Nepali Times
Indifferent to differences


We Nepalis pride ourselves in being a tolerant society and never tire of repeating the mantra that our diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups have always coexisted in peaceful harmony in this beautiful land.

King Gyanendra himself proclaimed after 1 September that we have a history and culture of tolerance. Indeed, compared to the ethnic separatist violence in India, Sri Lanka and even once-peaceful Thailand, the relative absence of such violence in Nepal does seem to prove our own rhetoric.

Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves whether we are really as tolerant a society as we make ourselves out to be. Many of us like to believe that the Black Wednesday attacks against Nepali Muslims and their mosques, houses and shops were not an example of communal or religious violence but that it was a one-off event.

Muslims have lived in Kathmandu for centuries in harmony with fellow Nepalis. We take pride in the fact that Hindus and Buddhists worship the same gods and participate in the same festivals and we boast that people of various ethnic groups claim to be Hindus and speak Nepali.

But have we ever listened to their voices of dissent? Is our tolerance based on acceptance and celebration of differences and on equality, or on a hierarchical ranking of differences or even on indifference? Do we accept cultural diversity as equals or do the dominant groups accept and tolerate other groups so long as they remain in their place and do not claim equality?

From the perspective of the non-dominant groups, they seem to be tolerated as long as they do not assert their religious and cultural rights. It is the dominated groups that have to show tolerance to the religions and cultures of the dominating, they have to tolerate the situation of inequality.

This is not unique to Nepal. Many countries which claim to be exemplars of pluralism and tolerance are in fact tolerant of people from different cultures and religions only so long as they remain at the margins and do not assert themselves. So long as they remain apart and do not demand to interact with the dominant group as equals, they are tolerated.

Holland is a country famous for its tolerance. Whatever may be the official state policy and the relations between the white Dutch and westerners of different beliefs and ideologies- black Surinamese, Indonesians, and other Asians and Africans have always felt discriminated against. (See 'Holland after van Gogh', #223)

Cultural diversity is acceptable but only for the ethnic chic of food, music, clothes, jewellery and household decorations. To be really accepted, the minorities have to assimilate into Dutch culture, which they can never fully do. And when they assert their differences, their own cultures, as the Muslims have been doing recently, it is billed as a 'clash of civilisations'. But it is only through such clashes that the minorities can ever hope to have their cultures accepted and recognised as equal to the dominant cultures.

To be a truly tolerant society, we should first accept that we may not be as tolerant as we would like to believe. Our tolerance may be based on the dominance of a religion, culture or locality, that our tolerance would be put to test when other ethnic, religious and regional groups begin to assert themselves.

Denying our own ghettos and accepting social apartheid will not help us build a more tolerant society. Unfortunately, it is only through struggle - and, sometimes, even violence - that we learn to accept, value and really tolerate differences.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)