Some 200 years ago, the Gorkha king politically unified Nepal through conquest While the political entity called Nepal has existed all these years, however, the nation state of Nepal has not yet stood the test of national integration. Having been propped up for two centuries by feudal and authoritarian rule, the country is now asked to hold together under a multi-party democracy.
Today, whether they fully realise it or not, those who would rule Nepal are weighed down by the responsibility of managing multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-tribal divisions. Like elsewhere in the young and emergent states of Asia and Africa, the search is on for a single cultural identity that would make Nepal a “nation-state” rather than merely a “state”.
A “state” requires only a central government, people, territory and political sovereignty. In the slightly more abstract notion of “nation-state”, a people see a common destiny of remaining together, despite differences in language, culture, religion and political ideology.
Nepal´s transformation from a feudal state to a democratic state, without an intervening period of tutelage under colonial rule, has been abrupt. The feudal authoritarian rule of the past two centuries sought to maintain and promulgate national integration in one way. Under the new dawn of multi-party democracy, national integration will be achieved in a different way.
A Notion of Nation-State
If the inter-ethnic relationships are still relatively stable in Nepal, the credit should go to the country´s unique history. What kept Nepal “integrated” was the so-called harmonic model of feudal, pre-modem government The values within this model were decreed by the ruling classes.
Prithvi Narayan Shah, and those after him, base d [he country´ s unification on four key ideas: the unquestioning power and authority of the Hindu King of Gorkha; the supremacy of the Hindu ethos in national life; social integration through the Hindu social system based on caste division; and recognition of Nepali as the language of government, administration and, in more recent times, education.
Prithvi Narayan did recognise the cultural plurality of his conquered lands. His Dibya Upadesh, in which this remarkable conquerer and statesman described his policies of governance, likens Nepal to “a garden bedecked with four varnas and thirty-sixjats”. Despite this recognition of diversity, however, the cultural rights of the different communities were not recognised by the old state. Neither did the communities themselves have opportunity to articulate their demands.
Historically, the Hindu ruling class dealt with other ethnic groups (the/a/is) not as “foreign” or “alien”, but as part of the Hindu social and cultural older. The hill tribes were taken as equivalent of “castes” within the Hindu four¬fold social division known as varna. And the traditional caste divisions cast people in rigid socio-economic and political roles, providing a minimum of social and economic security, but precluding competition and role changes.
The old Muluki Ain of 1854, promulgated by Jung Bahadur, specified and categorised the schedule of social offences punishable by law. Punishment for an offence was determined by taking into account the caste of the offender and .that of the victim. The new Muluki Ain, promulgated in 1963 by King Mahehdra, while it did not do away with the idea of caste altogether, did make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of caste in the courts, in education, and in employment.
Modem states are based on the newer values of democracy, human rights, minority rights, equality and social justice. These novel and external notions of governance entered Nepal during the 1951 anti-Rana revolution. Even the Panchayat system, which did every thing to retard the political process from the 1960s to the 1980s was forced to pay lip service to these new values.
The new Nepali Constitution of November 1990 represents a final break from the historical model of national integration. In no uncertain terms, it acknowledges the cultural pluralism of Nepal and guarantees the right of every community “to conserve and promote its language, script and culture.”
While the new Constitution rejects the earlier basis for national integration, it is now up to the government and the people to develop a new model. Are we up to it? The lukewarm attitude in official circles towards the minority languages indicates that, perhaps, we are not The Nepali language already has an unchallenged predominance in Nepal, and the need of the times is to accord other languages a meaningful place in national life.
From the administrative tardiness in; recognising the aspirations of Nepal´s multi¬ethnic groups, it seems that the outlook of many Nepali Hindus, even today, is dominated by an outdated view of caste distinctions. They would rather see ethnic aspirations subordinated by the more overriding concern of national integration. The legacy of the 1950s — that of ignoring a person´s ethnic or caste membership in census-taking-—was continued even in the 1991 census. The census sheets recognise merely the existence of linguistic minorities and, even then, there are many flaws in the counting. The rather ingenuous assumption is that ethnic problems can be circumvented by simply not counting. It is perhaps not too much to hope that by the time the next census comes aroundin2001, the administrators will have doffed their cultural blinders.
We do not know the exact number of the languages spoken in Nepal and how many speak them. But linguists estimate that there are about 40principaI minority languages, most of them of the Tibeto-Burman tongues. Some of the smaller languages have died over the past 50 years and their few remaining speakers absorbed into the closest majority language. Nonetheless, the more prominent linguistic groups have managed to survive and their ethnic awareness has today been revived in the fresh air of democracy. Some of the still-extant lingu is lie groups are the Gurung, Magar, Tamang, Rai, Limbu, Thakali, Sherpa, Tharu, Raji and Route. Even today, the ethnic awareness of these groups is largely of a cultural rather than political nature.
