A celebration of resilience

Right at the start of her autobiography, Shanta Chaudhary: Kamlari Dekhi Sabhasad Samma, Chaudhary writes about how as a five-year-old girl, she used to trail behind her mother, who worked as a Kamlari for the local feudal lord in Dandagaun, Dang. As her mother swept the kitchen floors and cooked for the jamindar, Chaudhary, who was not allowed inside, would sit in the front yard waiting, wondering, and watching the jamindar’s children doing their homework. Soon, she would start sneaking charcoal and scribbling on the walls of his house. The jamindar’s wife would eventually find out, beat her, threaten to break her hand, and give her mother an earful. Tired and scared of losing the job of an indentured slave, Chaudhary’s mother would then bind her daughter’s hands and legs with a string and leave her rolling around in the yard—all in an attempt to stop little Shanta from being a child.

Three years later in 1989, as Nepal prepared to restore multi-party democracy, that attempt would be successful. On a cold January evening, eight-year-old Chaudhary would get sold into the life of a Kamlari to one Khetulal Adhikary, just as her mother and her sisters were before her, for Rs 700 and a pair of clothes a year. Before she knows it, she would be a prisoner, getting up at four in the morning and doing exactly what the jamindar’s wife told her to do until late at night, including carrying kids her age to schools. For 18 years, this life of servitude would continue in seven different households, long after the government would pronounce the end of the Kamaiya system, and with it, the Kamlari practice, in July 2000.

What Chaudhary gets in return for her service is a marriage to a Kamaiya, just to dodge the sexual advances of jamindars and their sons, a son half-deaf with a weak heart for lack of medical care, a shack razed to the ground because she wanted to be free, and the subsequent death of her second born because she was starving and not lactating. The promised Rs 700 a year would never make it to her; it was only enough to compensate for a broken pot here and a wild buffalo there. She did get a pair of clothes every year, but they were usually blouses and petticoats discarded by the jamindars’ wives, at which fellow Constituent Assembly (CA) members would later laugh.

The upside would be a deep knowledge of the poverty of the landless and the inequality it bred. A desire to fight it would take her out of the jamindar’s house to forbidden meetings for the rights of the landless, to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and to the CA in 2008. How fitting it was that she should be there to sign the deposition of the ultimate feudal lord: the King.

Chaudhary’s autobiography is a celebration of human resilience; she not only survives the horrors of a Kamlari life, but also the ridicule for being an ‘aunthachhaap (thumb-print) CA member’. Most importantly, her book is a painful reminder that 23 years after the restoration of multiparty democracy, 13 years after the abolishment of the Kamaiya practice, and five years after the declaration of a republic, Nepal still harbours 13,000 Kamlaris, around 600 of whom are yet to be freed.

The book allows one to feel the pain of those mothers who lost their children to feudal sexual beasts, young girls who disappeared, committed suicide or were murdered. And if anyone still doubts the suffering inherent in the life of a Kamlari, euphemistically calls them ‘hired help’, excuses the system as a service to those who would otherwise perish in abject poverty, the book lays it all bare: Kamlaris are the products of poverty, never its balm. Chaudhary herself remained a Kamlari for six years after the 2000 declaration because she had no other option to feed her children.

The government, forced to declare the abolishment of the Kamlari practice (again) on July 18, a day after the launch of the book, should take heed. A pronouncement here and a promise there will result in nothing if it waits until another Srijana Chaudhary burns herself to death to free the rest of the Kamlaris and rehabilitate them. All that the 10-point agreement (to which Shanta Chaudhary is a signatory) reached on June 7, 2013, demands is the right to a life of dignity. You can’t beat Kamlaris up during peaceful protests and then blame it on the low number of women in the police force.

Also, remember: If another young Shanta says to her mother, “I would rather not eat a full meal, but I don’t want to be a Kamlari,” let no mother reply, “Don’t say that, darling. If you refuse, the jamindar will kick us out.” Finish the work that the Land Rights Forum, from where Shanta launched her fight, started. Around 4000 Kamaiyas and Kamlaris are yet to receive land. Recently, freed Kamaiyas and Kamlaris submitted a 14-point charter of demands to the government: Don’t just let these be confined to lip service. And if Shanta tries to excuse herself for only passing Rs 120 million for the education of Kamlaris and nothing more while a CA member, deeming politics a profession of the privileged for the privileged, prove her wrong.

Published on: 2013-07-27, The Kathmandu Post

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