Nepali Nationalism: A Matter of Consolidation

More than a decade after the establishment of multi-party democracy, that statement by Acharya retains much relevance. A country or nation does not merely refer to its geographical space, it also incorporates the citizens' aspirations. The political dilemma, economic depression and social tension which mark the Nepali national scenario today do not bode well for the

Since consolidating Nepali nationalism implies conserving something that exists, it seems important to enquire into the extent to which the Nepali state/kingdom has evolved into a nation. This requires analysing the foundations of Nepal as a nation. Four dimensions will be examined in this context: the making of Nepal; neighbourhood entanglement; national identity; and consolidation strategy.

The making of Nepal
The status of countries are determined by the current of history. In the case of modern Nepal, one can recognise three incarnations: the 'proto Nepal' of Kathmandu Valley; the 'imperialist Nepal' which stretched from the Tista river in the east to the Sutlej in the west; and the 'feudal Nepal' confined by the Mechi and Mahakali rivers. The reference to "Nepaldeshe" in the "Jambudwipe-Bharatkhande…" incantation of the Hindu priest is not to today's extended kingdom but to the Newar state of Kathmandu Valley. Its rich religious and cultural heritage are eulogised in the Sanskrit Himvatkhhanda and the Tibetan Dzam-gling-Getse. The indigenous people of proto Nepal were the Kirant, but the Valley's agricultural productivity and mercantile wealth lured distant conquistadores.

States grow around a nucleus and expand by conquest and aggrandisement. Proto Nepal, however, remained fixated on cultural creativity rather than imperial expansion. Whenever the Khasa of the Karnali region felt strong and powerful enough, they would invade the Valley and return with the loot. The Sen dynasty of Palpa succeeded in extending east to Bijayapur but were based in the foothills, and later broke up into four patrimonies. After the 16th century, the Khasa of Gandaki expanded eastwards after capturing the Magarant principalities. It took the Khasa expansionists under Thakuri chiefs (successively called Khan, Sahi and Shah) only 58 years to subjugate areas from Bhirkot to Gorkha. But it took another 185 years for them to cross the Trisuli river, and another quarter century after that to conquer the Valley of Kathmandu. In comparison, the Gorkha army took nine years to reach the Tista (1783), and 17 years to the Mahakali—and reaching all the way west to the Sutlej 23 years later in 1806. The Gorkhali kingdom then commanded a territory stretching nearly 1500 km, and it became difficult to maintain this vast tract. After the 1814-16 war with the British, the country was confined to its present day borders, between the Mechi and Mahakali.

Prithvi Narayan Shah, who laid the foundations of Nepal's political unification, in his Dibya Upadesh advisory refers to the country as a garden of "four castes and 36 ethnicities". That 'garden' was created not through voluntary consensus of the various communities but through the might of the sword. The country was under the feudal rule of the Gorkhali. After the Anglo-Nepali War, there was no fear of the powerful southern neighbour, as the British did not covet Nepali soil once they got access to Gorkhali manpower as mercenaries. A principal reason why the British recognised Nepali sovereignty in 1923 was the valuable service rendered by the Gurkha forces in World
War I.

It is now 232 years since the establishment of the Gorkhali state on 12 November 1769, with the capture of Bhaktapur. There were hundreds of kings and satraps in the Indian Subcontinent at that time but all succumbed to British rule. As the 20th century dawned, only four states remained in Jambudwipe-Bharatkhande, and they were India, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. In 1947, independence created India and Pakistan. With the independence of Sri Lanka in 1948, Maldives in 1965 and the formation of Bangladesh in 1971, South Asia had eight states. Since India annexed Sikkim in 1974, the SAARC organisation today has seven members. Of these, as testified by history, only Nepal and Bhutan have maintained their political independence throughout.

Neighbourly entanglement
All states, by virtue of occupying territory, have neighbours. Accordingly, Nepal had three neighbours on its borders until 1974, and since then only two after the eclipse of Sikkim. Neighbourly interaction for contemporary Nepal is somewhat different from that of Prithvi Narayan Shah's reference to a "yam between two rocks". In effect, Nepal is more entangled on one side.

