In Defence Of Civic Nation
Dev Raj Dahal
The basic structures of the Constitution of Nepal underlie fundamental values and policies, rights and duties, institutions and mechanisms grounded in public culture and civic national identity. It supposes citizens to attain national character of Nepaliness by performing duties and securing the zone of common national bond, attachment and mutual respect. The legal ways of obtaining citizenship either through ancestry, birth or naturalised does not automatically educate them about Nepali culture, thinking and behaviour. Political education and cultural indoctrination across generations can immerse citizens their shared conception of national identity.
Now identity crisis grips Nepal. Its roots are: cancelation of the National Day, constitutional stratification of citizens by group identity, creation of auxiliary bodies by parties on the basis of race, gender, ethnicity, region and profession, formation of sectoral national commissions leaping to enforce subsidiary identity and indulgence of many NGOs, civil society, federations, unions and rights-based bodies in civilising mission. Many of them valorise the regime against Nepali state and prop up instrumental politics focusing on what divides, rather than what unites Nepalis. As their actions foment social disorder, they clog the gear citizens’ happiness. Cultivation of citizenship is vital to know various historical phases of citizens coming to collective awareness of their roots and coping with the challenges created by fractious parties and transnational world.
The declaration of secular, federal democratic republic Nepal dampens religious defence of majority Hindu citizens. Yet, the overlapping Hindu-Buddhist values discourage the birth of religious fundamentalism and racism in Nepal while holy sites are powerful identity-builders. The new normative values of freedom, justice and dignity need accord with actual human condition and improve state-citizen ties. As a result, the spiritual self-exile often fumes the nation’s faith holders with bitter rage while others snub the new label for the nation. They need to be satisfied. Many of rights provisions of citizens in the constitution from right to work to food security are non-exercisable, non-justiciable and non-actionable in the dearth of laws and resources. Nepali history does not harbour national exceptionalism except in cases of continual sovereignty, cultural synthesis, communicative competence of language, acceptance of social and cultural diversity and heritage of tolerance of the Other. The narration of Nepal’s cultural tradition by historian Baburam Acharya clearly shows how Nepali nation has defined itself out of diversity and fabricated the idealisation of the state. The spirit of Nepali community lies in its vigour to fill the lives of its members and incubate a public culture rife with promise.
Nepali citizens are always learning from other civilizations to enrich their own. Nepali language is an artistic synthesis of Sanskrit, Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, Kiranti, Newari, Tharus, Hindu, Urdu and countless others. It serves the lingua franca and unifies all those Nepalis dispersed abroad in India, Gulf, Southeast and East Asia and the Atlantic nations. As a medium of communication across 123 languages and dialects many international conferences of Nepali literature sought to nourish pan-Nepaliness expressing uniformity and surmounting state boundaries. If Germans are one nation under Goethe, Nepalis are one nation under Bhanubhakta although Nepali language is refined and simplified many times by poets, essayists, artists, journalists, orators, novelists and singers. Chakrapani Chalise, Sudhapa, Bal Krishna Sama, Madhav Ghimire, etc. added the soul of patriotism into Nepali nation while Laxmi Prasad Devkota infused humanistic culture and enlightened principles embracing the literature of the world.
Nepal’s liberal immigration laws and protection of asylum-seekers, radius of its Shivaism and Buddhism, trade and commerce, pilgrimage, Gorkha soldiers’ grit, magnificence of Himalayas for mountaineers and tourists, pagoda art and cosmic philosophy are deepest wellspring of strength. Nepal is a cultural transmission belt of great Indic and Sinic civilisations. Inclusion of the norm of these civilisations and universal values burns the flame of its civic identity brighter which no weapon of reason can hit.
Since unification by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, Nepal has defined a policy of “unity in diversity” accepting it a garden of 4 castes and 36 colours. As a pivotal moment of Nepal’s history, it evolved a powerful nation-state in the central Himalayas able to avert expanding Mogul and British Empires, and cultural pollution. Since then Nepalis retained an identity of freedom which no alien aggressor could wipe away. Economic and social integration entails a strong awareness of affinity to Nepal and a sense of common purpose of keenness to fight to keep its identity. There is hardly a stigma of Other posing real challenge to national unity. Belonging of diverse Nepalis to 125 ethnic and caste groups has offered social and cultural resilience.
