Illustration by Gauraang Biyani

The Origins of National Consciousness: What is Nepal?

Ideologically, ethnically, linguistically, politically, geopolitically—what is Nepal and who is Nepali?

Apr 23, 2017

####I Nepal was founded in the mid-1700s by a ruler named Prithivi Narayan Shah, the king of Gorkha. In the backdrop of British colonialism, which had just begun absorbing the various Mughal kingdoms that form modern India, Shah quickly began conquering. Many accounts of Prithivi Narayan Shah describe him as a ruthless conqueror. His conquest of Kathmandu valley was preceded by the imposition of an economic blockade; he attacked and successfully conquered the valley on a festival night called Indrajatra. In another story about a battle in Kirtipur, Shah’s army was known to have cut off the noses of the defending army in Kirtipur — a reported total of 865 noses. In any case, Shah’s so-called unification of Nepal was, like any other colonial conquest story, full of murder, hegemony — both cultural and physical — crime and war cruelties. From Prithivi Narayan Shah’s ascension of what was to become the throne of Nepal in 1743 until the abolition of monarchy in 2008, the Shah dynasty ruled Nepal for a total of 265 years.
####II The Shah dynasty has therefore two fundamental foundations: first, its conquest and unification of a singular Nepal, which also gives it historical precedent; and second, its claim to divine right to the throne. This divine right is important, because it is a divine right of the king from Hindu religious philosophy, and a divine right of the king by virtue of his belonging to a particular caste as well as ethnicity. In a short essay titled Movements From Below: Land Rights Movements in Nepal, Arjun Karki writes:
Although King Prithivi Narayan Shah officially declared the char jaat (four castes), and chattish varna (36 ethnic groups) as equal, and several legal provisions against caste discrimination can be found through history, unequal caste relationships permeated cultural, economic and socio-political life.
But the very existence of the monarchy undermined many later official declarations of equality. Not only was Nepal plagued by social inequality, but that social, economic and political inequality was being perpetuated by the presence of the Shah king. The hierarchy was two-fold: it was firstly a hierarchy by the simple fact of the monarchy, and secondly a caste-based hierarchy. That a caste-based hierarchical system served as the foundation for the monarchy was itself a rejoinder to any effort made for equality. Karki further writes that the Rana regime, which lasted from 1846 until 1951 and made the Rana Prime Minister the most powerful figure in the country, superseding even the king, strengthened the foundations of the caste system by creating a kind of bourgeoisie class of Thapas, Pandey, Basnyats — all already members of the ruling caste.
That conflation of caste and class is owed to the religious and philosophical foundations of Hindu Nepali society. For a long time Nepal was a Hindu country, and the king a Hindu king. Despite those facts, however, there has never been a history of social uprising against the monarchy until the People’s Movements of 1990 and 2006. The 1950s saw some social unrest caused primarily by the opposition of rights activists and the Rana regime. Historically, this time also saw social unrest in India and around the world, with the end of the Second World War and the triumph of democracy. But the revolts in the 1950s against the Rana regime were revolts in favour of the monarchy. Until the People’s Movements, there had never been organized oppositions to the monarch. All episodes of revolt were, as Karki writes, sporadic and semi-spontaneous responses in specific localities.
####III I think it is plausible to argue that the abolition of the monarchy in 2008 is in a narrow sense the independence of Nepal. The facts all align: the monarch conquers and unifies a country, making it a whole, a nation-state. But the monarchy results in a power structure that perpetuates widespread social and economic inequality. For years, a tension between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, to use the ideological terminology of the People’s Movement, is built until that tension erupts, resulting in the formation of a middle class and a kind of elimination of the bourgeois class — that is, independence. Independence, of course, presents us with its own problems.
The People’s Movement of 2006, which eventually overthrew the then king Gyanendra Shah, was largely a Maoist-led movement. By virtue of its communist ideological foundation, people involved in the movement were from rural parts of Nepal — Dolakha, Rolpa. These were people who were not represented in Kathmandu by the monarchy, and had long been purposefully left out of the capital’s discourse. The arrival of the Maoist movement allowed them not only to voice their long-held grievances against the monarchy, but also to physically move across social and geographical boundaries, finding themselves soon enough in the heart of the capital, actors in the civil war. Now actors, they were subject to a sudden rise in national consciousness, manifested in an anti-state movement. After the anti-state movement, however, this national consciousness was also manifested in precisely an ethno-national manner. The nationalism that they felt had to be ethnocentric because their previously incomplete national identity — in their lack of involvement and representation in state, economics and culture — had also been ethnocentric. If the monarch was colonial, then the People’s Movement was anti-colonial.
