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Nepal : Nation-State and Masculinity


November Print Issue


Nepal passed a new constitution on 20 September 2015, which was followed by protests and violence. The protests are led by Madhesis, an ethnic group in the plains of Nepal. The core of these protests lies in the interjection of solutions pertaining to centuries of exclusion and centralisation of power.

The debate of balancing these core problems, has overpowered the celebration of birth. The birth to strengthen democratic nucleus, the constitution, and has caused death of more than 40 citizens in the process.

The protests has also resulted in blockade near Indo-Nepal border, causing outcry for the essential services and rationing as Indian Oil corporation has monopoly for fuel in the land-locked state. Nepal’s government has blamed it as a retaliation by India for the new constitution. Nepal has also signed an agreement with China to open borders, and hundreds of trucks have arrived carrying dragon oil through Tibet. There is also realisation that it is not feasible to import from China as it is costly, and Nepal is still looking south but with the face of masculine aggression embedded in the concept of sovereign nation-state.

The government is holding a series of discussion with protesting groups and promising to move amendment to include voices of marginalised group and at the same it is also blaming Indian government again and again for the blockade. The Indian government has shrugged off the responsibility of the blockade and has blamed Nepalese citizen for violence to the Indian transporters and has insisted Nepalese government to include the voices of all the section of their society in the constitution. The bone of contention remains : the rights and special provisions for ethnic minorities, including the Madhesis, in the constitution.

In 1949 the Nepali Congress (NC), in its fight against the Rana autocracy, demanded a Constitution which was supported by India during its active involvement in ending the Rana system and initiating democratisation of Nepal in 1951. After the fall of the two century old monarchy in 2006, with this constitution the federalism debate has continued, and intensified when the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum, a party from the oppressed southern region, burned the document in protest in 2007.

The social fabric of the society comprising of dalits, ethnic groups, women, and other underprivileged groups have always been fragile with state centralisation coupled with the exclusion. This has also triggered Maoist insurgency in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The NC and UML combination came to power in the second Constituent Assembly in 2013. In a house of 600, the NC emerged as the strongest party with 196 seats, the UML secured 175 positions, leaving the Maoists a poor third with only 80 seats. The discussion of federalism had kept the assembly out of order until April’s devastating earthquake. The absence of state machinery and the poor response to the disaster somehow acted as a driving force to re-initiate the formation of constitution. The Maoists and the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum were included in the discussion after the long status quo by the NC and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML).

The identity based federalism demarcation was feared by the leadership which can challenge the dominance of traditional power groups. This is also because the southern province which has Madhesis as majority share the national boundary with India and a relationship which penetrates into the basic unit of a state, the family.

The penetration into family comes with long shared sovereign boundary. Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have ties with the Madhesis. Their darker complexion makes them inferior to the relatively fairer and traditionally powerful Brahmins and Chhetris. In Nepali language they are also called dhoti, which is a derogatory word. The State had used Malaria outcry in the hills causing influx of Pahris in Plains and restricted Madhesis in joining the security forces.

The land appropriation through transfer of land ownership since the time of Gorkha rulers from the indigenous people to the state, monarchs and higher caste in different forms has also resulted in the marginilization of groups like Madhesis. This was accelerated with international aid and land reform propagated in various name. Even land acquired for national park and implementation of MDGs displaced Madhesis and indigenous community and kept on subverting the identity, which was connected to the land. And this affected their preservation of language, culture, livelihood, as the space which held it together shifted to capital gains by elites.

Constitution and Disagreement

The debate over federalism has led to an agreement reaching a 16-point framework outlined in the draft of constitution with controversial proposals regarding fundamental rights and women’s citizenship. Apart from devolution of power, there is little emphasis on empowerment of local communities. The NC and the UML did not go for broad national consensus, as was followed by the Maoists which faced a huge defeat in 2013 elections. The two-third strength of majority in the house led the coalition to go directly for the voting through division.

The power sharing proposal with taking Maoist on board came after making of the constitution, with which label of inclusion will still not disturb the dominance of upper-caste hill groups. The NC and UML leadership were not even part of the genuine people’s movement (jan andolan II) and unlike Maoists were not propagating the idea of republican and inclusive constitution from the very beginning. The disapproval not only includes groups of the Madhes, Janjatis, and women but also monarchists, Hindu fundamentalists and extremist Maoists.

The core underlying intersection of the disapproval is the status quo of dominanace of upper hill castes. From Judiciary to bureaucracy, most of the state machinery already misrepresent Nepal in terms of diversity, with upper hill caste holding powerful position. Jan Jati group also oppose the reduction of the proportionate ¬representation in parliament from 58% under the interim constitution to 45% under the new Constitution.

