The nationalism debate

– Prashant jha

One of the first questions that Hindu extremist outfits in India ask in their training camps and propaganda exercises is, ‘Are Muslims Indians first or Muslims first?’ This question is rarely asked about Hindus, for it is assumed that a Hindu is a true Indian while a Muslim has to prove his patriotism and commitment to the ‘nation’.

That one question, and its implicit suggestion, has brainwashed thousands of young Hindus and veered them towards fanaticism. At its kindest, the answer to this question is assessed by whether Muslim-dominated areas are supporting India or Pakistan in a cricket match. If the area does not celebrate enough after an India win, it is seen as proof that the primary allegiance of a Muslim is to his religion, not to the country. At its most brutal, this attitude has resulted in mass killings and communal riots.

Take another instance.

The Urdu speaking Punjabi establishment of West Pakistan forced a choice upon those in East Pakistan – are you Bangla speakers first or Pakistanis first? The Bengali Muslims struggled to make the idea of Pakistan a broader, inclusive and democratic one so that speaking in Bangla and being a Pakistani with a share in the power structure would not be contradictory. That was the message of Mujib-ur-Rehman’s victory in the 1970 elections. But Yahya Khan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto rejected the results, and launched a brutal military operation. The people of the east then choose an option that left the Pakistani establishment shattered. Bangladesh was born.

Forcing people to choose between the multiple identities they possess, and to prioritise one over the other, has been the hallmark of chauvinistic politics across the world. It first leads to suspicion and discrimination, then resistance and violence with uncertain outcomes. And that is why a question that was heard last week on Nepali airwaves is so dangerous.

The BBC Nepali service head Rabindra Mishra, whose journalistic skills and philanthropic activities one respects and admires, asked on a discussion programme—are you Madhesis first or Nepalis first? A Madhesi politician, Jitendra Sonal, replied he was a Nepali citizen who possessed a Madhesi identity. Despite repeated questioning, he refused to choose one over the other. An activist, Prashant Singh, who

hails from Birgunj, unequivocally said he was a Nepali first. Mishra is known to ask provocative questions and is entitled to do so; both respondents are also entitled to answer the way they deem right. But the question, and the way it was phrased, is a reflection of a certain mindset, with many hidden messages and potential implications.

At its core, it shows that suspicions about Madhesis and their commitment to the Nepali ‘nation’ remain widely prevalent. Never seen as equal citizens, and often projected as the fifth column whose primary loyalty is to India, Madhesis—like the Muslims of India, Tamils of Sri Lanka, religious minorities in Pakistan, Hindus of Bangladesh, and Nepali speakers in Bhutan—carry the burden of having to prove their nationalism day in and day out on terms set by others.

The context of the question is even more striking. It was raised because Madhesi parties had the temerity of blocking the budget by one day. Maoists have done this, for far longer stretches of time, during the past two years. UML blocked an entire session of the house in the early years of the last decade. When interviewers challenged them, they were asked about derailing parliamentary proceedings, flouting norms, and harming the economy.

The nationalism of the Maoist or UML leaders was never put to test. So irrespective of the merits of what they did, why is it that Madhesi leaders have to show that blocking the budget does not make them less committed to Nepal? Why is that it is always a Madhesi, a Muslim, a Christian, and at times, a Janjati, who has to prove his ‘Nepaliness’. And why is it that it is almost never that a Bahun or Chettri is asked that question?’

Pahadis living in the Tarai referred to themselves as ‘Nepalis’ till not so long ago; in fact the trend continues even now in places. They distinguished themselves from the others, who they called ‘Madises’ or ‘dhotis’. This was done sometimes in a spontaneous and unself-conscious manner, and at other times with contempt. Now that Madhesis have adopted the term with enthusiasm, become politically influential and are claiming rights on the basis of precisely that identity, the guardians of Nepali nationalism have begun asking—are you Madhesis or Nepalis?

The rush to force Madhesis to proclaim their Nepaliness, after all these years of depriving them of any share in nationhood, would have been funny if it was not so poignant. It is both a reflection of the insecurity about the gradual shift in power, as well as an effort to prevent newer social forces from becoming too strong.

Madhesis are Nepalis—but they wish to be Nepalis on terms set by them, not by the Kathmandu establishment. A young radical Madhesi constituency has emerged in Tarai which want to redefine what being a Nepali means. They want to wear the clothes of their choice, and speak Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Urdu, Hindi or any of the languages of the plains without being taunted for being ‘dhoti’.

They want to have representatives from their community not only in the parliament, but also bureaucracy and army, and govern their own province in a federal set up. And even with all of that, the prevailing mood suggests they would consider themselves as Nepali Madhesis or Madhesi Nepalis—not only Nepalis. They neither seek a certificate of nationalism from Kathmandu, nor are willing to accept orders on how to define their identity. Jitendra Sonal represented that segment in the radio discussion. In the din over day to day politics, and fragmentation of Madhesi parties, it is easy to forget that this remains the bigger battle which led to the Madhesi movement.

The solution is not to force this new constituency to keep proclaiming their commitment to Nepal. If extremists in Kathmandu force Madhesis to choose one identity over another, it will only strengthen the extremists and secessionists on the other side who want precisely that polarisation. There is no difference between what Rabindra Mishra asked, and the question Jai Krishna Goit poses to his audience. Kathmandu’s hill establishment would do well to remember that both Nepal and Madhes are political constructs. What is more important to someone really depends on where that individual comes from. If you ask a question and only give a binary choice, be prepared for answers that you may not like.

The new evolving social contract has to give those on the margins an even greater stake in the state structure, make nationalism broader and more inclusive, and allow individuals to retain multiple identities which do not need to be ordered in hierarchy. Only then will those left out ‘feel’ truly Nepali, and become responsible stakeholders.

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