Nepali nationalism and the nation state

If the mass media is any index of public memory, the end-of-year riots in Kathmandu triggered by the supposed anti-Nepal comments of an Indian film celebrity appear to have been relegated to the back of the Nepali consciousness. Having learnt to live with the crippling burden of repeated bandh shutdowns, the Kathmandu intelligentsia seems to have shrugged off the agitation that degenerated into communal riots as a bad experience better forgotten. Which is a pity, because the nasty turn of events has a deep bearing on the further evolution of Nepali society.

In the effervescent politics of new democracy, Hrithik Roshan's unstated 'derogatory' remarks against Nepal and Nepalis provided opportunity for yet another show of strength on the streets—mostly by the left parties (joined by the opportunistic right) in the name of wounded national pride. But something went horribly wrong. Instead of coming together against a common enemy, the defenders of 'national honour' turned against their own kind.

No one knows when and how, but at some point during the riots, the anger against India transformed into mob attacks against Indians and 'Indian-looking' people of Tarai origin. Dark-skinned madhesis—and anyone else who looked similar, including many from the hill castes—were beaten up and humiliated in the Kathmandu streets and bylanes. What began as a reassertion of national pride turned into communal violence which deepened the divide between the parbatey hill people and the madhesi plainspeople. If the purpose was to strengt-hen national unity, this agitation achieved the opposite to a degree that takes the breath away.

The reaction of the hill-based activists has roots, at its deepest, in the vision of nation state. 'Nation' is the most powerful political concept of the day and no Nepali mainstream political party wants to lag behind in appealing to nationalism. In Nepal, as elsewhere in South Asia, the worst crime is to be 'anti-national' or 'unpatriotic'. But 'nation' as understood can never encompass everyone, particularly in the diversity that marks this country of hill, plain and high mountain.

Exclusionary agenda

Before the 'nation state' came along as a by-product of European history two centuries ago, there was the 'territorial state', where authority was vested in the ruler—the emperor or king. Power flowed from the top, and the identities of the people per se, whether ethnic or national, did not make much difference to their political status. However, with democratic revolution challenging the role of absolute rulers, the 'nation' became the source of political authority, representing as it did an identity based on religion, language, custom, shared history, and so on. The nation states of Europe thus emerged coalescing around established identities. But even there, the subsuming of disparate identities was not complete, and so you have today the Scot nation, the Basque nation or the Bretons retaining
their exclusive identities and smarting under the more dominant nations within which they have been contained.

If such is the case in the continent which gave birth to the nation state, how much more it gets difficult to contain the disparate identities of South Asia within that structuring, and Nepal in particular with its incredible diversity of population. Neither the nation state concept nor the political ideologies imported from the West—including by the left—are adequate in themselves to provide for the needs of a country like Nepal. The nation state can certainly be used as a building block, but the European model has to be adjusted for the play of identities. This clearly has not been well understood, from the stone-throwers at street-level right up to the members of political central committees.

The ideology of nation state, especially when not adapted to local conditions, becomes quite inadequate during times of economic crisis. In Europe, periods of economic downturn battered the values and institutions of liberal democracy which had kept baser instincts at bay, and gave rise to chauvinistic nationalism that emphasised homogenous national identities. Mass xenophobia and racism formed the core of this new nationalist ideology, now known as Fascism. Meanwhile, those who sought to preserve their linguistic, ethnic, cultural or religious identities suddenly gain-ed a new description – 'minorities'.

In Nepal's case, the entire evolutionary gamut from territorial state to nation state has been telescoped into a few decades. And fascism, certainly, was there on the streets of Kathmandu in the dying days of 2000 for all to see. And the fact that there has not been enough introspection in Nepali media and academia since that unfortunate eruption indicates that the exclusionary dogma lurks just under the surface, awaiting the next instability, the next excuse.

Doubtless, an extreme reading of nationalism formed the core of the Panchayat regime's political outlook. But within the looser fit of parliamentary democracy, the politicians and intelligentsia together should have popularised a more inclusive definition of Nepali nationalism and not the rigid hill-centered visions maintained by the traditional political elites. This they did not do, and precious time has been lost since 1990 in fashioning a definition of what and who constitute the Nepali nation. As in neighbouring countries, Nepal's new democracy too remained a mere formal process, with state power cornered by a privileged few. Antagonism is rife therefore among people belonging to different ethnic, religious, linguistic and indigenous communities. And now this antagonism is being exacerbated by a deepening economic crisis.

