuals have probably become desensitized to the suffering of others. Photography makes it possible for a viewer to pause, take a breath, and engage with an image at their own pace. It is in these moments perhaps that the viewer stops being a consumer, and considers the baggage they bring to the image.
The Dalits we see in this book are engaged in a variety of occupations. They are sweepers, blacksmiths, woodworkers, basket weavers, construction workers, musicians and farm workers in the caste-based economy of Nepal, a country with democratic aspirations that is deeply entrenched in social hierarchies reinforced by religion. It is easy for an Indian to notice this because our claims to being the world’s largest democracy are weakened by our failure to liberate ourselves from the shackles of the caste system, which keeps millions of Indians from being treated as fully human by their fellow Indians.
The book begins with a series of photographs featuring Uma Devi Badi, a Dalit woman who staged a “petticoat protest” to push forth the demands of Dalit communities that had been rejected. It was a “last-ditch effort” to symbolize the stripping of her community’s dignity. Later in the volume, we see a two-page spread of Dalits organizing a temple entry programme at the world-famous Pashupatinath Temple. This moment marks a significant victory for Dalit liberation in Nepal because their collective energy “culminated in the removal of the signboard that explicitly prohibited entry to untouchables from the main entrance to the temple.”
There are many powerful images in this book, each with a compelling back-story that can hardly be appreciated from just looking at a caption or a short description. It is important, however, to guard against being seduced by the image as an archival artefact because violence against Dalits is not a thing of the past. It is alive and present. The most poignant example for me is the collection of selfies from the mobile phone of a Dalit man named Ajit Mijar, who makes an appearance in this book. He was killed for eloping with his Brahmin girlfriend. The book tells us, “It was discovered that his murder was staged to appear like a suicide and the police of Kumpur, where the incident took place, buried the body before news got out. The girl was forcibly taken away and held against her will by her parents.”
India is no stranger to this kind of violence. Young people who love each other, and are willing to transgress socially imposed boundaries, are asked to pay a price for this hubris. If they envision a life that is built on their love, they are cruelly reminded that loveless traditions will be upheld in the service of that unholy nexus between patriarchy, casteism and heteronormativity. Hope, thankfully, outlives human beings. And the brave ones continue to resist because their life depends on it.