Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nepal’s independence is as much a concern of Madhesis as of Pahadis

Kalyan B. Mathema
Sociologist, Nepal

Kalyan B. Mathema, a lecturer of Social Anthropology is now vigorously screening external and internal dimensions of the ongoing Nepali political affairs through sociological lenses. His new book "Madheshi Uprising: The resurgence of Ethnicity" published by Mandala Book Point has recently hit the kiosks of Nepal's major cities. In this book, Mr. Mathema has tried to explain as to how the Madhesh culture led to the biggest ethnic uprising in Nepal some years back.
Sujit Sharma for the Telegraph Weekly and its online edition has interviewed this promising young scholar on several aspects of Nepal's politics and the associated social phenomenon.
Below the excerpts of his exclusive interview: Chief Editor

TGQ1: Nepali population is experiencing two distinct trends concurrently. They are trying to adjust themselves in today's globalized context and at the same time insisting to restructure the nation on the basis of ethnicity. As a Sociologist, how do you think Nepal can adjust itself in such contrasting trends? Your enlightening comments please.
Many social scientists like Ernest Gellner and Charles Tilly who have meticulously studied ethnicity have come to a conclusion that the importance of ethnicity increases with the increase in the influence of modernization and globalization. Arguing from a theoretical perspective called instrumentalist model, these scholars reason that the ethnic fragmentation in society occurs through modernization, economic competition and elite ambitions. The process of modernization, they argue, improves literacy rate, widens the reach of mass media and facilitates transportation which promotes inter-cultural communications and which in turn heightens ethnic awareness among different ethnic or cultural groups. The basic argument from this influential theoretical model is that the modernization process increases both self and ethnic consciousness. Looking from this perspective, the ethnic consciousness and ethnic movements in Nepal can be viewed as a natural result of the increasing impact of globalization and the modernization taking place in the country.
The impact of globalization is not limited to the rise of ethnicity and ethnic consciousness but it also touches upon national culture of nation states and challenges it confronts. In one sense, globalization homogenizes culture in the global scale but at the nation state level it leads to the rise of popular or populist culture and which thus poses a threat to the cultural elements of nationalism that thrives on the reproduction of nationalism based on monoculture. The weakening of the cultural elements of nationalism at the nation state level leads to the formation of various intra state cultures that challenges nationalism. This challenge to nationalism is both a problem and opportunity. It is a problem because it could lead to the identity and ideological based fragmentation in the country’s social fabric. On the other hand, if challenges brought about by globalization are accepted in a scientific manner by nation states then the concept of nationalism can be broadened and democratized.
The ethnic movements in Nepal have scores of demands such as federalist state structure, decentralization, positive discrimination, inclusion of excluded communities in the state apparatus, preservation of their cultures and the right to have a dignified ethnic identity. Instead of classifying their demands and explaining the pros and cons of each demand one by one, the logical way would be to understand the spirit behind these demands. Whatever be the demands of these movements - federalism or positive discrimination, the spirit behind both is the desire of these ethnic communities to have a greater role in the Nepalese state apparatus and say in Nepalese politics. The inclusion of the previously excluded community in the state apparatus and the politics will strengthen, instead weakening the Nepali state, as inclusion will help them to view the state and politics as their own and not something that is beyond their control. This sense of inclusion will build the sense of belongingness and ownership among the previously excluded communities and Nepal is sure to benefit by winning the allegiance of the previously excluded groups.
The way to address the demands of ethnic movements in Nepal is by creating a Nepalese society that is free from ethnic, religious and identity based extremism. This can take place only when we build a national culture that leads people to respect and appreciate all other cultures of Nepal and promote the responsibility for the creation of a fair society. Every citizens of Nepal should have the right to choose and enjoy any type of cultural lives that they find as suitable for themselves but they should not be allowed to interpret their cultural rights in such a way as to justify the violation of the rights of others.

TGQ2: In the changed context, foundation of Nepali nationalism are gradually deteriorating and new foundations are yet to be in place. In your view, what could be the new premise of Nepali nationalism?
The upsurge in the identity movement in Nepal since 2007 indicates that the version of nationalism that was adopted in 1990 was not able to accommodate the aspirations of many ethnic communities in Nepal. The nationalism that the ethnic movements have demanded or demanding is the nationalism that is based on cultural pluralism. Cultural pluralists consider all cultural groups as equal. Some political analysts see cultural pluralism as a problem because they believe that only monoculture and homogeneity will help bring strong nationalism. Regardless of such constricted interpretation of nationalism, we must accept the fact that Nepal is a culturally diverse society. We should see cultural diversity as an asset rather than a problem. We are a unique country where different ethnic communities with different glorious histories, myths, traditions, symbols and values are united by the love for Nepal. A strong, prosperous and a democratic Nepal can be achieved only after we build a strong nationalism based on the bedrock of our cultural diversity.
Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish Sociologist, rightly argues that nationalism can only be erected on the foundation of a strong state. Nationalism, according to him, is like a product produced through meticulous ‘social engineering’ in a ‘factory’ of a nation state. If we agree with Bauman (which I do) then our first job in Nepal will be to work towards creating a strong State. In other words, our first priority in order to build a strong Nepali nationalism should be on building an effective and competent state. The Nepalese state however should be democratic and not an authoritarian one, as an undemocratic system, no matter how efficient it might be, will still fail to build a strong nation state where all people have a strong common identity, interest and goal. It is often said and very truly that the state is the organization to hold a country physically intact while the nationalism is the psychological glue to unite the people of the country together. An undemocratic Nepalese state may attempt to build a nation state through an imposed version of nationalism but this does not work as nationalism is an ideology that cannot be forced upon people. An authoritarian state that does not give political power to its people will not enjoy the loyalty of majority of its citizens and as a result will not be able to produce a sustainable and healthy nationalism. Nationalism built by authoritarian and totalitarian states are usually jingoistic ones and not suitable for the civilized era.

