New nationalism

June 11, 2009 at 4:23 pm Leave a comment

New nationalism

The border issue with India has once again aroused nationalists. Will the composition of Nepali nationalism change in a new Nepal? And what risks may the change pose to its sovereignty and integrity?  The vice presidential oath in Hindi and the subsequent protests against it last year also highlighted the confusion about the fundamentals of an emerging Nepal’s nationalism in relation to the other two components. Taking the oath in Hindi was untimely and perhaps unnecessarily provocative, but it did raise important issues about the shape of things to come in Nepal. More importantly, it has made Nepalis rethink some of the fundamental assumptions of who Nepalis are and what Nepal is. The old Nepal put together by King Prithvi Narayan and inherited by his progenies had the Shah monarchy, Hindu religion and the Nepali language as its main pillars. Even though King Prithvi recognized Nepal’s pluralist population, he wished “Asal Hindustan” to be the core identity of his hard-earned kingdom.And Asal Hindustan differentiated itself from not-so-Asal Hindustan, which had become Muglan, the land of the Mughals.  Therefore, in some ways, Muglan was inferior to Asal Hindustan, unpolluted by Muslim rule. (In 1769, it had been only 11 years since the East India Company’s first victory in the battle of Plassey for territorial rule.) This identity reveals three things about Nepali nationalism: high caste nationalism according to varnashram dharma; definition of Nepali identity superior to Indian identity and polluted Indian Hindus (one can trace the idea of superiority among hill high caste Hindus in relation to Tarai and Indian Hindus partly to this differentiation of unpolluted high caste Hindu identity although it’s more complex than that); and a sense of superiority to other hill ethnic groups for not being hill high castes. In evolving forms, this definition of Nepali national identity by difference has continued to this day. What is Nepal?  The answer comes frequently — Nepal is what India is not.

The Ranas defined Nepali state identity by cleverly negotiating with the British and supporting their colonial ideology. That is why the Rana regime was at the beck and call of the British (help in the mutiny of 1857 was an example) to ensure the maximum number of gun salutes given to any princely state on the sub-continent.  The Rana oligarchy may have had maximum sovereignty among the princely states, but hardly any nationalism save for the Muluki Ain of 1856.  If there was any group ideology at work, it was invested in distinguishing the clan from its competitors by inventing the last name, using Persianized Nepali as court language, and Western ways of dress and cuisine.

King Mahendra and his panchayat regime turned these and the constructed dress into a catchy slogan of Nepali nationalism — Our King, Our Country; One Language, One Dress. Varnashram dharma couldn’t be defended now as an explicit marker as before due to modern sensibilities, although as an ideology it remained potent in politics and society. Language, dress and monarchy became part of the modern national identity.  With the abolition of zamindari and the imposition of a Nepali-speaking bureaucracy, Nepal arrived on the world stage as a modern nation-state with top-down nationalism imposed by the Nepali-speaking elite.

In the absence of a homogenous Nepali ethnicity and the abolition of the monarchy and formal Hindu religion as given markers of a formal national identity, one dress and one culture, too, are no longer acceptable in a new Nepal.  In a situation like this, confusion, uncertainty and apprehension abound because the old can’t work and the new hasn’t been born or tested. What could be the pillars of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal’s nationalism?

The status of the Nepali language is yet to be decided, but Nepali is not only spoken by people of Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling Hill Council, North Eastern States of India, the Doon Valley and so on, it is now one of the 22 official languages listed in the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution. Bhanubhakta’s statue stands in Sikkim and Darjeeling, and his name designates streets in Kolkata. On the other hand, a sizable population within Nepal, especially in the Tarai, still doesn’t speak Nepali. Therefore, save for convenience and convention of its official use, can Nepali bear pluralist Nepal’s nationalist burden that would at once meet the aspirations of all its people and dissociate itself from India if India remains a central mirror of Nepali nationalism?  Nepali is both an Indian and a Nepali language. Therefore, should we be wary of associating language with more than its functional value in Nepal’s pluralist society?  So, even the Nepali language becomes suspect as a marker of Nepali nationalism given the circumstances.

