This week saw identity politics at its most cynical
– PRASHANT JHA
Cynicism, hypocrisy and insecurity were three key elements of last week’s Hindi oath-taking controversy.
There was resentment in Kathmandu at Madhesis occupying the top two posts. And there was counter-resentment in the Madhes. The MJF was being asked why it had allied with two conservative forces, and felt the need to reassert its ‘radical’ image. Upendra Yadav’s formula was to tell Parmanand Jha to take his oath in Hindi, provoke and cash in on the reaction.
The backlash may have gone beyond what the Forum expected, but the plan worked. Nepal’s student politics is crawling with those who think Madhesis are Indians and Hindi is only an Indian language. Their latent prejudices only need a pretext to ignite.
The Maoists, for their part, saw this as an opportunity to play the protector of nationalism and get back at the MJF. Pretty soon, Kathmandu streets were burning. Madhesi parties held back but their own activists wanted to retaliate in the Tarai. Once all sides met their political objectives, the confrontation fizzled out. This was politics at its most cynical, where the parties had no qualms risking lives and deliberately manufacturing mistrust.
It exposed the hypocrisy of those who criticised Jha’s oath-taking and took to the streets. There were exceptions like language activist Dhirendra Premarshi (see p 6) who have consistently opposed the use of Hindi and sought to promote Tarai’s native languages. But the position of others was dubious.
From ‘revolutionary’ intellectuals to Kathmandu’s street lumpens, everyone seems to have suddenly discovered the love of Maithili and Bhojpuri. Like the Kathmandu intelligentsia has discovered the alienation of Tharus, Madhesi, Dalits and Muslims in recent months, after never having bothered about them in the past. Most of the recent criticism is just an attempt to delegitimise the Madhesi movement.
Commentators who are saying Jha should have taken his oath in his mother-tongue are the same people who kicked up a fuss when Matrika Yadav insisted on taking his oath in Maithili. The politicians who encouraged protests are the same leaders who go back to their constituencies in Tarai and beg and plead for votes in Hindi.
Girija Koirala said: “Mujhe aaj aisa lag raha hai ki main laut ke ghar waapas aa gaya,” after signing the eight point agreement, but his party activists feel Hindi is alien. How is Hindi a Nepali language when Pahadis use it to communicate in the Tarai, but is an Indian language when Madhesis use it to speak to each other or in public?
It all goes back to our insecurities. Our nationalism is still so fragile that we go back to enforcing unitary of dress and language. It will not work. And the sooner the leaders of the bigger parties explain that to their cadre and reinforce the message of inclusion, the better it will be for the country.
Nepal is engaged in an overwhelmingly ambitious project of modernity: transforming this old exclusivist ethnicity based nationalism into a constitutional, territorial, political sense of citizenship. Anyone who swears by Nepal’s constitution, has their citizenship papers, pays taxes, participates in the politics and economy and is a Nepali. Whether they speak Hindi or Spanish or gibberish is irrelevant. The country has made enormous progress in that direction in the last two years, but events like these set the clock back.
This week we played with fire. Madhesi residents in Kathmandu were reminded of the Hrithik Roshan riots of January 2001, which was the key trigger of Madhesi radicalisation. Levels of anxiety shot up after the MJF office was attacked. Pahadis in the Tarai felt the same this week when the daura-suruwal was burnt and the UML office was attacked.
It all died down, but the discourse has got bitter with long-term consequences. It is clear that key politicians are happy with this bitterness and anger. The task of bridging the Kathmandu-Madhes gap has just become more difficult.
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