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In Defense of Pan-Nepali Identity

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Nepal must strive to maintain a common pan-Nepali identity, not the narrow identities based on partisan ethnicities, says MADHAB BHARADWAJ.

After months of interethnic tensions in southern Nepal there is some movement towards political dialogue. The home minister Krishna Sitaula last week called on the agitating groups in Terai to abandon violence and to enter peace talks.

Despite the historic peace deal between the Maoists and the political parties in November 2006, more than 60 people have been killed in the southern plains in the past six months. The interim government has asked the insurgent groups to come to the negotiation table with clear demands and has given them 15 days to do so. The home minister has even warned such groups that they might have to face ``serious consequences'' if they ignore the government’s call.

Ethnic politics has shown an ugly face, particularly in the South. About a dozen armed groups in the Tarai claim to be fighting for the rights of the people living in the Madhes region. Some are militant and extremist groups such as Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), and its breakaway faction Madheshi National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Maoist-affiliated Madhesi Rashtriya Mukti Morcha (also called Madhesi National Liberation Front, MRMM). There are also others like Chure Bhawar Ekta Samaj (CBES), an anti-Madhesi Pahade group in eastern Madhesh as well as royalist and Hindu political groups that are active in the region. Amid such chaotic political environment and although law and order situation there has not improved, the government has decided to hold the constituent assembly elections on November 22.

It is a relief to all peace-loving citizens that some groups, including a few violent ones and those that harbor separatist desires, have heeded the government’s request. But the real issues in creating a new Nepal go beyond convening a hurried national political roundtable just months before the crucial elections.

We must not forget that in our quest for our narrow identities we are not undermining the strength of the diversity of our country. Nepal is a beautiful tapestry of ethnic harmony and coexistence from unknown times. The debate of ethnic and regional autonomy is a good one. The quest for identity and the claim of ones’ role in the national public sphere is also encouraging, but it must not be at the cost of national disintegration.

Sure, we must be able to appreciate the efforts of people and communities in claiming their space and rights in the national mainstream of public life. Such efforts help foster their confidence and that ultimately will contribute to the development of a real nationalism of our country. The ethnic nationals should not forget that their interest will be safeguarded if they are instrumental in protecting broader common interests of the country as whole. History is evident that the pursuit of narrow ethnic self-interest fragmented many counties into several pieces in previous decades. Just look at eastern Europe, in particular. There are a handful of countries still without a clear national status, such as Kosovo.

Even as a political strategy aimed at earning popular support or grabbing national attention, sporting ethnic feelings will prove fatal to the political and ethnic leaders in the long run. Their focus on narrow self-interest and ethnic bigotry will only open hell’s door. Therefore the state leadership needs to focus on genuine grievances without getting bogged into politics. It must show concession in addressing all demands, such as revising electoral system to ensure fair representation of Madhesis and all other marginalized groups, adopting affirmative action to increase ethnic participation in the civil service, a broader debate on the nature of federalism, compensation to families of people killed during and their honor, deployment of armed police or army in the Terai region, etc.

There is no doubt that the decade-long Maoist insurgency has shaken Nepali society to its core by bringing many latent social issues in the foreground. However, the Maoist movement seems to carry along some seeds of communal hatred, disintegration and ethnocentrism as weeds. There were several accumulated issues to be addressed since ages. The Maoist used the age-old issues to energize their dwindling people’s war. Their slogan of ethnic autonomy, in particular, gave some emotive political impetus but it will soon backfire badly causing a major setback to their goal of a communist republic. Their ethnic politics has already eroded their political capital.

The Maoist must have realized by now how explosive it is to play with communal sentiments for political gain. The ongoing violence in the eastern Terai is, in fact, a repercussion of their ethnic strategy. The separatist and communal hatred of armed groups in eastern Terai hinted evil omen of national disintegration. Initially, the government as well as the Maoists underestimated the Madhesi strength. They ignored the demand of Madhesi people and many political elements cashed on Madhesi’s sentiment because the state did not addressed them in time. It is natural in any society that a neglected section revolts against the state when a state does not listen to their grievances. In case state leadership fails to address the cry, it is also natural that different political groups use the situation for their vested interests. And that causes much bloodshed.

Nobody who believes in a peaceful and united Nepal must send a partisan message to Nepali communities anywhere. Partisan interests based on narrow ethnic or cultural identities undermine Nepali unity and solidarity. Otherwise, in the name of culture and identify, people go for (and only for) Madheshi, or Tharu, or Tamag Ghedung, Yakkhachumlung, Newamankakhala organizations rather than for a common identity. True, as long as we recognize other identities and the mutual social and human bonds among all, such identities in themselves are important and reflect our diverse heritage. But a self-centered and a narrow quest for identity will not lead the Nepali race towards a common sense of belonging (that a nation promises), because there would be nobody to carry our age-old pan-Nepali identity. Our posterior generation would be the people of a lost race if we disown our popular identity created by our earlier generation.

There is no doubt that Bahuns and Chettris are the dominant communities who remained in the helm of power since the creation of the state of Nepal some two and a half century ago. To some extent, they are responsible for the marginalization of other communities over history. In this juncture of history, however, they can correct the course and can play a positive role in bonding diversity that makes our country so remarkable. Difficult and testing times call for unity and solidarity, not division and hatred.

The government’s roundtable will help to identify the common agenda and a common course of action. But plans and paperwork mean little if they are not implemented on the ground. In the long run we need to nurture a culture of justice and respect for the others. Every individual and groups in the country must initiate a movement in the interest of ethnic nationals, the oppressed, the Madhesis, women and other marginalized groups. The Bahuns and Chettris can still serve the nation and themselves if they work for ethnic harmony. This is a great opportunity for them to diffuse the accumulated anger and to undo their past injustices and their almost total hold on state powers. Doing so will help to speed up the process of social inclusion and mutual recognition.

Citizens should strive to show tolerance and empathy for the others’ conditions. Political groups also must focus on meeting the aspirations of the people and raising their living standards. In particular, if those in power (and most of those in power are Bahuns and Chhetris, irrespective of political parties and civic groups) continue to attach themselves to their old attitudes (many such examples persist in the oft-touted “new Nepal”), they are sure to bring fatal consequences for themselves. The fate is in their hand.

The “new Nepal” cannot be built without implementing a new thinking.

Madhab Bharadwaj is a Kathmandu-based commentator. He can be reached at The above are his views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Nepal Monitor.

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Brihát Śhānti Sámjhautā, 2006
(Comprehensive Peace Agreement)

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