Saturday, 12 January 2013

Afraid of people

Since the dissolution of Constituent Assembly (CA), identity has emerged as a critical issue in the Nepali political discourse. The media, political meetings and social networks like Facebook, twitter are flooded with views identity politics. It is praiseworthy that people have started critical discussions on identity issues. However, these discourses also reflect one disturbing ideology—us v them—leading to the polarisation of society and politics in terms of ethnicity. As we see, historically marginalised communities, especially Janajatis, are interpreting identity from the socio-historical perspective while the mainstream political parties are reducing this issue to a narrow sense of ethnicity. 
One consequence of this polarisation is ethnophobia as seen currently in sections of our society. At face value, ethnophobia refers to the irrational hatred of others in terms of their personal backgrounds like caste and ethnicity, religion, nationality, language, social class and gender. In a broader sense it refers to the illogical discomfort and fear of people. However, different types of ethnophobia are not separable because personal backgrounds are concrete manifestations of people. Let me exemplify these ethnophobias with some remarks I collected from different social media. Being a member of many social media groups, I often see an interesting dohori among people on the issue of identity, federalism, language and ethnicity. One group in the dohori is composed of Janajatis while another group represents the high-caste non-Janajatis.

Words and phrases like “anapadh ra murkha Janajatis” (uneducated and stupid Janajatis), “pakhe” (uncivilised), and “sankuchit sochaka manche” (narrow-minded people) are often used to address the Janajatis while terms like “janaibadi” (wearer of the holy cord), “saranarthi” (refugees), and “jali” (dishonest) are some examples of the words and phrases that Janajatis use the other way around. Although these words and phrases cannot be essentially linked with any caste and ethnicity, it is apparent that Facebook users are highly influenced by the type of language being used by our leaders who unknowingly seem to ignore the unsettled identity discourse now. For example, a member in a Facebook group reacted: “ekkaisau satabdi ma pani jatjati ko kura garne” (Are you talking about ethnicity in the 21st century?), when one Janajati person wanted to know why political parties are not able to forge consensus on the identity issue. Accordingly, in response to his question, many Janajatis commented about the non-Janajati as being “ekatmakbadi” (unitarist), “Hindu-atibadi” (pro-Hindu extremist), and “bhrastachari” (corrupt).
We see that such discourses reflect ingrained socio-political ideologies dominating the current Nepali society and politics. If we analyse the political discourses one clear theme emerges: while the Janajatis are considered “jatiyatabadis” (ethnocentrists) just because they are raising identity issues, high-caste people are described as “sanghiyata birodhi” (anti-federalist), anti-Janajatis and “pahichan birodhi” (anti identity). Both views are at once true and false. 

It is not true that all high-caste people are anti-federalists, anti-Janajatis and pro-Hindu extremists. Critical writers have eloquently argued that political parties’ inability to build a consensus on identity issues, as demanded mainly by the Janajati leaders, stems from the pro-Hindu and mon-oethnic, hegemonic mindset—the reluctance to accept multiculturalism, multilingual and multi-ethnicity as the country’s identity. But what is true is that the way identity is interpreted (by the mainstream political parties and their leaders as well as some extremist Janajatis) as synonymous to ethnicity and vice versa is traditionally a racist interpretation. 

Reducing identity to an ethnic agenda reflects not only a lack of our leaders’ understanding about what identity means and how it operates in different spaces, places, time and scales, but also their unwillingness to listen to the people’s voices and unravel what makes identity salient in the country’s changed political context. Rather, our leaders are more entangled with essentialist ideas that see the world as a dichotomous objective entity as seen in the Facebook conversations mentioned above. Interpreting that raising the issue of identity will lead to ethnic cleansing, civil war, and national disintegration, as seen in our leaders’ public remarks, is rather naive, illogical and ideologically reductionist. It reflects nothing short of political schizophrenia. The way Janajatis are not able to make people understand what identity means for them and how it ensures the co-construction of ethnic lived spaces clear is another factor leading to the polarisation of the whole society. One way to understand this complexity is to look at how identity intersects with other factors like history, class, language, culture, place and social exclusion. However, in absence of serious scholarly and political debates on the complexity of politics-identity-ethnicity nexus for state restructuring, the fissure between high-caste people and Janajatis is increasing at the ideological level, if not at the lived level. 

The Facebook conversations further show that the way people comment on each other’s posts is determined by their surnames. Even if issues are genuine, certain people do not like them just because they are not raised by a person from their own caste or ethnicity. We see that social discourses are dominated by superficial ethnic talks while genuine socio-political agendas that ethnicity and caste carry in the historical and socio-cultural context of Nepal are sidelined. Such escapism reflects the dwindling civic and political culture of our society. Critiquing someone’s value and ideology in terms of his or her caste and ethnicity is racist. Such ideological fragility is the main factor behind our leaders’ inability to agree on national political issues. They are afraid of each other’s backgrounds and as a result, they are afraid of people.