By Aditya Adhikari
Unable to stem flows between borders, Nepalis feel the need to periodically lash out at India
It had been some years since a Bollywood film or actor offended the sentiments of Nepalis. Then last week the government decided to ban the film Chandni Chowk to China, in which a character claims that the Buddha was born in India. Stirrings of protest started, student unions began getting active, letters of outrage were sent to the media. The government then banned the movie — more out of a desire to prevent widespread riots than out of a sense of injured nationalism.
The incident was a reminder that the various symbols that the state elite have constructed over the past century to define Nepal against India still retain their potency. The struggle to separate Nepali culture from the Indian, and consequently to deny Nepal’s cultural and civilisational ties with the rest of South Asia, has always been something of a lost battle. No matter how many times the Buddha is proclaimed to be a son of the Nepali soil, to uniquely belong to this nation-state constructed only two and a half centuries ago, at the back of the mind there always arises the uncomfortable thought that Nepal’s ownership is not as solid as it claims it to be. After all, the Buddha spent most of his life teaching and travelling in what is now north India. His legacy encompasses the subcontinent. Every time they contemplate these aspects of the Buddha’s life, Nepalis know, even if subconsciously, that laying exclusive claim on the Buddha is to deny themselves a broad civilisational heritage.
At any rate, the protests against Chandni Chowk to China felt anachronistic. The idea that the Buddha belonged to the nation-state of Nepal was fostered by the Panchayat regime to promote feelings of national unity. As such, the Buddha falls within the pantheon of other such symbols constructed by the regime: the cow, for instance, or the rhododendron, or the poet Bhanubhakta Acharya. But all of these symbols have lost their potency over the past decade. The political and social churning of the post-1990 period undermined the idea of Nepal as a united and cohesive whole. There has been a great assertion of previously peripheralised groups, who claimed that they did not feel part of the artificially constructed symbols of nationhood constructed in Kathmandu. The violence and continuing underdevelopment of the past decade, for which Nepal had no one to blame but itself, also inflicted heavy blows to the myth of national unity.
The Buddha, however, remains a potent symbol in Nepal because it has the capacity to raise hackles when Indians try to claim him as their own. It is often said that Nepali nationalism exists solely in opposition to India. If this was true in previous decades, it is more so now. Without any symbols that command unanimous reverence across the country, it is only through opposition to a massive external force that a sense of independent nationhood can be maintained.
The protests last week were anomalous in another way as well. In recent years, Nepali indignation has arisen not so much when India attempts to dictate to Nepal what it should do or when it claims certain uniquely Nepali symbols as its own. Rather, for the past few years anti-Indian sentiment has arisen when Nepalis have been mistreated in India or when Nepalis are represented in various Indian media according to prevailing stereotypes — as security guards or other labourers with limited intelligence. When Kiran Desai won the Booker prize for her novel The Inheritance of Loss, there was an outcry. For, some characters in her novel had spoken lowly of Nepalis. Similarly, there has been some anger against Arvind Adiga’s recent Booker winner The White Tiger. There too, the narrator portrays Nepalis in India according to certain stereotypes they have in wider Indian society.
But this indigation, too, hardly extends beyond the narrow confines of the Kathmandu valley. There is certainly a feeling of solidarity between Nepali migrants to India, but it does not translate into a feeling of kinship to the Nepali nation-state. Most of the people who migrate to India for work have moved directly from their impoverished areas to India: they have never travelled to Kathmandu or other parts of Nepal. When a person from Kathmandu encounters a fellow Nepali in Mumbai for instance, one is struck more by the differences than the similarities between that person and oneself. That immigrant has moved directly to India from, say, Achham. The Nepali he speaks is less familiar to the visitor from Kathmandu than Bambaiyya Hindi. In any case, it has likely been many years since the migrant has moved to Mumbai from Achham, and Hindi or Marathi or some dialect has penetrated his Nepali, rendering it almost incomprehensible. The manners and habits he has adopted belong to the city of Mumbai. The Nepali migrant has become as much a Mumbaikar as migrants from Bihar or West Bengal.
Even within Nepal, the further one travels outside of the capital, the less one feels the presence of the state and the more its symbols of nationality lose resonance. When a person from the far-west, say, moves to India, his sense of belonging to the Nepali nation is weakened further. There is hardly any difference in the circumstances in Mumbai between a poor migrant from Nepal and a poor migrant from Bihar. Both have been able to reach the city with relative ease: there are no border controls that need to be negotiated, no sites where one has to register. Just as the Bihari migrant cannot seek protection at any Indian embassy in the city, the Nepali migrant isn’t protected by the Nepali embassy. Both the Bihari and Nepali migrants largely rely on informal channels to remit money back home. There are, in other words, absolutely no institutions that exist for the benefit of Nepali migrants in India — institutions that might have fostered a sense of belongingness among the millions of Nepalis residing in India to their nation.
Behind Nepalis’ persistent anger towards India lies a fear of blurred boundaries and the resulting seepage. By claiming the ostensibly Nepali symbol of the Buddha as its own, India seeped into Nepal. And through the millions who move to India to find work, Nepal is bleeding into India. Nepal is helpless to stem the flow. And the frustrations arising from helplessness cause Nepalis to periodically lash out at its neighbour on which they are so dependent.
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