9-15 May 2014 #706

Imagine no borders

Separating communities by drawing lines on a map will alienate them, propagating a cycle of hate
Rubeena Mahato
I have always avoided writing about myself.  Like most journalists, I was trained to keep myself out of the picture and focus on the story. Even when writing opinion, I have relied on evidence more than personal experience and anecdotes. After all, reason doesn’t need to shout. And of all the ways to persuade readers, appealing to emotion is perhaps the most disingenuous. Still, I may need to tell you who I am.

I was born in a multi-cultural household where I had uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents so diverse that they looked like they came from opposite ends of the world. It made for very peculiar-looking family portraits. We celebrated festivals together, participated in family rituals, enjoyed each other’s food and tried to learn the languages of the two sides of my family.

We enjoyed the sweet delights of Chhath as much as we savoured sel roti and yomari, and reveled in flower showers during Mha Puja. My two sets of grandparents were farmers and small traders. They weren’t highly educated and hadn’t travelled much. They were simple village folk who embraced each other’s new families and learnt mutual love and respect despite the cultural quirks, something I don’t think would have been possible elsewhere in the subcontinent.

Sitting in the midst of two great civilisations, Nepal has for ages people and cultures and has developed into a more receptive and egalitarian society as a result. Growing up, we were always aware of the negative stereotypes and more often than not, felt the  sharp edges of not-so hidden racism in classrooms, playgrounds and neighborhoods. School kids can be brutal and they don’t hesitate to repeat what they hear adults say at home. But being exposed to different cultures and languages at home opened up our minds, and we grew up tolerant to diversity.

Even when at the receiving end of prejudice, I never had any doubts about the goodwill that exists among communities in Nepal. I still believe that we are capable of co-existence and of resolving our differences without resorting to hatred and violence. There are more and more inter-ethnic families like mine in Nepal that prove this. The only way to root out the inequality and discrimination that plagues Nepali society is to make room for more interaction, exchange and intermingling.

There is a lot of resentment and understandable rage among the communities historically excluded by Nepal’s mainstream. They want dignity, respect and a feeling of belonging as much as equal opportunities. The state has not done enough to address these concerns and the traditionally dominant groups in Nepal continue to guard their privileges, at times with force and impunity.

Inclusive policies, reservation in public and private sector, development of curriculum in local languages, access to political power all are needed to tip this balance of power.

But perhaps because of my upbringing, I refuse to believe that setting up artificial boundaries among communities, alienating them further and propagating the cycle of hate and counter-hate is any solution.

As examples around the world have shown, when people start to organise themselves around religious or ethnic identities and give up other identities in the process, the result is always tragic. Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan city and had one of the highest rates of interfaith marriages in the world before politicians rallied ethnic groups against each other. That led to the eventual disintegration of Yugoslavia. Indeed, nothing seeds hatred and mutual distrust faster than creating ‘us versus them’ divisions.

This is perhaps the most important reason why we should be wary of restructuring the country along ethnic lines.  The very idea that ethnic groups need separate enclaves to be able to exercise their rights and freedoms is based on the assumption that communities cannot co-exist peacefully, and that they need to get away from each other to thrive and prosper. What we should be aiming for, instead, is building a country where ethnic groups can enjoy equal status in a rich multi-cultural, multi-racial setting, where a Madhesi will feel equally at home in Taplejung as a Limbu would in Janakpur and where people are more than their last names.

This is a long struggle, but one worth undertaking. As Ukraine edged to the brink this week, I remembered my ethnic Uzbek friend. She had escaped persecution from Kyrgyzstan, the country she had always called home but where she was not welcome anymore. She now works to help refugees and I will never forget what she said: “Despite what happened to me, I can never hate my neighbours.”


Read also:

Nepal: An emerging rainbow nation RUBEENA MAHATO

Caste, no bar KONG YEN LIN

Happily ever after SRADDHA BASNYAT

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