At Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport, I got my first lesson on Nepali nationalism. A boy from whom I borrowed a pen to fill my immigration form taunted me for not talking in Nepali even when I had come to the country. His assertion had such an influence on me that I immediately promised to correct myself and try to speak in Nepali as much as possible while in Nepal. The boy had just returned from Qatar where he worked as a labourer. Later when I recounted this experience with Bandhu Chand, the president of women’s wing of the radial Maoist party led by Netra Bikram Chand Biplab she compared the boy’s act with that of a homeless Nepali who after experiencing humiliating treatments from his landlords abroad becomes obsessed with the idea of his own house.
So Nepal is a house of homeless who migrate in thousands every day to other countries in search of livelihood? But there are also people who already have palatial houses but still shout in loud voices about nationalism and countering foreign dominance. Former kings and army men, leaders of opposition and ruling parties and the parties, like Bandhu Shah’s, are adamantly nationalist. Many of these party leaders are accused of corruption. Some of these even hold foreign passport. Even a friend of mine who was born and brought up in India, holds an Indian passport and lives a very comfortable life on Government of India’s salary has occasional bouts of nationalism. Just recently in the middle of a night he called me to pour his anger on “anti-national” Madheshi who were demanding rights in the new constitution. He even called me an anti-national for, he thought, having “soft” corner for Madheshis.
Last December when I had come to Nepal to cover India’s economic blockade, I had smelled a strong anti-India sentiment and furious nationalism across the country. Due to the blockade Nepal was chocked to its last breath and even the essential goods including medicines had become rare. The black market was flourishing and a 14 KG LPG cylinder was selling for 15,000 Nepali rupees. The government was rationing fire wood and petrol. Labour shortage, due to mass migration, was so acute that there weren’t enough people to cut the rationed wood and people had stopped cooking food on firewood. 18 hour power cut meant no cooking on electric heaters too. But people showed great resilience. And like their predecessors, the current political leaders too converted the crisis to their political advantage and sold the crisis as a price they were paying for taking stand against “arrogant” neighbour. Instead of talking to their agitating Madheshi and Tharu brethrens, the Nepali leaders blamed them of playing into the foreign hands. The people, on their part, didn’t come out in streets to protest black marketeering and price rice. They stood solidly behind their “nationalist” leaders. As per one estimate Nepal lost 15 billion worth of business in those months. A stand-up comedian Manoj Gujarel became a star overnight by imitating and mimicking Narendra Modi. He organized a mock pooja at the Pashupatinath Temple to purify the “ill” effect of Modi’s Nepal visit. Matrika Yadav, a Maoist leader of Madheshi origin had told me, “Seldom I fail to understand who these leaders are loyal to?”
There wasn’t anything new in this. Ever since Nepal emerged as a country on the global map, its nationalism has had been defined by the real or perceived threats on its territory. Once the fight with the British ended in 1816 AD, Nepal’s ruling dynasties systematically nurtured this form of territorial nationalism which demanded unquestioning loyalty from its subjects for fight against the “enemy”. The “enemy” kept on changing but the same “threat” loomed. Initially it was “Muslim” India, then Christian British, later a secular India and now a “Hindu” India which cannot see a secular Nepal. “RSS didn’t want to see Nepal becoming a secular country hence it imposed economic blockade on Nepal”, wrote Anand Swaroop Verma, the Nepal expert.
Nepal has a historical and very close relationship with India. Every year thousands of Nepali cross over to India’s labour market. Although there is no documentation on how many Nepali workers are in India but it is said that there are at least a million Nepali migrant workers in various India cities. In India work as watchmen, domestic helps, car-washers, sell momo and do small business. Some fortunate ones enroll in Indian Army. More fortunate, like my friend, get jobs in various government sectors. As per 2009’s World Bank Report based on survey of 3,200 family nearly 50 percent family had at least one member working abroad. Out of these almost 40 to 45 percent people were working in India. And about 2,50,000 are employed in various India government owned and run organizations. A report by David Seddon with Ganesh Gurung and Jagannath Adhikari shows that nearly 40 percent of remittance in Nepali villages comes from India.
Similarly, thousands of Nepali citizens come to India every year for medical treatment and to study. A 2012 report shows that the Nepali students were the biggest group of foreign students studying in Indian universities.
Historically such interdependence leads to a warm and healthy relationship between two countries. But in the case of India-Nepal relationship this sociological understanding doesn’t hold correct. India has always remained the “other” which defined Nepali nationalism. This sort of nationalism also played a cover for Nepali leaders to hide their failure and incompetence.
