Nepali Times
National identity crisis


When I was 16, my sociology teacher, a Brahmin man, asked me, "What are you?" I did not understand his question and asked him to explain. He wanted to know my ethnicity.

I said I am a Tamang who had been raised as a Buddhist (though I studied in a Catholic school which is a whole different story in itself). But he told me very matter-of-factly that my surname clearly indicated my 'Hinduness' and advised me to tell everyone I am a Hindu, because then people would think highly of me. I failed sociology class and have identified as 'just Nepali' from that day onward.

Twenty five years have passed since that awkward question was asked and I am once again forced to think about my identity. I am told my caste, ethnicity and religion define who I am as an individual. My personal beliefs, aspirations, accomplishments, and the battles I have won are insignificant in front of the holy identity trinity.

I am a woman, born to a Tamang mother and a Hindu father and married into a Newar family. I believe everyone should have enough to eat and safe shelter. I believe all children should have access to free and quality education. I believe men, women and third genders are equal. I believe homosexuality, bisexuality and heterosexuality are natural human desires and the state and community have no right to judge or interfere. I believe abortion is a woman's right and prostitution should be legalised. And most importantly, I believe we should all be allowed to live on our own terms, as long as we don't harm others intentionally.

However, I also understand that as a middle class, educated and employed woman I speak from a position of extreme privilege and am not representative of millions of other Nepali men and women. My perception of identity, my beliefs, my needs are vastly different from that of an HIV positive Dalit woman in Accham or a Tamang girl in Nuwakot who is sold off to a brothel in India by her uncle or a woman in Chitwan who is beaten every day for being a 'witch'. Despite my background, I feel my voice is equally important as we try to sort out our national identity crisis.

When discussions about federalism first surfaced six years ago, I wholeheartedly supported the idea of new federal states, because it no longer made sense for Kathmandu to withhold all power. I assumed handing power to local officials who have a better understanding of their areas, bringing leaders closer to the people and letting the public have greater control of state affairs would mean we would not have to live through another civil war. But the uproar of the past three weeks on the streets of the capital, the far-west and the districts of Tarai suggest we might be headed down slippery slopes again.

Powerful male (mostly Brahmin) politicians and leaders who no longer wield the same power and influence they once enjoyed, have played the dirtiest hand they could by inciting Nepalis into communalism. And now that Pandora's Box has been forced open by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Upendra Yadav and Ang Kaji Sherpa et al, I want to ask them a few questions.

Where does a Muslim girl from Mahottari married to a Gurung from Pokhara belong? Where does the fifth generation of a Chettri family in Biratnagar belong? Where does a doctor Pradhan who has lived and practiced in Ilam all his life belong? Where does my Mishra friend who escaped to Kathmandu many years ago to avoid being a victim of dowry belong? What about the Sherpas who have been living in the foothills for generations, where do they belong? Where do I belong?

Rubeena D Shrestha is the editor of Wave magazine.

Read also:
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May or may not, ANURAG ACHARYA
There is still enough time to forge an agreement if the parties can find room for it.

1. Ramjee
Well written Rubeena jee. The same question is hunting me down everyday whenever I hear about the protest and strikes which are most often fueled by the so called top players of Nepal who are clearly mentioned above. The worst part is just ahead when the dispute (between different ethnic groups) currently seen in countable numbers soar to engulf the nation as a whole.

2. Sigmund
It was a great article, emphasizing the need for a National identity.  Our personsal identities have to go deeper than gender, skin color, race, trible, caste, country, physical appearance, etc.  In my country, the US, we also struggle with these issues, even though we call ourselves "the melting pot" of the world.  I wonder what people would say our National identity is?  Sigmund, the psychiatrist.

3. selina

Thanks Rubeena, human rights for all is what Nepalis should be fighting for: a decent education for all kids,  health, water and basic amenities for all.

If the people unite -they/we hve the power -not the incompetent, corrupt and power lust politicans who use 'ethnic rights' as a divisive tool to keep citizens divided, and so in turn keep their own power.

