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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

The New Nepal: Enter Ethnic Politics?

The Maoist leadership is playing the ethnic card, writes AVANTIKA REGMI, adding: Contriving ethnic schisms to gain votes will not help solve the problems.

So, we have now entered a new era of ethnic politics. That was abundantly clear in the communal clashes in Nepalgunj last month. At least one was killed and scores were injured when Madhesi youths clashed with Pahade youths in the Terai plains bordering India.

What does that rare incident signal?

The immediate public response may be this: Being a Madhesi, or a Pahadi, or even a Bahun or a Chhetri or a Newar can be tough in the new Nepal, where caste and ethnicity-based politics seems to be emerging as a new game.

But we are not always what we may look like. My own experience is that regional constructs can also be illusive. Due to my naturally sun-tanned face and those “Indian features” – a hooked nose, dark, brown eyes, black hair, etc.-- I have often been mistaken for an Ethiopian or an Indian or a Latino and even an Iranian when outside of Nepal, and invariably as an Indian within Nepal.

I spent two years as a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi listening ad nauseam to my Indian friends who insisted I don’t look like a Nepali. Others find Nepalis similar to Tibetans. Jared Mason Diamond, the Pulitzer-winning evolutionary biologist from America, says Tibetans and Nepalis are ethnically the same.

The bottom-line is this: Nepalis can look like Indians who can look like Nepalis who can look like Tibetans. Confusing; isn’t it? It all depends on who you are comparing with whom.

Aside from my “Indian features,” these days I have other things going against me. I have never felt anything but Nepali. The fact is that I was born a Kumai Bahuni- a new caste/ethnicity that I may have to identify with more often in the post-2006 Nepal where ethnic politics may have gained ground. I can trace my roots of that identity. My baba had a copper plate hung outside his library hall with the name of his several ancestors etched on it - generations of Maharastrian Bahuns who migrated to Kumaon via Kanauj to Lamjung.

Known collectively as “BCN caste-coalition” for their domination of Nepali society for ages, the “Bahun-Chhetri-Newar troika,” however, are Nepalis first, and Bahun, Chhetri and Newars, second. They were born a Nepali and will die a Nepali, too. Sure, a vast majority of Bahuns may look down upon Chhetris who look down upon others below them in the caste/ethnic hierarchy and so on. But the solution to Nepal’s caste-based discrimination, or for that matter, to the “Bahun-Chetri-Newar trioka” supremacy is not pay back time.

The solution is to provide other ethnic communities with opportunities in skills and development in such a way that the social churning that must take place occurs peacefully, and not in the way that some, like the Maoists, have advocated. The Maoist leader Prachanda’s prescription on this issue will surely turn neighbors against one another.

Hardly a single day has gone by since the peace agreement last November in which hate has not been preached: the shadows of a monster ready to engulf and destroy whatever lies on its path are looming large. The recent assertion of Prachanda that ethnic-autonomy is the Maoist’s agenda may speak volumes about the direction toward where our country is moving. Under such a circumstance, statements like "because my real name smells Bahun" may not portend well for Nepal.

Against this background, let me pose some questions to the readers:

First, is Prachanda playing the ethnic card for political gains – blinded perhaps by his grandiose desire to transmute Nepal into a Tito-ish state? The former Yugoslavia had simmering ethnic tensions that were kept at bay by the iron hands of Josip Broz Tito, who ruled that nation for almost thirty years, starting in 1953. Is Prachanda raising and creating ethnic divisions to such levels that only he can control, and only as a dictator? Are the other gleeful ethnicity dividers not playing with fire to stoke a conflagration that once ignited may never die out? Is peaceful co-existence with a steady social churning better or knee-jerk demands of pay back time?