In a cramped cafe in Jawalakhel, we cramped more to make space for five. The cafe owner brought a muda, a Nepali stool, and hammered it down the aisle to accommodate us. Two of the four were journalists working in an online news portal and Yug Pathak and Nibha Shah were well-known writers.
Online news websites are on the rise in Nepal. Cheap Chinese and Indian mobile phones and affordable internet rates have played a very crucial role in the online media boom. Netra Panthi told me that there were more than a dozen people working in the portal he worked as the news-editor and total revenue for a month exceeded 25 lakh Nepali rupees. His website had recently hired a desk writer from India to look after its English version. Most of these journalists were part of the anti-monarchy movement of 2006. Panthi told me that the editor of the news portal, Om Sharma, worked with the Maoist mouth piece Janadesh, whose editor Krishna Sen was killed in army detention during Maoist insurgency.
Yug Pathak told me that he wasn’t nationalist. The remark was surprising. In a country where people so much like to come out in streets to protest any sort of perceived or real threats to their country his words were atypical. “Now people have started to see into the crux of the rhetoric’, he said.
“Nepali nationalism is based too much on religious symbols and values representing one particular section of the society. This isn’t acceptable for young people like us”, he looked at his friends who nodded in unison. “This kind of nationalism is dangerous and open to tempering.” Other journalist adds, “people have long accepted Nepali nationalism based on one religion and anti-India rhetoric without questioning’. Political parties and ruling class of all hues and colors nurtured this idea of Nepali nationalism. “Even the Maoists couldn’t think beyond this idea of this nationalism”, Rajendra Maharjan told me when I wanted to know how Nepali Left dealt with this question.
For long, anti-India sentiments have been fueled and used by all democratic, autocratic and Maoist extremes in Nepal. King Mahendra, who after a coup in 1960 imposed a 30 year long non party panchayati order, used anti-India rhetoric to consolidate his grip on power and ban the political parties. Similarly, the democratic and left parties too used the same argument to counter the monarchy later. Today too this seesaw continues. And the core of Nepali nationalism i.e. anti-India remains the same.
Currently, after a prolonged period of political uncertainty coupled with the accusation of corruption on big political leaders and their parties, the anti-India Nepali nationalism has started to show its limitation.
Dr Surendra KC, 61, is a professor of History at Tribhuvan University. His three volume work on the history of the communist movement in Nepal is the most quoted book of reference on the left movement of the country. Four years ago he was diagnosed with the cancer of thyroid. He is treating his cancer at India’s Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre. Fighting agony of extended treatment he wrote My Agony: Tale of my Country. To the readers’ surprise his book instead is a reflection of the deteriorating condition of his country. Once a devout nationalist and a self confessed “India batter” he too, like many of his compatriot friends, is now in retrospective mode. “We failed to define what kind of nationalism could work in our country”, he told me.
In his house at Anaam Nagar he lives alone. His wife had recently moved to Australia to be with their children who, if I had not heard him wrong, had settled there. “They don’t listen to me anymore”, he told me in his half satiric half melancholic voice. “I have never thought things would come this far in Nepal”, he told more. “Nobody wants to live here it seems. In my neighbourhood almost everyone has either moved out of the country or is in the process “, he said pointing me houses from his window. “Not just common people but our leaders, army officials and big businessmen, all of these have alternative arrangements in India. Look at the Maoists leaders. They send young people to fight in Rolpa but educate their own kids in India’s JNU. This contradiction has become a part of our existence”.
His My Agony is a comparative study of pre- and post-monarchy Nepal. In it, he talks figures and concludes that the multi-party democracy has failed in Nepal. “During King Mahendra reign, Nepal was swiftly moving towards industrialization”, he told me and continued, “six lakh people were employed in garment sector alone.”
Indeed there was a wave of industrialization in Nepal during King Mahendra reign. Nepal, to an extent, was able to achieve self reliance in cement, cotton, detergent, paper and even in tobacco sector. “But look what has happened since we established multi-party system? According to the available data post 1990s reforms more than 700 factories have been shunted down. The dependence on India’s goods has reached to 1950s level. In the same period 179 political parties have been registered with the election commission. Now 47 lakh Nepalis are working in foreign countries. Every day 3 dead bodies come back to Nepal. This is what we have come to,” he complaints. “Opposing India at the drop of a hat cannot be nationalism. Not at least for a country which has so many other things to resolve.”