Print Edition - 2016-06-04  |  On Saturday

The ‘foreign’ scarecrow

  • Our political leaders are taking a leaf from the rulebook of their predecessors to hold people on a tight leash
Hermetically sealing the country’s borders after the Sugauli Treaty ensured that the people did not encounter new, reformist ideas that were shaping European society in the 18th and 19th century

Jun 4, 2016-Things ‘foreign’ have become the new targets of our political leaders. The current prime minister came to power promising to curb ‘foreign’ interference in domestic politics; Pranchanda, the leader of the majority party, despite being a professed follower of a ‘foreign’ ideology, seems to show aversion for everything foreign. At least one current minister has already expressed his worries over a takeover by a ‘ foreign religion’ (he even tried to counter its influence with a rathyatra). 

People seem to be following suit. Words like foreign agents and dalals make rounds in almost every gathering. Especially, after the ‘foreign’ involvement in Nepal’s constitution-making process was known, they have become more vigilant about all things imported. So much so, even those living within the borders of their country have become ‘foreigners’ to many Nepalis. 

But this is not the first time that the fear of the outsider has gripped the Nepali psyche. Neither is this the first time that people in this country are being fooled by leaders wielding the foreign scarecrow. As the adage goes, history repeats itself, but humans do not learn from it. And while I am in no position to use this adage to map the contours of world history, it does speak volumes about Nepali history.

As if by chance, this recent development in Nepali politics comes two hundred years after the ratification of the Treaty of Sugauli (the then king of Nepal finally acceded to the British East India Company’s terms and conditions on March 4, 1816). The treaty not only left a deep scar on the country’s history but also ended up closing the doors for outsiders and sent Nepal spiraling into hibernation for more than a century.

Now one might argue that there is no comparison between Nepal after the treaty, when it was still a geographically isolated country under an absolute monarch, and the country as it is today (a functioning democracy open to outsiders and more tolerant to others’ worldviews). But one is hard pressed not to find similarities in both instances.

An infant nation during the time of the signing of the treaty, Nepal was able to stay in a century-long hibernation under kings and tyrants in its aftermath primarily because the ruling elites were successful at stoking the fear of things ‘foreign’ among people and making them suspicious towards outsiders.

This can be gauged from one of the most popular sayings of those days: Money brings muskets and bibles lead to bayonets. Just that in this case, ‘musket’ must be read as a threat to the elites and ‘bible’ as a challenge to the Hindu monarch. The ruler was the embodiment of the country; any threat to his position was a threat to the country’s sovereignty.

Not only did this ensure their hold over power, hermetically sealing the country’s borders also guaranteed them that the people did not encounter new, reformist and often radical ideas that were shaping European society in the 18th and 19th century and could have potentially challenged the status quo at home. (The strength of these ideas could be felt next door in Calcutta, where the Bengal Renaissance, which started long before the Anglo-Nepal War, professed a liberal, secular ideology.)

Similarly, tactics seem to be at play today. Well versed in the art of reading the    mind, our political thespians have manipulated the increasing fear of ethnic divide, religious tension and the involvement (perceived or otherwise) of foreigners in domestic politics into a full blown jingoistic chest thumping , all the while falling behind to address the reasons behind these problems. So far, their success has been enviable. Their rhetoric seems to be working miracles on the people, with more and more converts joining the fray.

Their agenda, as has always been the case, is to ensure that the status quo remains. By stoking the sentiment of rabid, parochial nationalism among the people and by teaching them to distrust outsiders, our modern-day political elites want to ensure popular support to their rule. Be it ‘foreign ideas,’ ‘foreign agents’ or ‘foreign religion,’ the strategy is to eliminate their spread not because they are inherently bad but because they threaten their rule.

But again, if history is to be taken as guide, a silver lining exists. Just like the monarchs and the despots who tried to extend their rule by barring ‘foreign’ ideas without assaying their worth have fallen, one can hope that these politicians, too, will be tossed away by the people one day when they realise the lies they have been fed with. The only fear is that the struggle between the people and the leaders might exact a huge price on the former. Years of struggle against class, caste, gender and racial injustices seems to have exhausted them of their strength and vigour. All they want now is peace. The next struggle might just be too much for them. 

Published: 04-06-2016 08:06

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