Monday, 24 January, 2022

Culture As Construct Of National Identity

Culture As Construct Of National Identity

Dev Raj Dahal   

Everyday life of human beings is governed by their cultural codes -- cognition, values, beliefs, habits, tools and a set of institutions -- that are passed from generation to generation. Culture, largely derived from history, religion, legal system and language, is the soul of a nation. Its canon awakens people to a flow of consciousness and provides a reference for judgment about self and others. It is a source of national memory, stock of knowledge and civic forms of behaviour which emancipates citizens from the state of nature. History is a great inventory of knowledge and constant learning of its lessons is the basis of freedom. A nation’s past tells some clues about its future. Nepal’s ancient value system stressing on the cultural mission of atma gyan (self-knowledge) began with the Vedic phase, acquired maturity during the reign of King Janak and refined with the discursive practices of Gautam Buddha.

Knowing self and acknowledging other humans and species beings like oneself upon whom humans survive provided the basis of culture of peaceful coexistence.  It is an interlinked way of life, a life on how one has the necessity to live by means of inclusive life-chances for all. Culture is thus a potent standard in which Nepalis have shaped their intellectual, moral and national identity. The founder of modern Nepal Prithvi Narayan Shah accepted social and cultural pluralism for nation building upholding an image of a “mosaic,” where people of “four castes and thirty-six colours” of different sizes found resonance in Nepali frame.  Each group recognises the roles of the other. Ranas were worried about external threat and, therefore, favoured state building. They nevertheless tolerated the multicultural universe of the nation, not the “melting pot” metaphor of cultural homogenisation though their rituals favoured Sanskritisation processes.

Even the Panchayat demonstrated the beauty of multicultural panorama of the nation in national days but was cautious enough that sub-cultural identities of people do not overwhelm the national identity of Nepali. It has opted for linguistic nationalism- Nepalisation through educational policies to moderate the ferocity of soulless ideologies. The ideals of Hinduism and countless cults linked Nepal’s mountainous people with Terai and Buddhism linked hill to Himalayan people. The synthesis of Nepal’s worldview and history of national independence are derived from the resilience of cultural heterogeneity and free-spirit of Nepalis. Now, the devotees of postmodernism seek to emulate “rainbow” nation where national citizenship is hyphenated such as Khas-Nepali, Madhesi-Nepali, Tharu-Nepali, Kiranti-Nepali, etc. group identity without knowing the historical and cultural context of its nation building.

Subsidiary identity
Subsidiary identity politics is marked by a politics of difference. It downplays the commonalities among the people as a basis of national identity. Maximisation of one group’s gain by squeezing the other stokes zero-sum mentality, subverts a common ground for national reconciliation in the middle path and poses difficulty in the optimisation of multiple identifications of Nepalis into a national identity. Each political movement in Nepal, animated by democratic ideals, sought to devalue its immediate pre-history, the irreparable past, considering that it has less democratic political culture and devastated its political and legal infrastructure while unable to create better, functional ones. This is the source of political instability in the nation. The democratic change of 1990 has provided Nepalis, their political parties and civil society new forms of political expression and offered the possibility to engage in new conversation with diverse societies.

Despite dialectical compromise, Nepali leadership has adopted two contradictory policies: popular sovereignty and neo-liberal globalisation. The latter undermined the former’s power of legislation of law and public policies. In the process, it has also devalued the state as a political frame for the praxis of democracy and its ability to resolve cultural, social and political contradictions. Globalisation of labour, capital, ideas, laws and policies has, however, eroded the writ of Nepal state to protect its culture, human rights, democracy, social justice and peace. It has also constrained the transformation of the pre-political cultural notion of an unequal nation to the political concept of Nepali state based on the equality of citizens—equality of rights, duties, freedoms and opportunities. As a result, Nepali media often question the competence of leaders to settle inter and intra-party and societal issues, build national consensus over the range of domestic and foreign policy challenges and achieve stable governance.

German Philosopher Juergen Habermas says, “The culture industry and mass media count as the most visible instruments of social control while science and technology appear as the chief source of an instrumental rationality that penetrate all of society.” Both have exposed a chasm between national tradition, constitutional norms and empirical facts. The onset of the secular, federal and democratic republic form of democracy in 2015, however, gave continuity to neo-liberal globalisation inducing cultural homogenisation. Weary of losing privileges, Nepali political parties and policy community have, however, constitutionally articulated differentiated citizens on the basis of gender, ethnicity, caste cluster, indigenous origin, territory and social backwardness, configuration of parallel national commissions to enforce group-specific rights, formation of social identity based auxiliary bodies in political parties, separate budget allocation to many identity groups, etc.

They continue to weaken the concept of civic national identity rooted in common citizenship rights and duties. The group-inclusive identification and solidarity have given impetus to parochialism and multi-polarised the unified national context along racial, geographical, party and social class lines. The construction of constitutional tradition of politics is supposed to evolve a sense of belonging to Nepali state, loyalty to it, build a political culture of national solidarity and collective identity of Nepaliness beyond the frame of stereotypes and prejudices to the Other.  

