Groupism in Dalit Lived Experience
Just as Suraj Yengde’s milestone book, Caste Matters, “offers a statement on the beingness of Dalit,” (20) so this paper offers a footnote to that statement. This footnote includes previously unpublished ethnographic research on details of the lived experience of Dalit people among whom I have worked in Nepal in recent decades. Unlike Yengde and numerous other acolytes of the Dalit movement and condition, I am not myself Dalit. Yet I attempt to set aside much of the privileged perspective of other non-Dalits writing of the Dalit experience in favor of the perspective of those who carry that mantle. My hope is that I can add a bit of volume to the growing chorus of previously unheard voices of Dalits through an outsider perspective that respects, credits and supports the Dalit critical lens. It is time to engage with a Dalit theory of Dalitness in the same way that academia has welcomed Critical Race Theory and other theories of marginalization set forth by the marginalized.
The thread of Yengde’s essay on Dalit beingness that I address in this piece has to do with his observations on groupism applied to the case of Nepal as illustrated by daily life in several Dalit communities in which I have conducted short- and long-term ethnographic research between 2002 and 2018. Groupism is a micro-process of social differentiation embedded in the larger process that results in castes, which are inherently antagonistic toward one another. By replicating the principles of caste antagonism, Dalit castes engage in further micro-differentiation, a process resulting in intra-caste antagonism and which obstructs caste unity. This is the thesis examined in this paper.
I attempt to disentangle a few of the innumerable threads of social similarity and difference that shape groupism among Dalit communities by way of two ethnographic examples. They illustrate instances of the social construction of sameness and difference between and within Dalit castes as well as between Dalit and Politically Oppressive Castes.
In the first example, I describe the micro-political process of attempting to garner funding from a VDC in Lamjung to meet several identified needs within a Damai community. Their efforts illustrated how, lacking the internal political power to secure and allocate funds, they made alliances with non-Dalits to navigate the VDC budget allocation processes and other streams of funding, only to distribute resources unequally between Damai residential groups.
The second example outlines how the intertwined processes of religious conversion and attempts to establish an NGO intended to foster economic progress for the two local Dalit castes, Sarki and Damai, resulted in maintaining caste difference and initiating a fragmentation process within the Sarki caste. The paper concludes with a broader discussion of where these processes of groupism fit into the wider landscape of group dynamics at global, national, local and micro-local levels and their implications for Dalits’ progress toward goals of equity and dignity.