The Hindi word dalit (‘broken’, ‘ground down’, or ‘oppressed’) is the term most commonly used in contemporary South Asian discourse to denote members of the range of largely artisanal castes formerly known as Untouchables. Dalits number approximately 3.5 million in Nepal, constituting 13.22% of the total population, according to the 2011 census (Gellner et al. 2020). Despite huge social and political change over the past 60 years or so, Dalits remain at the very bottom of Nepali society in terms of all key development indicators. They continue to face discrimination, exclusion and violence, both direct and structural, and efforts to improve their condition are routinely compromised by pervasive social stigma.
The history of Nepali-language literature dates back to the late 18th century, but the almost total absence of Dalits from this literature until the recent past—whether as the subjects or authors of texts—is very striking. The earliest published Nepali Dalit writer was probably Jawahar Roka, whose first work appeared in 1963 (Suwal 2012: 20), but until the major political change of the 1990s most references to Dalits in published Nepali-language literature, and to Dalit-related issues such as untouchability, caste-based oppression and discrimination, came from the minds and pens of writers who were not Dalits themselves.
The struggle for Dalit liberation has a longer history in India than it does in Nepal, and the emergence of a distinctive Dalit voice in Indian literature—first in Marathi, later in Hindi, and now increasingly in English—has been an important element of this struggle since the late 1970s. Indian Dalit writers have achieved some success in changing the terms of their own representation, particularly in the field of life narratives, and there is a growing scholarly literature on Indian Dalit writing (see, for instance, Beth 2007, Brueck 2014, Ganguly 2012.)
Nepali Dalit writing, which has been growing in volume in recent years, has a much lower profile and remains largely unstudied. My new project, funded by a small personal research grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust for 2022-4, aims to fill this lacuna.