Nepal´s minorities do not merely consist of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups, however. Hindus themselves are part of several regional and linguistic groups. First, there are the Nepali-speaking Hindus of the hills who have controlled Nepali politics for at least two centuries. Unlike the many ethnic groups mentioned above, they are not lied to a specific region but are settled everywhere baning the High Himal. The Bahuns migrated from the hills of western Nepal in the 12th to 14th century.
Then there are the Newar Hindus, who make up about half the population of the Newars — the “heroes and builders of Nepal”. Next, there arc the Hindus of the Tarai whose history in Nepal is more recent. They are further divisible into three groups according to language: Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. Although the Tarai Hindus have been less involved in the process that created the state of Nepal, they can hardly be excluded from the rights and privileges of being Nepali nationals.
The modernisation and development of Nepal´s economy have produced significant social changes: new economic classes have been formed; there are more middle class professionals and some new trading classes are emerging. However, these changes have made no dent on ethnic self-identification. If anything, ethnic consciousness is strengthening day by day. Take, for example, the Newars who, as inhabitants of Kathmandu, have benefitted the most from the development of the Valley over the past four decades. This has not diminished their ethnic consciousness — if anything, it has been reinforced, as is obvious from their demands for greater recognition of the Newari language.
An interesting current trend is that the Hindu caste groups are also beginning to get “communalised”, that is, gaining an ethnic identity all their own. Earlier, the Bahuns — the Brahmans of the Nepali hills — had formed part of the ruling class. Hence they had little reason to develop a communal psychology as did the under-privileged, discriminated groups. But in the anthropological works on Nepal, written mostly by Westerners, the Bahuns are being depicted more and more as a class of exploiters in relation to other ethnic groups, and held responsible for imposing certain “fatalistic” ideologies.
Bahuns reaped advantage of their caste privilege in the past by acquiring land from the rulers. Their social status and access to education and economic resources gave them an advantage of joining professional and government service. As a result, Bahuns presently make up the most politically articulate group in the country. Bahuns, now as well as in the past, have contributed most in nurturing the idea of a Nepali state.
The Bahun´s predominance in national political life is being labelled batatnbad, or brahmanbad, by some and is increasingly a subject of attack. Since it is only the hill Brahmins that are being made the target of attack—and not the Brahmins in other Hindu ethnic groups—in the process the Bahuns could be slowly developing an “ethnic” consciousness all then-own. This consciousness is still incipient and can only grow if “Bahunbad” remains a rallying cry of those opposing them.
The Thakuri and Chhetri castes of the hills, too, are beginning to show a tendency to look upon themselves as distinct cultural groups with separate roots and origin. The untouchable castes of thepre-1963 Muluki Ain, actually, have even more justification — as an exploited and still-exploited class — to forge a new identity of their own. The trend, thus, is that even the so-called culturally homogenous groups are beginning to seek to build the ir new political and economic security under the spell of “ethnicisation”. The process of cultural atomi-sation seems to have begun.
Better education, increased communication, transport networks and—the final ingredient— democracy, might be expected to nudge the ethnic groups, fuelled by distinctions of race, region, culture, language and so on, to a new level of political consciousness. Cultural and ethnic minorities, and erstwhile subject groups, are bound to demand a share of power and the recognition of their cultural and linguistic rights. Today, diverse cultural and regional groups are trying to come to terms with the political change and to find their niche in the new State.
Like many ideas which have come to influence Nepal from the outside, today the stress is on divisions rather than on similarities. Obviously, this is because the notion of a single “Nepaliness” has in the past been used as a tool for control by the dominant classes. The fear among some, however, is that this stress on divisions will ultimately undermine the very foundations of the Nepali state. Is this questioning of societal structure only part of an ongoing and more lively process or will it lead to the mole sinister development of national disintegration in the name of-ethnic differentiation and subnationalism?
Those with divisive tendencies have never been in a better position to foment tension. Some highly ambitious spokesmen w striving lo bring Die minority groups together on racial rather than ethnic grounds. Distinctions are being made between the “indigenous” people of Nepal and all Hindus, who are dubbed “outsiders”. The Mongol and the Janajati parties—banned from contesting in the June 1991 general election for raising communal slogans — are attempting to give a racial twist to their politics. Because individually the minority Tibeto-Burman-speaking groups have significantly reduced clout in a democracy, the attempt is to try to rally a political force based on the racial distinction of being´ ´Mongoloid´´. The outsider-versus-insider schism that is being propagated contains, in essence, the same elements as the bhumiputra agitations in some Southeast Asian states, directed against the Indian and Chinese population there.
