Living together

  • The quest today concerns maintaining a balance between Nepal’s unity and recognising its huge diversity
- Gérard Toffin
Living together

Jan 6, 2015-

In the second half of the 18th century, Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered and unified Nepal. Born in Gorkha, this king defined nearly all the country’s present boundaries. He achieved this by creating a war machine, a warring state where most resources and efforts were channelled into the military. On proving to be a master of war and a skilled strategist, he annexed large tracts of land, some of which were given to his military chiefs. The conquest ended with the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Unfortunately, Prithvi Narayan and his successors did not conquer the hearts of all the people living in the conquered territories. The institution of the Shah monarchy and its associated conservative Brahmanism succeeded in keeping the country united for two centuries. However, a prevailing feeling of bitterness persisted among those who had been vanquished, especially among Tibeto-Burmese speaking groups. Though reunited, the different communities retained radically divergent memories of the past.

Diversity in a box

The compartmentalised geography of the country, the shifting boundaries of the Tarai, and the cultural differences of this plain region compared to the hills have also prevented total unification of the country. These combined factors (heightened by the Rana dynasty) have increased the degree of compartmentalisation and fragmentation. Ethnic revolts have occurred from time to time over the last two centuries, especially after the collapse of the Rana oligarchy in 1951 and the first successive attempts at creating a democratic state. The inner division and politics of subordination have left their mark on a number of official documents, including Jung Bahadur’s Muluki Ain (Civil Code) dated 1854. Any valid history of the country has to take into account these long-term conflicts.   

Nepal’s unification, therefore, does not mean only the creation of a new nation state; it also symbolises the subjugation of a number of subjects with the use of arms. Prithvi Narayan absorbed small Hindu kingdoms in the hills to the west and in the central part of the country as well. However, here, the process took place between entities belonging to the same sociocultural background, and who, what is more, exchanged wives. Prithvi Narayan Shah himself married the daughter of the Sen King of Makwanpur and his mother was the daughter of the king of Palpa. In striking contrast, there has been no intermarriage with Tibeto-Burmese speaking communities, save with Magars who had been living for a long time within small Hindu Parbatiya kingdoms, in the same geographical region, and had supported Prithvi Narayan’s conquest in many ways. Ranas and Shahs accepted Newar women as concubines but not as queens or princesses.

Rising ressentiment

The democratic movement and the fall of the monarchy have created a new context. Old resentment, which has been heightened by years of endured censorship and autocracy, has re-emerged. Divisions and fragmentation have increased considerably to the point of threatening the unity of the country. I am inclined to think that the Maoist insurgency of 1996-2006 needs to be seen in this light. It was backed by a number of Janajati groups who were seeking a higher level of public recognition and who were (among other things) eager to avenge their former conquerors. In the new democratic landscape, the quest for identity has gradually become one of the major sources of inner tension and dispute, even going as far as to overshadow class conflicts. In addition, Madhesi activists complain of having been treated as second-class citizens by Pahadi Nepalis from the hills for the last 240 years or more. They demand more autonomy for an unbroken territory covering all Tarai. This claim is the most contentious issue in the present debate.

The question today is about finding a balance between the necessary unity of the country and the obligation to recognise its huge diversity in matters of culture, language, and religion. If one sacrifices unity for diversity, society will inevitably fall apart. If one sacrifices diversity for unity, homogeneity will forever remain an abstraction and there will be never-ending conflicts. This is a complex issue, as the delay in writing a new constitution illustrates. The persistence of corporate groups with a common language, a link to a specific territory, and a strong sense of distinctiveness, precludes any simple solution. These elementary social bonds have to find their place within a broader social space that is shared equally with other groups, on the basis of reciprocity. In other words, the impersonal abstract individual, which is traditionally the cornerstone of democracy in the West, cannot be the basis of the state today in a country like Nepal.

The solution lies within a negotiated democratic framework that attempts to reconcile unity and diversity, liberty and integration. The adopted principles must simultaneously reject the centralistic spirit that condemns the diversity of private beliefs, loyalties and memories, and the obsession with identity that confines everyone within a community and paves the way for segregation and holy war. The November 2013 elections, shared by all Nepalis wherever they live, proved an important step forward. To a great extend, they contributed to creating a shared feeling of belonging. They fused people around the same practices and values, irrespective of their ethnic group, lineage, caste, and region.

New forms of Nepaliness

One of the current difficulties, in my opinion, is the widening gap between the segregationist stances rooted in ethnic groups’/castes’ rhetoric and the more hybrid, multiethnic, multicaste society that is slowly emerging in Nepal. These new trends, which cannot be contested and also have to be taken into account, contradict in many ways hardliners who still rely exclusively on a strong communitarian ethnic, geographical (Tarai/Pahad), or on caste links. The number of interethnic and intercaste marriages, for instance, is constantly on the rise. This creates new interrelations and new forms of sociability, which undermine formerly isolated communities. Similarly, newly established groups made up of past or present members of a class of schoolchildren or of a sports club, or of any other activities, build more and more bridges and transversal links, which transcend ancient boundaries. These new networks have undergone exponential growth and testify to crucial social changes.

I would like to end this all too short analysis by addressing the issue of migration. Communities of the Nepali diaspora are also organised on more outward looking lines than within traditional Nepali society. Even if homeland bashing (seen as corrupt, ineffective, underdeveloped, nepotistic, etc) is common among them, these prabashi (as they are called in Nepali) expatriates are in the process of developing new forms of ‘Nepaliness’ that go beyond internal cleavages. Remodelled social structures and new figures of patriotism are therefore slowly emerging inside and outside the country. ‘New Nepal’, Naya Nepal, will most probably evolve through these profound structural changes from below rather than because of any political decision taken at the top.

Toffin is Research Professor at the National Centre for Scientific Research, France

Published: 07-01-2015 09:39

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