Nepali Times
State Of The State
Our identity crisis


When the boys from the boondocks were the only contestants left, Indian journalists in Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai lost interest in Indian Idol. The mainstream press quickly dubbed the competition a \'battle of the hills' and relegated the story to the inside pages.

Flamboyant front runner Amit Paul is from Shillong. Prashant Tamang, the dark horse, is from Darjeeling. The Indian glitterati, for whom these small towns may as well have been in outer space, dismissed Prashant's victory as an SMS aberration rather than a well deserved success.

The mood was completely different in Darjeeling, where the boy wonder was hailed as the epitome of Gorkhali grit and determination in the face of adversity. Sikkim announced a two-day holiday to celebrate, while in Kalimpong it was three days. Any pretext is good enough for Gorkhalis to stay away from work and indulge in revelry.

The celebrations in Kalimpong and Kurseong were understandable. For the ecstatic Gorkhalis of the Indian northeast, here was an event that transcended their Indian identity. When DD Bhutia, state land revenue minister of Sikkim gushed that "Prashant has sent the message of unity and brotherhood to the Darjeeling hills and Sikkim," his sincerity was unmistakable.

The Nepali diaspora's excitement was also explicable. The humble policeman from Kolkata was a kindred spirit. But the celebrations within Nepal defied all logic. Why were people rushing on to the streets in the middle of the night in Dharan, Tanahu and Kathmandu and setting off fire crackers to rejoice at victory of an Indian citizen?

This was a sign of just how deep Indian satellite television has gone in Nepal. Marketers have discovered that gullible customers are prepared to pay a premium for mobile phone texting to express their sentiments. And above all, Prashant's popularity has exposed the hollowness of our modern nationalism: behind the mask of sophistication, we are all tribals. We place ethnicity above nationalism.

That also partly explains the communal divide over the outrages in Kapilbastu. And it shows that the idea of ethnic nationalism propounded by the courtiers of Chandra Shumshere persists despite more than 50 years of effort to replace it with territorial nationalism.

There are two types of ethnic nationalism. The French version hides its exclusivity behind the slogan of liberty, equality and fraternity. But Parisian cosmopolitanism has no place for distinct ethnic identities of minorities. The \'different' members of society form a subordinate population group. French nationalism subsumes other ethnicities before accepting them as near-equals in national culture.

The Germanic tradition of nationalism is more closed, believing in the existence of a Volk which predates the notions of nation-state and citizenship. Its membership may include people living in different parts of the globe. Consequently, it is free to exclude citizens working within the boundaries of the state even though they pay their dues.

Like most democrats of his time, BP Koirala was inspired by the French version, which forms the third leg of the NC platform along with socialism and democracy. To counter its influence and create a separate constituency of loyal supporters, King Mahendra embraced the concept of Nepali Jati based upon the German idea of Volk.

The entire Nepali polity is divided along these lines. Paradoxically, the Maoists and royalist parties are closer to the NC's assimilation ideology, while UML and most other leftist parties embrace Mahendra's ethnic nationalism. Neither concept has been able to hold all Nepalis together.

Nepaliya nationalism must be more accommodating to the aspirations of dalits, janajatis, madhesis, Muslims and other marginalised groups. Republicanism aspires to popular rule. Federalism is meant to ensure people's participation in governance. Both become meaningless in the absence of consensus over the definition of \'people'. Establishing the ideology of \'We, the People of Nepal' is perhaps the most pressing issue of the moment.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)