On the map, Nepal is located between India and China. But the relationship with the neighbours to the south and the north are not at the same level. The main reason for this is the Himalayan barrier along the northern border. Physically, the monsoon from the Indian Ocean cannot penetrate this barrier to provide succour to Tibet. Culturally, the Nepali people know largely nothing about Chinese leaders, its culture or its cinema, while they are quite conversant with India's local politics, customs and the Bombay film world. This last is evident from the fact that in December, Nepal experienced communal violence on the pretext of what an Indian actor was alleged to have said. It is to be noted that Indian films are banned in Bangladesh, a country established with Indian help. To say that Nepal and India have deep historical, geographic, linguistic, religious and cultural ties has become a well-worn cliché. It is this very 'depth' of relationship that allows a bigger country to exploit and take advantage of a smaller neighbour. The historical reality is that conflict is more prone between neighbouring states, just as competition for resources occurs between proximate countries rather than with distant ones. After the establishment of the Gorkhali state, all of its wars were fought with the neighbour: Sikkim (1783), Kumaon (1790), Tibet (1791-93), British India (1814-16) and Tibet (1855-56).

Linguistic and religious matters fall under the realm of culture that transcend national boundaries. Of the 30 languages recognised by the Nepal census, 14 are Indo-Aryan, 14 Tibeto-Burman, and one each Munda and Dravidian. The fact that today 80.3 percent of the country's people speak Indo-Aryan tongues, 17 percent speak Tibeto-Burman, and a negligible number speak Munda or Dravidian languages is due to the state's language policy. Even more ironic is Nepal's official entanglement with a particular region, an Indian heritage.

In order to gain the support of the ethnic group in his military campaign, Prithvi Narayan proclaimed, "I am the king of Magarant", referring to the region of ethnic groups. At the same time, he also labelled Nepal "the asli (true) Hindustan". The latter expression epitomises Nepal's concern to remain independent while erstwhile Mughal India was being overrun by Christian rulers. After the 1947 Partition, Pakistan was created as a Muslim state, whereas India opted to remain secular with the designation 'Bharat'. The Nepali state, meanwhile, retained a Hindu character with a civil code (1854) based on the conservative strictures of Manu Smriti. It is because of such a theocratic inclination that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Shiv Sena and others, find Nepal such a fertile ground as relict Hindustan.

Cultural platitude is only one aspect of Nepal's neighbourly entanglements. More pervasive are economic domination and political influence of India. Landlocked Nepal has always remained a market for India. The shackles were somewhat loosened with Nepal's joining of the Universal Postal Union in the 1950s, and currency autonomy achieved in the 1960s. However, the fact that today 25 percent of the Nepali market has Indian currency circulation indicates well the vulnerability of Nepal's monetary situation.

India has been generous in giving aid to Nepal in diverse sectors: roads, electricity, agriculture, education, health, culture and so on. However, there is a curious policy in the industrial sector—helping Nepal set up industrial districts but maintaining an embargo on their products to the Indian market. However, there is one positive aspect in that the name Indian Aid Mission was changed to Indian Cooperation Mission. Nepal should now strive to reflect this change of nomenclature in the reality of the bilateral relationship. That is, rather than take development aid from India, Nepal should seek cooperation. Development assistance can be had from developed countries and international finan-cial institutions.But from India, Nepal should strive for only genuine goodwill and friendship.

Neighbourly influence has pla-yed a decisive role in Nepali politics. The agreement between the Rana regime and the democratic forces was brokered in 1951 by India. In 1990, the Indian economic blockade played a vital role in the tripartite engagement among the royal palace, the Nepali Congress and the Nepali Left. There is a general misconception that the democratic side is seen to be India-centric, and the Left Sino-centric. In reality, both democratic and communist ideologies came to Nepal through India. If the Nepali Congress was nurtured in Benaras, the comrades of  Left opposition are beholden to Charu Mazumdar of Bengal. As an exception, it was only the Nepal Peasants and Workers Party which arrived in Bhaktapur town in the Valley, by way of Kodari highway.

