Statehood, Nationhood & Peoplehood
Dev Raj Dahal
The theory of statehood recognises the state as a person in international law. It has universal elements: a well-defined territory, a stable population, autonomous government and sovereignty to enter into relations with other states. But its effectiveness rests on other factors - legitimate monopoly on power to design public policies and enforce law, ability to produce resources including tax, loyalties of citizens and global recognition by being a member of international regimes and an ability to protect human rights of its citizens. These traits enable the state to create order and engage in world politics based on its anatomies.
An achieved state reflects a convergence of the nation, citizens, economy and culture. It shifts the life of natural selection to ethical life, mobilises cohesive social forces to cope with the nature-induced and globalisation challenges, eases the circulation of ideas, people and goods within the state and creates enough leverage to coordinate the problem of multiple institutional complexes and international transactions. These are the vital elements for enduring survival, resilience and identity. The state effectiveness is a key to achieve governance goals. Coordination of governance actors on principles and action secures national community whose national sentiment separates self from other states while global community recognises its identity. Democratic advance has transformed unequal ethnic nation into civic state and replaced the legitimacy of violence by rule of law.
Nepal’s Constitution defines Nepali state “an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular, inclusive, democratic, socialism-oriented and federal democratic republic.” Many post-conventional values stitched to it have set a new nature of Nepali state without enhancing its capacity to manage diversity in a sane balance. It has detached few particularistic qualifiers of national identity. Nepali state is created by natives’ vision, knowledge and leadership. Many of its values are thus unmediated by social science theories. It is vital to know what kind of political culture is apt to sustain them and how they can muster general societal consent beyond the contesting position of political parties. The Constitution is flexible. It has left many things open to revision by popular consent.
One stable Nepali character is that it has never harboured a jingoistic or xenophobic feeling but granted asylum to Buddhist, Muslim, Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, Burmese, Tibetan refugees, Indian freedom fighters, etc. as per the spirit of its civilisation (do not kill asylum-seekers). Prithvi Narayan Shah’s Dibya Upadesh brims many insights for unbeaten statecraft of a small state’s survival in the midst of competition of great powers for influence. His successors have followed several policies to balance, neutralise, evade, bandwagon and engage in positive cooperation with outside powers. They can find the way to get along but cannot get rid of each other’s utility to Nepal with whom they are also interacting.
A nation whose boundaries are congruent to the state is called nation-state. Nepali Constitution defines Nepali nation a “collectivity” of all the Nepali people, with multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious, multicultural characteristics and in geographical diversities, having common aspirations and being united by a bond of loyalty to national independence, territorial integrity, national interest and national prosperity.” Nationhood is the manifestation of national awareness animated by national personality beyond tribalism, regionalism and ethno-centrism and according to Lycian W. Pye, holds the capacity not to “yield to the demand of outside world.”
Democratic revolution fused nations into a state and granted people sovereignty to decide vital matters. G. W. F. Hegel says, “A mere nation that has not formed into a state exists in a condition of savagery”. A nation is tradition-bound united by common heritage, language, culture, economic life and political empathy. The state is post-traditional legal entity whose citizenship is acquired. The state is space-bound and sovereign while the nation is pre-political, cultural and linguistic creation. It can exist in other states without sovereignty and flourishes with common way of life. For example, Palestine is a non-state nation while the USA is multinational states with hyphenated citizenship. The state has coercive power. Nation’s identity is ascribed and consensual though elected government propels the coherence of both through acculturation processes.
Nepali nation-state is made up of a community of people with diverse customs, dialectics, castes, ethnic groups and religions but a shared history of national independence and sovereignty and common expectation of the future. The spirit of its patriotism represents the synthesis of many of these strands, not just a matter of race, language, customs and practices or ancestry. This forms a basis on which people of diverse background can converse, offer various perspectives on the solution of problems and work cooperatively under normative and constitutional bounds. The diversity of Nepali society, culture and faith has offered the state enduring resilience to oppose fundamentalism. National self-determination has been a strong defence of Nepalis to oppose foreign aggression, exercise state sovereignty under all regimes and adopt multi-platform approach in foreign policy. Nepali version of enlightenment, mokchha or nirvana, orients citizens and leaders to attain universal values of freedom, equality, solidarity and dignity. Nepal spread its soft power of Shivaism and Buddhism and its trade and travel across Asia.
