Dev Raj Dahal
One articulated theme about Nepal is that it does not symbolise a melting pot metaphor of cultural homogeny. The Kathmandu Valley has, however, absorbed Gopals, Mahishpals, Kirats, Licchavis, Mallas and Bahuns from hills and Terai into Newars and became a national centre for cultural celebration for all people. Its long physical isolation from the great traditions, the Indic and the Sinic, eased internal social and cultural interaction and coherence of Tibeto-Mongolian, Indo-Aryan and Austro-Asiatic stock of people enabling them to learn each other’s culture thus evolving syncretism of something Nepali. The periodic influx of foreigners into Nepal for various reasons with many languages, rituals and manners created a rainbow like colours permitting its rulers to accept a pluralistic conception of the state that combines various ideas and images of each culture. Cultural tolerance marked the receptivity to flexible attitude of people to others and conserved their values that make for order, decency, justice and social unity.
Nepal is a mosaic of 125 distinct caste and ethnic groups where each is coexisting with shared values, a measure of reasonable harmony and a show of national identity. The process of cultural interaction among Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous societies gardened the higher cultural form, civilisation to rise above fierceness against each other and the nature. The cultured people have permeated many civilisational traits into the periphery evolving national society within bounded territories. The cultural acquisition enhances the frame of justice, worldview and a path for wider circle of life. Membership in the primary groups, such as family and community is based on kinship bonds while in secondary groups, such as schools, interest groups and political parties it is based on individual interests, social contract and common good.
The variety of its groups provides a modicum of deterrence against civilian strife, symbiotic life where each race, language, caste and religion offers nutrients to the Nepaliness, its language, culture and resilience. Many sub-cultural folk dances, songs, such as Tamang’s Selo, Gurung’s Sorathi, Tharu’s Shakiya Nach, Rai and Limbu’s Dhan Nach, etc. are derived from the repertoire of traditions. Diverse people play madal (drum), flute, murchunga and binayo in the classic Malashree tune while Chhat mustered inter-cultural faith, holi and Tihar became national festivals, Lhosar acquired popularity in the hill ethnic groups while Daha is celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims.
The diffusion of folk lore, music, song, dance, yoga, language, art, sports, dress, food, poetry and history served as the carriers of a shared Nepali consciousness. They are the cultural commons by which Nepalis define their manners of dealing with each other. The Nepalisation policy which displays a wish for national integration is far less potent either for social homogeny or emasculation of minorities, ethnic groups and indigenous societies of Himalayas, hills and Terai though one can find some influence of inner currents of Sanskritisation. Nepal hosts 123 languages which are sub-divided into many local dialects. Nepali, which is being derived from Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Newari, Gurung, Magar, Rais and Limbus, etc. and Sanskrit, served as a lingua franca and aided to the development needs of people of disparate social and spatial origins even before the nation was unified.
The fusion of communication and national political space contributed to Nepali statehood. The philosophical writings of both Hinduism and Buddhism rely on Sanskrit language yet both maintained their distinctive styles, co-evolution, shared faith and way of life. Nepali Hindus and Buddhists visit the monastery of Swayambhu to worship Goddess Saraswoti and Buddha at the same time. There are many religious sites where the idol of Ganesh is placed side by side with Buddha forming the core of Nepali consciousness. Many temples host priests of diverse caste and ethnic groups cherished by others while savouring inter-faith promise.
A shared norm has built trust and collective action in the cultural sphere and compassion in crisis times without foreclosing the choices of people. For example, both Hinduism and Buddhism consolidating them in the space of civil society transmitted wisdom of the past and made the sanity of tradition hybrid and intellectually animating in the public life. Any search for exclusive individuality would amount to falsification because one can notice acculturation and housing of many subcultures into national culture thus widening their horizons. Inter-caste marriages, social mobility and exposure to modernity eased their abstraction into its values and institutions and, in the process, imbibed the heritage of tolerance.
Nepali society is a typical mosaic of many discrete groups. Socialisation of people on shared values has, therefore, become essential to the purposive politics of nation-building. The political and scientific elites originating from several social origins have more in common now than one would have imagined seven decades ago. Nepal’s national calendar Bikram Sambat and heritage of tolerance of other faiths set it distinct from the neighbours. Its society traditionally been stratified and hierarchised into four broad castes - Bahun, Chhetri, Baishya and Sudra - for organising the production of material, intellectual and spiritual life in fulfilling complex societal needs is under the pressure of deconstruction. The Nepali constitution aims to build an egalitarian society and abolish whole panoply of social taboos, discrimination and penalties designed to ensure complete submission of under castes and deny them the right to live with dignity.
