Native Culture In A State Of Flux


Culture is a living stream. It provides a range of knowledge for people to experience individuality, community and universality. Cultural shift is eased by many factors — climate induced migration, use of scientific and technological tools in life and production, tourism, education and learning from other cultures. In Nepal, democratisation and emulation of development models of advanced nations have a great effect on the institutional life of urban elites, the connoisseurs of modernity, the society and statecraft producing shifts in cultural, social, educational, economic and political practices and life-styles. For any society to continue to adapt well and enrich itself, it has to periodically change its values and culture with the good ideas and culture flowing from various corners of the world and respond to global winds of change. 

This helps to avoid the risk of cultural cringe — a sort of an internalised inferiority complex whereby the people deem their own culture as inferior to others. The persistent influence of other nations in areas of culture, education, admin and politics conditions the thinking, feeling and habits of mind and exposes to cultural cringe. The radius of Hindu-Buddhist culture, however, exonerates Nepalis from inferior sentiment. Nepal is experiencing a cultural shift in norms, beliefs and values that evolved it into a sovereign nation of free-spirited citizens. Its vehicles are the spread of education, budding awareness of Nepalis about their rights, their politicisation by political parties and their sister organisations, NGOs, civil society, media of communications and social movements of Dalits, women and ethnic, indigenous and backward peoples.  Some are indulged in social engineering.

National solidarity 

An upswing toward national solidarity of workers in the international labour market and non-resident Nepalis holding post-national citizenship is adding to the nation building. Some cultural shifts are indigenously evolved while the others are an acquired reflex internalised by Nepali elites as a habitual response to an external stimulus. The breaking of the thread of religion and culture that have woven Nepalis into national fabric and adoption of secularism for ideological salvation only motivated leaders to negotiate the wisdom of traditional knowledge in favour of utilitarian one without creating a stable civic order and realise its native wisdom of cross-space justice.

The neuralgic reaction of this break is that more and more cultural and religious activities are being organised in the society both for social development activities and spiritual renewal. Popular revulsion against government intervention in Guthi, change of priests of Pashupati Nath and sore neglect of natural and cultural sites are just symbolic expressions. The cultural celebration of various ethnic and caste groups such as Tharus, Tamangs, Dalits, Kirants, Magars, Gurungs, Newars, etc. in Kathmandu seeks a trajectory of upward attention of elites, representation of richness of cultural mosaic of the nation where each culture is learning from the cornucopia of other’s social history and flouting a culture of silence.

Multiplicity of cultural formations of Nepal makes their social history alive, filling an emotional hope for their linguistic and cultural identity. Cross-cultural marriage has added social and national integration potential averting cultural narcissism — a condition in which certain elites uphold a crazily high sense of value of their own culture owing to the lack of ability to rate the artistic richness of other nation’s cultures and even its own that underscores the sense of oneness with others. The adoption of democracy provided freedom of expression and organisation leading to a marked shift from inherited rule by fiat to a constitutional based system which has accepted the nation’s multicultural mosaic.

It is marking a deeper shift from the community built on duty-based discipline, tradition, religion and culture to self-chosen society propelled by freedom, modernity, rights, laws and contracts. Each democratic movement has expanded the elite base of power, opening added prospects for the proliferation of interest and identity articulating organisations, associations and federations of every kind from ethnic, linguistic and caste bodies to gender and professional ones. Leaders are rewriting social norms, laws and new cultural patterns to fit the demands of these organisations and youths claiming inter-generational justice in politics. Yet, the dependency, aspiration and expectation of people from their leaders for their overall wellbeing became feeble prompting Nepalis to reflect on what Buddha said self-illumination for change. 

They have witnessed for long why Nepali political leaders blame the past regimes’ follies for the nation’s malaises rather than presenting their own success stories.  The upsurge of new generation of leaders in the elections marks a doubt whether Nepalis pin faith on self-confidence or the ideological salvation promised by their leaders. Daniel P. Moynihan has rightly said, “It is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.” The rights-based constitution has made social life from marriage to labour relations contractual. The capitalization of society has three effects in Nepal. First, the joint family system is breaking down. Life is being atomised and fragile and loss of socialisation from grandparents is creating emotional instability in children and youth. 

Migration, increased rate of divorce and conversion of rural into urban areas without preconditions have added strength to it. It has split education and health into public and private and the costs of living adjustment have phenomenally soared.  As an ancient nation with syncretic culture, Nepal’s grassroots offers solutions of myriad of problems yet they are unheeded by cause-insensitive experts in data chewing and ignorant of history and national society who have failed to show how Nepalis can animate their potentials. The ethnic and indigenous population shares communitarian values having a sense of mutual support while the Anglo-Saxon political culture fostered by caste leaders is a winner-takes-all political economy. As a result, the political economy being practiced is also fragmenting its public sphere and underplaying the concept of citizenship.

Nepali leaders are now confronted with a moral question: whether the privileges they enjoy are also available to the ordinary citizens so that they can share the same egalitarian values of democracy and the political culture based on a sense of national citizenship, memory and consciousness or marks only prejudices of separate destinies common in instrumental politics? Are they balancing self-interest and political obligations and accountability? How intellectuals are treasuring up of cultural memory essential to foster civic culture in the nation? The other-directed neo-liberal economy flourished in Nepal from the bedrock of shared unity, agreement and compromise of political leaders. It marked another cultural shift from agricultural and industrial capitalism to financial capitalism. 

The growing conformism of the political class on neo-liberalism and its justification by the associated intellectuals in spite of their ideological variations flickered an unruly tone against constitutional vision. It did not capture the diversity and complexity of Nepali society. For example, slashing of agricultural subsidies and speedy deindustrialisation process have weakened the power of rural peasants and industrial workers and strengthened the clout of commerce, finance, banks and economic institutions and urban elites of society which Nepali leader B. P. Koirala called bhui phutta barge synthesised by left scholarship, a comprador class who is more interested in consumption of imported luxury goods than native growth of agriculture, industry, production, hydropower  and exports.

The hidden purpose of this neoliberal ideology is to generate political consensus for the transformation of the culturally rooted caste system into classes. Neo-liberalism, based on self-love and self-interest, sought to liberate individuals from their family, culture, community and society by linking them to global gaze, mobility and opportunity. Those at home are fighting for scarce resources and job opportunities and failing to organise collective action. As a result, Nepal, one of the food exporting nations until recently, has become a food deficit nation and imports food grains from abroad. One can see the nation fertile ground for capital and labour migration and brain drain. These moves only inflict a vale of tears in the family — parents, wife, children and society.

Egalitarian society  

Nepal has witnessed massive flight of capital abroad as entrepreneurs did not find a business friendly environment due to civil war, bureaucratic hassles and unstable politics.  Migrant workers work in less healthy jobs abroad costing their life, liberty and social peace. The welfare of Nepalis has become a national cultural symbol. Stabilisation of democratic development in Nepal requires a dialogue across disciplinary and institutional boundaries of culture and context. The constitutional context of the creation of an egalitarian society is relevant because it is the single tie that builds the Nepali community. 

The upswing toward social inclusion, proportional representation, affirmative action, quota and social justice have opened prospects for each community to harness its culture and prospect for public good transcending trickle-down, based on individualistic concept of social Darwinism. It can also balance the flourishing of the private sphere and impoverishment of the public sphere in the golden mean in accordance with the true nature of the nation’s heritage of culture, nature, tolerance and free-spirit of its people and its animating conversation with other cultures.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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