National identity
Nepal's national identity has been distorted by external images. Modern Nepal is only 232 years old since the conquest of Bhaktapur, yet it holds on to the 2000-year-old Vikram Sambat calendar, one which has no link with any indigenous historical event. Meanwhile, even the India of emperor Virkramaditya has adopted the Gregorian calendar. Last year, Sankhadhar Sankhwa was finally recognised as a national hero of Nepal, but his Nepal Sambat calendar remains in limbo.

The national flag should necessarily be a symbol of national aspiration, and the twin-tailed national flag of Nepal is symptomatic of speed and dynamism according to the laws of aerodynamics. Four decades ago, we had heard that "Nepal should do in ten years what takes others a hundred". Then, there followed the claim that "we would achieve the Asian standard of living by 2000", which had a silent demise.

The only resource of the poor is time and its utility, and therefore the poor cannot afford to waste this resource. But the Nepali attitude is quite different. When the Congress is in power, the Left immobilises the country with numerous bandhs. For its part, the Congress party in power locks up the government offices for the 52 Sundays of a year. Rather than engage in the strenuous task of nation building, we make merry with bandhs and a plethora of holidays.

The image of Nepal after the two world wars commenced with the 'brave Gurkha'. Later, the country came to be recognised as the land of Everest and the Sherpa. But due to our increasing dependence on outside aid, the country's identification today is as a least-developed, poverty-stricken entity even after nine plan periods. In other poor countries, they distribute ration coupons. In Nepal, mobile teams distribute citizenship certificates, and passport processing is decentralised to export unemployed labour. Meanwhile, the prestige of the Nepali passport is diminishing progressively. Earlier, Nepalis did not need a visa for Germany. But this facility was withdrawn after the Nepalis going to Japan via Frankfurt became a crowd. Since then, other nearer countries have imposed visa—before arrival for Nepalis—Malaysia in 1993, Thailand in 1995 and Hong Kong in 1998.

Political boundary and citizenship are two basic indicators of the strength of the national image. On both counts, the situation of Nepal is precarious. The country's international border with China is 1111 km, and that with India 1808 km long. The northern border is regulated by high mountain ranges as well as the need for passport and visa. With India, however, while there are 27 designated customs check-points, there is no restriction whatsoever for cross-border movement of people. This is a peculiar international border, for there is no recording of how many foreigners enter or how many nationals exit.

Nepal's Home Ministry has a Border Administration Section, whose attention is confined to the northern frontier. The problems of border encroachment, however, are emanating from the other direction. According to knowledgeable sources, there are 53 points where Nepali territory has been encroached along the Nepal-India boundary. Among the 26 districts that adjoin India, only in five is there no such problem of encroachment—Baitadi, Dadeldhura, Bara, Dhanusa and Mahottari. Among the 21 districts where there are such problems, seven are in Kanchanpur and five each in Jhapa and Saptari alone. The precondition to settle such disputes is that both sides have to be willing to hold discussions. The persistence of problems along the Indo-Nepal border must make Nepalis mull over the symbolism pregnant in Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" (1923), where he says that "good fences make good neighbours".

The other important aspect of national identity is citizenship, because it is after all the citizenry's emotions that make a nation. It is citizenship that differentiates between 'us' and 'other'. The citizenship problem in Nepal is not new and has become more intractable now. The 70-point recommendations of the 1983 report on migration included 12 on citizenship alone. The report's conclusion was that the citizenship policy of the country as well as the distribution of citizenship papers were too liberal. Between 1975 and 1993, eight citizenship teams and three investigative committees were formed. Meanwhile, by early 1994, nine million citizenship certificates had been distributed.

