“Paint-on-the road” nationalism

  • Nationalistic paranoia about the intent and behaviour of internationals and nationals will not help Nepal move forward
- Seira Tamang
Playing the nationalist card does nothing to change the fact that the government has signed international treaties as part of its efforts to stake claims to being an independent, sovereign member of the international community, and thus needs to abide by those treaties

Apr 4, 2018-

An advance from past years when they literally were just “paint on the road,” there has been a concerted effort by the government in Kathmandu Valley to make pedestrians use the zebra crossings, and to stop vehicles at these intersections. The latest developments in establishing crossings where pedestrians should theoretically have the right of way, have been the placements of signs--presumably in the aftermath of several people being killed while crossing on the white stripes. In Lalitpur, the signs instruct people to be calm/patient and to cross the road in groups--“keep ourselves and others from accidents” is the slogan. It’s unclear whether the calculations are that larger numbers crossing the road will act as deterrents to vehicles, or that more people increase the survival rates of pedestrians in the percentage game.

Regardless, these zebra crossing signs are a stark reminder to citizens of the limits of the government’s interest in promoting and protecting their rights. While laws and policies may exist, it does not appear to be the responsibility of the state to enforce them. Instead, citizens seeking to exercise their rights and freedoms must do so at their own risk--individually or collectively.  

The steady stream of news about horrifying rape cases throughout the country, deaths of migrant labourers--including the tragic loss of three migrant sons from one family--the lack of progress on the reconstruction of houses after the earthquake, continuing neglect of flood victims and the cries for justice from those who lost loved ones in the conflict, all testify to the lives of citizens who have essentially been left to fend for themselves.


Steamrolling consent

In the larger background, the government in its first important public statement of major priorities announced that number one of the six fundamental pillars of the government’s  “Prosperous Nepal and happy Nepali” motto is nationalism. Given that the main party in power--the CPN-UML--is the main inheritor of Panchayat era Nepali nationalism and has been the driving force in the resurgence of conservative values since the end of 2015, this comes as no real surprise. 

It is this specific form of nationalism that has rendered the constitution “highly progressive and democratic” and deleted the history of large political protests by historically marginalised groups before and after the promulgation of the “fast-track” constitution. It is this dominant national narrative that has occluded the flawed and undemocratic process by which crucial, contentious decisions relating to the constitution were decided by a small coterie of male political party leaders behind closed doors--their decisions legitimated by a perfunctory two-day public consultation process and the votes of lawmakers who barely had time to read the document.  Contrary to nationalist depictions, this constitution was passed without the explicit consent of large sections of the governed.

And it is this nationalism that has utilised majoritarian politics to steamroll ahead instead of seeking to work through the deep value disagreements that stem from the long history of a nation based on socially, politically and economically structured inequalities.  


Exercising sovereignty 

Instead, dissatisfaction with the “fast-tracked” constitution by the historically excluded today is rendered at best as the inability to understand “negotiation” or “compromise.” Videos of young girls crawling in forests, fighting during the Maoist conflict for the promise of equality are heart-breaking; the costs of compromise are clear--unequal citizenship, lack of ownership over women’s bodies (rape as constant reminder of that reality) and a self-professed leader of the rights of the marginalised now putting tikas on his wife and wearing the topi of hill rulers.

Less generous renditions of the dissatisfaction with the constitution by the historically marginalised would label continuing demands for the constitution to be amended as “greedy” and “opportunistic”--for example, the retort that others too need to be included in quotas. The EU was not the first to voice disagreement over the change in quotas as part of special measures for those disenfranchised by systematic exclusion as in the 2007 constitution, to the expanded block categories that include Khas Arya today. Naturally, the government reacted to the protests of internationals and not to those of its own citizens.  

Playing the nationalist card against internationals does nothing to change the fact that the government has signed international treaties as part of its efforts to stake claims to being an independent, sovereign member of the international community, and thus needs to abide by those treaties. It is hard to see how reminders to those obligations and its implementation--from international or national sources--wreaks havoc on national integrity. Nationalistic paranoia about the intent and behaviour of internationals and nationals will not help the country move forward.

Critical here is an understanding of how this specific form of nationalism is playing a large role in curtailing both the demands for the promotion and protection of the rights of citizens and the democratic space for debate and dissent--crucial during this critical stage of Nepal’s history.  There is a real need to understand the manner in which many of the historically marginalised do not feel ownership of the constitution. Also important is to understand how “the reality” for many dominant groups has been upturned and they are being asked questions of their caste/ethnicity/belonging in ways that excluded groups have long accepted as part of their lives as Nepalis. There is anxiety and fear across the spectrum that is being used by extremists of all hues. 

The government’s understand of sovereignty is limited--sovereignty is held by the people and goes beyond the authority given to elected officials through periodic elections. Exercising that sovereignty requires going beyond “paint-on-the-road” nationalism to the active promotion and protection of our rights and the guarding of our democratic spaces for dialogue.


Tamang is a political scientist

Published: 04-04-2018 08:19

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