The Christian community in Nepal has not been spared the wrath of society’s caste-based inequality, even though bottom-rung Dalits are increasingly turning to Christianity as a means to escape their fate.
Religious conversions are illegal in Nepal but the numbers suggest many consider it a risk worth taking as the “untouchables” are among the most oppressed by this complex social system, which leaves no sphere untouched. Testament to how legions of Dalits are prepared to gamble on breaking the law in search of a more dignified life, Nepal now harbours one of the fastest-growing Christian populations in the world.
The Federation of National Christians Nepal (FNCN) estimates there are 12,000 churches in the country and millions of Nepalese are believed to have turned to Christianity despite a 2011 census claiming Christians make up just 1.4% of the population, or several hundred thousand people. A whopping 65% of the newly converted are Dalits, according to the FNCN.
There are between 3.6 million and 5 million Dalits in Nepal, which means they could comprise as much as one fifth of the total population.
There are three Dalit sub-groups: those who live in the hilly regions, the mountain dwellers, and the Madeshi Dalits of the Terai, a lowland region in the south that extends to northern India.
The discrepancy in numbers is partly due to so many having legally changed their surname to make it sound like they belong to a more privileged caste as a last-ditch attempt to ease the discrimination they so often face.