In terms of regionwise distribution, 44.5 percent of those who received citizenship cards were from the hills, 38.4 were from the tarai, 8.9 from the inner tarai, and 8.2 percent from the mountains. The largest number of citizenship papers were distributed in Kathmandu district (400,329) in the hills, followed by Sunsari (315,667) in the eastern tarai. The nine districts which gave out more than 200,000 certificates were Kathmandu in the Valley, Chitwan from inner tarai, and seven from the tarai. From this distribution pattern, one can see where there is more 'pressure' for citizenship.

Nepali citizenship can be had either by being born in Nepal, through descent citizenship or through naturalisation. Among the foreigners seeking citizenship, it is obvious that the majority will be from neighbouring countries. According to figures given by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs in 1980, among the 3.8 million people of Indian origin in Nepal, 62.8 percent had acquired Nepal's citizenship. The fact that only one-third of the people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka had received citizenship indicates that Nepal is very liberal in its citizenship policy. This analysis is also buttresed by the Population Census of Nepal. During the period of 1981-1991, there was a reduction of foreign citizens in Nepal from 483,019 to 90, 427, i.e. down by 81.3 percent. Among these, Indian citizens were down by 41.3 percent and Chinese citizens by 16.7 percent. Among those foreigners in Nepal, 75.7 percent were Indian citizens.

Looking at the data by region, the number of Indian citizens has increased only in the western tarai, western inner tarai and Kathmandu Valley. In the eastern tarai, there was a drastic decrease in Indian citizens, by nearly half. Regionwise, the number of Indian citizens declined by 84 percent in the mountain, 55.1 percent in hill, 35.6 percent in tarai and 27.2 percent in the inner tarai. According to the census data, only nine out of 75 districts had an increase in Indian citizens: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Dang, Chit-wan, Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bardiya, Banke and Parsa. In all other districts, their number declined.

The question then arises, was there any policy implemented or were there some events which made Indian citizens leave Nepal in such numbers during the period 1981-1991? Two issues could be raised. Firstly, in 1987, Nepal tried an initial exercise to introduce work permits in Kathmandu Valley. This system could not be implemented because of India's objections. In fact, the number of Indian citizens in Kathmandu Valley increased by 57.5 percent during the period in question.

Secondly, the economic blockade implemented by the Indian government in 1988/89 led to a chill in the relationship between the two countries. The 1991 population census was carried out in June of that year, and the economic blockade had already been lifted with the reinstatement of democracy in 1990. Moreover, by that time the relationship between the two countries had even been qualified by the euphemism of 'common rivers' for border rivers.

The dichotomy of the census data showing decrease of Indian citizens, on one hand, and the obvious influx of Indian citizens visible in Kathmandu neighbourhoods, for one, can be resolved with one conclusion: the reason for the drastic decline of Indians in Nepal is not that they have returned home but that they have acquired Nepali citizenship. For example, the largest reduction in the number of Indian citizens was in Jhapa (8154 fewer) and Morang (5061), where more citizenship certificates, 256,257 and 288,897 respectively, were distributed.

There is not much variation between the sources on the number of Indians acquiring citizenship of Nepal: 57.7 percent in the 1983 migration report and 62.8 percent according to official Indian sources. What is distressing is that political parties are following their own narrow agenda even on a subject as critical as citizenship. The 1994 Dhanapati Upadhaya Commission set up by the UML government had the Congress member boycotting and the Sadbhavana Party member dissenting, and the 1995 Mahanta Thakur Committee set up by the Congress did not have a UML member. Therefore, the Citizenship Bill 2056, submitted without a broad consensus, is a challenge to the country's national consolidation.

Consolidation strategy
There are three priority issues if we are to conserve and consolidate Nepali nationalism: security; treaty revision; and national integration.

Security. The increasing preoccupation of Indian policy with regard to Nepal has been security. It is natural for a large country to be concerned about protecting its extensive territory. Mere declaration of itself as a Zone of Peace by Nepal could never be an assurance for India. Nepal is indeed a country at peace because since the war with Tibet in 1856, the country has not fought in 145 years. And the fact is when you do not fight, the weapons get rusty.