Another distinct ethnic as well regional fault line lies between the Pa. and Madhesiya, the tollman and plainsman. “Regional ethnicity” is what seems to come into play. That these generic terms have even acquired some pejorative sense indicates the direction of this confrontation. Today, the relationship between the two groups is marked by deep suspicion. The Pahades regard the Madhesiyas as Indian in their cultural orientation and political loyalties. For the Pahade, the Tarai-based Sadbhavana Party´s championing of Hindi is proof enough of this.
The Madhesiyas, for their part, regard the Pahades as colonisers and exploiters of the Tarai who treat them as second class citizens. The Madhesiyas protest their under-representation in the political decision-making process, in government employment, and resent the resettlement policies which favour the hill migrants. The unsettled question of citizenship rights rankles the political leaders of the Tarai.
The rig id attitudes which divide tire Pahades and Madhesiyas indicates an ethnic conflict of explosive potential which could well engulf Nepal in the future. And the fear lurks in the mind of many — could there be a Sri Lanka-in-making here, including the possibilities of Indian involvement in the aftermath?
Why is national integration a desirable goal in the first place? Even in the aftermath of the disintegration of the .Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the concept of national integration remains relevant Some short-sighted political desperados, in Nepal as elsewhere, will always try to stir up ethnic turmoil in complete disregard
to the advantages of national integration. But what, indeed, will happen in the wake of a disintegrated state? Are there to be separate political states along ethnic lines? Is there an ethnic group in Nepal which can claim to be a completely homogeneous group? There are all kinds of divisions—including hierarchical ones — within every group in Nepal, and there are economic inequalities to be found among them all. It would be short-sighted folly to try to achieve economic survival as atomised entities. The emergent ethnic states in Europe are all looking to the European Economic Community as the saviour, and they are justified in pinning their hopes on the EEC, given the evolution of economic cooperation in the Continent. But what would be the price to pay for emergence of mini-states in Nepal´s stead? Without a doubt, such disintegration would only spell further poverty for the population of the mini-states, which would be that much more vulnerable to internal and external threats. There is little likelihood of a strong confederated organisation such as the EEC emerging in South Asia. There would come anarchy and instability first.
One would hope that ethnic problems would never reach such a pitch as to threaten Nepal´s prevailing social harmony, even though that harmony has been maintained largely through the social order laid down by the Hindus. Certainly, this historical legacy needs readjusting and re-appreciating in a more modern context.
An ethnically and culturally diverse population is seeking to redefine its role and its place, and to make new adjustments within the State, like India, the State of Nepal needs to formulate policies relating to minority languages and culture, secure them their new rights in these respects, and lay down a democratic and equitable basis for political power-sharing by ethnic minorities. All conflict-prone situations would be resolved by taking recourse to dialogue between the contending parties, without sacrificing the long-term interests of national integration.
The world in recent years has been witnessing an increasing violence in the management of group relationships between so-called “majorities” and “minorities”. The majority is seen by the minority to be the personification of brute domineering State, and the minority by the majority as harbouring secessionist tendencies. Only a restrained, tolerant and democratic approach on both s ides will see Nepal through the adjustment period that she is now experiencing. Rightly or wrongly, Nepal has had the good fortune of enjoying relative ethnic harmony thus far. If we can bring to bear a new outlook on group relationships, making necessary accomodation and adjustments in it, the future ethnic problems might be more manageable.
What are the interests of a state´s majority and those of its minorities? What are the obligations of Nepalis towards each other? What gives a State the right to protect its integrity? By the same token, what moral right has an ethnic minority to them and secession and independence? In claiming this right for itself, does it recognise the rights of other, smaller minorities* within its borders to do the same in the future? For there is no accepted political theory, nor any provision in international law, on how large or small a state should be. Is the break-up of States sought on an enlightened basis of positive philosophy of anarchy, or the idea of the dissolution of the State? Indeed, the formation and breakup of States seem to depend on the sheer force of events, and rationalisations come later.
To Prithvi Narayan goes the credit of establishing the enlarged Nepali state and, and the same time, being the first to recognise the cultural plurality of the Nepal he had created. But his times were guided by a different feudal ethos, and hence the values he used in nation-building and in laying down group-relationships. Today´s is a different world. How would Prithvi Narayan have acted or reacted to the modem challenges of ethnic relationship? True visionary and statesman that he was, with the ability to be decisive when necessary but also with the ability to correct himself when proven wrong, tie might just have stood the test of the times and given Nepal a leadership that if so desperately needs now, in forging a new basis for group relationship, different from the one which he established two centuries earlier.