Nepali Times
State Of The State
We Nepalis


Sometime ago, King Gyanendra said that every Nepali should rise above "I" and begin to think as "We" instead. Implicit in the message is the belief that all of us know who we are. We must accept our power-determined identity and then learn to behave accordingly.

This certainty about the self is so ingrained in the social elite of Nepal that no questions are entertained about the basis of the definition. There is no room in it for doubts, and dissent is heresy. All must rally around the idea of "We Nepalis".

The problem with the idea of an imagined community, however, is that it must have the "other" to assert itself. There is no "us" without "them". In the politics of identity, hatred of all other is even more important than the love of self. Hence, whenever cultural nationalism appropriates political patriotism, conflicts are inevitable.

That seems to be what is happening in Nepal as a resurgent cultural nationalism begins to displace the Nepali political identity. If immediate steps aren't taken to defuse the emerging crisis, there is no telling where the search for "Nepalipan" will lead Nepal.

The idea of Nepalipan isn't new. It dates as far back as the reign of King Prithvi Narayan Shah who had to invent an identity for a country that he united. He chose to define the new entity-Gorkha Empire, later Nepal-in terms of a yam between two stones. This definition is based on the assumption of an unyielding competition between two rocks of geo-politics-one beyond the Himalaya and the other in the Ganga plains.

Between these two fixed boundaries to the north and the south King Prithvi Narayan thought he was free to move towards east and west. Thus, The Great Gorkha Emperor himself delineated the spatial features of his ambitions-mountains, hills and valleys. The plainsmen were nowhere in his picture. By the time he annexed Kathmandu Valley, its residents had been Hinduised by the Malla kings for centuries. In addition to the mountains, Nepalipan received Hinduism as its second defining feature.

The third dimension of this new identity-Gorkha Bhasa-emerged almost automatically as the nobles from the Gorkha court began to displace the Newar aristocracy from the positions of state power in Kathmandu. These three points of reference with the king at its centre has remained the fixed form of Nepali identity for more than two centuries. Even when the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 put a sizeable number of non-Hindu plainsmen who spoke languages much older than Gorkha Bhasa, they remained outside the ambit of power-defined Nepali identity.

The People's Movement tried to tinker with this, but even the constitution that made Nepali citizens sovereign for the first time in their history refrained from reframing the Nepali identity. Reverence of crown, and not the constitution, as the symbol of national unity meant that the state couldn't be secular, and the court language was lingua franca. In real terms, 1990 didn't change the basic power structure of the country. All that it did was confer political legitimacy upon the cultural hegemony of power elite.

If a class war in the name of the Maoist insurgency hadn't begun when it did, perhaps a communal confrontation between the aspiring population group and the entrenched power elite would have been inevitable. As it happened, the Maoists appropriated the agenda of cultural pluralism and may have helped avert an even more calamitous conflict. But if the insurgents desert their declared mission of creating a political identity, their fate will be much worse than that of other mainstream players of the power game.

A plural political identity has to be based on the supremacy of the constitution with a secular state and multi-lingual society as its two other nodes. Awadhi speaking Nepali Mussalmans will then not feel left out as they do now. After all, how can a Bhojpuri-speaking Christian from Parsa begin to think as "we" when her whole being is presented as the inimical "other" of Hindu, Nepali-speaking, "us" Nepalis?

So, when Subhas Rai portrays Parbati as a coy Chhetri damsel, and represents Shiva as a confident, muscular and sun-burnished Magar chieftain that is just a minor diversion. Redrawing myths is an integral part of cultural nationalism, bound as it is to an imagined past. To paraphrase Marx, if Rembrandt painted the Madonna as a Dutch peasant woman, why should Subhas Rai be censured for depicting Hindu deities in a form which is dear and familiar to him?

Pramod K Mishra (Letters, #135) questions this interpretation of art as "Nepali" or otherwise. It is the ethnocentricity of Nepalipan that is dangerous, not the imaginary recreation of Shiva and Parbati per se. So, when King Gyanendra asks us to think of "we", it should inspire us to all be inspired to make space for all of "us" within it.

"What we need to do is look into the root cause as to why they want to attack us."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)