By Haatemalo Collective
Chamar, one of the Dalit communities living in the Saptari district in Nepal faces untouchability, landlessness, and social exclusion. Mainly due to their labor work of skinning the carcasses, the “upper”-caste community represented by Jha, Mishra, Tiwari, Thakur, and Rajput destroyed any possibility for Chamars to aspire and imagine their rights to life and dignity. The caste system-aided to normalize such impositions and restrictions, rendering Chamars to labor in dehumanizing conditions. This normalization was pervasive to the extent that Chamars were charged higher interest rates for their loans affecting their sense of economy. The “upper”-caste profited from such alienation whereas the skinning work meant suffering, abuse, and violence for Chamar people. Not only were Chamar members dehumanized, but they were also criminalized and seen unfit for other tasks that could benefit the community.
Born in 1950 in Madhupatti, Saptari in Madhesh region, Baldev Ram belonged to the so-called lowest caste Chamar community. From an early age, he valued rebellion, opposing social norms and values, and remaining vocal about social discrimination issues he saw and felt. Amidst his weaker economic situation, Baldev completed his education till Class 7 from a public school. Affected by an incident where he was asked to pick a dead calf, he dropped out of school.
“Why was I asked to pick the dead calf? Neither was the calf mine nor did I kill it!”
Disturbed by such questions, he decided to learn more about the caste system and its multiple manifestations. Working as agricultural laborers on the 2 bighas (hectare) fields owned by “upper”-caste families, such as Madhav Bikram Rana’s, Baldev, and his family were always paid less. Even grains the family received were minimal. The management of carcasses generated only a meager source of income.
When he was only 13 years old, he lost his mother. Although his father Pritam Das remarried, Baldev carried the economic responsibility by working more in the fields while joining friends from other oppressed groups to critique the caste system. Baldev Ram later married Sugdhi Devi and became parents to four children.
It appears that the political situation in Nepal seeking Prajatantra (democracy) in 1945 also changed his worldview. Thanks to his education, his father Pritam Das was selected as the village panchayat registrar. Believing in social transformation and other ideas of social democracy, Das had initiated to form an informal Dalit group. Thanks to this group, his father emphasized on eradicating untouchability and social discrimination. Close to his family, Baldev was influenced by his father’s ideas of social transformation. Baldev’s His son Ganesh Ram was also aware of the challenges faced by his father. Ganesh Ram said, “my father always questioned and raised social issues though he faced difficulties related to landlessness and labor. Later he became more involved in organization and management against the humiliating task of collecting skins of dead cattle.”
Aware of such material conditions impacting his community, Baldev Ram decided to eradicate these unequal circumstances. In 1999, supported by his community, he led the Sino Partha (the practice of disposing cattle carcasses) Boycott movement. Ideologically, the movement stressed equality and dignity, and emphasized ‘we are human too like you, we also have dignity.’ During this process, he raised awareness about education, employment and power transformation in public life, challenging the deeply rooted historical exploitation, injustice, and oppression. Using his mother tongue, the Maithali language, he started a discussion on untouchability and conflict over water resources. While forming the Sino Partha Boycott struggle committee and various pressure groups, he also championed the cause of abolishing bonded labor, landlessness, and land rights and later announced Dalit Janchetana Sangam (Dalit Awareness Committee). Seeking rights for the Harwah (plower), Charwa (shepherd) and Haliya (plower), he demanded an increase in wages. This allowed him to gain a deeper understanding of the situation and actions to liberate landless Dalits.
The “upper”-caste community tried to derail the movement. They first excluded the entire Chamar community not only from local shops and their access to rice mills but also their daily income source and water resources. By deeming the movement meaningless and assuming that the movement would be unsuccessful, they tried to divide the movement, promoting confusion and fear. The state police also imprisoned many campaigners. Sona Lal Chaudhary, one of the close aides of Baldev Ram during the movement still remembers multiple threats his group received from the “upper”-caste community. “They did their best to silence our voices” as per Sona lal Chaudhary who summarized the oppressive practices of the “upper”-caste communities.
Despite all the troubles, the Dalit communities continued their movement. Thanks to Baldev, the community-led several locals, regional, and national assemblies, marches, and sit-ins uniting the oppressed groups.
In the 90s, Satyagraha’s sit-in with 400 Dalits in his district, Saptari, for democracy and land rights later turned into a march of about 20 thousand Dalits giving people hopes and dreams. He successfully channeled his anger and frustration into collective transformation, opposing discrimination and exploitation.
Later the movement drew the support of civil society and other Hill-based Dalit communities. The mainstream media reported the movement often linking Balram’s struggles with the broader Dalit movement. The movement, meanwhile, reached an agreement with the government and local leaders prohibiting anyone from disposing of cattle carcasses. This agreement also categorized the social boycott as inhuman. In this way, the movement contributed to ensuring the respect and dignity of the Chamar people. This achievement also motivated him to be the founder chairman of the National Land Rights Forum and Haruwa Charuwa Rights Forum to fight for the rights of landless people. This organization comprises over a hundred thousand members. Supporting the Leftist movement, Baldev stressed land ownership for the working class and Dalit groups contesting the ownership of the dominant group living in urban areas. Later, this movement also influenced the formation of the Dalit Commission, the first of its kind ever in Nepal. In this way, the Dalit movement led by Balram demanding the boycott of carcass disposal informed the broader Dalit movement in Nepal not only about the importance of specificity but also how such specific place-based issues can bring the oppressed people together and bolster the movement.
Thanks to his resilience and movement amidst several obstacles, Baldev Ram was deservedly awarded the Ambedkar International Award in 2008 at Delhi by the Ambedkar Foundation recognizing his contribution to the landless and Dalit movement. He was also honored with more than a dozen national awards. He was 67 when he passed away from a heart attack in 2017 at his home in Madhupatti, Surunga Municipality, Saptari. He is survived by his wife, two sons, and two daughters. The people remember him fondly. Land rights activists, including Dalits ), still celebrate the late Baldev Ram for his commitment and leadership for the rights of the landless and Dalit movement in Nepal.
Haatemalo Collective is currently an international team of individuals from various Dalit and Indigenous nationalities of Nepal. Our collective vision is to bring together all Bahujans including Dalits and Adivasis for social justice and equity. While working for the annihilation of the caste system, specifically our aims are to assist in practical support through mutual-aid by working with Dalit support organisations to raise funds for families of victims of caste-violence; create discussions about Dalit issues through public conversations with Dalit activists, especially supporting Madheshi Dalit community organizers, artists, women & queer people. We also aim to raise awareness of Dalit issues through the arts and music.