On the Way Up

From HIMAL, Volume 5, Issue 3 (MAY/JUN 1992)

In these times of political flux all over the Himalayan region, it is essential to be sensitive to assertions of identify. Such sensitivity is especially important in Nepal, whose people have only just gained the right to speak out and to demand.

In the past, it was enough to pay cursory tribute to Nepal´s cultural diversity through inexpertly-produced ´phulbari´ programmes on Nepal Television or Radio Nepal. This will no longer suffice. While the Nepali speakers of India have long struggled with dual identities and confusing cultural markers, their kin in Nepal are only now having to confront issues that India tackled in the early 1950s.

Are the political chieftains of Kathmandu sufficiently sensitive to the new ethnic demands? Indications are they are not. Otherwise, why should scores of Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum sign petitions seeking compulsory Sanskrit education in high school, as if the debate over inclusion of “Hindu rastra” in the Nepali Constitution had never taken place. Do they appreciate that many Nepalis are Tibeto-Burman, who might speak Nepali but perceive Sanskrit as the vehicle for a Hinduised State?

There is a tendency to regard the newfound self-assertion among the tribes as an irritant on the rough hide of the nation-state. But if Bahuns and Chhetris have a pan-Nepali identity to fall back upon, a Rai or a Magar, depending upon how distant he is from his roots, has an ethnic identity in addition to that ´Nepali´ identity. Without doubt, more and more “hill ethnics” will be inevitably drawn into the pan-Nepali culture — pushed and pulled by market forces, politics and self-desire.

As ´unifying´ culture spreads through a country that is being linked by highways, radio and television, Nepali will take on added roles as the language of discourse, of study, of media, of advertising, and of entertainment. Other than in pockets of the Tarai, the one medium to access an integrated national market by educators, entrepreneurs, media-persons and politicians alike will be, increasingly, Nepali.

As long as it has something to offer, Nepali will remain ascendant. At the same time, however, can we deny the urge of culturally unique groups tony and preserve some of their own distinctiveness when faced with the great leveler that is the modem centralised State? Those who hold the power and the purse-strings at the center must understand the concern that grips the person who sees his identity and ego, signified by language, about to disappear.

If one can decry the insensitivity of majority representatives, then one may also criticise the opportunism of minority leadership. For there are no simple answers.

True, ethnic disgruntlement needs an outlet, and Bahuns, as the theoreticians of the Hinduised Nepali State, are available. Of the two other groups that make up the Nepali power elites, the Chhetri/Thakuri are perceived to have had their comeuppance with the demise of the Panchayat, and the Newars are seen as minorities in their own right Whom, indeed, to blame other than the Bahuns? Such strategy might provide only temporary relief, though.

Tanka Prasad Acharya, lifelong political activist and former Prime Minister, died on 28 April 1992 of natural causes associated with old age. Had he not been a Bahun, Brahmin of the Nepali hills, he would in all likelihood have been martyred a half century earlier, on January 1941, under orders of Prime Minister Juddha Shumshere. But this rather extreme advantage of caste did not last long in a modernising Nepal. Barely a decade later, there was no such clemency for Sunder Raj Chalise, who escaped death row only because of the political upheaval of 1951. A caste barrier had fallen.

Harks Gurtmg´s map on page 19 indicating caste and ethnic representation in the Lower House of the Nepali Parliament shows white (for Bahun) all over. This political edge is based not so much on overwhelming feudal or economic power, nor on control over the army and police, but on access to education and learning. In all likelihood, as has happened in India, upper-caste representation will dip as democracy progresses, and there will be less white on the map in the decades ahead. Bahuns do not constitute a monolithic block of privilege there are large numbers in poverty — and their political clout as a group can only wane from today´s zenith.

While emphasising the rights of individual communities, one might also mull over the cultural attributes of being ´Nepali´. Along the southern slopes of the central Himalaya, certain geographic, economic, social and political factors created conditions for ´Nepaliness´ to break through the various distinctions; This phenomenon cannot be explained merely as a result of Gorkhali conquest and subjugation. For whateverreason, the Nepali topi found acceptance within just the Nepali segment of the Himalaya. This ´feel´ of Nepaliness is not strong enough to make a Nepali nation — which is why the dream of “Greater Nepal” is a mirage. But there is something there, elusive but real.

The one segment that did not participate in this evolving Nepaliness, which was the result of interaction among the hill groups, is the Madhesiya community. Culturally more a part of the systems of north Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and traditionally regarded as alien by the hill elites, the Madhesiyas are now being requested to feel ´Nepali´. Such integration, however, can only come over a period of decades, at the very least.

The cultural mellowness highlighted in the tourists brochures of Nepal is not all make-believe. There are also some built-in safeguards against communal turmoil. The multiplicity of ethnicities in Nepal will not allow a two-community fight-to-the-death such as in Sri Lanka. Equally, an Assam-like situation of instability brought by in-migrating hordes is unlikely because, other than a sprinkling of Bahuns and Chhetris, the heartland of the major hill communities remain exclusive.

Speaking of which, the so-called Bahun -Newar confrontation of the pastyearmight be mis-read as the startof the unravelling process. Indeed, if this divide were deep-rooted, Nepal would be in the midst of inter-ethnic conflagaration. But the rest of the country perceives this much-ballyhooed battle as a fight for the spoils by elite groups within the Newar and Bahun communities. So, despite the banner headlines, life goes on.

Once ethnic sensitivity is aroused, the next step is to do something about it so should Nepal go in for quotas and reservations? Or should a non-interventionist course be charted? Asks an exasperated Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, President of the Nepali Congress Party:”How can a Government with so little resources try to fulfil the demands of each of the country´s 1200 communities?”

A way must be found, and as leader of a pan-Nepali party spanning ethnicities, Bhattarai, among others, has the responsibility to weave the fabric respdecting all the strands. Smugness can only ruin the Himalayan idyll. In the presence of visionary statesmanship and in the absence of political brinkmanship or extreme insensitivity, Nepalis of Nepal will probably find a way.


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