TGQ 3: Political scientists believe that foreign interference in Nepal was institutionalized after signing of humiliating Treaty of Sugauli with East India Company in 1816. The 1950 Nepal-India Peace and Friendship Treaty had already nullified the Treaty of Sugauli; however, foreign interference still prevails in Nepali politics. Why and how this happens Mr. Mathema? Your precious comment please.
The issue of foreign relationship and interference is always at the center of debate in all weak and smaller nation states. The relationship between different nation states especially between or among the neighboring ones is always based on social, political and economic conflict of interests and negotiation. When two sovereign nation states interact, each expresses its own national interest and the result is the synthesis shaped by their conflict of interest. The outcome of the negotiations between any two nation states usually goes in favor of the one that has higher degree of bargaining power.
It is very important for us to agree on what our national interest is, what our bargaining power is, what and how Nepal can benefit from its relationship with other countries, and what interests these foreign nation state(s) have on Nepal and what should be our national strategy in pursuit of ours having a strong foreign policy.
Nepal’s national interest regarding foreign policy is primarily:
(a) To preserve sovereignty,
(b) Protect national integrity,
(c) Safeguard political independence,
(d) Ensure internal security and social harmony,
(e) Improve the standard of living for Nepalese citizens,
(f) Safeguard democracy, civil liberty and human rights,
(g) Preserve and enhance Nepal’s positive image in the comity of nations and
(h) Maintain friendly relationship with other countries, particularly the neighboring ones.
A country’s national strategy is its ability to make various pragmatic plans by assembling all the economic, political, cultural, diplomatic and other available resources and mobilizing them in an effective manner to secure one’s own national interests. For the planning and implementation of a successful national strategy, it is essential for the civil society groups, political parties and the state to have a common understanding of where our national interest lies. Studying the current situation in Nepal, it becomes clear that the State is currently in a weak position. The major political parties and various civil society groups remain in a divided state on ideological and ethnic lines and there is a lack of national consensus on issues even related with foreign affairs and policies. In a situation like this, it is easy for foreign states to push their national interests at the cost of Nepal’s own interest through various power centers in Nepal. It is absolutely essential for Nepalese political parties to form a common world view as far as Nepal’s relations with other countries, more particularly the neighboring countries are concerned.
It is also advisable for Nepal to develop a strong team of scholars and researchers through its university systems to study and advise the government on foreign policy matters. Such team should be made up of retired diplomats and academics from different fields like economy, politics, law, security, sociology and culture. To begin with, there could be at least two teams of experts, one specializing in India and the other in China. Both India and China are big countries and their politics are intricate and complex. It is absolutely essential for us to have a good understanding of both these countries- their politics, economy, finance, commerce, society, their foreign relations and their comparative strength or weaknesses vis-à-vis Nepal in various spheres so that we can understand and deal with them well in a dignified manner.

TGQ4: Recently sacked Defense Minister Mr. Sarat Singh Bhandari jolted the entire nation by his secessionist remarks. Being an expert of Madheshi society and culture, do you think his remark reflect the opinion and aspiration of the entire Madheshi population?
Mr. Sarat Singh Bhandari’s remarks were very unfortunate. His remarks however, do not reflect the opinions and aspirations of Madheshi population. The new democratic Nepal has offered to Madhesis a place of pride and honor. Under the changed political scenario, the Madheshi parliamentarians can, for instance, angrily debate on any issues in their own mother tongue with Pahadi brothers and sisters in the Nepalese parliament. While the Madheshi leaders will continue to fight for more political role and space, they have also clearly understood that in the current democratic Nepal they have more social and political power than they had ever before. Nepal’s sovereignty, protection of its territorial integrity and safeguarding of political independence is now as much a concern of the Madhesis as that of the Pahadis.

TGQ5: Let us end with a surgical question. There is the simultaneous rise in the ethnic consciousness, religious differences, political instability, culture of impunity, criminalization of business, breakdown of law and order, naked foreign interference and economic stagnation. Some political scientists have warned of the possible outbreak of civil war. What is the best way to deal with these likely infernos?
According to James Fearon and David Laitin, the two prominent political scientists who studied 122 civil wars that occurred between 1945 and 1999 and which claimed over 16.2 million lives, factors such as poverty, weak state, political instability and large population are more responsible for civil conflicts than factors such as ethnic or religious diversity. If we are to agree with these two scholars, then we should be more worried about Nepal’s flagging economy, widespread criminalization of business, eroding state power and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor than the rise of ethnic consciousness. If Nepal is to avoid any civil unrest or conflict in the future, it must work hard to establish a strong and efficient State which not only delivers services to the people with efficiency and fairness but also deals with the problem of law and order and bring an end to the culture of impunity. State failure in sectors such as health and education has serious consequences in the well-being of the people, particularly those who are poor and deprived and this could have serious impact on people’s faith on the efficacy of the government. All this could lead to social unrest and ethnic violence. If economic and social justice are continued to be ignored then there is no way to prevent Nepal’s eventual slide to conflict again. Maoists’ insurgency and the Madheshi Uprising are both fuelled by youth discontentment mostly in rural areas due to various reasons but especially the growing inequality in Nepalese society. It is also very much important that the high political consciousness of Nepalese people should be capitalized by the state by making constantly keeping them engaged in politics so that they can act as a pressure group to bring timely reforms in various spheres of national life.