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Humanism in Nepal

Watch Humanists International's Uttam Niraula describe his and other humanists work in Nepal
Being a humanist for me means becoming a human being rather than dividing myself into different clusters like becoming the person from this religion, this nationality, this colour, this gender, etc. I think after being a humanist I became a complete human being without dividing myself to different, unnecessary clusters.
A humanist movement has a very deep root in Nepal that’s why being a humanist is not that difficult a thing. But in recent days, the religious people are becoming more fundamental because they think that Hinduism is the best religion in the world and they have to protect it and there are different ideas which are attacking Hinduism so that they’re thinking that we should be organised and become more fundamental to protect Hinduism. So these kinds of ideas are becoming a threat to the humanists in our country.
Nepal is dominated by Hindu people, at least 82% of Nepalic poeple are Hindu. They have a unique, harmful cultural practice called untouchability. Those untouchables are treated as a slave, as bonded labour. The elite people, or the upper caste people, can do whatever they like to do to those lower caste people. So in our recent constitution, practicing untouchability is illegal in our country but the whole society practices it because they don’t care about the existing law but they care about their society, their norms and values which have been injected through thousands of years. So this caste system, or the untouchability, has remained as a grave system in our country which is very, very difficult to eradicate.
There was a village called Kamigaun about 60km away from the capital city, Kathmandu. 97% of the residentes were the untouchables, so-called ‘low caste’ people. And they can hardly have their food available for twelve months for them to eat and feed their children, so they were going to the upper caste people as a sort of bonded labour, to work for them and get some grain out of that and feed their children. So we intervened in this village to make that village a humanist model village.
It means to at least guarantee the fundamental human rights of those people, and we organised them and established one co-operative it’s a micro-financing institution among the villagers and then we started intervening on the education system and modernising their agricultural system. We worked on extending the electricity wires there and extending the road in the village so we intervened in almost all important things.
And after three years, we found that everyone in the village, every child in the village were going to their school, so that village is now able to produce the milk and the vegetables, and they are not going to others, to other rich people’s houses to work as bonded labour but they can work on their own yard on their own farmhouses. So I feel, I personally feel that at least that village has been transformed now.
The model village we initated was not about trying to convert those people or bring them or make them humanist but we were trying to assure the basic universal human right for those people, like, trying to make them a human being rather than being untouchables, like living as a most marginalised person in our society. So there was no intention for humanist organisations to bring them or make them a humanist rather than just make them in such a position where they can live as a human being.
So I think many people who are living in the village are still practicing their religion, we don’t really care about that - this is not our agenda - but at least they’re living in a better position than compared to four years ago.

Uttam Niraula is a founder and the Executive Director of the Society for Humanism (SOCH) Nepal. He formed an alliance against improper customary practices in 31 districts of Nepal. He also runs a humanist high school in Nepal with around 600 students. He is a board member of Humanists International.

SOCH work to promote human rights. This includes challenging harmful traditional practices such as witch hunting and dowry crimes (every ten days a woman is killed in Nepal because of these practices) and working to alleviate the inequalities created by Nepal’s Hindu caste system. They also campaign against the state’s promotion of religion and religious institutions.

A note on the Hindu caste system

The Hindu caste system dates back at least 3,000 years to what is widely regarded as the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law, Manusmriti, which ‘acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society’.

The caste system divides human beings into four main categories: teachers and intellectuals, warriors and rulers, merchants and traders, and labourers. At the bottom are the outcasts or untouchables. Traditionally those at the top of the caste system received many privileges while those at the bottom, particularly the untouchables, suffered prejudice and exploitation.

The Indian constitution bans discrimination on the basis of caste. However, the tradition still leaves its mark on Indian society today.

Question: How important is it that humanitarian work does not involve attempts to influence people’s religion or belief?

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Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

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