Some light on other social and political issues
Some portion from a long Discussion
(originally appeared in The Nepal Digest – August 16, 1998 (21 Shrawan 2055 BS)
Some light on other social and political issues
— Bijay Raut
1. The meaning of Nepali in Nepal (or What does it mean to be a Nepali):
The legal definition of a Nepali is the one who has a citizenship certificate of Nepal. Such person has all constitutional rights to exercise, from euality to the access to resources and opportunities. But this definition of a Nepali is limited to paper while in reality there are several groups of people in Nepal who are not only barred from the equal access to resources and opportunities, but also don’t feel as Nepali as the mainstream Nepali feel. Obviously, the mainstream Nepali culture lacks the elements by which disparate groups of people in Nepal can identify with. The mainstream culture of Nepal predominantly reflects the characteristics and identities of the “Pahari” ethnic group, which I also have referrd as “Genuine Nepali,” or “Ethnic Nepali.” The characteristics of this group (language, religion, ethnicity,e tc.) were compilied in eight points in my previous article by the title of “What does it mean to be a Nepali…..” The fact that ethnic groups like “Madhesi” group feels alienated from the mainstream Nepali culture, which has very little elements of their own culture, can be validated from their concept of Nepalihood. For example, if you visit Terai and ask a layman Madhesi to identify himself, he’ll problably identify by his ethnic group (maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu) or by caste. If you ask him whether he is Nepali or not, he’ll most likely to say that he’s not a Nepali; by Nepali he’ll identify hilly people (both Pahari and other hilly groups). On the similar token, if you ask a layman Hilly person, he is more likely to identify Madhesi as Indian.
So why hasn’t this Madhesi group, which comprises 33% or 1/3 of the total population (the Panchayti era statistics distorted their figure, and in a recent book
“Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom..,” the authors state that the current figure of Madhesi is about 1/3 of the population and that the population of Terai is half of the total population), been assimilated to the mainstream culture of Nepal? Is this the sole fault of the Madhesi group or did the Rana and Panchayati era’s governments deliberately didn’t set up the provisions for this group to assimilate or move forward? This is a very complex question and I’ll make my efforts to answer it appropriately.
Let me begin my argument by presenting a quote from the book: “Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Nepal” :
“How, then, to broaden the sense of ‘Nepaliness’ …so that it embraces the whole population of Nepal?…. One way of achieving this would be by broadening the ‘official’ culture promulgated through the school system
(remember, how panchayati era used promaganda to present one-nation-one-state Nepal); as Saubhagya Shaha (1993) has put it, ‘the national pantheon must… include personalities and events, historic as well as mythical, from all communities.’ The historical links between the Mithila region of the Terai and the Newar Kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley could be emphasized and translations of Maithili, Newari, and Kiranti literature made an important part of national school syllabus. The role of the Magars and Gurungs in the creation of the Nepali state could be properly recognized…”
It should be noted here that in order to broaden the sense of
‘Nepaliness’, the national pantheon or the mainstream culture must include personalities and events, historic as well as mythical, from all communities. Does the mainstream culture of Nepal reflect this fact ? No! The mainstream culture hasn’t included the elements of the diverse groups, prominently Madhesis and Bhotiyas/Sherpa, such that the members of these groups will be able to identify themselves as Nepali in a similar manner to that of the members of the Pahari group.
>From my personal experience, I can say with certainity that the mainstream
culture of Nepal does not reflect the prominent values of “Maithili” culture or include any of its major historic as well as mythical personalities or events. I went to the same educational system like any other “Genuine Nepali” go and I had the similar limited knowledge of my Maithili culture like any other Nepali does. For example, I didn’t know about “Vidyapati,” the Mahakavi of Mathili while I had adequate knowledge of Mahakavi Devkota. Well, I don’t tend to argue that the mainstream culture should include each and every elements of each and every group, but it should certainly include the major elements of the major groups. The maithili along with other madhesis form 1/3 of the population and they are dweller of economically significant Terai region of Nepal. Ignoring them or their culture will never bring unity in Nepal or make these people feel “Nepali” in the sense other groups feel.
Well, as Subedi has argued, other groups, mainly the hilly ethnic groups (gurung, magar, thakali, rai, limbu, etc,) who have lived in close contact with the “pahari or parbatya” groups for centuries, have been able to assimilate to the mainstream Nepali culture. So it shouldn’t be difficult for Madhesi groups to assimilate to the mainstream culture( which as mentioned above is dominated by the values and characteristics of the Pahari ethnic group), and the present failure of this Madhesi group to assimilate in the mainstream is soley their weakness or fault. This is one sided argument. The reasons why Madhesis aren’t able to assimilate like other hilly groups are many. I’ll point out few:
1. The Madhesis, unlike other hilly tribes, historically haven’t been in close contacts with the Paharis, since a majority of Paharis setteled in Terai after the eradication of Malaria during Panchayat era (causing massive deforestation in the Charkose jhhadi), while a very few Madhesis have migrated to the hills. On the other hand, the Madhesis are closely linked with their conterparts on the other side of the border where their culture and language have flourished for several millennia.