But this anti-colonial movement and the rise of ethno-nationalism meant that those oppressed ethnic groups and castes wanted not only to be fairly and equally represented but, rightly, to be their own loci of power. In recent history we have heard rhetoric for ethnic federal states in the newly Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal — Limbu, Newar, Madhesi states. There has been great violence and Nepal has now been stuck in an inanely liminal state of political and partly social deadlock. The problem with independence — not to disregard outrageous corruption in the public sphere, bureaucratic inefficiency, ethnic politics, and so on — was that the rise of a national consciousness had no one unifying principle other than a largely ethnic framework which, by definition, involved contested and incompatible views of the so-called nation and the distribution of lands and rights.
####IV The question of nation that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay is thus: what, if anything, is Nepal? Ideologically, ethnically, linguistically, politically, geopolitically — what is Nepal and who is Nepali? The People’s Movement of 2006 and the decade spent in flux since then, drifting in and out of constitutions and prime ministers, has compelled us — both those of the ruling class and those who were oppressed — to ask these questions.
The answers are obviously not simple nor will they present themselves with any kind of finality. The identity of a nation changes with time, with political change, with changes to its boundaries. Furthermore, as Yurendra Basnett argues in an essay titled From Politicization of Grievances to Political Violence: An Analysis of the Maoist Movement in Nepal, such a dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed is also problematic. Tracing the formation of certain ethnic categories like Tamang by the state to accommodate previously unclassified castes, Basnett writes that certain ethnic groups that were, in the Maoist movement, classified as the oppressed were, in fact, conceived precisely in order to avoid oppression. That is not to suggest that the grievances ethnic groups — among them Tamangs — have are invalid or illegitimate, but to urge a careful and nuanced observation and analysis of the different ways in which these categories and identity labels constitute or construct different sociocultural characteristics and boundaries.
To me the solutions are not clear. Not only are the questions themselves complex, they are also of a nature that we have never had to confront. Before the People’s Movement, the locus of national identity was the monarch. That minimal requirement that made us all Nepali was our subservience and affinity to the king. However, as Karki writes with regards to conflicts about land rights in Nepal:
[The Nepali people] held the traditional view that if the king and queen knew what injustices were done in their name they would not tolerate them. However, in the case of Nepal, the state and ruling elite were the ones who always took negative attitudes towards the claims of landless and suppressed the land rights movement through violent means.
The rise of national consciousness is in part a consciousness about the ineffectiveness of the monarchy to address the concerns of the oppressed — a classification that, here, includes both the ethnically oppressed and beyond. Given, however, the central role of the monarch in establishing a national identity, this kind of national consciousness not only manifests itself in an anti-colonial manner but it undoes the very fabric of the nation. There is no longer a minimal requirement for being part of the nation and each group of people have their own claims about their belonging to the nation. As in the case of Israel and Palestine, some claim a physical belonging, while others claim a native and historical belonging.
####V From a literary standpoint the nation is the product of a certain kind of literature. In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes about the central role of print capitalism in the rise of national consciousness. Building on Walter Benjamin’s age of mechanical reproduction, Anderson writes:
…the convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation.
I mean to suggest here that literature should become a tool through which the nation of Nepal is built. My earlier use of the terms colonial, anti-colonial and independence was conscious in its attempt to create a kind of postcolonial lens to study Nepal, the nation, as a literary and cultural identity. The nation, according to Anderson, is already imagined, and that imagination is enabled by literature, print capitalism, and language. Nepal is already in a rather unique situation: it has a history of more than 250 years; it is relatively linguistically homogenous: most people in Nepal grow up learning how to speak Nepali, if they don’t already speak it; it already has clearly defined geographic boundaries, protected and mediated by the presence of India and China on either side. To put it in Anderson’s terms: the imagined Nepali national community — imagine it as a novel — lacks only the imagination. The rest of the novel, so to speak, is already in place: the characters, the setting, the plot. Now it requires those elements to be imagined coherently and cohesively — but not homogeneously — as a unit.