The old high caste ethics despised the worth of menial labour in which feudal tenure system promoted share tenancy at the expense of peasants and workers and anesthetised any motivation for entrepreneurial spirit though both shared the same culture. Those stuck at the bottom of society, especially the disabled, Dalits and tribal groups, are often less visible to the rulers. Their structural blindness of elites has made their share of representation in the production and distribution of knowledge culture highly skewed and their struggle unfinished. The psychological effects of caste culture on the social behaviour of lower castes have been well explained in a famous story ‘Doshi Chasma’ (Faulty Glass) written by B.P. Koirala. It exposes a feudal world-view and gratification of snobbishness.
Owing to little scope for social mobility, the great mass of people even now is consigned to sullen passivity, dis-articulation and migration to fulfil their pent-up needs. The traditional elite consisting of the feudal-aristocratic-business complex are being transformed into a democratic-bureaucratic-business one which has nothing to do with the production except to monopolise the directive-organisational functions of the political society without what Sigmund Freud calls “the question of the purpose of life” defined by higher law of spiritualism.
The modern elite as refugees from the dominant caste elite have feverishly assimilated the cultural experiences of the most advanced countries and imposed theory and ideology on the people to breed a new culture of uniformity. Unlike the traditional elite, however, there is a cultural shift, a break of their sentimental links with the natives. Despite the democratic facade, many regimes have ignored the inequality as a fact of life and sought economic efficiency in which majority of Nepalis is unable to compete. Omission of those at the bottom from the national resource under the sadistic drive of neo-liberalism crippled the social integration role of national culture.
The caste system structured vertically along the axis of the social division of labour and linguistic diversity is attuned to the symbolic expression of the status of leadership ego. In this context, only democratisation allows the lower caste people to think in terms of their public importance and confront the archaic ideas upheld by the top leaders on social questions. In this social model, individuals are able to transcend affno manchhe (cronies) networks that help harness selective personal goals. The criterion for reward is ascription, not the concern for fellow citizens. If politics of trust does not extend beyond kinship structure to capture the economies of scale and the expansion of enterprise national culture suffers, Nepali political elites will assign a secondary importance to political and public institutions which have been the greatest interest in the developed countries. Tradition that encourages the deviation of public servants from the routine affairs of the state and enforces accountability to upward adesh (fiat) discourages the talent and merit in the ruling institutions of governance and, consequently, weakens their impersonal performance.
A highly authoritarian, particularistic, ascriptive and patronage system challenges democratic rule. A democratic leader in no way demands others strip their self-dignity rooted in a free-spirited culture. The pattern of Nepali culture built on the concept of duties of the subjects to rulers, tenants to the landlords, jajamans to their priests, children to their parents and pupils to their teachers not on the modern culture of human rights. The resiliency of this culture is evident in the use of the term patron-client in the modern discourse though unquestioning subservience to leaders. It is one of the record threats to cultural civility. The residue left behind manifests a tendency of leaders to flirt with the seductive charm to power. Now many radical elites have sank into feudal mentality bungling economy, tearing off cultural web and wrecking civic niceties.
Now the postmodern Nepali leaders and scholars have brought to light growing ethnic consciousness and identity politics in the nation against the syncretic traits that glued this nation. Tools are the otherness of region, religion, race, language, ethnicity, caste, gender and political categories defying an acculturation towards shared national identity. Globalisation-induced insecurity has led some groups to search for common roots, ethnic solidarity and separation from national culture thus draining the sources of state capacity. Nepali constitution allows religious practice yet bars the coercive conversion or formation of political organisation on the basis of religion.
The value of religion has fostered the search for public life that protects cultural pluralism and facilitates interaction between the state and local cultures. Dissimilar religions are weaved together into a constitutional order that confirmed the heritage of the Nepali nation where people participate in politics and public affairs. Nepalis abroad, no matter how socially diverse they are, crystallised into a common identity akin to a myriad of crystals coalescing into a big one.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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