The vast regular army-type of military organisation that the British introduced in India, and which was passed on to Nepal by India, is not appropriate for this small country. The national security structure of Nepal would be better modelled after that of Switzerland, where men between 20 and 50 have to do compulsory military service (voluntary for women). Altogether, the citizens spend about a year of their lives in military training and exercise, and at home they are equipped with guns and ammunition. Thus, the Swiss have not a regular army but one of citizenry, which has managed to keep the country independent for 700 years. Nepal, too, had this kind of a militia system in early 18th century. As a country with thousands of retired soldiers from the British and Indian armies, Nepal can easily set up a defence apparatus after the Swiss model.

Treaty Revision. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship, 1950, between Nepal and India was signed by the last Rana prime minister in extraordinary circumstances. A revision of that 50-year-old document is necessary in order to put the relationship between the two countries on a firmer and more realistic footing.

According to Article 6 of the Treaty, each country commits to according national treatment to the citizens of the other. Article 7 provides equal rights to citizens of both countries when it comes to residence, right of property, trade and movement. For a small country to give equal treatment to a larger neighbour can only mean one thing—to lose its own separate identity over time. Article 8, too, makes Nepal nothing more than an Indian hinterland, for the guarantee of  freedom of movement across the international border makes it just an imaginary fence, or a decoration on the map.

This writer actually had some positive thoughts about the 1988/89 economic blockade by India, for he felt it gave Nepalis an opportunity to strive for self-reliance. Just as one closes the windows to keep the warmth indoors in winter, the chemistry of nation-building requires a clear defining of its own space. Therefore, it is necessary to regulate the Nepal-India boundary first through identity cards and later through passports. Owing to the different development levels of the two countries, Indians have skill and capital, while Nepalis have only brawn. Therefore, aliens cross the border for different economic opportunities. Such population exchange cannot be denied but needs to be regulated with a work permit system.

National Integration. The terms, 'state' and 'nation' have different political meanings. A nation is a more evolved condition than a state, for beyond territorial definition, it includes an emotional bond among the people within the state. The Nepali state/kingdom has maintained its independent status for a long period, but it is yet to emerge as a nation. The country has only been unified geographically, not socially or economically. The social model for national unification has been Hinduisation which goes against Nepal's multi-ethnic character.

How stultifying the hangover of Nepal's Muluki Ain can be gauged by comparing the state of neighbouring societies across Nepal's borders in the west and east. The social backwardness and exploitation of dalits in the Khasa region of west Nepal reminds one of the situation in Kumaon and Garhwal a hundred years ago.

If that is the past, the future of Nepali society can be conjectured by looking east, at the social dynamism of the Nepali-speakers across the Mechi. While the pandits under the Muluki Ain regime in Nepal busied themselves with rituals and sycophancy, the Nepali-speaking population across the Mechi river showed the path to genuine Nepali nationalism: Darjeeling's Gyawali and Kalimpong's Chemjong in history, Darjeeling's Koirala and Kalimpong's Pradhan in language, Kalimpong's Gurung and Subba in politics, and so on. In contrast to Nepal, the politics of Sikkim and Darjeeling is not the monopoly of the upper castes. In Sikkim, the chief ministership passes from a Gurung to a Basnet, Limbu and Chamling, while in Darjeeling the political contenders are Ghising and Subba.

The main pillars of nationalism are social and economic integration. No country is respected when it is poor and dependent on outsiders. Thirty years ago, this writer had proposed a regional development strategy to link the country's hills and tarai economies, but that concept was swept away by increasing centralisation. Today's wave of globalisation poses even more challenges to the country's economic autonomy.

The most important step towards consolidating the Nepali state and nationalism is to end economic exploitation and to bring about social equality. Caste hierarchy also perpetuates economic class division. Nepal's constitution that gives primacy to one religion and one language, provides substance to the perpetuity of social disparity. A multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious Nepal should have a constitution that is secular. That will be the beginning of national integration.

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