Colonised academically

- Trailokya Raj Aryal
Colonised academically

Jun 17, 2013-

Although we are an independent country, the degree of servitude the government and academics show to foreigners these days is quite disappointing. Somehow, it seems, we have lost the power to say no, when we should be saying it. We have reached a stage where others make decisions for us or we need the approval of others to make our own decisions—from restructuring the state to announcing the dates for elections. Incompetence of the political parties and the silence of our intellectuals has made us look like people who cannot think and that even our history, society, economy and culture needs to be reviewed and interpreted by foreign experts to tell us exactly what is wrong with us and which development model and political structure we ought to follow.

One may argue that a debt-ridden and aid-dependent government with no real support-base in the country has no option but to follow the policy of appeasement and provide all aid-giving foreigners with the right to interfere in our domestic affairs. But how can we explain the silence of our intellectuals even when foreign ‘experts’ make unsubstantiated claims about our core cultural values and history, bombard us with unwanted and uncalled for advice and suggestions and lecture us on how to conduct our affairs.

Maybe it is the lack of confidence in their own abilities or the lure of some rewards in the form of foreign travel or money; except for some firebrand academics (who unfortunately are shunned not only by the media but also by the academic community as being misfits), our scholars do not seem to doubt, question or challenge foreign experts’ outrageous claims and  statements on Nepal, whether in conference papers or in books and academic articles. Even in conferences and seminars on issues pertaining to Nepal, organisers and participants tend to attach immense importance to the ‘foreign expert’ with a rudimentary knowledge of Nepal. Our experts sit there quietly listening to foreigners’ humbug. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons the quality of local academic papers have gone down and more often than not, attending seminars and conferences on the social sciences in Kathmandu is torture.

For example, not so long ago a foreign ‘Nepal expert’ made an unsubstantiated claim that king Tribhuwan was considering giving India total control over Nepal when he was in exile there in the 1950s. We quietly swallowed it and instead of grilling that expert for concrete evidence so that he would learn not to take us for a ride, we decided to let him go very easily. Now he’s back in our media as a Nepal expert once again! What’s more, in the heavily politicised academia, this unsubstantiated claim was used by certain scholars to prove their anti-monarchist credentials and curry favor with the present set of rulers.

Similarly, Western anthropologists’ Freudian interpretations of our rituals and traditions have yet to be challenged or verified by our own anthropologists. And a book published in the 1970s by a foreign expert is still one of the bestsellers in Nepali politics. Our history is written and rewritten based on foreigners’ accounts: a British resident said this, two Chinese travelers saw that, an Indian archaeologist wrote that, a French expert believed this. How many of us have come across books based on our own local sources that question, refute or corroborate what these foreigners wrote?

These examples suffice to tell us exactly where we stand academically. Our intellectual silence is viewed as ‘approval’, which is encouraging more foreign experts to interpret Nepal and its culture, history, society and economy and provide suggestions, advice and interpretations that we can do without. And perhaps, this is a major reason why in many organisations (INGOs), a Nepali expert is paid less than half (or even less) than their foreign counterparts, who usually have little to no knowledge of Nepal. If exploitation and unequal treatment was characterised by colonisation in many countries in the past, in today’s Nepal, a country that was never colonised, we are seeing the same thing happening. And the very people who should be opposing it, the intellectuals, actually encourage it with their submissive behaviour and cowardly silence.

We have always taken pride in the fact that we were never colonised but now is the time to start feeling ashamed of our intellectual colonisation and doing something about it. This does not mean outright dismissal or criticism of all foreigners’ accounts and interpretations. All it means is we need to be academically honest and either verify or refute their arguments based on our findings and using native sources as much as possible. It also means that we keep our academia free of politics and encourage real research and debate.

Perhaps we can learn from what is happening in India. Some Indian scholars are challenging and questioning a lot of theories and interpretations of their country and society developed by Western scholars, including the Aryan invasion theory and the translations and interpretations of many Sanskrit texts. Of course, the movement is not very big but it has started and with time, it will produce a remarkably fresh and ‘native’ approach to understanding India’s history and culture.

Therefore, it is about time that our scholars too started a movement to question and scrutinise foreigners’ interpretations and analyses of Nepal. Perhaps, it will be a major step toward helping us see things differently, restoring our national pride and confidence and most importantly, in providing us with the power to say no to outlandish suggestions, advice and claims from abroad.

Aryal has a degree in international relations from Peking University, Beijing

Published: 18-06-2013 09:27

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