9-15 August 2013 #668

The Nepali make up

Is our sense of Nepaliness so fragile that we need to get worked up about every perceived slight against our nationalism?
Trishna Rana
When MTV Coke Studio released a teaser for the song Zariya, a collaboration between AR Rahman, Ani Choying Drolma, and Jordanian singer Farah Siraj on 1 August, social media in Nepal was abuzz.

Most seemed impressed by how effortlessly Rahman and his international team transcended national and cultural boundaries. But there was a smattering of Nepalis incensed by the studio’s description of Ani Choying as a ‘Tibetan Buddhist’ nun. ‘How dare they? She is a Nepali, she is ours,’ they screamed on social networking sites. This was taken as another example of a deliberate affront to Nepal’s pride and of Indian hegemony. Next day, Coke Studio backed down and changed Ani Choying to ‘Nepali nun’. But this week, when a monk set himself ablaze at Boudha, no one was in a hurry to claim him as one of our own. He was just a ‘Tibetan’, an outsider.

What made Ani Choying distinctively Nepali in the public psyche but not a self-immolator? While Choying is a Nepali citizen of Tibetan ethnicity, perhaps she thinks of herself as a Tibetan first and agrees with Coke Studio’s original label. If she was any ordinary person, her dual identity and loyalty would have immediately raised red flags and caused us to be circumspect. But since she is a celebrity, her multiple identities posed no threat to our fickle nationalism and fragile self-esteem, so she was exempted from public scrutiny. When Prashant Tamang, a native of Darjeeling, won the Indian Idol contest in 2007, he was proclaimed as a son of the soil. It was the same mindset that led us to claim Tenzing Norgay as a Nepali in 1953.

Our severely circumscribed definition of who we deem to be a fellow ‘Nepali’ stems in part due to fear of the ‘other’ inculcated by the state. Governments abhor ambiguity, so the more people fit into neat boxes, the easier it is for them to control the population. Nepal’s rulers have been no different. From the ‘daura suruwal, dhaka topi, Nepali bhasha’ nationalism of the Panchayat era to our parochial citizenship laws, there have been continuous attempts to wipe off any traces of grey areas and force a monolithic identity upon a multilingual, multicultural nation. Beyond antiquated symbols of national pride (the land of the Buddha and Mount Everest) we don’t actually seem to know who we are, but we know for certain who we aren’t (not Indians).

It’s not surprising then that seven years after Nepal became a secular republic and despite provisions in the citizenship act of 2006 for certificates to be issued based on a mother’s papers, officials at District Administration Offices frequently turn women away. Having a Nepali father is still the easiest way of gaining citizenship. Lawmakers we entrusted with writing the new constitution for a New Nepal almost drafted an even more regressive citizenship law that would have rendered thousands of children from the most marginalised communities stateless. While there is some patriarchy at play here, the main reason why officials are hesitant to allow children of single mothers to become Nepalis is because they think it will open a pandora’s box of ‘others’ who might then become eligible.

In an obscure online list of 10 top hiking trails in the world this week, the Himalaya was placed number one with pictures of a lake in Ladakh. Jubiliant Nepalis started celebrating as if we had just won the world cup, forgetting that it wasn’t the country that was voted number one but the whole mountain range. When someone pointed out that the lake was in fact in India, he was nearly cyber-lynched.

Social media provides a fertile ground for this insecure nationalism to play itself out. Pseudo-patriots tweeted profanities and attacked Sarita Giri, president of Nepal Sadbhawana Party, this week for suggesting that the government declare the dhoti as the national dress and Hindi the national language of Nepal. While Giri’s recommendation only serves to replace one obsolete version of nationalism with another, the online outbursts remind us of how weak our sense of Nepaliness is. Even the thought of having to think outside of the box seems unacceptable.

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