My nation, right or wrong
If we fight unthinkingly in the name of nationalism,
FROM ISSUE #54 (03 AUG 2001 - 09 AUG 2001) | TABLE OF CONTENTS
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all we will get is a country with a fragmented ethno-political map, a divided civil society, and a paralysed nation-state. These things will do more harm to the survival of the Nepali nation than any actual Indian, Chinese or American threat.
Nothing in the Nepali political landscape today is more divisive and emotionally charged than the subject of nationalism. The idea itself is a recent one, dating back to the end of the Rana oligarchy. Its power, however, demands that we construct a genealogy that dates back to the ages. Today, its pantheon includes such diverse figures as the architects of Gorkha expansion, the masters of Nepali literature and the generals of our war with British India. No matter that the same war made us lose one-third of the country to the British and turned us into one of their puppet regimes, we take pride in the fact that we were able to preserve our independent identity.
In the last few decades alone, nationalism has become a political absolute at whose feet millions bow their heads to worship. It appears that in a world rendered godless by secular aspirations, nation-worship has become a new religion for the masses. Just look at the frequency with which the words "rastriya" and "rastrabadi" appear in the slogans of all and sundry political groups. Its power to excite us into a Dionysian frenzy requires that every political pretender, from royalist to republican, pay lip service to it. In 1960, a king disbanded a democratic set-up in the name of preserving the Nepali "rastra." Since then we have fought many political battles in the name of the same idea. But why is it that nationalism has become such an indispensable category for Nepal's political classes? What purposes does it serve and to what ends? The time has come to debate our obsession with nationalism even if the debate might offend the sensibilities of some of its blind devotees.
Let us admit at the outset that, like nationalisms everywhere, Nepali nationalism, too, has its merits. Psychologically, it provides us with a sense of shared purpose that makes us feel part of something larger than ourselves. Our psyches, made insecure by the onslaught of a modernity we have yet to master or fathom, try to find moorings in what has been sometimes called the safety of an "imagined community." Nationalism provides us with a crutch to lean on during our travel through uncertain times. Many among us fervently believe that our commitment to an abstract idea of the nation will restore us to our ancient glory, much of which is imagined in retrospect. Our attachment to the nation is a form of identification that promises to ground us in a secure sense of collective identity.
Politically, Nepali nationalism has always been a form of resistance to the dictates of meddling foreigners. In the short term, it sensitises us to the dangers of unequal treaties and other forms of contractual relationship that exist with one of our bullying neighbours. The longer view is that it motivates us to fight for the country in time of desperate need. Many among us have, for a long time, feared India's game plan in Nepal. We fear that sooner or later India is going to create a situation that will allow it to get what it wants from us, including our independence. In its most politicised form, our nationalism is a sign of our readiness to fight and resist that possibility.
If an extreme brand of nationalism is a political asset in time of danger, it is easy to ignore that it can also be a serious liability. First, like religious fundamentalism, nationalism is a strong code of belief, which means that, in its attempt to unite the country around a single imagined idea, it also divides us along various ethnic and racial lines. For instance, it divides us into pahadi and madhesi factions, since the more we talk about a specific language-, culture- and colour-based national community, those who do not share in the values of this community feel as if they have been excluded from the life of the nation-state. It also divides us along ideological lines because as long as nationalism is seen as an absolute, good thing, there are going to be groups who want more and more of it. Soon those who take a hard line position on it begin to impose their worldview on everyone else. An artificial line gets drawn between "us" and "them" to be policed by extremists of all types. When this happens, nationalism stops being an ideology directed against meddling foreigners. Instead, it becomes a source of political strife within the country.
Already we have seen the consequences of an extreme brand of nationalism in the fragmentation of a powerful leftist party-the UML-a few years back The violence going on in the name of Maoism also has a narrowly conceived idea of the Nepali nation totally sealed off from bourgeois, imperialistic, and expansionist foreigners at its core. But no nation in the world can survive without remaining engaged with its neighbours, good or bad. Isolation from foreigners in the name of an absolute national sovereignty is no longer a viable option in international politics. If we fight unthinkingly in the name of nationalism, all we will get is a country with a fragmented ethno-political map, a divided civil society, and a paralysed nation-state. These things will do more harm to the survival of the Nepali nation than any actual Indian, Chinese or American threat.
Second, like all strong ideologies, nationalism makes us feel self-righteous, but it provides no clue whatsoever about how to develop the country. Actually, overtly nationalistic societies worldwide have failed in economic development more severely than the ones with an open and relaxed approach to international relationships. Just look at the record of many postcolonial countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America whose cherished mantra has been "the nation," and you will see a picture of fervent nation-worship covering over the ugly scars of economic ruin.
In order to develop an economy, we need more than just a patriotic slogan. In fact, we need a strong but open political regime, the rule of law, the desire to participate in market economic processes, a vibrant internal market for goods and services, and, above all, a people with hope, good cheer, and confidence in their future. A nationalism that cultivates a siege mentality, making everyone feel threatened from powerful neighbours at all times, does not allow us to take any chances with our future. Without an opportunity to act confidently and on our best instincts, our national life will not blossom.
In view of the difficulties an extreme brand of nationalism can pose us, I propose that we try to build a sustainable but forward-looking nationalism that empowers us rather than it debilitates. As much as we would like to follow the politics of ideals, principles and values, we cannot deny the reality of international power politics within which all nations, big or small, operate.