4. nepali keti
thank you Rubeena, for bringing out in words what I had in mind. like many other Nepalis, i too find myself very confused these days. what do i call myself? where do i belong? how should i feel about this whole federal states based on one ethnicity? will i be hated in naya nepal because of my last name? the endless bandas and now yet another CA extention. I think about the mess we are in right now and i think about all my smart, brilliant friends who went abroad to study and settled there permanently, and it's very obvious why none of them want to return. and as horrible as i feel to say this about my own country, sometimes i regret coming back as well.

5. Heather
Dear RUBEENA ~ You belong to those who are about progress and advancement for all people ~ we can maintain our culture and heritage and still 'belong'. Truly, you are amazing ~ I wish many others will embrace themselves and others with wisdom, caring, and integrity!  Thank you for being brave to share your voice & to ask everyone to also do the same! Namaste!!!  

6. Sachin Joshi
Dear Ms. Rubeena,

Hats off to you for your amazing write-up. sp simple yet so powerful.

I am a Newari. I am proud of my culture, my festivals, my language, my food, my music, my community BUT I do not want a Newar State for only me and my community in New Nepal. I strongly oppose ethnicity based federalism. I just wish for a Nepal which could be a common garden for all ethnic groups. Let not divide our county based on the ethnicity.

We want peace. Not pieces.

Kudos to you !!

Jai Nepal,

7. Rajani Shrestha
Very well written piece Rubeena ji...I wonder why so called Nepalese or Nepali whatever they call themselves are spreading hatred among each other in the name of ethnicity!!! They are not real Nepali I must say! It really sucks to see these educated illiterates supporting ethnic state rather than Nepali state...where everyone lives in peace and harmony!!! Federalism is good, for decentralization of power that Kathmandu has been enjoying all these years! But absolutely BIG-NO to ethnic federalism...I wish everyone understands what being Nepali actually means...Long live Nepali brotherhood!  

8. Hange
Fantastic piece!  Perceptive, succinct, descriptive, heartfelt, and logical.  I agree with you 100%.  And the answer, of course, is that you belong in Nepal!  Now, we just have to get our so-called leaders to understand that.

9. Tsering Lama
Hats off to you. That was a brilliant piece and hope that lots of people will read it. Please keep writing.

10. dravin
[comment moderated for length]

Please learn that caste and community are two distinct terms. If you think that Khas, Newa:, Tamang, Gurung, Kirat, Limbu, Madhesi, Tharu etc are castes then you are wrong. These are community not the caste. Please make yourself clear.

Caste was formed by some idiots 3500 years ago and were defined in Manusmriti Purusa Sutta where Brahmins were popped out from the mouth, Ksyattriyas from the arms, Vaisyas from the thighs, and Sudras from the foot. What the hell that idiot had thought that he came out from? So, up until now the people are divided by the Panchayat propaganda that the community in Nepal such as Newa:, Gurung, Tamang, Kirat etc are acknowledged as Jaat, however, the constitution of Nepal does not allow to use char jaat which was wrongly defined by the Purusa Sutta.

Provinces based on Community is fair as in Belgium where 3 states were drawn based on the French speaking, German Speaking and Dutch Speaking community. The same applies in Switzerland. This is how it works in Belgium -

So, if someone uses Brahman, Ksyattrias, It is an unconstitutional because the constitution refrains to use it. But, some arrogant jackarses still do. They must be punished. And this brings up chaos, and ambiguity among the community. Where is the caste? I am talking about community. If you see Newa:, Limbu, Tamang. Gurung, Khas, Tharu Madhesi, Muslim as a caste, then either you are blindfolded or ignorant.

Community is defined as a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists. Newa: was a nation before Prithvi N deceived and conquered.

11. who cares
we dont need to go for ethnic federalism to punish bahuns, or any other past rulers. 

all we need is select the right persona and send all past rulers to jail. since all of them have committed crime, cross legal line.

let's all promise that if one of US, some day become executive head, we/i should send all past rulers to jail for their crime, loot, murder.... we can punish them legally. 

12. Rabi Thapa
Rubina.... well said.

13. Whatever
Nepal became a quixotic country where no expatriates want to return, even not for a recess coz of hard core and rabble-rousing embezzlers.

We ain't a bit the wiser. We need a lots of smarts and lucks to feel good under the Nepalese skin!?!

14. sanjog Thapa
i think i have agreed to most of what you have said, brillant..keep on

15. Whatever
Quite in line with the scribe of this piece I beg to mention that a person belongs to the place where he materializes his aspirations and dreams of his life. In that, a human being is like a fruit of a tree that when it is eaten the glitches when they find an appropriate place with all needful ingredients will get another life, and it continues ad vitam aeternam.

To illustrate it please google Fleur Pellerin, a Korean orphan, who was adopted by a French couple while she was just a lil' baby. As of now, the same orphan baby without biological parents to take care of her and away from her homeland, thanks to her hard work and stellar education became the minister of France designated for Digital Industry Development.

To be true, what we observe in Nepal all this spat for ethnic based federalism shall be considered as going back to primitive life when our ancestors were bound to fight for everything just to survive and not to be killed by the neighbors next door while in sleep!

And who is fanning this fire? The Maoist leader dahal! 

I hope all this gerrymandering of Nepal will stop and some commonsense will prevail soon so as to bring about normal life in this country.

Should I presume that this is a lookist society to take a hike, like some evil squawking cuckoo!?!

16. Sherpa Observer
Please translate this into Nepali language and send it off to Nepali language papers. A lot of people who actually needs to understand this does not read English. Well said! 

17. abhishek gurung
well, as per my understanding the almighty Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Upendra Yadav and Ang Kaji Sherpa neednot reply to your questions-
Where does a Muslim girl from Mahottari married to a Gurung from Pokhara belong? Where does the fifth generation of a Chettri family in Biratnagar belong? Where does a doctor Pradhan who has lived and practiced in Ilam all his life belong? Where does my Mishra friend who escaped to Kathmandu many years ago to avoid being a victim of dowry belong? What about the Sherpas who have been living in the foothills for generations, where do they belong? Where do I belong?
it is as simple as:
they are all nepalese who communicate in nepalese the official language..but had this privilege to live in a society where the culture of the ethnic people are respected too...but wouldnot it be a just society if the state practiced all you asked..would it not be a wonderful society if the things you mentioned happened..

18. Dorji Tsering Sherpa
Nice one Rubeena, What is wrong with the name Sagarmatha, Gandaki, Koshi, Lumbini etc where the need to mention ethnicity or caste or tribe is not required or necessary. I too had a similar experience 4 decades ago when most of my friend had names like Kumar, Lal, prasad etc and I too wanted to add Kumar to my name so that I could be liked!!! Now I can imagine how awkward it would be to called Dorji Kumar???

19. Samjhana Poudyal

Excellent thoughts.......the direction tht the future for Nepal is taking is truely for it to be a melting pot for all ethinc groups and caste groups as Rubeen's case is a point amongst hundreds. It will take some time but we will get there when there will be millions. Demography does not support ethenic enclaves ---even if the politicians try to divide us we Neplaese will have to unite and live in a mulit ethenic society with univerisal rights and responsibiliteis. 

20. jeev
So true,
I really I wish I had your way of saying things... cause its so heart felt and so true. I wouldn't be anything like you or the other people commenting here but I really do aspire for a Nepal where I can be myself, unique and still a Nepali.
Thank you writing for people like us

21. Anonymous
Bravo, truly progressive ideas!! Yes, we as a  Nation should look more towards the future rather than lament over the past prejudices. The buzz words of our time should be peace, goodwill, integration, net-working, pluralism, decentralization, multiculturalism,institution-building, professionalism, performance, and accountability... Let's put things in simple perspectives. I am in favor of a four provinces Federal Republic of Nepal. The names of the provinces should simply be called "Koshi," "Bagmati," "Gandaki," and "Karnali," after the life veins of our Nation. Let's work for modern land reform and true decentralization of administrative power to the periphery. Let's emphasize decent education, health, and social welfare to our children and elderly. Let each province specialize in specific economic activities such as eco-tourism, hydropower, production of herbs, teas etc. Let's develop one "specialized economic zone" in each of the Provinces. Let there be scores of sister towns and cities across Nepal. Let there be information superhighways. Let kids from Lumjung spend their winter camps in Birgunj and learn about Madheshi culture, language, and traditions. Let kids from Janakpur spend their summer camp in Lomanthang and learn about the Tibetan culture and language. Let's encourage our kids to learn at least a couple of languages, such as Maithili, Newari, Gurung etc.Yet, let's be proud to speak Nepali as our the language of communication. Let's make our land a true place where the modern and the tradition live and thrive side-by-side. Let the world recognize us as a Land of peace and harmony, a bridge between the two Asian Civilizations. Let the ancient wisdom and modern science guide our ways of living and thinking. Am I a crazy lone dreamer? Hope "i am not the only one!"

22. ravi
thank you for your greattt article ,and i will say this is the reality of our present society , i'm too from very mixed family and relatives ,and i know there are lot ...i mean lots of families like yours and mine who are compelled to take these ongoing crisis seriously which is fuelled by few greedy politicians and leaders for the sake of  their own benefits. we know for the fact they want to divert the main problems to people's problems so that it will be easy for them to enjoy the perk while we are fighting with our own kins .I 'm all with you and we all should speak up now !!!

23. Shristi Shrestha
Totally agree " And most importantly, I believe we should all be allowed to live our lives on our own terms, as long as we don't harm others intentionally."  New constitution should be inclusive and not exclusive. By inclusive, it does not mean include every caste, ethnicity, it should include every individual. Nepal has been plagued with nepotism and favoritism. A system should be built to counter such practices not build on it. If each state is only to favor is ethnicity, others will be discriminated against. Do we want to build a discriminatory nation or inclusive nation?

There has no been evidences that life evolved in Nepal. Even if were, and we were to test our genes,  I doubt any of these ethnicity were 100% indigenous to Nepal. I believe that all of our ancestors were bold enough to intermarry and I believe there is no true blood or "indigenous" so to say. 

New Nepal should be of each individual where everyone of us have equal opportunity to grow. It should not be of a group or a sect of groups. Needless to say among the nations they are trying to declare there are multiple subdivision. Do we want to go back to "Baise" and "Chaubise" rajya"? The fact is we are way behind. Why do we want to dive into black hole of fragmentation. It is cliched but "United we stand, divided we fall" as a nation and let's not make Nepal a history. 

24. sangeeta

Swiss and americans have federalism, other countries in Europe just became horrible like bandha against immigrants.

Democracy is new in Nepal so there are no advantages only stress and waste of time seems like, if they get a strong coalition of sherpa and others they will again get bandha from Chhetri and lovely.

China and India superpowers shoot and jail disturbance I am not suggesting this but now all are jailed. It is wisdom to make a difference poor people family providers and students should be allowed to breathe, tourists should come back. Who is destroying Nepal? nepalese themselves acting like Taliban and only destroy. This is not good.

25. limbu
" Where does a Muslim girl from Mahottari married to a Gurung from Pokhara belong? Where does the fifth generation of a Chettri family in Biratnagar belong? ......"

Seriously, an editor cannot possible be asking these irrelevant questions! Has the intellectual capacity of the educated in Nepal stooped ever so low?

Before throwing this verbal diarrhea of misinformation out for mass consumption, it would have served the public well had Mrs. Tamang Shrestha done a little homework on how federalism works and particularly the demands that are made by Janajatis and Madhesi movement. 

Let's take an example of our neighbor next door. A country that has federal structure based on ethnicity/identity: Surely, the government of Tamil Nadu must be treating the Punjabi people living there as second class citizen (apparently, to you they are probably denied the same rights enjoyed by a Tamil). And clearly, each Indian must be carrying two passport, one for international travel and the second one (which by the way is a secret that they cannot tell anybody, but well take the liberty to speculate since that is what you seem to be good at) for domestic travel. Really, I am dumbfounded, how on earth a Bengali able to go and work in Bangalore IT industry or for that matter attend one of the regional engineering collage in Karnataka with out any special permission from Karnataka? 

Enlighten me please!  

The list keeps on growing for NT: Kunda, Ms Mahato, Mr and Mrs Shrestha, Mr Nepali...who is next? This is getting to be so much fun! 

26. really confused
@Limbu, I think you missed the point. There is so much halla surrounding the new constitution and new federal states, we Nepalis don't know what to expect. what does ethnicity based federalism actually mean? how will it look like? no leader from any party or stalwarts and social activists like yourself (i assume you are one, since you speak with so much self-righteousness) have bothered explaining. you throw buzz words at us and want us to accept them whole-heatedly without any questions. i am confused, so are my friends and families. now will you like to enlighten me with your in depth knowledge?   

27. Krishna S.
#25 Limbu
has a very important point. India tried to settle the issue of ethnic identity more than 60 years ago head -on with a very well thought out constitution based on ethnic based federations which largely works even to the present date. (with minor exception in Andhra and of course, Darjeeling, where our own Gorkha's are demanding an "ethnic based state" to be carved out from Bengal).
What did we do? With a much larger diversity among the population, mainly divided historically along the lines of Indo-Aryans and Tibeto-Burman Races? We tried to sweep everything under the carpet with one Mantra, "Char Jaat Ko Phulbaari".
Let's all stop the hypocrisy, especially you, the elite editor brass who are preaching the same old overused cliches. No one is trying to divide the "country".

28. limbu ko mitjyu
#25 Limbu, you know how to use selective facts to prove your point.
Tamil Nadu is only slightly smaller than the whole of Nepal in size. It is not instituted on the basis of ethnicity but language as are most states in India. Tamil Nadu's population is over 72 million. Compare that to Nepal.

Out of the 28 states in India and 6 union territorries, 9 are larger than Nepal, many are slightly smaller and a few comparable like Tamil Nadu (130,058 sq km). States like UP, Rajasthan, Maharasthra and Madhya Pradesh are bigger than many countries.Federalism was a necessity in India because of its big size. Federalism is important for Nepal for decentralisation and empowering janjatis, adivasis and madhesis. But don't give arguments that have no weight.
if you think people who came earlier to Nepal are its real inhabitants, Sherpas migrated to Nepal 5 hundred years back. (not fabricated by bahuns but written by white people if that makes it more credible to you) Does that make them less Nepali?

29. mo pani limbu ko mitjyu
Limbu please explain priority rights to me, in full detail. I don't want to hear about India. Tell me what it will be like in Nepal. I don't give a damn which federal model it is. You can have your ethnic states. I am most happy. Don't throw me sojho limbu away from my Newa Pradesh, please.

30. limbu
#28 @ my mitjyu

Since when did size become so important (no pun intended)? I did not know there are still people in democratic society who think size is more important than right to equality. I also had no idea a distinctive language could not be considered as one of the basis for identity. 

Do I sound like a person that is questioning yours or someone who is not adivasi's Nepalihood? By the looks of your statement, seems like you are going through a guilt trip and have this compelling need to prove that you are more Nepali than I am. 

Punditji, I must say I am very close to achieving nirvana by your wisdom.  

31. Federalism
bravo. Great article. Like someone earlier said, please do translate in Nepali and make it accessible for people to read

32. Anand Mohan
Nepal has today become a theater of absurd in the hands of politicians. Nobody knows whether this country will ever have a true democracy or a continuing circus by its politicians always

33. Anuj

je jati bivadh gare pani, hamro desh ma DWANDA arthad dhurbakrit samaj ko karan, jhan badhne signs haru jwalanta bhayo:

1. Jesha 14 hune bhaniyeko CA bhangha huna le

2. Pichhadiyeka ra pachhadi pariyeka samudayekao lamo andolan tatha jan chahana tatha kuntha haru lai sambodan nagarnale

3. Aba pani PRESS nispachhya abam ETHICS ko adharma lekh rachana ra samachar samresan garne sansakar ka sath aathma samiksya nagero khanda ma yes chhetra le pani dwanda lai ajha badaune dekhinchha.

4. Purana rajya shakti abam athasthisti badi ko chal khel, jun spasta rup ma badhne chha.



34. gurung
horrendous murder of journalism... @ 30. limbu...limbu ji...yo mitjyu mitjyu bhanne haru sang bachera hidnu hola....mitjyu mitjyu bhandai sabai luti sakchan hamilai patto nai hudaina..tetra limbu ka kipat kata gaye gaye...tetro chepang ka jagga jamin  farsiko gedama nai hadape...bujera pani nabuje jhai garchan..and you lot beware of the people who are warming the streets...

35. yakthumba
how would we suddenly engage in ethnic violence or disintegration when we r seeking for 'identity' which is quite different from castes, former is ones heritage, civilization and way of life; the later is how hindus manu script ranked the people in heirarchy. one should abolish caste system, we all agree in this but abolishing ones identity is possible through ethnic genocides only or cultural revolution like the one initiated by Mao which led to genocides apparently. nationality can change by just a paper but ones identity, heritage can never. ppl fails to make differences in these two terms.

36. kegarne
I'm sick and tired of this so-called caste and ethnicity charade and want to resign from my caste/ethnicity label for good.

Is there a government office somewhere that I can go visit and submit my resignation papers?  To my society, government, and so-called ethno-political-radical-liberal-conservative-fascist leaders: take your caste and ethnicity labels and shove them down wherever you like it! On my part, I just want my personal freedom to be who I want. To hell with your caste and ethnicity; give back my humanity. 

37. Rajan

Hey guys.. Can someone (like Limbu) please educate me on what you mean by single identity federalism? Is there a web-site or flyer that can explain your point of view and how you want Nepal to be.

Until & unless you guys do not clarify it, I will basically understand it as an ethnic federalism where one caste/community has privilege over other castes which is a big NO. I will fight this kind of system all the way to ballot and supreme court.

38. sristi subba
what we expecting here is the CHANGE ...we know so called upper class ruling the nation has failed ...why now then there is such division among opinions??nepal still the poorest nation in the world..why people are so much afraid to change..if the so called rulling people wanted every citizens to be equal then why there is so much outcry in our for me..NEPAL always come first..but something need to be done from going into asstray...

39. gurung
Ok, fair enough. But what are your solutions to correct historical discrimination against oppressed? List them also

40. Entertained Nepali
What is so hilarious is the fact that there are so many Nepalese saying "Oh no! Don't do this! We are one Nepali people! Why are you trying to divide us?"

Why does no one question what being "Nepali" means to them?

Think about it. Is dhaka topi, Nepali bhasa and living under the Chhetri/Bahun culture that Panchayat imposed on us something we should celebrate in ignorance?

We were already divided in culture and ethnicity... but that didn't mean we did not live harmoniously. The ruling elite have imposed their culture to the masses of the geographic areas of Nepal in an attempt to homogenise us with the rhetoric that we are one Nepali.

But.. are we? Or have we been brainwashed to such an extent that we don't even choose to question the real origins of our one Nepali identity?

41. Rupie
Only if perspectives could become positive i do not think direction is good fuel crises again....

42. pemba
I don't find any confusion if nepal is restructured on the basis of ethnicity.Any Nepali can live anywhere in the country as citizen of Nepal with full rights.It's the those people who do not want to see and respect the tradition and culture of janjati's and are spreading rumours among nepalese saying that ethinicity based federalism is dividing the country.If every nepali want to live in peace with unity in diversity then ethnicity based federalsim is only the solution.All sherpa's are Nepali but all Nepalese are not sherpa.We janjati's are nepali but we do have a different identity among Nepalese and we have to protect and promote our culture and tradition.We can't loose or neglect our rights just by just saying that we are nepalese.Everybody knows that people living in nepal are called nepalese and we are first nepalese and there's no question of division among nepalese.It's those stupid people just spreading rumours and trying to divide nepal by spreading misleading information.

43. Shyam
Rubeena jee,
I will also salute you for the excellent article. We all should be proud to be Nepali irrespective of our other identity.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)