Nepali Nationalism

July 31, 2006 at 10:05 am 1 comment

By skc on Jan 06, 2004

Neighborly influence has played 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 negotiations between the Royal Palace, Nepali Congress, and the Leftists. There is a general misconception in that the Nepali democratics are seen to be Indo-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 Beneras, the comrades of the Left are beholden to Charu Mazumdar of Bengal. As an exception, it is only the Nepali peasants and Workers Party that arrived in Bhaktapur by way of the Kodari highway.

National Identity

Nepal’s national identity has been distorted by alien symbols. Modern Nepal is only 233 years old since the conquest of Bhaktapur, yet it holds on to the 200 year-old Vikram Sambat (calendar) which has no link with any Nepali historical event. Even the Emperor of India Vikramaditya has adopted the Gregorian Calendar. Last year, Sankhadhar Sakhwa was finally recognized as a national hero of Nepal, but his Nepal Sambat (Calendar) remains in limbo. The national flag is said to reflect the country’s aspirations, and the unique twain-tailed flag of Nepal may be symbolic of speed and dynamism according to the laws of aerodynamics. But the country’s pace of progression is abysmally slow. Four decades ago, there was an exhortation: “Nepal should do in ten years what takes others a hundred”. Then followed the rhetoric that “We would achieve the Asian Standard of living by 2000”, which had a silent demise. The only resource available to the poor is time and a poor country needs to strive harder. But the Nepali attitude seems quite different. When the Congress is in power, the Left immobilizes the country with numerous bandhs. For this part, the Congress Party in power locks up the government offices 52 Sundays a year. Rather than engage in the strenuous task of nation building, we make merry with bandhs and a plethora of holidays.

The identification of Nepal after the two world wars began with the imagery of the ‘brave Gurkha’. Later, the country came to be recognized as the land of Everest and Sherpas. But due to our increasing dependence on aid, the country’s identification today is as a least-developed, poverty-stricken entity even after nine periodic plans. In other poor countries they distribute ration coupons. In Nepal, mobile teams distribute citizen certificates, and passport processing is decentralized to export unemployed labor. Meanwhile, the prestige of the Nepali passport is diminishing progressively. Earlier, Nepali did not need a visa for Germany. But this facility was withdrawn after Nepali is going to Japan Via Frankfurt became a crowd. Since then, other countries have imposed visa before arrival for Nepalese- Malaysia in 1993, Thailand in 1995, and Hong Kong in 1998.

Political boundary and citizenship are two bases of national identity. On both counts, the situation of Nepal seems precarious. The country’s international border with China is 1,111 km long and that with India 1,808 km long. The northern border is regulated by high mountain ranges as well as the need for passport. With India, however, there are 27 designated customs checkpoints, there is no restriction whatsoever the cross-border movement of the people. This is a peculiar international on 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 confirmed, to the northern frontier. The problem of border encroachment, however, is more pronounced in the other direction. According to knowledgeable sources, there are 53 places where Nepali territory has been encroached upon along the Nepal-India border. Among the 26 districts of Nepal that adjoin India, only in five is there no such problem of encroachment (Baitadi, Dadeldhuira, Bara, Dhanusa and Mahottari). Among the 21 districts where there are such problems, seven places in Kanchanpur and five each in Jhapa and Saptari are prominent. The precondition to settle border disputes is that both sides have to be willing to hold discussion. The persistence of problem along the Indo-Nepal border must make Nepalese mull over the symbolism in Robert Frost’s poem.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was likely to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
That wants it down.
He will not go behind this father’s saying
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again good fences make good neighbors.

The other important aspect of national identity is citizenship that differentiates between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The citizenship problem in Nepal is not new and has become more intractable now. The 70-point recommendations of the 1983 migration report included 12 on citizenship alone. The report’s conclusion was that the citizenship policy of the country was too liberal and needed regulating. Between 1975 and 1993, eight citizenship teams and three investigation committees were formed. Meanwhile, by early 1994, nine million citizenship certificates had been distributed. Of those who received citizenship certificate, in terms of region, 44.5 percent were from the hill, 38.4 from the Terai, 8.9 from inner Terai and 8.2 percent were from the mountains. The largest number of citizenship certificates was distributed in Kathmandu district (400,329), followed by Sunsari (315,667) in eastern Terai. The nine districts which gave out more that 200,000 certificates were Kathmandu in the valley, Chitwan in inner Terai, and seven in the Terai.

Nepali cirtizenship can be had either by being born in Nepal, or through descent or naturalization. Among the foreigners seeking citizenship, it is obvious that the majority will be from the neighboring 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 Nepali Citizenship. The fact that only one-third of the people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka had received citizenship indicates Nepal’s liberal citizenship policy. This observation is also buttressed by the population census data of Nepal. During the period 1981-1991, there was a 81.3 percent reduction of foreign citizens in Nepal from 483,019 to 90,427. Among these, Indian Citizens were down by 41.3 percent and Chinese citizens by 16.7 percent. Of all the foreigners in Nepal, 75.7 percent were Indian citizens.

