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The Elephant in the Room that We Must Address: The Ugly Truth of Casteism in the Hills

Text by Dipti Tamang/ Photos by Shivam Darnal

Rally against Caste Discrimination and Subjugation, Darjeeling, 9th June, 2024 /Photo courtesy: Shivam Darnal
Rally against Caste Discrimination and Subjugation, Darjeeling, 9th June, 2024 /Photo courtesy: Shivam Darnal

‘I only use my first name on my Instagram handle,’ a close friend once told me. Upon being asked why, she answered, ‘because it allows me not to reveal my caste’, with a sense of acceptance that instilled in me a sense of despair, rage, and hurt that I am sure she no longer bothered to resign her life to.

Often, most of us in the Hill society, not belonging to any of the three Scheduled Caste groups- Kaami, Damai, and Sarki, choose to believe that casteism is non-existent in our Hill society. If we do, we believe that it is different from the rest of the country, implying that it is not harmful and bearing the same consequences where caste atrocities are predominantly visible.  In reality, caste practices and abuse are rampant in our Hill society, where the Hindu caste hierarchy has majorly influenced the shaping of the homogenized Nepali/Gorkha identity and the Hill society at large. It is in this attempt to constantly keep alive the idea of an imagined one identity intact that we often fail to understand the complexities underpinning the actual fabric of the Hill society at large. For most of us, our immediate sense of oppression, marginalization, and discrimination comes from our larger confused identity as ‘foreigners’, ‘pravaasis’, and immigrants. We connect as Gorkhas/Indian Nepalis over this hurt and humiliation that has been a part of our existence as a community. Forgetting some of us may have multiple experiences emerging from our multiple identities- as belonging to a schedule caste group, different ethnicity, gender and more. Over a prolonged period, we have also failed to see the multiple fissures and cracks within this larger Gorkha/Nepali identity itself, forcing some of us to ask what it means to be a Gorkha or who is a Gorkha? Casteism is one of the markers of this fractured identity, which now increasingly demands to be no longer ignored.

​The current atmosphere in the Hills over the casteist abuses and slurs of an influencer, YouTuber- Rajat Tamang, is a reiteration of this long overdue demand from those whose voices have been silenced.  The Hill society is now witnessing a new form of mobilization where the Scheduled Caste groups have come together demanding their rightful share of respect and dignity in the society that has long been ignorant of these realities. Once again, this anti-caste mobilization and protest are being branded as ‘diverting from the Cause,’ resonating with the larger consciousness of the only actual oppression and sense of marginalization being that of a Gorkha/Nepali. In a similar vein, a young female scholar had been the target of brutal social media trolling a few years ago for raising questions of the gendered practices in the Hills.  

The essence of the Hill society as a multi-lingual, multi-cultural space has been pushed far back in the reiteration of a unified demand for a homeland for the Nepalis. Minorities have been forced to co-opt languages and cultural practices that strengthen this imagined idea of a unified Nepali/Gorkhali. It is not surprising, therefore, that minority groups today continue to trace back their respective roots and lineages with a renewed sense of urgency. From indigenous groups to historically marginalized groups- such as the Scheduled Caste groups, religious minorities, and sexual minorities are today pushing back against the idea of homogeneity within the Hill society while resisting the larger practices of intolerance on the Outside. From these forms of resistance and movements, we must likewise draw our own sense of solidarity and fight our larger battles. If we are, after all, fighting for justice, it can no longer be exclusive. We need a larger, progressive, and holistic imagination of a just society to begin with.

Scheduled Caste groups today proclaiming their rightful place and respect in the society reflects these fissures in the Hill society which for long has lived under the pretense of being an egalitarian society at large. Casteism in the forms of disdain for anti-caste marriages to practicing untouchability is a stark truth that has been so normalized for decades that we do not even bother to call it out for what it is. As a society, we have learned to master the art of ‘silencing’ and ‘unseeing.’ For us, the yardstick has always been the Outside Other. Be it in terms of prevalent gendered or casteist practices, our immediate response is one of denial, even when there are voices resisting this silencing. The subalterns have always been speaking. The point is, have we learned to ever listen to what they have been saying? We have simply chosen not to ‘name’ the problem, turn a blind eye to the ugly truths, and live in denial. Today, these groups have chosen to give it a name and resist these practices politically. For caste is political and personal. And if we choose to suppress these voices, it is reflective of our ignorance, privilege, and entitlement.

Rally against Caste Discrimination and Subjugation, Darjeeling, 9th June, 2024 /Photo courtesy: Shivam Darnal
Rally against Caste Discrimination and Subjugation, Darjeeling, 9th June, 2024 /Photo courtesy: Shivam Darnal

The Hills are burning once again and for the right reasons. Caste is a rampant evil that we have continued to be blatantly ignorant of for decades. Our privilege further allows us to be blindly ignorant of these realities. I remember attending a social media discussion on castes in Hill society a few years back. The group was similarly divided, as we witnessed today in the current Rajat Tamang incident. While it has mostly been the Scheduled Caste groups speaking from a space of lived experience, it is ironic how those who have never had the experience continue to explain caste from a sense of privilege and ignorance. A careful reading of the social media posts of those supporting 

Mr Tamang’s apology as a ‘solution’ and ‘pacification’ fails to understand the lived experience of belonging to a minority group whose experience has been one of humiliation, marginalization, and oppression historically for generations. In endorsing support for such hate speech, we continue to uphold systemic forms of oppression that continue to exclude communities and individuals and deprive them of their basic right to live with dignity and respect. Resistance was long overdue, and it marks the beginning of a new space in the Hill politics and landscape where questions of caste, gender, religion, ethnicity, indigeneity, gender, and sexuality must be taken alongside larger questions of identity, alienation and belonging in re-imagining a society that is inclusive, democratic and holistic.

Extending solidarity and support to the anti-caste movement in the Hills.


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