A 23-year-old civil servant in Gelephu, who was deployed in remote Gongtsekha village of Jigmecholing gewog as a polling official, said that she was discriminated during election duty based on her caste.

She wrote to the returning officer of Gelephu constituency after returning from the elections, saying that national events like elections should be held in civil servants’ residence or government infrastructure in the future.

Gongtsekha is officially three days’ walk from Sarpang. Without any government infrastructure in the locality, a temporary shed was constructed as a polling booth. The polling officials had to live in a house nearby.

The civil servant said that right after reaching the station, the house owner asked her name and caste and she was then asked not to enter the kitchen and the main room. “When I asked them why, they said I belonged to a lower caste and as per their culture and tradition, I was not allowed to enter their kitchen.”

She said that she felt humiliated. “I really wanted to question and fight back, but couldn’t as I was there on election duty. I had to ensure that I didn’t disturb the election process.”

The civil servant, who joined civil service on contract only five months ago, said she was born and grew up in Thimphu and she never realised there were such issues in the remote places.

“I felt like I was robbed off my dignity and self-respect,” she said.

She said that she requested the election officials and wrote a statement so that the general public would be educated on such practices and no other person faces such issues in the future.   

“I am a civil servant and when they could treat me so badly, I am worried about the villagers who belong to lower caste. They could be going through hell as they interact with these people from the upper caste every day.”

The civil servant, who works as a health official, said the irony of the caste system was that when the same house owner had an eye injury during one of those days, he asked her help. “I told him he has issues with me entering his house but no issue availing of my service.”

She said it basically boiled down to the need of creating awareness and education. “I wish all relevant stakeholders could do something to stop such practices.”

Jigmecholing gup, Kumar Gurung, said he was not aware of the incident and no one reported the matter to him. Civil servants in the locality said people in the area who are predominantly from the upper caste  did not even attend functions  organised by people who belonged to the lower caste.

A civil servant said it was a challenge for him too since people in the locality looked down upon him. “I sometimes escort the dzongkhag officials and when all the officials enter in the houses belonging to the higher caste people, I have to stay outside.”

He said that he tried to educate and create awareness by even writing to the National Council representatives from the dzongkhag. “But no one has done anything until now.”

He said that there were times when he felt thirsty when walking to the remote villages but could not drink water from the tap, as it belonged to the upper caste people. “While the Constitution guarantees equality and prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, language, religion, politics or other status, discrimination based on caste is predominant in rural areas.”

The civil servant said that there were times when he entered the houses belonging to the people of the upper caste, guaranteeing that if anything happened in the house after his visit, he would take the risk. “There has to be a policy that prohibits such practices.”

Tashi Dema