Ethnic democracy

March 24, 2009 at 5:05 pm Leave a comment

Ethnic democracy

– Pramod Mishra

In the struggle between the dominant and emerging nationalisms, Nepalis have reached a crossroads with the abolition of monarchy and emergence of Nepal as a secular, federal democratic republic. In the over two-hundred-year existence, Nepal had been not only a professedly Hindu kingdom but implicitly a Nepali-speaking hill high caste-dominated state, existing in the contradiction between its founder King Prithvi Narayan’s asal Hindustan and his pluralist garden of castes and ethnicities. The decade long Maoist insurgency, democratic uprisings since 1990, ethnic agitations, the abolition of monarchy, and the election of the Constituent Assembly have exposed that contradiction. Nepal can no longer be both an asal Hindustan and a garden of equally flourishing flowers. Asal Hindustan always implied the supremacy of varnashram dharma, the hierarchical pluralism of orthodox Hinduism that created a hierarchy of social and political order. Jang Bahadur’s Muluki Ain of 1854 that ruled Nepal for over a hundred years was its blatant example but hill high caste ideology dominated the modern state, de facto, more or less until the election of the Constituent Assembly in 2008.

While King Prithvi’s asal Hindustan can longer be Nepal’s national identity, it can certainly be a garden of equal flowers with Nepal becoming a secular, federal democratic republic. And so, Nepali language, hill high caste dress of cap and daura-suruwal, colonial and authoritarian notion of Gorkha bravery, courage, and patriotism cannot represent Nepal’s all ethnicities. The challenge before the emerging Nepal is to use King Prithvi’s garden-of-many-flowers metaphor in order to rethink, reimagine, and restructure Nepal’s identity and political structure so that all groups within Nepal’s political boundary can accommodate within it and feel equally watered and fertilized not just in words but in deeds.

Similarly, Nepal’s sovereignty no longer resides in the monarchy but in the people, also made explicit by the Constituent Assembly. And because Nepal’s heterogeneous people speak multiple languages, practice various faiths, wear divergent dresses, Nepal’s sovereignty, too, has become much more complex and multicultural.

The question of medium language for official business of the state, official dress, and national symbols all are now be open for the people and the Constituent Assembly to debate, decide and choose for their functional value rather than any putative nationalistic identity. The very definition of nationalism and nation has to be emptied of any mono-ethnic value as has been the case in nationalism’s life, and still is, in European nationalism, where various ethnicities were either assimilated into one national ideology within the nation-state or boxed into separate nation-state. And the unassimilated groups, such as the Jews, the Gypsies, the Blacks, and the Indigenous groups, were persecuted and in some cases exterminated.
In the second half of the 20th century, Western liberal nation-states have struggled with ethnic inclusion into their democracies of Asian and African migrants by painfully redefining their nationalism. In an ethnically diverse country like Nepal, where heterogeneous ethnicities have lived for centuries, mono-ethnic nationalism of language, dress, or culture can only be temporarily productive for the assertion of minority rights for marginalized groups but is never viable in the long run for either the nation-state or the federal areas. In this sense, cultural protection, preservation and empowerment of any one culture or its people either nationally or locally is not the same as mono-ethnic or mono-cultural nationalism, because mono-cultural nationalism implies preservation of oneself at the expense of others by imposing oneself and one’s culture on others.

Nepali language in this sense becomes a complex case. It is like any other language used in Nepal and so cannot be one and only national language and subsume Nepal’s national identity because it is a language not only enshrined in India’s eighth schedule and spoken by about the same number of people as a mother tongue as in Nepal but also, as many ethnic activists claim, it used to be called Khas Bhasha. But because it has been in use for official purposes for so long, it can be a functional language if the Constituent Assembly, after debate and deliberation, decides to adopt it. Nepal does not need to make the same mistake that India did by adopting painfully and divisively Hindi as the national language. A multilingual nation can and should function in multiple languages if people have respect for each other and each other’s culture. If they do not have respect for each other and each other’s language and culture and feel either dominant or marginalized, they can cause violence for any strands of difference in others.
Many among those who have so far been the beneficiaries of Nepal’s hill high caste ideology have worked with other ethnic groups to usher Nepal to democracy and republicanism. Save for the Maoists, they may not have intended for the ethnic cauldron to come to full boil but credit must go to them as well for making ethnic politics possible. The rest of the hill high castes also need to understand and accept this paradigm shift in Nepal’s identity and sovereignty and, if not lead, join the change for a new Nepal in order to stake their claim for pluralism rather than ethnocentrism. And those who have felt dispossessed and discriminated need to understand that only within democracy have they been able to agitate freely, and even draw blood, for their cause, and only the survival of democracy can enable them to achieve their goal of ethnic rights and justice through dialogue, negotiations and at times agitations as legitimate means of asserting their demands. Even though violence has been often effective in advancing political agendas for many in Nepal, for violence to be effective it needs to know when to stop. Otherwise, violence will invite and produce unending cycle of violence and consume every positive gain made for democracy and inclusiveness. Examples are too numerous all over the world to include here. While a losing or disgruntled leader or group may continue to indulge in violence as a means to gain prominence, only dialogue and negotiation can ultimately bring empowerment for the marginalized groups. And, therefore, it is equally important for these marginalized groups to band together to turn the remaining violent groups into peaceful participants.


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