Nepali Constitution defines people as sovereign and the source of state power. The democratic doctrine of sovereignty of peoplehood finds resonance in its ancient value janata janardan, people are like God, supposing their right to participate in public affairs and exercise free will. The geographic space of peoplehood comprises overlapping religious, ethnic, caste, linguistic and gender groups, not isolated by dull social or disciplinary boundaries. It is equated with citizen, democracy, nation and nationality where shared cultural memory of collective identity is treasured.
Peoplehood underscores the spirit of self-governance. It is now losing lustre in Nepal in the empirical chasms bred by linear social scientists: inclusion and exclusion of sociologists, caste and gender of priests, capital and labour of economists, power and opposition of political scientists, insider and outsider of cultural anthropologists and friend and foe of leaders. They find no common cause for people-driven politics. It is unravelling peoplehood and, thus, creating the vices for the virtuous rule of statehood.
Nepal’s history of cobbling together of mini-states created a sacred space uncorrupted by external culture. The fear of colonial force made it self-centric in security. Concern for cultural nationalism and economic mercantilism was vital for nation-building unlike the Ranarchy’s stress on state building. The Ranas did not meddle in people’s cultural and spiritual aspects. It brought the society and administration under the order of laws and tax but expunged the boundary between the public and the private sphere for the creation of patrimonial regime. Still, the state practiced unity in diversity, a unity in the nation of many religious, cultural and caste groups seeking the transformation of biological, territorial and social groups into national formation. Fusion of different cultures produced a syncretic variety.
Nepali language, poems, essays, dramas, songs, arts, cultures, heroes and builders idealised the sovereignty of peoplehood against regime. The Nepalisation and democratisation processes have catalysed the process of detribalisation of people and leaders seeking a defeat of atavism. It shifted Nepali society to modern gessellschaft of contractual ties. Nepali language unites Nepalis abroad while ideology divides them inside the state draining vigour for collective action.
A collectively self-defined Nepali nation did not cultivate its sentiments against outsiders. But democratic innovation applied the principle of closure and stressed the rights and duties that entailed Nepali citizenship. One grim fact of Nepali politics is that despite a change in the constitutions and institutions, the continuity of the old political culture holds a potent grip. The new elites do not feel any need to redefine how they are different from the politics of negation, split and fusion. The style of basic policy-making process stayed outside the parliament. As a result, people’s empowerment by means of social modernisation and economic dividends remains alluring. Democratic opening in Nepal has set a possibility for the evolution of people’s right to sovereignty, equality, justice and peace. Their gift to reason, to learn through experience and live a life of dignity, has awakened their public spirit.
In Nepal, family is the domain of love and spiritual soul of social life. Nepalis realise their inner nature in the community which is the sphere of ethical life. The Nepali nation is the sphere of affinity and reciprocal recognition. Democracy has transformed it into the nation-state. It is the sphere of law, citizenship equality, needs fulfilment, rights and duties and national solidarity. Nepalis demand justice from the state to abolish structural violence for better quality of life. It is a glue for eternal unity of both sovereigns- citizens and the state - in the face of competing impulses and loyalties claimed by non-sovereigns- partial will of political parties, right-based civil society, selfish gene of market and bureaucratised supra-sovereign bodies operating under the imperative of hierarchy. If not properly regulated, the selfish activities of interest groups cut the mosaic of peoplehood in the same way as market led atomisation cripples nationhood and its emotional ties with the state.
Political socialisation of actors in each sphere can spur Platonic harmony. Public policies driven by welfare goals and connectivity can temperate many gaps: geographic, income, education, health, communication and physical infrastructures, and transfer the loyalty of sub-national forces intensified by the tide of globalisation to Nepali state and create a pattern of order. It is vital to preserve mutually constitutive ties between statehood, nationhood and peoplehood in “we” feeling as they protect many of their collective rights on faith, language and identity from sputtering.
In this context, the justification of positive law is vital to secure the law of the nation. The state protects the rights of citizens while global community defends the statehood and popular sovereignty, invoking international laws. The excessive abuse of rights by the state risks inviting international jurisdiction. This means weaning of violence from politics is crucial to enable leaders to carry a mission of emancipating Nepalis from disadvantage and transforming them into deliberative public capable of exercising their sovereignty. Nepal needs a strong dose of grassroots civic education and activism for a synergy in building resilient communities and unveil its civilisational roots vital for its sustainable future.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)