Second, if we read, write, see, listen and believe blindly without thinking about consequences how long will it take for this kind of ethnic tirade to transform into hatred, if that has not happened already? It didn’t take machete-wielding Hutus a long-time to kill a million or so Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. What happens tomorrow if a group of Tamangs from one village kill some Bahuns to settle old scores, and the Bahuns retaliate and kill an equal number or more of Tamangs? Will the killing end here or will it spread to other villages like wild fire? What happens if Bahuns and Chettris and Newars decide to raise their own vigilante armies? Will such ethnic actions provoke the Hindus from across the border to come to the rescue of their Hindu brethrens here? Will a cross-border conflagration start then?

Third, let’s hypothesize that somehow, and without bloodshed, the social churning occurs rapidly. Suddenly, Madhesi-land, Tamang-land, Magar-land, Dalit-land and so on are realized and the “Bahun-Chetri-Newar trioka” finds a new home someplace in Nepal. Prachanda has already declared Kathmandu Valley as Newar-autonomous region. Thus, Valley Newars may fair better in this new potential equation.

But the towering question remains: Does carving ethnic territories ensure that the root cause of all problems, i.e. general backwardness of ethnic groups in education, health, employment and other socio-economic sectors automatically disappear in each ethnic land? Is there not something amiss here, that the proponents of ethnic autonomy cannot differentiate between “people” and “problems?” Is it not possible that feudal autonomous Madhesi, Limbu, Dalit, Tharu and other Janajatis could merely take the place vacated by the feudal “Bahun-Chetri-Newar trioka”?

Fourth, is the “real” problem not poverty and the lack of economic opportunities in the whole country? Is the problem not the lack of good, efficient and honest administrators and leaders? Instead of creative policies and the will plus skills to implement them and leap frog the country ahead, we have leaders who raise issues that are sure to bog down the country into ethnic conflicts. Despite that, our politicians have positioned themselves as everyone’s saviors.

Fifth, this leads one to ask: How come the Bahuns and Chhetris and Newars, unlike other minority ethnic groups, have disproportionately occupied all positions of power? No prizes for guessing correctly; it is education and opportunity. And then, after occupying these lucrative positions, the BCN have milked the country dry, not an uncommon practice among socially dominant groups in South Asia. Does this mean that all Bahuns are bad, and all other ethnic groups good?

Sixth, what are the chances that if the BCN hegemony is replaced by a Rai-Limbu or a Madhesi Dalit or a Pahadi-Dalit construct? Will the latter not turn corrupt?

What is the problem here really? Is it the Bahun or is it the system? Playing the blame game is easy since we are all frustrated and easily swayed and politicians know that, Prachanda included. Solving a real problem requires first the guts to accept the existence of the real problem which only a true leader can do, and vote bank politicians can never.

Seventh, is it not time to really come up with reasonable and feasible solutions to the problems of proper representation to all communities? Is the solution, of creating ethnic divisions even practical? If the “Bahun-Chhetri-Newar trioka” were suddenly forced out of running the country there will be chaos all around. It is fair to say that nobody should be forced out of running; all must run the country together? Therefore, the solution to this problem is to provide the ethnic communities with the economic foundation to come up and the education to realize their full potential. Will the creation of ethnic enclaves all over Nepal really solve any problem or it will create new ones?

Eighth, isn’t it time to select the best people to run the country irrespective of their ethnic background and those who see the pressing need that all Nepalis are able to get out of the poverty trap and the conflict trap simultaneously? That should include not just poor ethnic groups but also the poor within the “Bahun-Chetri-Newar troika,” the entire lot of poor Nepalis.

Ninth, isn’t it the job of our educated elite and our politicians to think, read, write and preach responsibly for the bright future for all Nepalis instead of playing ethnic political cards that only creates divisions?

The constituent assembly elections are on the horizon and Prachanda is harping on ethnicity. Is he doing vote bank politics?

Lastly, to conclude, let me quote here a melancholic and sadistic character (who is nameless) from Notes from Underground, a novel by Dostoyevsky: “And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point.”

Only to gain unfathomable and unimaginable power, may I suggest.

Previous articles by the author:
Against Early Disarmament, July 27, 2006

Avantika Regmi can be reached at

Posted by Editor on January 14, 2007 3:36 PM