Rainbow spectrum
Lenin said that people would be willing to give up their communal or clan identities and embrace higher ones like 'class' and 'nation' when they find that being a part of a larger unity they would be stronger and benefit more. Lenin was correct only up to a point. For it turns out that while adopting a new identity, people do not give up their older identities, composites of their values, ideas, practices, superstitions and prejudices. And in times of crisis and strain people often fall back on these old identities. Anthropologists call this the process of 'ethnic survival', and in Marxist terminology this is a 'non-antagonistic contradiction' which can be resolved by accommodating these identities within the body of the larger or higher identity in a non-coercive manner. The disintegration of the once-mighty Soviet Union shows that these 'non-antagonistic' contradictions do not get resolved, and old national and ethnic identities prove mightily resilient.

In so many countries, the failure of politicians, academics, the media and other societal agenda-setters has led to violent ethno-nationalism. In Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Chechnia, Rwanda and Congo, it took the horrible form of ethnic cleansing. Postcolonial Sri Lanka's attempt to create a homogenous Sinhala national identity brought on a horrific civil war. In India, the enterprise of imposing a monolithic Hindu national identity on all the people has strained the fragile social matrix, as a result of which communal riots take place not so infrequently. The power elite of Nepal seems intent on taking the country up this same path by relying on an ultimately unworkable nationalism that lays down an exclusionary Nepaliness defined by the hill-castes.

The one country in the world that should be proud of its rainbow spectrum of identities is Nepal. It is up to Nepal, then, to show the way to others in South Asia that a nation state can be defined, and can survive and prosper, in the absence of a monolithic identity. Nepal's politicians and political parties should rise to the occasion and accept that the political ideology of nationalism is divisive. It is essentially a power concept, used to hold down people, to stifle opposition, invoked by the elite to divert attention of the oppressed from the real issues of social and economic justice by pointing to the threat of the 'enemy outside'. Extreme nationalism manipulates the sentiment of the common people, that is all.

In Kathmandu, at the turn of the Gregorian new year, almost all the political leaders of Nepal, irrespective of their party affiliations, were one with the angry mobs against India and (soon enough) against the madhesi. Particularly the parties of the left, from the Maoists to the main opposition Communist Party of Nepal (UML), invoked 'national pride' and saw a resurgence of 'progressive nationalism' as the crowds went on a rampage. Seemingly uncaring of the richness of identities that is Nepal's most prized possession, they unleashed a Frankenstein's monster on the unsuspecting people. (It goes to the credit of CPN-UML that it dissociated itself from the agitation after two days, but much of the damage had been done by them.)

For Nepal to benefit from parliamentary democracy and for the Nepali population to gain in wealth and security, the prescription is clear. 'Nation' must be rescued from the hands of the oppressive elite which uses it to divide the people. The understanding must be democratised to accommodate all identities. When that happens, Nepal will be a beacon for all South Asia. If not, the deadly virus of communal hatred will destroy both the nation and its democracy.

Regressive nationalism

The left of the South Asian countries is still trapped in the 1950s mould of "progressive role of nationalism in the struggle against imperialism". In their eagerness to participate in the building of strong nation states as bulwarks against imperialism, they became willing partners with the worst type of self-serving right-wing politicians masquerading as nationalists. As a result, in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka, the left parties have not only failed to take up the cause of the oppressed minorities, they even oppose the demands for autonomy and constitutional safeguards for the marginalised and oppressed communities—on the ground that this would weaken national unity.

The undivided Communist Party of India, which until the early 1950s supported the right of self-determination of nationalities, today finds imperialist design behind the struggles of the people of Kashmir and the oppressed nationalities of India's Northeast. On the question of preserving territorial integrity and national sovereignty, the Indian left is as uncompromising as the Hindu fundamentalist BJP. In Bangladesh, the left parties had rejected the Chakma indigenous people's demand for regional autonomy. They even supported president Ziaur Rahman's ruthless military crackdown in the Chittagaong Hill Tracts in the name of fighting Indian imperialism.

In Sri Lanka, the inability of groups like the LSSP to relate to the Sri Lankan Tamil community's demand for justice finally pushed the left movement into the laps of one of the most ultra-nationalist of formations, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the JVP. Over in Pakistan, the real political challenge to the dictatorship of Ayub Khan was posed by the left. But then the emerging unity of the workers and peasants, which was making a credible challenge to the Pakistani state, fell apart on the question of sharing political power with the eastern wing and providing justice to the Bengalis. The left movement of Pakistan disappeared into wilderness and the county broke up into separate nation states—Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The rigidities of blinkered ethno-nationalism and neglect of minorities has played a primary role in the fall of the left in the various countries of the region. For the sake of its future, the powerful and surging left of Nepal would best study that experience and see where it may have gone wrong in Kathmandu as 2000 turned to 2001.

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Himal Southasian