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Being 'Modern' in Nepal

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We can be modern even by being anti-modern, says SANJEEV POKHAREL.

What does it mean to be modern in today’s Nepal?

The first youthful response might be: speaking English, watching Hollywood (or Bollywood) movies, partying out, conversant in modern technologies, and what not. It may also mean living in a concrete house, with access to modern amenities such as TV or the Internet, or a motorable road.

The term 'modernization', however, has a complex web of meanings. People in different communities understand its nature and characteristics in different ways. Those who practice modernization have different experiences about its consequences to their lives. Those who prefer to prevent themselves from the process of modernization have their own interpretations. In the context of Nepal, modernity still remains a dream, a quest of life and an unavoidable destination of history.

The idea of 'generation' is cultural. Therefore, people in different cultures understand 'generation' and 'inter-generation differences' in different ways. I have no idea about what generation I belong to. I think a majority of the Nepali people are no different. They feel no inter-generation differences at all. The idea of inter-generation difference, as I see it, is a part of the 'modern' culture which we strive for.

Youth is yet another complex term. I am not sure what constitutes the youth identity. When anthropologist Margaret Mead studied Samoa of the Western Pacific, she found that the girls of Samoa had absolutely no idea about their transition from childhood to adolescence. Mead's analysis perfectly fits my own case as I do not remember any stage in my life in which I could feel that I was a youth. I think a large number of people in Nepal die without ever knowing when they crossed their childhood and became a 'youth'. Youth, as I see it, has neither a borderline nor any provenance.

In spite of this, we cannot ignore that the young people have been seeking new statuses and roles today, and this recent wave is gradually constructing a new identity for them. As I see it, the distinct identity of youths is not based on age or generation in the case of Nepal. It is based on our social context.

Thrust to be Modern

Modernization is a process which motivates people to break away from the past. It also encourages us to negate tradition by adopting a life way which is new and desirable. This feature of modernization attracts young population all over the world, and Nepal is probably not an exception. The young population in almost every corner of the contemporary world finds modern way of life attractive.

The young people construct their modernity usually in terms of their consumption behavior. Today's young population prefers foods, clothes, music, and several other commodities which are locally and internationally considered as the marks of modern lifestyle. In other words, the consumption of modern things makes people modern. Love of fast food, rap music, jeans, and English language can be some symbols of modernity as practiced in Kathmandu and some other cities of Nepal.

However, the thrust of the young population of Nepal to be modern is not limited to the consumption behavior alone. A large number of young people considers itself as a distinct community equipped with capacity and knowledge required for building a new Nepal. In other words, today's young population understands its status as a force which can lead Nepal's political, social and ideological realms to new horizon. It is gradually evolving as a formidable political force.

Modernization and Resistance

Modernization is more than what we wear, eat, drink, and listen to. Modernity or modernization is an idea, a knowledge which promises emancipation from exploitation. The young people's strong desire for modern values and lifestyle could be interpreted on the basis of this special characteristic of modernization. An anthropological study of the Beudian woman could explain the relationship between emancipation and modernization.

Lila Abu-Lughod studied women's folk songs, jokes, satires and ceremonies in an Egyptian village called Beud. She found that the Beudian women in the Muslim community buy modern lingerie and cosmetics not for comfort and luxury, but to resist against their elders who want to conserve their traditional lifestyle and subdue the status of women. In Abu-Lughod's perspective being modern in Beud is a way of being free from the tradition and accumulating power in society.

The idea of being different and for that matter being modern emanates from people's desire to resist against the challenges posed by the societies in which they live. This happened to the American young people during the Vietnam War. You can see this in today's Nepal. The influence of the so-called modernity in today's young population of Nepal is the result of their desire to what has been given to them; it is also a desire to refrain from rather complex social organization in which they live. It is resistance in the name of modernization. What Lila Abu-Lughod says about Beudian women is applicable to the young population of today's Nepal. The latest people's movement and the participation of youths in it may support this argument.

Abu-Lughod's study is significant in the Nepali context as diverse groups of the Nepali population are constructing/reconstructing their identities as a way of resisting against the old social order. Women, Dalits, janajati, and Madhesi are some of the new identities which lead new social movements in Nepal. In this context, the new form of identity as youths is being gradually constructed in Nepal.

