Calling for a People’s History

March 8, 2010 at 2:09 am 1 comment

Calling for a People’s History

– Deepak Thapa

MAR 03 –
That the question of identity and issues concomitant to it, such as representation, federalism and affirmative action, are what animate current public discourse in Nepal is clear from a cursory glance of the papers. Positions bordering on extremism are spelt out, or at least are viewed as such by the opposite side, and the increasingly polarised intelligentsia prefer to talk past each other instead of engaging intellectually. What we are thus witnessing is aptly described ‘dialogue of the deaf’.

To bring home this point was the short revival of the conquest vs unification debate following the non-observance by the state of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s birthday in mid-January. While proponents of the conquest thesis listed the litany of injustices Prithvi Narayan’s actions are said to have given rise to, those who claim it was unification harped mainly on the fact that we are all Nepalis thanks to him, and should be grateful for that.

Since the ‘proud to be Nepali’ idea resonates strongly with many Nepalis, it is an argument often marshalled into this debate. There is, however, a certain paternalism in the offhand dismissal of the grievances felt so strongly by a considerable section of the population with the assertion that no matter how badly off certain groups perceive they are as a result of being forcibly incorporated into the Gorkha empire, at least they should be happy that they are all Nepalis and not Indian or Chinese, or even Sikkimese or Kumaonis, as the case may well have been.

Prithvi Narayan is often compared to Bismarck and rued that the latter is celebrated as the unifier of Germany even as the former’s comparable accomplishment is being questioned. It is overlooked that Bismarck brought under a central authority a people who had a strong sense of being German while the inhabitants of the mid-hill statelets of mid-18th century Nepal hardly had a conception of being Nepali (although certain elements were common to the dominant groups all the way to Kumaon and Garhwal). To this day, even (for want of a better term) parbatiyas from the Far West have greater cultural and linguistic affinity with their neighbours from across the Mahakali than with parbatiyas from Gorkha.

In that sense, the greatest failure of Prithvi Narayan and those who came after him was in not being able to build a nation out of the state that had been created in the central Himalaya. As historian Kumar Pradhan puts it in The Gorkha Conquests, ‘If one looks at the process of political unification without any romantic notion or bias born from a false sense of nationalism or any caste or religious prejudice, one is bound to come to the conclusion that the Gorkhali conquests created a unified kingdom, but not a unified society.’

Pradhan’s insightful conclusion is that, through policies such as the adoption of the infamous Muluki Ain of 1854, the state ‘did not unite the segregated groups brought under the unified kingdom; on the contrary, it divided them’.

Among those valourising Prithvi Narayan recently was CNAS historian Ramesh Dhungel, who pooh-poohed the idea of any historicity to what are now being called ethnic homelands. There has never been a Newa, a Limbuwan, a Magarat or a Madhes, he argued. One cannot take issue with him on that particular score but what he failed to recognise is that his reasoning would logically also have to conclude that neither is their any historicity to Nepal (or any other country, community or society in the world, for that matter). Unless, of course, we all agree that history begins in 1744 when Prithvi Narayan sallied forth from his hilltop fortress on his military campaign. Or, better still, believe in the mythical history that Nepal, whatever that meant at that time, once extended all the way to the Brahmaputra in Assam. But even such a Nepal would have had to be preceded by something else. All states are accidents of history, and Bismarck’s Germany is no different. Otherwise, there is no reason why Austria should be separate from Germany or that German-speaking Alsace should be in France (both anomalies which Hitler thought he should rectify, by the way).

Despite the limitations of his disciplinary background, Dr Dhungel cannot possibly be unaware of the huge body of literature that deals with identity formation and the pragmatic uses of ethnic identity, including its ultimate manifestation – the demand for self-determination. Benedict Anderson’s evocative ‘imagined communities’ is only the most well known.

Closer home, Arjun Guneratne has convincingly demonstrated how a disparate group of peoples, speaking a multitude of languages, came together to become Tharus in a span of less than half a century. And, yet, I can be quite certain that the same folks who would rail against a Tharuhat or Tharuwan in a historical continuum would be rooting for Tharus in their assertion of a separate identity vis-à-vis Madhesis, just as they would surely have sympathy for a Gorkhaland even though the demand for a separate state for Nepali-speakers in Northern Bengal is equally untenable in the temporal sense.

In the words of social theorist Immanuel Wallerstein: ‘Ethnic consciousness is eternally latent everywhere. But it is only realised when groups feel either threatened with a loss of previously acquired privilege or conversely feel that it is an opportune moment politically to overcome long-standing denial of privilege.’ One cannot find a more pithy summation of what is happening in Nepal.

This piece is not intended as a justification for the idea of ethnic provinces but to caution against radical ethno-nationalism of all hues. To quote Wallerstein again, ‘[O]ne man’s ethnic consciousness is frequently another man’s ethnic oppression.’ Now, that is surely what we have to ensure against at all costs in a new Nepal, and it cannot be achieved by wishing away one’s past or by insisting on a selective reading of it. Or, else, we will get just tangled up in unproductive sophistry and nothing more.


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