As 31 rights have been given to Nepalis by the constitution each should correspond to separate duty to contribute to the nation and to avoid the pitfalls of aspirational politics which flags the political order created by the government, polity and the state. Nepali leaders must ponder before defining acts and laws for the realisation of each right and learn from historians, linguists, political scientists, economists and cultural scholarship. They should help define what constitute enduring Nepali values, heroes and builders and core institutions which can be taught at schools, political parties and ordinary citizens. Nepali history has created many icons, symbols, festivals, rituals, rites, martyrs, etc. to be celebrated for their contribution. They need to synthesise primitive folk cultural narratives to knit a lucid intellectual plot and sustain enduring memory. Memory conserving institutions, such as libraries, museums, learning centres, temples and monasteries, architecture, natural history park, etc. are symbols of nation.
The dawn of democracy in Nepal presumes civic, not biological, nation and demands some institutional closure for citizenship, nationality, conscription and immigration to echo national feeling of “we” which is vital for nation building. But when multiculturalism is enforced in the constitution and institutional practices, each group is eager to seek its own identity. By definition, multiculturalism is a politics of difference, not unity, and cultivates hyphenated citizenship. It is easy for political elites to divide citizens for command and control politics and suppress their national and human consciousness for justice till their valour catches the fire. In the long-run, erosion of harmonising elements of Nepali society can easily create void in emotional satisfaction from the civic nation based on citizenship rights.
Nepal did not follow a policy of cultural assimilation, but cultural accommodation and detribalisation. But political parties have adopted ideologically deterministic policies to homogenise citizens into classes or consumers, deterring their free will. They could not formulate evidence-based policy enabling the polity to realise unfinished quest of Nepalis for human rights, justice and peace. The globalisation processes have challenged the Westphalian system of national sovereignty while neoliberalisation of democracy elicited institutional flaws and failed to create civic culture able to fight the viruses of tribalism, cronyism and corruption warding off economic investments in production, social integration and political stability.
Democracy turns into an empty shell if their deputies abdicate the duty of fostering public interest. How can Nepalis get justice when public goods, such as security, rule of law, education, health and nature are placed in a binary frame of the public and the private and discriminate citizens on the basis of wealth? These public goods glue various layers of the nation like an onion and its peeling off ends in what novelist Parijat says without core. The ideal of welfare state demands an astute balance between production and consumption, supply and demand, rising public expenditure and tax base and spending and borrowing.
Nepal now faces a chronic balance of payment deficits, with imports far in excess of exports, indicating the loss of nation’s competitive spirit in the world markets. The role of Nepali government lies in expanding the base of production and economic diversification offered by the nation’s topography, augment economic independence and lift the bottom 30 per cent of citizen so that they feel the warmth of the nation. The trajectory of progress needs lowering the cost of business and politics. The conventional wisdom determines that the role of government is to boost public sector so that the nation’s most vulnerable citizens get justice and create equal opportunities for all. The state capacity is vital as citizens claim their rights on it and bound by mutual obligations. No law of economy can justify corporatist regime as it intoxicates democratic institutions and removes the sensitivity of power holders as described by poet Bhupi Sherchan. The shrinkage of economic size of Nepali state by privatisation and cut in public subsidy while financing the rising size of politicians, bureaucracy and security agencies indicate what political leadership stands for and where they want to place priorities.
Nepal’s splendid road to progress cannot be built by cultural amnesia or ahistorical attitude but by protecting the nation’s natural and human resources, social capital, civic pride in historical figures, literature and memory of citizens’ struggle for the defence of culture, intellectual tradition, territorial integrity and national sovereignty. The leaders have to sharpen the appetite of Nepalis in national self-determination and inspire loyalty to motherland. The lesions of suffering from catastrophes of unprecedented scale of endless agitation, civil war, earthquake, economic blockade and perpetual political instability should help define common aspiration of the nation underlined in its organic connection with its own intellectual history and practices of citizens.
Enormous resources are needed to build the wreckage, end the enduring modern ordeals of poverty, inequality and violence and enable citizens to stand on their feet. Economically successful and politically just society requires state investment in public goods aiming to raise living standards for all, improve the quality of life and nurture ecological and cultural resilience upon which sustainability of this nation’s progress rests. Political stability is a precondition for the return of prosperity. Nepali leaders have to reconcile the irreconcilable interests of diverse forces, forge abiding loyalty to the nation’s ideals and enrich civic tradition keeping reflection of dawn.
Narayan Kaji Shrestha is the secretariat member and spokesperson of the ruling Nepal Communist Party. Although he had staked his claim to the post of...