Difficult Modernity

Mark Liechty, an anthropologist who has studied Nepal, argues that a large population of Kathmandu finds itself in an infinite struggle to be 'suitably modern'. In other words, the people of Kathmandu have their own standards of modernity although they are not very sure if their modernity is truly modern. To some people watching pornographic movies in the city corner is modern; to some flying to the US for higher studies is modern. Although Liechty's study does not focus on youths alone, his analyses answers many questions related to the behavior of today's young population of Nepal. I find many young men and women anxious about finding absolute and universal ways of being modern. This quest is sometimes rewarding, very often frustrating, and occasionally humiliating.

The dilemma about what is modern and what is not has its own problems. However, a bigger problem facing the modernity-loving youths of today's Nepal is the confusion about their prospective roles. The Nepalese youths are not very sure about what constitutes their distinct identity and what roles can define their social status. This leads many young people to run in the mist. I often hear the young people talking about their roles in spreading awareness, strengthening democracy, demolishing traditional conservative values, and so on. I find this dilemma about the prospective roles of youths more rhetorical than convincing.

Inter-Generation Differences

The idea of inter-generation differences does not convince me very much. Differences in outlook and lifestyle are not based on generation differences at least in Nepal. In the Nepali context, generation is just an idea which has nothing more than a rhetorical value. This rhetoric exists both in the cities and the rural areas and reflects the elderly people's desire to gather self-satisfaction and the young people's desire to be modern.

Societies as well as cultures are never static, and so are the people. Young and elderly people often transform themselves to adapt in the new socio-cultural environment. No standards can separate them as distinguishable social groupings. For instance, when I talk with my father about the dynamics in the Nepalese politics, I find him more radical and revolutionary than I am.

Therefore, the identity of youths is not and should not be based on inter-generation differences. The identity of youths, like the identity of women, is not about differences of sorts. The distinct identity of youths is based on their desire to be known as a different community and the different outlook they possess about society and their roles in it. Inter-generation differences can never form a distinct identity for the youth population.

What Roles can Youths Play?

The young people or youths of Nepal can play a great role in one important way. Borrowing from Paulo Freire, I call this 'humanization'. As I see it, we, the people of Nepal, have been the victim of inhuman domination of big narratives most of which are founded upon the idea of modernization. Young people enlightened about the problems created by the exploitative narratives can free people from this obnoxious environment. Let me explain what this role consists of.

Nepal's problem does not lie in our failure to achieve modernization. It lies in our desire to achieve it. Our long march to modernization is an endless, futile ambition which is neither beneficial nor possible. The idea of a modernized, prosperous society only humiliates us; takes our dignity away from us; and converts us from dignified people to bewildered losers. Amidst these circumstances, the young people, who are seen by others as the proponents of modernization should stand up first and tell others that time has now come to get rid of the discourse of modernization. This is a process to establish and build humanization.

Rejection of modernization is not a journey back to the past. It is an effort to envision a future which is based on the principle of justice, freedom and humanization.

How Can This Be Done?

The young population can promote humanization in human, sympathetic, and constructive ways. First, they need to identify the problems inherent in the existing forms of knowledge built/promoted by the process of modernization. Secondly, they can resist against the power of modernization and its various aspects. Thirdly, they can provide alternatives to the universal and 'unilinear' perspectives of social change and evolution.

In this whole effort, the youths need to spend efforts in freeing themselves and others from the exploitative clutches of overarching modern theories

Finally, there can be many ways to be modern. People can be modern even by being anti-modern, to cite Marshall Berman. Therefore, it is not quite necessary to label the new outlook of today's youths as modern and/or Western. The youths of today's Nepal, in spite of diversity within them, can mark their epoch in a new way. This could be possible by providing recognition, self-respect and dignity to the traditionally humiliated local knowledge and practices. Youths can be the agents of 'humanization'.

This is a revised version of a paper Sajeev Pokharel presented at the Youth Social Forum in Kathmandu on 30 December 2006.


its a good interpretation, which has tried to link up the arguments with the theoritical underpinnings. in addition to these i think the term modernity, as used today has its origin in european enligthenment. therby the contex needs to be taken into account. as mr pokharel rightly pointed out, modernity cannot be equated with consumption behaviour. rather it has got to do with the value system

Good observtion and writing. Roles were a bit more touchy...

Well written and very true!

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Brihát Śhānti Sámjhautā, 2006
(Comprehensive Peace Agreement)

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