Published: Friday, May 17, 2013

Multinational realities: Forging a new Nepali nation-state

JUST as the major political parties in Nepal start brushing up their agenda for the soon-to-be held Constituent Assembly elections once again, an oft-ignored discourse on nation-building seems to have begun at a very latent level. The parties have so far been hedging an unsettling question: what could be the basis for building a new Nepali nation-state to which all people, who have grown assertive of their distinct identities, would like to belong to? Can we find that rare commodity under post-2006 circumstances?

When United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Chairman Prachanda recently announced that he would play the role of a “modern” Prithvi Narayan Shah (the king who united multiple principalities into modern Nepal in late 18th century) in building a “new and united Nepal,” he was speaking not only of his troubled psychology but also of the general disenchantment brought about by the rarity of that commodity upon which new Nepal’s identity will be carved.

All of a sudden, Prithvi Narayan, who was transformed into a villain from a hero after 2006, became a useful symbol for Prachanda. But what brought about this transformation?

What we’d like to believe is that the failure of the Constituent Assembly has lent the political forces some extra time for reflection and to realise the need to construct a national narrative for future Nepal. The leaders seem to have just come across a more serious question of building a nation-state, which goes beyond the ongoing debate on state (institutional) restructuring. They are at a loss over the very core of new Nepal’s identity.

The earlier values and symbols, though mostly monolithic, that provided the basis for the construction of Nepal as a Hindu state have died out. The same could be said of the dominant culture-biased symbols such as the Nepali language as the only ‘unifying’ official language of the country, the ‘national’ dress, the ‘national’ festivals, the institution of the monarchy and several other symbols that have been rightly questioned and scrapped for failing to represent the multinational realities of Nepal.

What has followed is an explosion of identity politics driven by a multitude of assertive minority groups, each reinforcing their distinct identity and rights. Then came the popular discourse of federalism catering to these aspirations. No doubt, it is quite an achievement that the emphasis on identity has politically empowered minority groups.

But in flowing with the current of identity politics, the parties have either feared or just hedged the necessary discussion on finding a broader narrative that could represent the whole nation-state in the making. Given this reality, the question is how will new Nepal be formed? Or do we believe that a nation-state can survive without a shared identity?

History shows that identity is crucial to the long-term survival of a nation-state. Identity is a factor that both creates and implodes nation-states. The history of nation-states, as political scientist Charles B Keeley revealed, has witnessed four major models in practice when it comes to dealing with multinational reality and building a nation-state: the first way is the path Bhutan adopted — ethnic cleansing, where the ruling elite eliminates differences by force. This is too outrageous for any modern state to follow.

The second model is cultural homogenisation, which promotes a single dominant culture through planned assimilation and naturalisation. But given the politics of identity and inclusion, the idea is simply too regressive for new Nepal to adopt.

The third model creates a “supranational identity” under certain common values or cultures, such as in the United Kingdom, Kenya and Indonesia. But has all of Nepal figured out those common values or symbols capable of justifying the concept of a supranational identity? This could be a matter of further discussion.

The fourth model is confederation, to which Nepal’s federation process seems closer. The basic conviction is that states which find themselves insecure because of their size, capacity (military or economic) and any other reason tend to merge into a bigger nation-state under a confederation, such as in Switzerland. Just the opposite of this process, a unitary state may implode into multiple independent states or stay intact in a confederation.

The path Nepal has been following seems conceptually problematic. States come into confederation because of their desire to belong to a single national identity, but the process of federating a unitary country, as in Nepal, is basically driven by desire to assert separate distinct identities rather than a broader supranational identity. Though there could be a desire to stick to some identities of the old unitary state, the major force that propels the whole process is the desire to assert separate identities. This very contradiction makes Nepal’s move towards federalism inherently problematic. Unfortunately, any extended discussion on this issue has been circumvented for some reasons.

One of the reasons is that expressing concern over the broader national identity is perceived as subordinating individual ethnic identities. The popular discourse on ethnic politics has been stretched to the extent that any argument that attaches greater importance to national identity would be simply regressive.

Now that the country is heading towards fresh polls, it is time political leaders and civil society spent some quality time discussing the basis upon which the new Nepali nation state will be built. Unconsciously, Prachanda has initiated the discourse by invoking Prithvi Narayan Shah. If the parties still prefer evading this issue, they are supposing that the new Nepali nation-state does not need any special binding factor for its survival and sustainability. History begs to differ.

The Writer Is A Post-graduate Student Of Human Rights And Democratization At The University Of Sydney.
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