The new constitution has different citizenship provisions, which do not give priority to the children born with a foreign national, but Madhesis because of their geography, often marry across the border. The new federal provinces also divides Madhesis in different provinces, not giving them majority in any, that can result in political inter-mingling, but reduction of power as a community to the national arena.

The question of citizenship also has its patriarchal nature because motherhood is not considered as the basis but fatherhood. It means that if a female marries a foreigner, their children will not get citizenship, which will affect Madhesis, as large number of people from their community upto 1-4 million, will become stateless, as they often marry across the border. But they have been assured of 33% representation in the central legislature and the post of either chief or deputy chief.

Away from the citizenship debate, there was demand for making Nepal a Hindu state and reinstating monarchy by obviously the monarchists and Hindu fundamentalists. There were reports of Hindutva sections of the ruling BJP in supporting them and asking Nepal government to remove secular from its constitution, and making cow as a national animal.

International and Indian Response

United Nation and India had only taken note of the constitution, while China and European Union had welcomed it. Even US ambassador congratulated the UML leader and the prime minister KP Oli, for the adoption of the constitution.The dominance of the hill upper caste does not appear to bother China, EU and USA keeping Janjatis and Madhesis stay away from political power.

Indian government which supported Jan Andolan-II movement in 2005-06 aiming at inclusion of the Madhesis in particular in constitution, is running out of option and in frustration took Nepal to the UN for crime against human rights. While when Srilanka commited genocide of tamils in its region, Indian government merely acted as spectator, may be because there was no dragon in the Indian ocean. Indian democracy has still not matured and there are still not enough representation of diverse groups in many state institutions. It will be childish on the Indian part to not celebrate the constitution and poke its nose publicly into the state affairs of Nepal.

The joint statement by French and Indian government for Nepal, issued was rebuked by Nepal’s Prime minister in its address to the nation, saying it is Nepal’s internal matter. Just before the statement was issued, number of Nepalese protestors had gathered in UK condemning PM Modi’s visit and alleged blockade by India in its border.

Indian diplomacy has failed to follow the internal dynamics of Nepali politics with delivering of conflicting messages. The khichdi of Hindutva and Madhesi concerns with spice of Monarchical preferences has resulted in a situation which is exploited by the anti-Indian constitutencies in Nepal.

Masculinity at the juncture of nation-state

Nepal has become a central point for the power struggle between US, EU, India on one side and China on the other. And these struggles have been polarizing the society in different ways, through unequal distribution of international aid for instance. Under the guise of Millenium development goals and land reforms the capital has already penetrated into the complex ethnic relationship, with donor agencies increasing the inequality of political and economic power backed by elite lobbying.

Federalism is not the ultimate solution to bridge the inequality but a step towards it. The federalism in divided societies of Nepal can turn marginalised national minorities like Madhesis into a local state majority. Absence of plural society in Nepal can backfire the fruits of federalism, ethnic federalism in this context, particularly if linguistic autonomy is not granted in each state.

The Lippmann-Dewy tension is also fuelled by the local media representation of news, which is highly centralised to Kathmandu shaping public opinion. The new media project and community radio in Nepal is helping in the decentralization process, but whenever the debate comes to the nation-state, the rhetoric of masculine nation state overpowers the rationality of the plight of its citizens.

In the time of consumerist modernity, the nation state masculinity stands at the juncture of new consumerist aspirations. The refashioning of masculine identities can be seen from the response of French government after Paris attack, from the general election campaigning of Modi’s government 56-inch chest and Nepalese coalition reaction to the power.

Tag of being irresponsible neighbour on India has been doing round since projection of its masculinity through the media in recent earthquake. Indian media was feeding the consumerist aspirations of the masculine nation hood, with praise of army and boasting the effort of Indian government, which was soon realised by the social media and #GoHomeIndianMedia was trending for a week, in twitter.

The silence of Indian government in the Rohingya Muslim’s pilight in Mynmar, Tamil Genocide in Srilanka and atrocities aganist Chakma’s and Hindus in Bangladesh, exposes its illusive and short-sighted policy.

Inspite of rational of supporting Madhesis in this unequal power equation, the government should respect the sovereignity and help in ending the blockade.

The social media in Nepal is full of hate message against India, it will lose the years of close trust with its neighbour, if present environment continues.

The environment is already created. To act tough without sense. To compete for the malehood and famine the feminity. The competition is for leading alone, not collaborating together.


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