ROMANTICIZING THE JANJATI
Ten-year old Suman Nepali’s harrowing eyewitness account of how his mother was killed by his teacher Hira Lama and Hira’s mother Kailimaya Tamang, who tortured her and fed her human feces, was published in NepalKhabar recently. Urban readers were sickened by this account, in which the social science teacher hurled abuse at the young Dalit woman and accusations of being a witch, tied her to a volleyball post in the schoolyard, hit her on the head, tied her legs when she resisted forcible feeding of human feces, and forced it down her throat, and beat her so savagely on her head she succumbed to her injuries two days later.
The whole village watched as this incident unfolded, and did not help, except for one woman who separated 10 year old Suman from his enraged teacher after he attacked him when the boy pleaded with him not to hurt his mother.
The victim, weakened by the torture on Tuesday, 6th December, was unable to walk the three hours to Dhulikhel Hospital the next day. The Nepal Police showed up on Thursday, two days after the incident, and made the victim sign a “milapatra” or reconciliation agreement saying their conflict had ended in the presence of 15 villagers. Used by the police often in the case of domestic violence and abuse, the milapatra is a troublingly overused system of restorative justice. The milapatra usually means the victim has agreed to a reconciliation and will not pursue legal action. Laxmi Pariyar died on Friday morning, while her husband and child slept nearby.
The account provoked storms of outrage on social network Twitter. The protesters on Twitter demanded legal action against the policeman who had made the victim sign this paper. Questions were raised as to whether the justice system was misusing this informal method of local community “reconciliation” to avoid prosecuting serious crime, in this case murder.
Dalitonline, an online news portal, also reported that the policeman in charge had been seen drinking with the perpetrator shortly before. In an extraordinary misuse of the justice system, the policeman Prempukar Chowdary, who had forced Laxmi Pariyar to sign the concocted milapatra, apparently filed a case against the tortured victim, in favor of the perpetrator.
Bisnukumari Pariyar, mother-in-law of the deceased woman, explained in a press conference held by the police on 12th December that Chowdhary had made them sign a paper in which they had to beg for forgiveness from Hira Lama, and also pay him Rs.6000. In addition, the husband of Laxmi Pariyar was then arrested by the police, who are now claiming this incident never occurred—according to the Dalitonline report, this is a strategy to frame the innocent husband, in order to deflect attention from the calls of action against the police involved, including those at district headquarters.
The multiple levels of misuse of the justice system to torture, kill, hide the case, blame the victim, force them to pay restitution, and then frame the innocent husband speaks of multiple levels of miscarriage of justice for this Dalit family in Kavre. The Nepal Police have failed in their line of duty. Not only did they fail to arrest the perpetrator and take the victim to Kathmandu’s hospitals, which would have saved her life, they allowed an innocent man to be framed.
This is not the first time a woman has been fed human feces after being accused of witchcraft. Another high profile documented case also involved a Tamang teacher who accused a woman of witchcraft and fed her human feces. In 2009, the newspapers reported another similar case in which Kumari BK was accused by Bimala Lama, the headmistress of a local primary school, of practicing witchcraft. Ms Lama and a group of villagers then locked up Ms Kumari BK and her husband for two days, and tortured the couple. When they threatened to chop off her breasts with a knife, Ms Kumari BK "admitted" she was a witch.
Advocacynet reports that:
Ms Kumari BK was kicked, punched, hit with stones, and forced to eat excrement while Ms Lama and other villagers told her that "Witches should be killed like this," according to a Jagaran Media Center (JMC) report. The villagers also threatened to kill her husband if he spoke up in her defense.
I remember talking to Subash Darnal, a dynamic Dalit activist who headed the Jagaran Media Center, about this incident in 2009. Subhash, sadly, died in a tragic accident while returning from a fellowship at Stanford University. I assumed, like most people, that Brahmins were somehow behind this conflict. He was the one who told me that during this incident, the Brahmins of the community got so enraged about this sickening violence against the Dalit woman that they had to physically send in the armed police force from Kathmandu to manage the conflict between the Brahmins and the Tamangs in the community.
It was also Subash who told me that the was a need to analyze how janjati or ethnic cultures also oppressed Dalits—in particular, he brought up the ways in which janjati men would marry Dalit women, then abandon them once the parents protested and marry a second time with women from their own cultures, leading to the social abandonment of Dalit women left alone and vulnerable with children.
There is a tendency amongst the intelligensia of Nepal, especially those educated in Western universities and mentored by high profile Western academics, to automatically read this Dalit oppression through the lens of what can, for lack of a better term, be labeled “Evil Brahminism.” Through this frame of reference, all Dalit oppression is directly attributable to the evil Brahmins and their scriptures, including those of Manu. Parallel to this is the romanticized discourse of the “Good Janjati,” especially Tamangs, whose contemporary situation has been read as directly attributable to their being oppressed by the Ranas and Shahs, who used this particular ethnic group for labor for centuries and therefore have driven them into unimaginable poverty.
I have found, however, that that sort of discourse is not just simplistic and misleading, but also has acted to obfuscate the social realities on which intersecting oppressions of different groups lies. This discourse fails to note that Tamangs have been beneficiaries of the modern Nepal state since Panchayat times and more recently with the Maoist civil conflict; and that they are in positions of power within the local community, and that they have been incorporated into the discourses of progress and development via the educational system. In both cases, the perpetrators of these gender based violence were teachers, who are respected individuals who received, in most likelihood, a government salary.
In addition, there’s also the ominous aspect of communal ethnic cultures, missing in individualistic Brahmin Chettri culture, which is the age-old “community court”, or local justice mechanisms. These kangaroo courts can become violent when they gang up en masse against a marginalized figure—an aspect often overlooked when we romaticize the benefic nature of communal cultures.
It is also remarkable to me that amongst all the new literature of ethnic cultures, no anthropologist has taken the time to note that beliefs in witches exist almost exclusively amongst the animistic cultures (including those of Rai-Limbus, Tamang, etc)--Brahmins have no mention of witches in any of their scriptures. Which is one reason a careful analysis of witchcraft accusations will probably, in most likelihood, bring up non-Brahmin perpetrators. In other words, individuals of romanticized ethnic cultures get off easily from gender violence and have uptil now not been made accountable for these incidents of witchcraft torture, simply due to the mistaken perception that ethnic cultures like Tamangs are inherently gender equal, compared to the Brahmins. In fact, I would not be surprised to find some international scholar in some faroff country reading about this incident and writing a generic report, exclusively based on an epistemological framework of Brahmin oppression.
I find these foreign experts (who shall remain unnamed, but I will let on that many of them, from prestigious universities from the USA and UK, are anthropologists) have exacerbated and obfuscated serious issues like those of witchcraft by having the final say on their own particular ethnic group. Nobody else is allowed to question the epistemological supremacy of these individuals, who hold the supreme truth over their own particular tribe (rather like old viceroys of yore), and which has stopped other people within Nepal from asking the right questions, which may in fact have stopped this gender based violence a long time ago.