In this essay I would like to call for the production of literature that explores these questions of nationhood and belonging. Our literature must be about Nepal in one way or another. As Walter Benjamin writes:
A great storyteller will always be rooted in the people, primarily in a milieu of craftsmen. But just as this includes the rural, the maritime, and the urban elements in the many stages of their economic and technical development, there are many gradations in the concepts in which their store of experience comes down to us.
Elsewhere, he also writes, “A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller; even a man reading one shares this companionship.” Benjamin is here commenting on the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov’s storytelling, contrasting him with a novelist: the story, in contrast to the novel, allows a kind of didacticism and instruction. A larger structural and formal analysis of Nepali literary forms would, I believe, point to didacticism as an element of Nepali literature. Literature also allows us to, as I wrote earlier, examine notions of identity in a careful and nuanced manner; didacticism in literature can only go so far before it becomes propaganda. That careful and nuanced examination will be what compels us to parse through our notions of belonging, of nationhood and of a complete and whole Nepal.
####VI There is also another case I would like to make for the state of literary reception in Nepal. Going forward, I believe cosmopolitan ways of reading texts should become incorporated into our local high school and university curriculums. I suggest this in light of two things: one, as I have written in this essay, the exercise of nation building; and two, the state of India-Nepal relations. The first has been, to the effect that I would like it to be, iterated in this essay. The second is complex and important and undoubtedly requires a significant amount of contemplation. Our relationship with India must go hand-in-hand with the rise of our national consciousness. In other words, national consciousness should not seek to exclude or oppose India in its cultural and social state. It may, and should, of course, be opposed to political hegemony, which India has exercised from its side every now and then. But that hegemony — purely of a political nature — should not be grounds to limit, for instance, the mobility of people in search of opportunities across the border into either country, the prohibition on citizenship from a mother in order to ensure that children born to Indian men and Nepali mothers do not become full citizens of Nepal, and so forth. Nepal and India have, long before they became nation states, interacted with each other, culturally, socially, religiously. The two nation-states in their current forms must be committed to establishing and respecting the boundaries set by the nation-state, but also to breaking down those very boundaries through their notions of nation, national identity and culture.
A cosmopolitan reading practice minimally requires the reader to inhabit the differences and similarities in the literary works they are audience to. It also demands that the reader use the literary medium as a world into cosmopolitan imagination. That is to say, the world of the text itself, by virtue of its literary nature, is full of peoples and cultures and languages colliding. One way in which we can both build nation and avoid being superseded as individuals or communities by that very nation is by looking critically at these collisions. As a case in point I suggest the 1936 Nepali epic poem — or rather, folk song — Muna Madan, by Laxmi Prasad Devkota. A work that, as British scholar Michael Hutt writes, had already produced 25,000 copies by 1986, representing “something of a watershed in the development of Nepali literature,” Muna Madan provides moral commentary on Nepali society, of the time and beyond. In one of the more morally interesting parts of the book, the protagonist Madan, a high-caste Chettri man who is on an expedition in Tibet to find gold, is tended to and taken care of by a low-caste bhote, or Tibetan. The work juxtaposes these identity labels — Chettri, bhote, high-caste, low-caste — along with economic identifies — poor and rich — and moral qualities — good, bad, righteous. The resultant picture is a world of flux in which all of these labels, more or less, belong to none of us and all of us. The cosmopolitan world — which is as real a version of Nepali society as can get — that Devkota’s characters inhabit is testimony to the cosmopolitan nature, both the way it is and the way it should be, of our real world.
####VII Nation building is a social exercise as much as it is a political one, and literature, an institution so easily and commonly intermingled with these two spheres — politics and society — is at the heart of their foundations. Undoubtedly, Nepal has many challenges to face in the days to come. Nation building is a crucial challenge for us immediately, but it is a challenge against time, past, present and future. My hope is that literature and, in particular, postcolonial and cosmopolitan ways of thinking about literature will allow us to think about Nepal, the nation, as an imagined community of ethnicities, nationalities and other identities colliding to form a single, coherent Nepali community, through time and across a history of different kinds of oppression — an oppression of ethnicities, castes, of the poor, of the rural, of the people by the state and of the cosmopolitan imagination to reimagine these boundaries.
Chiran Raj Pandey is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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