2. The Madhesi groups, Maithili for instance, have a glorious cultural heritage. Maithili is an ancient culture , preserved for several thousand years. To be assimilated to the mainstream culture in Nepal, where a very few elements of Mathili culture are included, Maithilis will have to forsake all major identities of their culture, which is practically impossible given how deep rooted they are in their culture and how proud Maithilis are of their cultural heritage. Unless the mainstream Nepali culture includes the traits of Maithili culture, it is impossible for Maithils to assimilate into the so-called mainstream culture of Nepal.
(Just to give you idea of why Maithilis are proud of their cultural heritage: Mithila art is world famous and are presitigious collections of Museums in the United States, Japan and other countries. Maithili literature is far richer and developed than Nepali literature. Many western intellectuals and Pahari people admit the superiority of Maithili culture over Nepali culture. The Maithili customs and values are as precious to Mathils as Nepali customs are to Pahari. Neither of the groups will want to forsake its customs in name of assimilation. The assimilation will be brought only by mutual understanding.)
3. The assimilation of Madhesis is further complicated by the racist, discrinimatory and hostile attitudes of the Pahari and other hilly groups. For example, the language of Madhesis, their “dhoti’, their skin color or phenotype; their customs, etc, are all subjects of ridicule and comedy for the Pahari and other hilly groups.
4. In terms of access to resources and opportunities in Nepal, Madhesis groups as compared to other groups are far behind. Though they comprises of 33% of the total population, their representation in government bureucracies is in between 5 to 10 percent, in police force is below 5 percent and in Army is negligible. The decision making and policies deriving government bodies will inevitably fail to include the essential characteristics of the Madhesi groups if they don’t have enough representative from these groups. Furthermore, during Rana and Panchayat era, the government policies were deliberately discriminatory to not only Madhesis but also Janjatis and other minorities. The Ranas exploited the Hindu Caste codification to serve their ends (Muluki Ain as prommulgated by Janga Bahadur Rana had strict Hindu Caste codifications), while the Panchayati era government used one-culture-one language-one religion-one country policies to “Nepalizise” all other ethnic groups. In fact, that was King Mahendra’s definition of national unity!
Having said all these, let me switch to our debate on Hindi/Nepali issue.I’ll take this opportunity to highlight the growing significance of Hindi in not only Terai but the whole of Nepal. Whether Hindi should be adopted as the second official language or not I’ll leave that open to further speculations and debates.
Although the percentage of people who speak HIndi as their mother tongue is small, it is well spoken by many as second language and understood by even more. Hindi is the “lingua franca” of Terai as Nepali is that of Hills. Like Nepali, which serves as a link language for people of diverse languages in Hills, Hindi serves as a link language for people of similarly diverse languages. When a Mathili speaking person communicates with Bhojpuri speaking person, it’s Hindi they often use as a medium language ( In fact, 81% of Madhesi households included in a 1992 sample survey reported that they used Hindi as their link language to other communities; source: “Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom, 1997).
Furthermore, the scope of HIndi is getting larger due to the increasing popularity of HIndi movies, songs, and the Zee-TV and the wider economic opportunites in India after the liberalization of her economy. Almost all urban Nepali, regardless of their ethnic origin, understand spoken Hindi these days. When a Newari speaking businessman in Kathmandu communicate with a businessman in Delhi or Bombay, it’s Hindi they use as a medium, althoug they might use English in the written form. If we do not direct our anti-Indian sentiments towards Hindi (which is not the only Indian language; Maithili and Bhojpuri are Indian languages as well) and be little more pragmatic, we’ll be able to understand the importance of Hindi language in Nepal.
Let me end my response with a paragraph from the book “Naitonalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of culture in Nepal”:
” ….If, in addition, the people of the Terai perceive Nepali as something imposed on them rather than as a door to wider economic opportunities, the demand for mother tongue and Hindi rather than mother tongue plus Nepali can only continue to grow…. The linguistic solution for the Terai might be retention of Nepali as the language of written record, but encouragement of all Terai languages, including Hindi, as spoken languages and as vehicles for literature. Hindi, Nepali, and Maithili are closely-related languages written in the same script and all drawing on Sanskrit for their higher-level vocabulary. All urban Nepalis can at least understand spoken Hindi if only because of exposure to the HIndi cinema, and literacy in any of the three languages opens the door to literacy in the others.”
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