Print Edition - 2014-09-14  |  Free the Words

Broadening vision

  • An unbiased visual representation of Nepal’s multiculturalism can help build sustainable peace
- SEEMA PANDEY
Broadening vision

Sep 13, 2014-

Acceptance and appreciation of difference are key to creating a harmonious society. Nepal as a multicultural society has been glorified verbally for long enough. However, for centuries, multi-culturalism has been more evident rhetorically than in practice.

Knowledge of and awareness about cultures and their differences arise through personal contact and through visual media. The power of visual media is so enormous that a culture can even have great impacts on a state and society that is far away geographically, as exemplified in the ubiquity of American pop culture. The same power, therefore, can be utilised to get the people of multi-cultural Nepal better acquainted with each other. So far, however, there has not been any sincere effort in this direction.

Even after Nepal transformed from a Hindu monarchy to a secular republic, a visual bias in the portrayal of a typical Nepali is evident. Instead, ‘ethnic’ channels have proliferated, attempting to provide more of a focus on particular cultures, which, instead of being inclusive, may, to a certain extent, be disintegrative. For instance, while Himal Television sings the glory of Himalis, Terai Television focuses on the culture of the Madhes. And meanwhile, aspects of tolerance and inclusion seems to be missing in both channels. National television should play a key role here in representing Nepali identity in the most inclusive manner. Having determined to embark on the boat of federalism, it is up to the government to initiate a balanced visual portrayal of Nepali identity.

Casual behaviour

Ethnocentricism, xenophobia and racism amongst Nepali people are reflected through their behaviour in daily life. It is almost casual to label a fellow citizen a dhoti, topi, madise, ta ta ma ta (Newar), bhote buddhi, tharu buddhi, etc to demean the other’s ethnicity. There is a tendency to glorify one’s own culture, language, history. For instance, Gorkhalis take pride in their khukuris and their bravery while Maithili people boast of their cultural richness and the history of Sitaland. It is a competition where everyone juggles to show their own superiority over others.

But each individual is born into a particular culture, language, religion, and environment, and learns to see the world from a self-centered perspective. It can, therefore, be difficult for us to see the behaviour of other people from their viewpoints rather than from our own. For instance, for someone from the hills, a bright colour sari worn in a different style, darker skin and different language can appear awkward, just because he or she is not acquainted with these characteristics.

The state, therefore, has to play a crucial role in filling this gap of knowledge by spreading multiculturalism visually, for example, through national anthems, national symbols, national TV shows, and overall visual images that connect one ethnicity with another. Most importantly, the implementation of a policy plan, along with measures to eradicate racism and xenophobia in Nepali society, is crucial. Providing political power to the socially excluded is not enough, as seen in India, where the political participation of Dalits did not really result in a change in their status.

One-sided images

The visual representation of Nepali people is crucial to help us get acquainted to each other and develop a culture of tolerance and acceptance by encouraging cultural relativism and abandoning ethnocentrism. An ethnocentric view incentivises competition rather than peaceful co-existence. To make Nepali people realise and practice multiculturalism at the ground level, an initiative from the state is indispensable.

In the first stage, the state can start with renegotiating national symbols, like the national flower (rhododendron), animal (cow), bird (lophophorus), and weapon (khukuri). Noticeably, all of these symbols contradict the spirit of social inclusion that Nepal embarked on since 2007. Along with national symbols, a bias while portraying Nepal’s national identity is quite palpable. When portraying Nepali features or looks, visual media tends to focus on people living in the hills. To establish multiculturalism and tolerance, it is not sufficient to merely cover an ethnic festival once in a while. Rather, it is a process that has to be incorporated in every output of visual media. In the middle of an ongoing transformation and the pursuit of sustainable peace, it is crucial for our country to start with something visible. Visual images catch the most attention and are a good source of knowledge and cultural acquaintance.

Britain, by globalising the reputation of the Gorkhalis, basically established the notion that a Nepali looks like a hill Gorkhali. Although the concept of a multicultural Nepal is not new to the Nepali people, understanding the policy of multiculturalism encounters great challenges and reluctance. Visual representation can provide effective tools to encourage a public sentiment of tolerance, which is essential to sustainable peace-building.

A spiritual approach

Furthermore, social media seems to be more sensitive in overcoming visual bias with respect to Nepali identity. Individual efforts like ‘Stories of Nepal’, a human approach of campaigner Jay Poudyal, perhaps may be taken as a model to promote cultural relativism and attempts to bring people closer together. Through beautiful pictures, their stories and an empathic approach to the daily lives of Nepali people from different corners of the country, ‘Stories of Nepal’ has gained a global audience. By portraying emotions through stories of love, humanity, passion, depression, nostalgia, brotherhood, spirituality, desperation, hope, faith, misery, struggle, existence, innocence, dreams and expectations, Poudyal has found an appropriate practice to strive for a society of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Poudyal created a platform for one Nepali to understand the other through a human approach, linking fellow citizens to each other and Nepali people across the globe. His effort is encouraging youths to step into others’ shoes and imagine their world through others’ perspectives. Spirituality, tolerance, and acceptance are key essences to build peace in Nepal. A political approach alone cannot create sustainable peace. While social measures against racism are crucial, a spiritual approach is equally important.

Pandey holds a Masters in International Relations and Political Science from Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Portugal

Published: 14-09-2014 09:05

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