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.
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