Conversations about Naya Nepal are often limited to observations about politics, demonstrating the highly politicized nature of our society today. Perhaps it is to be expected, given the recent history of war, violence, and uncertainty. The historical juncture at which we find ourselves lends to this politicization, as there is a fatalistic worry that the failure to promulgate a meaningful constitution will have devastating consequences for the future of the nation. Yet, these politicized accounts often fail to comment on the changing nature of society itself. Of course, the two spheres do not exist in isolation but are interspersed with each other. Nonetheless, I seek to comment here not only on the politicization of society but some changes in society itself.
I have sought to remain engaged in Nepal even as I have lived abroad for my education for several years. This process has not always been easy. What affected me most was the apparent loss of our ‘values’; I found our society to be more individualistic and materialistic with each return. The way we drive is reflective of our individualistic ‘values’: as soon as there is even a minor ‘traffic jam’, people ram their bikes and vehicles to create multiple invisible lanes to try and get as far ahead as possible.
Such behaviour creates bottlenecks that ultimately lead to more traffic problems while privileging the offending individual at the expense of other drivers. The rise of ‘mall culture’ is testimony to not only the new money that has flooded the economy but also our changing emphasis on consumption as the predominant value (see also Mark Lietchy’s work). Thankfully, Kathmandu culture has not completely seeped into village life yet. Without romanticizing Nepali villages too much, for significant problems remain there, my experience in most rural places has been one of cordiality, kindness, and hospitality, even from seeming strangers. Nepali people were once touted for these traits, but amidst the dust and distrust of city life, it is easy to forget our roots.
The sense of incredulity and animosity palpable in Kathmandu life has found a new avenue for expression: the fetishism and politicization of identity. This trend reflects yet again the space where polity and society intermingle with authority. This is not to say that identity was not relevant before: the perverse persistence of caste as a defining order of society has sustained a glass ceiling for many alleged low caste people for generations. Make no mistake, I have no patience for either the people or the institutions that seek to maintain the ‘status quo’ when it comes to caste-based (or any other form, for that matter) discrimination. However, recent trends suggest that identities have come to be represented as monolithic, homogenous entities that supersede all other forms of being. I turn to two recent articles in Republica to try to dismiss such representations in the hope that we can move beyond personal attacks to critically engage with and contribute constructively towards a more integrated and egalitarian society.
Pragya Lohani’s article Talking of Revolutions (April 29) sought to draw parallels between Egypt and Nepal, particularly as it relates to the former’s experience with the overthrow of its regime. Some of the vile, personal attacks on the author in the form of ´comments´ are reflective of the Nepali society we live in today.
Instead of engaging with the issues raised by the author, most people seem to comment only on the fact that the author goes to a prestigious school, and then lambasting that as if it were a crime in and of itself. To be clear, I have some issues with the article as well. For instance, the author could have done a better job of explaining some of the differences between the two contexts so as to not exaggerate the similarities but to provide a more accurate picture. However, differences aside, it makes no sense to continually attack the author, who is trying to engage critically with some important issues. Even if people disagree with the articulation, ad hominem attacks are regressive and prevent meaningful engagement, not support it. These detractors would do well to instead attack the author’s arguments, attempting to debunk what they see as shortcomings in the article.
A couple of weeks ago, Mahabir Paudyal noted his musings on the federalism debate in his article Catch-22 (April 24). He made six claims, some more convincing than others, as to why federalism is not right for Nepal. It does not seem like current claims for federalism amount to a catch-22 though. As he points out himself, there is a particular geo-socio-political context within which claims for federalism have emerged in Nepal. Paudyal falls into the same trap, focusing in this instance only on the pitfalls of federalism without being subtle enough to outline the possible benefits of adopting such a system. However, such considerations on federalism are not the focus here.
Instead, it is unfortunate that all ‘rebuttals’ of Paudyal’s claims are personal. Almost all the comments that disagree with Paudyal do so only at the personal level, accusing him of being a Bahun incapable of sympathizing with federalism. Such charges against so-called high caste writers are not the exception but the rule; ethnic activists often dismiss the authors rather than the arguments. This trend is dangerous, especially considering the fact that there is no doubt some clear benefits to federalism in addition to some obvious shortcomings in the arguments against federalism: critics would do better to highlight these rather than dismiss him entirely. Even if we are to accept that there is a ‘grand conspiracy’ at all levels of society among the so-called high caste to preserve the status quo, commentators would do better to prove this conspiracy through reasoned arguments rather than disdainfully dismissing these concerns without engagement.
Nostalgia can be a powerful drug, and perhaps I am romanticizing the past. I do not mean to undermine the history of domination and subjugation that has riddled Nepal’s history, but I remain convinced people were more hospitable and considerate then. It is heartening that we are now trying to grapple with some of the issues of inequality at the highest level, but I do not believe this can only be done through slander and personal attacks against people who try to engage with these issues publicly. If their efforts are either misguided or even prejudiced, it would be more productive to counter their arguments, not their supposed identities. We are all invested in the future of this country, so let’s hope that deliberations on both sides are guided by ideas, not preconceived identities.
Writer is an M Phil student in Development Studies at Oxford University, UK