Democracy requires civic identity formation. It is the functions of acculturation and manifest political socialisation processes about one’s own legal tradition, spiritualism and mode and message of communication about national survival, identity and status. The current leadership tendency of renouncing loyalty to one’s own sanity of tradition and ethical life of social emancipation through dharma-based conduct in the name of legalism of modernity and appropriation of materialism, positivism and post-modernism only uprooted cultural awareness of  what Nepal is and how it maintained its sovereignty. Some political parties unable to adjust to Nepal’s syncretic culture sought to apply biological and ideological tools to deconstruct culture and decentre cultural frame to expand their political constituency through unending stratification of Nepali society.

Their dual predispositions have made an assault on the spirit of Nepaliness. First, replacement of its dharma-governed ethical life defined by Muluki Ain (civil code) and spiritual codes by legal logic and Common Law rationality; and second, historical amnesia of social scientists and nihilist tendency of ideological leaders considering the culture as a source of the nation’s backwardness to be transformed or abolished. Both tendencies sought to fit Nepalis in their disciplinary and ideological imperatives of controlling society beyond an unreflecting frame of mind. Nepal’s justice system is now in an anomic phase and both legal experts and judges find in agitation, not in social learning from its historical wisdom, public morality and scholarship for reforms. Amnesia about the nation’s dharma-based legal tradition marked an atrophy of justice in the nation. If justice is ruled by legal logic or majority opinion the utility of human spirit, will or free choice has no meaning.

The laws of the land seems a full departure from the “law of people” as people affirm the nation’s popular saying “only the God knows Nepali laws.” Even the legal experts make conflicting interpretations of justice lacking the full idea of constitutionality. It is a gross loss of the enlightenment of the Nepali public on legal matters. To be sure, popular sovereignty as a source of law embedded in the Constitution of Nepal amounts to nothing if justice is not decided by the merit of the issue and ethical and constitutional spirit, but by partisan interpretation, rationality and interest-bound collective bargaining between the lawyers and the judges. Nepali post-modernists criticize the influence of the dominant legal culture of the nation, not the colonising effects of global laws, its discourse, communication and dispute mitigation on the basis of evidence which majority of people do not know and become victims of unfamiliar legal pedantry.

This is a clear deviation from Nepali virtues that enabled to build national identity and solidarity espousing innate spiritual norms, values, needs and process of understanding, not like the material interests now.  The primacy of private experts, consultants and middlemen, not public intellectuals marks a question on the bases of Nepali “people,” formed by common cultural background, Muluki Ain, history of national independence and freedom, despite a variety of linguistic traditions of communication until Nepali language served as lingua franca, a medium of national communicative space across 123 linguistic and 125 caste and ethnic groups.

Poets, essayists, artists, signers and historians carried the spirit of people grounded in freedom, not grovelling to patriarchy, hierarchy, fatalism and feudalism. As they based their feelings on patriotism it helped to define their loyalty to the cultural concept of matribhumi (motherland). The cultural spirit of people was tolerant in treating guests, strangers and asylum seekers. Syncretic form of cultural cohesion and linguistic nationalism prompted great poet Laxmi Prasad Devkota to claim “we are citizens of the world.” Social scientists, by contrast, are so deeply entrenched in the theories and culture of their origin that their outcomes are of interest to only their producers, not Nepalis.

Application of unmediated knowledge in education, politics, laws and public policies is the source of de-culturation and social division. This is precisely the expression of revulsion to natives Nepali scholar Bal Krishna Sam said, “Patriotism does not die even if the nation is feeble.” Two factors are, however, deeply estranging Nepali elites from their culture: First, injection of self-conscious, rights-oriented, interest-based and careerist awareness. It is alienating them from their family, culture, religion, community and the state, turned them mobile to catch globalisation speed, without any reference point and desolidarising themselves with the natives.

Second, the birth of network-oriented nature of political parties, family-based trade and commerce and projectised web of communication and civil society all decreasing the capacity of democracy to deliver public good and maintain autonomy from interest groups.

This is why Nepal’s multi-level governance is trapped in incompetence and failed to hone a new bond of national belonging based on native political culture of duties and responsibilities. Money has deformed both culture and politics turning democracy less adaptable to the spirit of constitutionalism. Constitutional patriotism, in this sense, can foster civic identity of Nepalis and social cohesion.

Linguistic geography
Nepalis living outside the state identify themselves with Nepali language. This shows that linguistic geography of Nepal is much larger than the border of national territories. Public intellectuals, civil society, media and educational institutions as cultural industries should try to engage Nepalis with the world cultures to enrich themselves attuned to the zeitgeist and arrest the drift of the centrifugal forces of society triggered by the pre-modern and postmodern solidarity groups based on biology. They are drifting Nepali politics not to the centripetality of syncretic culture that united this nation and contributed to self-governing cultural associations. Connecting the diverse society of Nepal through civic virtues is less suffocating even for the engagement of micro minorities.

Decisions based on either ideology or biology is less binding to citizens as it transcends the state-sanctioned constitutional and institutional order legitimised by elections, public opinion, cultural norms, genealogy of tradition and civic forms of behaviour that emancipates leaders and citizens from the state of nature. Welfare state of Nepal is endowed with the authority to intervene in fulfilling the constitutional and human rights of citizens including preservation of their culture which frees the national life from the fetters of a savage struggle at all levels of society. 

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