On the other hand, Hindi, the language that many Madhesi groups vouch for, also cannot be a symbol of Madhesi nationalism because people speak it as a functional language, a lingua franca, nothing more. Hindi is universally rejected by people of the Indian South (where Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam have their own rich history) as a symbol of North India’s aggression and linguistic hegemony despite Hindi’s controversial status as India’s national language. In fact, Tamil secessionism subsided in the 1960s only after a clear guarantee by Delhi that Hindi would not be imposed on the South.

Hindi’s status outside of the Hindi heartland of U.P., Bihar and Madhya Pradesh has always been suspect because it is nobody’s mother tongue. Even in these core so-called Hindi states, Hindi is mostly a lingua franca rather than the mother tongue of most Maithili, Bhojpuri, Magadhi, Awadhi, Garhwali, Kumauni and Chattisgarhi speakers. Most people speak a sort of colloquial, grammatically flawed Hindi in these states on semi-formal or formal occasions. You should hear Lalu Yadav speaking rustic and grammatically horrible Hindi in the Indian parliament to great applause.  (Only the new generation of urban middle class that has shed its provincial mother tongues of the villages has adopted TV Hindi as its first language, which is now increasingly being supplanted by English as the Indian urban middle class language).

In the Nepali Tarai, colloquial Hindi functions as a contact language. A Rajbanshi of Jhapa, who speaks Rajbanshi with a fellow Rajbanshi and Nepali with Nepali speakers, communicates in colloquial Hindi or Maithili with Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi speakers from different parts of the Tarai. In this sense, Hindi is both an Indian as well as a Nepali language like Maithili, Bhojpuri, Nepali and others and so is a contact language of non-Nepali speaking inhabitants of the Tarai from Mechi to Mahakali. Also, unlike Nepali, which gives undue advantage to those who speak it as a mother tongue, Hindi is only a lingua franca, and very few people speak it with the advantage of 100 percent correctness.

At any rate, the language (be it Nepali or Hindi or any other language), dress or culture of any one ethnic group or region thus cannot be the symbol of nationalism in any country with a multi-lingual and multi-cultural population and a complex history. Like the monarchy and religion, they have become pillars of the old nationalism; they spell trouble for a pluralist society in a democracy. Old nationalism, a colonial gift of 18th-century Europe, has caused much bloodshed the world over. It has outlived its use even for Europe; and in new Nepal, one should rather say, good riddance!

But can Nepal’s sovereignty and integrity stand without the glue of nationalism that can unite all Nepalis in a common bond and identity for a common purpose?Nepal’s emerging civic institutions and pluralist public culture, its historical memory of sovereignty and independence, the desire of Nepalis of all ethnic groups to live together in a perfect union, the common will to make the most of the resources of the hills, the plains and foreign lands, and, above all, the Nepali people’s struggle for democracy and the republican dispensation could form the pillars of Nepal’s new nationalism.  It could be called civic nationalism — nationalism of political, social and civic institutions and values. In this respect, the forging of a pluralist constitution by the Constituent Assembly becomes a sacred (in a secular sense) act of Nepali nationalism. Nepal’s new constitution that embodies the Nepali people’s unique geo-cultural complexity and aspirations in a globalized world of the 21st century must be the fundamental document and symbol of Nepal’s new nationalism. In other words, pluralist democracy could be the new Nepali multiethnic nationalism.



Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Terai-Madhes and Geo-politics At the Forum

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed

Celebration of 1,00,000

Madhesi Voice

United We Celebrate

People Celebrating faguwa (Holi), with the fun of music, quite popular among Terai people. Holi is celebrated each year on the eve of falgun purnima Faguwa (Holi) Celebration

Past Posts


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 50 other followers

%d bloggers like this: