It is getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the president of the Nepali Congress Girija Prasad Koirala and UML Secretary General Madhav Nepal. At every public platform these days they are spouting the same script: that a constitutional amendment rushed through the present session of the parliament will magically solve all the country's problems. They are like itinerant salesmen at Ratna Park peddling potions: "Babuji, Bhaiyaji, buy and apply Jalim Lotion; it is guaranteed to cure all your ailments."
At a colloquium organised by tarai intellectuals last Saturday, Koirala and Nepal were once again doing their duet insisting that the amendments they propose in the constitution will somehow address all the concerns of tarai people in addition to solving the Maoist problem.
It was difficult to find how the cry of the tarai can be reconciled with the desire of the two main political parties to share power at the centre. The question of resolving the issue of citizenship of Nepalis of tarai origin was the one that concerned the audience. But, sadly, even though both leaders represent tarai constituencies, they failed to realise the magnitude and gravity of the citizenship crisis.
Like other pahari bahuns they couldn't control the urge to give a lesson or two to the eminent audience on the importance of being "a Nepali first, and then a madhesi". Predictably, no one was even amused, let alone inspired. People of the tarai, especially those who live in Kathmandu and endured the insanity of the Hrithik Roshan episode, know only too well what it means to be a lesser Nepali in a country obsessed with the Panchayat-era project of militant Nepalipan. In fact the term itself is ethnocentric and inimical to democracy and pluralism.
The history of Nepal's mainstream cultural hegemony dates back to the Rana oligarchy when the values of the ruling class were forced upon the entire population. Minorities were either patronised or tolerated, but they were never accepted as equal partners in society. King Mahendra introduced an innovation to enforce hegemony by shifting from punitive to remunerative methods. The threat of punishment for a non-conforming population was coupled with rewards and benefits for those who agreed to be co-opted. This was the period when middle-class madhesis began to discard their dhotis en masse.
This elitist tactic of creating and exercising hegemony through a carrot and stick approach, however, had limited effect since it involved only those who had a direct stake in the state apparatus. The toilers of the tarai were left alone to shoulder the burden of cultural diversity as long as they didn't pose a threat to the ruling elite. It was the Nav-Ratnas of King Birendra's court that introduced a much more subtle, but sinister, method of creating a Nepali monoculture. Through the use of language and symbols, a consensus was sought to be manufactured around the identity of the country's cultural elite. And it was peddled as a desirable Nepali identity through the use of religious practices, controlled education system and organised media.
This was the idolatry method of creating hegemony. Symbols were manipulated to persuade the victims that it was in their best interest to obey authority. Perhaps the main purpose of the project of Nepalipan was to establish the unquestionable supremacy of the crown in Nepali society. But the temple built to house the deity has acquired its own sanctity over a period of time, and a cult of Nepalipan continues to thrive around the ideological construct of Panchayat.
In this manufactured consent, an ideal Nepali wears mayalposh-suruwal, speaks Sanskritised Nepali with a bahun accent, prays to 33 crore Hindu deities, looks down upon the female of the species as lesser creatures, and treats every one else as the "other" that needs to be resisted in order to preserve the purity of the self.
If this description reads like a caricature, just ask any proud Nepali what it means to be one. It is this mind-set that needs immediate attention if Messrs Koirala and Nepal are serious about "the problem of citizenship of tarai people". And it can't be resolved by a hurried constitutional amendment.
A very large section of Nepalis of tarai origin face hassles getting citizenship certificates. And it is almost impossible to address the problem of fundamental rights without rationalising citizenship-related constitutional provisions first. But the core issue is the very concept of Nepalipan itself. It's the definition of this term that will determine the fate of plurality and democracy in Nepal.
Citizenship is a right that can't be denied to any Nepali, and the Kathmandu elite is not bestowing any favours on tarai people by raising this vexing issue with a sense of urgency. It's the moral obligation of all political parties to keep the promise they made to the electorate through their election manifestos. But the political class must also raise issues that are equally urgent, and perhaps even more important.
People of the tarai need equal and just opportunities to engage themselves in building a pluralistic Nepali identity. The languages of the tarai have to be saved from extinction. There has to be a change in the attitude of the cultural elite that makes the tarai attire-dhoti-kurta, lungi-ganji or paijama-kamij-the butt of poor jokes. Above all, madhesis need to be accorded the respect that is due to every Nepali in a democracy. The Nepali Congress and the UML can initiate this process without waiting for a constitutional amendment.
More than the problems of the past or difficulties of the present, the constitution has to make allowances for the challenges that a society may have to face in the future. Any changes envisaged must give the disadvantaged-including madhesis-a greater say. It can't just be an alibi for leading political parties to share the spoils of office.