Print Edition - 2014-12-07  |  Free the Words

Search for self

  • A Nepali identity is the whole—the sum total of the country’s more than a hundred ethnic identities
- Khagendra N Sharma
Search for self

Dec 6, 2014-

Growing up some seven decades ago, I was identified as the son of a Brahmin. It was not just me, everybody was known by the caste to which they were born. When two strangers met on the road or at a market place, the first question would be, ‘tapayeen kasma hunuhunchha (what caste are you?)’? The caste, then, determined the status of the person. Brahmins at the top, followed by the Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. That was upheld by the Muluki Ain until it was amended in 1964.

It was during our school days that the sense of country and patriotism was instilled in our minds. The concept of the nation-state had to wait until our college days. I admit with deep regret that I had to wait until my BA studies to come out of the cocoon of Brahmanism and become a complete human person. I started to take pride in the fact that it was Prithivi Narayan Shah, who had brought together the tribal princely societies into the shape of modern Nepal. I also started to take pride in the fact that Gaje Ghale was the first Nepali to get the highest British gallantry award—the Victoria Cross (VC)—and that Nepal-born Tenzing Norgay was one of the first, along with New Zealander Edmund Hillary, to get to the top of the world.

Education and politics

We Nepalis are proud of the fact that Nepal was never colonised by any foreign power, but we forget that we were mired by the hackneyed concept of ethnicism (tribalism sustained by feudalism). Tribalism and feudalism are the twin obstacles to modernisation. Education is the first to break the backbone of feudalism, which sustains tribalism. Education takes the individual from their homestead and introduces them to the larger process of socialisation. This widens the consciousness of the student from personal relationships to the national and even global identification. It was in this sense that our ancestors had proclaimed ‘Vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (the world is one family).

The second factor which does away with ethnicism is political consciousness that rises to the level of nationhood. Political ideologies cut ethnic links and act as a new basis for class consciousness. Political parties have direct roles in educating the individual to exercise their rights as a citizen. Liberal ideologies demand that individuals have the right to be treated as equals. The state becomes stronger than traditional tribal connections and barriers. Courts get primacy over traditional forms of doing justice. Tribal societies are gradually elevated to the level of democratic societies. State institutions take over the function of managing social tension.  

Urbanising, industrialising

The third and strongest factor to break tribalism is the process of urbanisation and industrialisation. Urbanisation releases the individual from the restrictive barriers of the tribe by giving them free space and movement. Industrialisation recognises the individual for their worth: their qualification, efficiency, productivity, leadership, dynamism, creativity—in short, professionalism. Certificates, experiences, and initiatives begin to have a greater role than recommendations, belongingness, and connections. Castes do not work to promote industrial progress.

In Nepal’s context, education has levelled the field between castes and other social barriers to a great extent. But elitism persists in one context or another. Economic and political positions have created a new class of elites, replacing traditional ethnic/caste elites. This is a step forward, but the new class is, or may be, regressive. The recently growing scale of information technology is outplaying elitism. The new generation of students imbibe from a free and open flow of knowledge. Caste and class distinctions will gradually disappear, fostering a free society.

The process of urbanisation has started to have an impact on the character of society. New neighbourhoods are emerging with mixed a blend of cultures, doing away with traditional power structures. New educational and social institutions have new values. However, the industrial sector has not kept pace with the expectations of the new generation. The problem may partly lie in the capability of the private sector, but it has been mainly the victim of the inefficiency and the faulty policies of the state. Nevertheless, industrialisation has started in Nepal and it will stand in favour of individual qualities.

While political parties have played a conspicuous role in modernising Nepal in terms of socio-political change, they are also directly responsible for the present political impasse. The first and foremost regressive move was to give the political process an ethnic colour. The credit for the removal of monarchy and the ushering of a republic goes to the political parties. But they did not have the vision and the skill to institutionalise the republic. The constitution to institutionalise a democratic republic could have been written within the very framework of the first Constituent Assembly (CA).

Parts of a whole

There is a vociferous demand to federalise Nepal on the basis of identity. I have not seen or heard any political leader speaking in terms of a Nepali identity. There are more than 100 ethnic groups in Nepal and if states have to be restructured on the basis of ethnic groups, even minor ethnic groups will not be satisfied unless they have their own state. Can Nepal survive as a union with over 100 ethnic states? Can Nepal survive without an overarching Nepali identity? Are we not retreating back to tribal society?

Nepal is a multi-ethnic society where several ethnic groups have lived together for ages. It is an integrated society where neighbours have been exchanging fire, salt, pepper, ginger, flour, and other little things on a mutual and reciprocal basis. They have smiled and laughed together when a new baby is born in the neighbourhood. They have cried together whenever a person dies in the neighbourhood. This has been the eternal bond that has sustained Nepali society.

Political change should be for national integration, not disintegration. Yes, there were discriminatory policies and practices based on age-old superstitions. Such discrimination must stop and egalitarian and inclusive policies must be incorporated in our future development process. Empowerment of the deprived should get priority by being a part of the whole, not by segregating as a separate ethnic identity. The whole is the Nepali identity, the sum total of all ethnic identities. The process of federalisation should not lose sight of this eternal reality.

Sharma is a freelance political analyst

Published: 07-12-2014 09:05

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