Parliamentarians to look into the issues

While the Constitution guarantees equality and prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status, some sections of the country allege they are discriminated based on their caste.

The issue, which has not been discussed openly until now although it is prevalent in some rural communities of the country, was first brought to light when a 36-year-old man in Gelephu lodged a complaint with the police against his in-laws, who belong to an upper caste, for conducting a cleansing ritual for his wife because she married him. The man belongs to a lower caste than them.

Gelephu police forwarded his case to Samtenling gewog and the gewog officials then forwarded the case to the Gelephu dungkhag court.

Samteling gup, Kumar Mongar, said he explained to the complainant that it is a custom in the locality and it is an internal affair. “I advised him that instead of ruining his relation with his in-laws, he should raise it as an issue.”

The gup said that if the man’s in-laws do not perform the cleansing ritual, their neighbours would not come to their house.

The 36-year-old man has now written to the National Council (NC) and National Assembly (NA) members of the southern dzongkhags of Sarpang, Tsirang, Dagana, Samtse, Samdrupjongkhar and Chukha, pointing out that there exists caste discrimination and social stigmatisation in some parts of the country and that intervention is required to stop the practice.

Citing section 15 of Article 7 of the Constitution, the Gelephu-based man said caste discrimination violates the fundamental rights and duties and is a chronic human rights condition, which involves violations of civil, political, economical, social and cultural rights.

Speaking to Kuensel, he said that while caste is not so much an issue in the towns, where people are indifferent to the system, it is a serious issue in rural villages, where communities are close-knit and members depend on each other.

He said during rituals and gatherings conducted in homes of those perceived as lower caste, the food has to be prepared separately for people belonging to the higher caste. “The food has to be prepared by the higher caste people themselves.”

In his letter to the Parliamentarians, he said because of the prevalence of caste discrimination, people belonging to the lower caste are deprived of their right to marriage on free will, among others.

He also said that low caste people are considered untouchable and subjected to so called untouchability practices in rural areas. “Those people cannot even enter the house of higher caste people.”

He said that in rural communities, when people from low castes need to conduct rituals like funeral rites and blessings for new borns, pundits or Brahmin pujaris do not come to their house. “Even during tika ceremony, for low caste, they do not apply it on forehead but hand it over.”

Another man, aged 26, said he recently married a girl from a caste higher than his own. Although her parents accepted the marriage, their community refused it. “A group of about 20 elderly villagers met at my in-law’s place and handed over the girl to me after explaining that the marriage is against their religion and she no longer belongs to their community.”

The Paro-based man said that since then his wife was not allowed to enter her parental house, they had to spend the night on the veranda of the house.

He said that the government should intervene and declare the caste practice illegal. “I researched and found out that the practice has got nothing to do with the religion we belong to.”

He said that his in-laws had to conduct a cleansing ritual after giving away their daughter to him because of the fear of community, as people will not come to their house and help them in times of need.

A local leader from the southern dzongkhag said that caste is an issue in some localities and people from the low castes are considered impure and their presence is considered a pollution to the upper castes.

Jigmecholing gup, Kumar Gurung, said although no official complaint has been lodged so far in his gewog, the caste issue is prevalent in the locality. “But it will change as children are getting educated and they will not follow it.”

Parliamentarians, Kuensel spoke with, said they have not received the letter yet and will have to study the case before making any comments.

The National Assembly’s human rights committee chairperson, the Jomotsangkha-Martshala MP, Pelzang Wangchuk, said they will first have to find out who is right and who is wrong in the case. “But I have not received the letter yet.”

However, a Thimphu-based social worker, BP Bhattarai, said caste is not an issue anymore and a person’s status is now driven by economy and not by caste.

He said that people now eat in restaurants and one never knows who cooks the meal. “No one even bothers to ask the caste and gender.”

He said that caste is not included in scriptures like the Holy Vedas, Vagawat Geeta, Ramayana and Mahabharata but it is a cultural practice like night hunting and Serga Mathang.

“It might be an issue in small pockets but with development, education and behavioural changes, such discrimination shall vanish.”

The solution, he said, is education, as it could help people to uplift themselves. “If there are doctors, teachers, engineers and other professionals from lower castes, I think people will not have problems.”

BP Bhattarai said he does not believe in the caste system but a few people raise issues about it. “People should spend such time productively and work hard to educate themselves and serve the society and country with right thought, right action to curb ignorance and misconception.”

Meanwhile, the 36-year-old man said he contemplated changing religion due to the caste practice but did not, thinking that he will fight for people belonging to the lower caste. “There should be a law to address such discrimination,” he said. “MPs should frame laws.”

He also cited section 3 of Article 9 of the Constitution that states: “The State shall endeavour to create a civil society free of oppression, discrimination and violence, based on the rule of law, protection of human rights and dignity, and to ensure the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people.”

Tashi Dema and Tshering Palden