In the harsh conditions of the Gulf and Malaysia, discriminatory mindsets are sidelined by occupational hazards
The Kathmandu Post
16 March 2014
In a recent article on the Post, author Subhash Nepali illustrated how caste-based discrimination continues to flourish not just in Nepal or the subcontinent but also beyond, in the wider world (‘Bigotry beyond borders,’ February 25, Page 6). Furthermore, he claimed, discrimination doesn’t just exist in less-educated parts of the world but persists rampantly in the learned community as well. One thing that I clearly understood from the article is that the mindset of individuals clearly needs to change and simply ‘educating’ them or making them ‘aware’ will not do. When people lack morality and do not respect the existence of others, they turn to discrimination. With reference to Nepali’s article, in this piece, by including the perspective of Nepali labour migrants, I would like to add a few more points towards understanding ‘bigotry beyond borders’.
Discrimination on any grounds, as stated in the Interim Constitution and on moral grounds, is unacceptable. It should be understood that caste-based discrimination these days has largely become situational, both in the case of Nepal and abroad. Circumstances have shown that the same bunch of people can turn non-discriminatory as well, but because of their unchanged mindsets, that sense of egalitarianism is momentary and situational.
Based on my observations during my interaction with a number of individuals, many of whom have been to the Gulf countries and Malaysia, I have another aspect to add to this dynamics of discrimination. Although discriminatory attitudes seem to travel with people, they remain latent until and unless these individuals are fully allowed to practice their free will. For instance, in the Gulf and Malaysia, migrants forced to live in conditions without the workers’ protection or basic human rights often tend to dismiss their discriminatory attitudes. Many people are forced to live in a single room, eat in a common mess and share plates and glasses. As all of them lead difficult lives, the only support system they have are fellow migrants with whom they not only share their living space and utensils but also moments of grief and laughter; and the chances of these fellows being Bahun and Dalit are fairly equal. So when everyone is in a pitiful condition, one cannot think about acting in a discriminatory manner, irrespective of the feeling that one might have about somebody else’s caste.
The individuals I talked to, be they Dalit, Bahun, Magar, Tamang, Newar or Chhetri, unanimously said that no form of discrimination existed while they were working abroad in the large factories of Malaysia or the deserts of Saudi Arabia. They happily shared their meals and beds and no one complained about having a Dalit cook nor did anyone hesitate to drink water offered by a fellow although he did not know the latter’s caste. A Chhetri from Dhading said, “We were least concerned about our room partners being Dalit. The only thing that bothered us was that we get a timely salary to send back home and the chance to talk to our families once in a while. Among the eight people living in my room, two were Kamis, two Tamangs, three Bahuns and me. I never used nor heard even a single discriminatory word against the two Dalit friends.” This man’s views were shared by a Dalit man from Udayapur, who said, “While in Dubai, I never felt that someone was discriminating against me.
We were like brothers. Even the guys from my village never discriminated against me. The situation is different here.”
Resurgence of prejudices
Interestingly, these same Dalit individuals explained that their friends from other castes discriminated against them when they returned home. When asked, those from the ‘upper caste’ said that this is primarily because they cannot offend their parents or community and have to conform to norms and traditional practices. As they cannot easily disregard the practices they have been raised in—or their own stereotypes might have never left their minds despite being egalitarian abroad—the act of discrimination tended to persist. One generalisation that could be made here is that the discriminatory mindsets remain latent or unexpressed only because your own rights are being violated, you are at the mercy of others and you need a support system.
The act of discrimination, therefore, seems to be situational. Coming back to Subhash Nepali’s article, people have their rights secured in ‘developed’ countries like the US and Australia, and therefore can choose to act in ways particular to their beliefs. Back home in Nepal, they again have the support of communities and families and therefore, are often obliged to conform to discriminatory practices. However, in the Gulf and Malaysia, these societal and legal safeguards are not present, leaving migrants preoccupied with day-to-day subsistence issues. Discrimination in most cases, therefore, is situational and borne out of individuals and societies.
One question to ponder here is: when people can be, or pretend to be, egalitarian in situation of anguish, why can’t they do so at good times or in freedom? Although laws were passed decades ago against any form of caste-based discrimination, as individual and community approaches towards an egalitarian society are lacking, we can still find ample cases (some cited by Subhash Nepali) of discrimination and the violence that is often a part of such practices. We continue to conduct numerous programmes to make the masses ‘aware’ of discriminatory practices and devise strict measures to punish those who practice discrimination. Although this doesn’t seem to be adequate, it is the only resort we have.
Sharma is a Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Labour and Mobility, Kathmandu