Looking at the data by region, the number of Indian Citizens increased only in western Terai, western inner Terai, and Kathmandu valley. In Centeral terai, there was a drastic decrease in Indian Citizens, i.e., by half. The number of Indian Citizens declined by 84 percent in the mountains, 55.1 percent in hill, 35.6 percent in Terai, and 27.2 percent in inner Terai. According to the census data, only nine out of 75 districts saw an increase in Indian Citizens: Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Dang, Chitwan, Kanchanpur, Kailali, Bardiya, Banke and Parsa. In all other districts their number declined.

Indian Citizens in Nepal










Inner Terai









The question up arises: was there any policy implemented or some events, which made Indian citizens, leave Nepal in large numbers during the decade 1981-1991? Two points of reference may be mentioned here. First, in 1987, Nepal tried an initial exercise to introduce a work permit system in Kathmandu Valley? This could not be implemented due to Indian objection. 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 during 1988/89 led to disruption of normal relationship between the two countries. However, the population census was carried out in June 1991, and the economic blockade had already been lifted with the restoration of democracy in 1990. Soon after the relationship between the two countries had even the democratic restoration been to be qualified by the euphemism of ‘common rivers’.

The dichotomy of the census data showing a decrease in Indian Citizens, on the one hand, and the obvious influx of Indian citizens, on the other, 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 in Jhapa (8154) and Morang (5061), where more citizenship certificates –256, 257 and 288,897 respectively-were distributed. There is very little variation among sources on the number of Indians acquiring Nepali citizenship: 57.7 percent in the 1983 migration report and 62.8 percent according to official Indian records. What is distressing in this context, is that political parties are following their own narrow agenda even on a subject as critical as citizenship. The Dhanapati Upadhyay Commission (1994) setup by the UML government had the Congress member boycotting and the Sadbhavana Party member dissenting, while the Mahanta Thakur Committee (1995) setup by the Congress did not have a UML member. Therefore, the Citizenship Bill-2000, submitted without a broad consensus, is a challenge to the country’s national interest.

Consolidation Strategy

There are three priority areas to be focussed on in order 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 cannot be an assurance for India. Nepal is indeed a country at peace because since the conclusion of the war with Tibet in 1856, she has not fought for 145 years. And the fact is that when you do not fight the weapons tend to get rusty. The vast regular-army type of military organization that imperial Britain bequeathed on India and which was introduced in Nepal by India is not appropriate for such a small country as Nepal. The national security structure of Nepal would be better modeled after that of Switzerland, where men between 20 and 50 years gave 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 do not have a regular army but a citizenry army which ash secured the country’s independence for 700 years. Nepal too had this kind of a militia system in the late 18th century. As a country with thousands of retired soldiers form the British and Indian armies, Nepal can easily setup a defense and security system after the Swiss model.

Treaty Revision: The treaty fo Peace and Friendship of 1950, between Nepal and India was signed by the last Ran Prime Minister under extraordinary circumstances. A revision of that 50-year-old document is necessary in order to put the relationship between the two countries on a more realistic footing. According to Article 6 of the Treaty, each country commits to accord national treatment to the citizens of the other. Article 7 provides equal rights to citizens of both countries in matters of residence, right of property, trade and movement. For a small country to give equal treatment to a larger neighbor can mean only one thing –loses of its own separate identity over time. Article 7 also makes Nepal nothing more that an Indian hinterland, for the guarantee of freedom of movement across the international border make it just an imaginary fence or a decorative motif on the map. This writer actually had some positive thoughts about the 1988/89 economic blockade by India, for I felt it gave Nepalese an opportunity to strive for self-reliance. Just as one closes the windows the chemistry of nation building requires a clear defining of its own space. Therefore, it is necessary to regulate that Nepal-India border first through identity cards and later through passports. Owing to the different development levels of the two countries, Indian have skill and capital while Nepalese only have labor as resource. 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 connotations. A nation is more evolved condition that a state, for beyond territorial definition it includes an emotional bond among the people within the state. The Nepalese state 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, and not socially and economically. The social model for national unification so far has been Hinduization, which goes against the Nepali multiethnic character. How stultifying the hangover if Nepal’s Muluki Ain has been can he gauged by comparing the state of neighboring societies across Nepal’s borders in the immediate west and east. The social backwardness and exploitation of Dalit in the Khasa region of west Nepal reminds one of the situation in Kumaon and Garhwal a hundred years ago. It that is the past, the future of Nepali society can be visualized by looking east, a the social dynamism of the Nepali-speaking population east of Mechi river charted the path to Nepali nationalism. These pioneers were 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 Gurung to Basnet to Limbu and Chamling while in Darjeeling the political contenders are a Ghising and a Subba.

The 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 integrate the hill and terai economies through growth axes. But that concept was swept away by increasing centralization. Today’s wave of globalization poses even greater challenge to the country’s economic autonomy. The most important step toward consolidation of the Nepali State and nationalism is to end economic exploitation and social injustice. 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 multiethnic, multilingual and a multi-religious Nepal should have a secular constitution. That will be the beginning of national integration.

Sources: Harka Gurung
(Courtesy: Nepal Tomorrow Voices & Visions, Edited by D.B. Gurung)



Entry filed under: Articles.

In a state of statelessness: a case study of the citizens without citizenship in Nepal GOODWILL HUNTING

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