In her Tarai village not far from Hetauda, Sarita Pariyar has written, ‘Only certain castes were expected to read and write.’ Tamangs, Dalits and ‘higher’ castes attended her school, but only some were thought to have the capacity to learn.
‘People would say Chtteri Bahun ka bacchaharu bhayepo padchan; Bhote, Kami Damai ka baccha kaha padchan? (Chettri Bahun children can study, why would Tamang and Kami Damai children go to school?).’
As a child, Sarita believed what she heard about such groups. She saw that very few Tamang and Dalit students made it far in her school. Later she realised that these students faced economic, social, and linguistic barriers, not least the low expectations about their intellectual capacity.
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‘The caste system led higher caste kids to believe that reading and writing are in their blood, but Dalit and Janajati kids were made to believe that they could not study and had to do manual work,’ writes Sarita, who realised that many talented children fell victim to these self-fulfilling prophecies. ‘Stories about what one group can or cannot do carry tremendous power.’
In Nepal, schooling and education was once for higher castes only. Even after schools were opened in the 1950s and 1960s, for many years Dalit children either could not go to school or had to sit apart, on the floor or at the back. They could not use the water tap. They faced taunting and teasing from other children.
Today the situation is much improved. There is very little overt discrimination of the kind there once was, but much remains to be done. One big barrier that Dalit children face, as Sarita Pariyar’s story so powerfully reveals, is the bigotry of low expectations.
Many high caste people still believe that Dalitare not smart or have less potential than other children. Sadly, some teachers to whom students look to for guidance believe this. And even more tragically, some Dalits believe this about themselves and their children.
I often hear Nepalis making generalisations about castes. Tamangs are this way. Brahmins are that way. Newars are this way. One of the most horrible stereotypes is “This group is not smart. They are not capable.” Such comments are routinely made about many groups: girls, disabled children, and janajati, particularly Tamangs Tharu. It is probably most commonly said about Dalits.
Historically and even today, some ‘higher’ caste groups have considered Dalits of low intelligence. “In general,” one Dalit friend told me, “conservative Nepalis agree that Dalits’ fate — their Karma — is to serve non-Dalits with manual labour. They consider that Dalits have unintelligent minds — moto buddhi.”
Another Dalit friend added, “From the very first day of childhood, children of lower caste are made to believe that they are worthless and fit for nothing. But upper caste children are made to believe that they are the purest and the most intelligent and then they alone have to get into education and professional work.”
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Even some teachers hold these beliefs. By far most of Nepal’s teachers are from higher caste groups. One longtime teacher-friend (from the upper castes) explained the situation this way: “I’ve never seen active discrimination. That has decreased. But many teachers in their minds still hold negative concepts.”
I asked how these teachers thought about Dalit children. “They are dirty, they do dirty work, they can’t grasp ideas. Teachers won’t say this directly but that’s what they think. It’s in their minds still.”
Nepali teachers often do not have good training of any kind, much less effective training on anti-discrimination thinking. Thus they rarely have a deep understanding of systemic racism or generational poverty.
They tend to assume that the status quo is natural and inevitable — they look at the world around them only long enough to confirm preexisting biases. If they see a Dalit student struggling, they are quick to blame it on caste genetics, not other factors, such as lack of opportunity.
“Jat janayo’ (his caste is showing) is a common expression used to humiliate Dalits,” explains a Dalit friend in his forties. “Teachers used this stereotype sometimes when they found I was not performing well in school. As I look back to my school days, I find that teachers were biased about Dalits’ intelligence. They were prejudiced with thoughts that Dalits cannot perform well in class. They consider that reading and writing is not in Dalit culture.”
A Dalit friend Chitwan says, “When Dalit students don’t do well, it is blamed on their caste. No one says that maybe they never got a chance. Because if Dalits get a chance, they do great, just as well as any other group.”
Worst of all, low expectations can shape reality, they can become self-fulfilling. Children can begin to believe the things said about them. They face obstacles because of poverty or other reasons, but begin to doubt their native capacity. ‘Believe that you will fail, and you are likely to fail. Believe that you can succeed and you will have begun to succeed,’ an American educator explains.
Some Dalit children hear these negative stereotypes not just from higher castes but also from other Dalits, sometimes even from their own parents. A friend says, “Dalits also thought, and in rural underdeveloped areas continue to think that reading and writing is not their work and they are not born for these works.”
He adds, “Lower expectations and/or inferior feelings are widespread among Dalit families — both children and their guardians. They often express their feelings that “dalit le padhera ke paauchha ra?” (What benefits would an educated Dalit receive?)” or “Padhera ke po hune hora?”(What would a Dalit become after studying?)”
In other words, Dalits have internalised the inaccurate myths about them created by the caste system. It is worth repeating Sarita Pariyar’s words: ‘Stories about what one group can or cannot do carry tremendous power.’
This is, in effect, a new form of caste discrimination. Today Dalits may be allowed to attend school. They may be allowed to sit in seats like everyone else and in the front but they are still caged in by low expectations. It is just as bad as if they are not allowed to attend school.
Fortunately, the situation is changing. “Nowadays most of the Dalit children and adults don’t express low expectations about their own intelligence and educational potential,” an interviewee told me. “Due to electronic media, they see so many doctors, engineers, singers, political leaders and others from Dalit community and these examples give them beautiful hope that even in the circle of caste system we can change ourselves into good people.”
This is encouraging. Just as low expectations can be self-fulfilling, so can high expectations.
Tom Robertson is a historian and the former director of Fulbright Nepal.