Saturday, February 24, 2007

Restructuring the Nepali state

-Ameet dhakal

Those of us who were busy parroting the cliché of "New Nepal", still intoxicated by the euphoria of the April Movement, were given a rude awakening by the Madhesi Movement in the third week of January. But for a good reason.

It reminded us of the enormity of the challenge of nation building. The Movement has touched our nerves, and let's hope we have realized how costly complacency can be. Hope we have also understood that tough negotiations, a seemingly unattainable balancing act, and hard work await us ahead.

Explosion of Madhesi rage for identity and dignity was overdue. Whether we - especially the people of hill origin - like it or not, it's a fact that Madhesis were denied their rightful place and respect in the Nepali state and society.
It goes without saying that the Nepali state has remained exclusionary. But for Madhesis, it was even more basic than that: It was about the very identity of being a Nepali.

The Nepali identity cultivated by the Panchayat system was both exclusionary and humiliating for the Madhesi. Though never stated in a formal way, Nepali identity was constructed around three distinct features: Fairer skin color; ability to speak Nepali fluently; and cultural orientation that fairly conforms to hill culture. Madhesis lacked all three, thus, their "Nepaliness" was suspect.

Many of those Madhesis who came to Kathmandu for education or work were "Indians" in the eyes of many Kathmanduites and people who had descended to Kathmandu from the hills but had never seen that Nepalis existed as well in the Southern Plains of the country.

Even those who saw that Madhesh existed in the map of Nepal and that not all the people in Madhesh conformed to the Nepali identity constructed during the Panchyat era also harbored deep suspicions that many of these people could indeed be from India. Such suspicions were so deeply embedded in the minds of bureaucrats of hill origin that they denied many Madhesis their rightful claim to citizenship. In this sense, the problem of the Madhesi people is uniquely different from that of Janajaatis and Dalits. Like Madhesis, they are also excluded from the state, but unlike Madhesis their "Nepaliness" is never questioned.

Problem of social exclusion Broadly speaking, the problem of social exclusion in Nepal has two dimensions. First, people from minority groups feel that their cultural, religious and linguistic rights are not protected and promoted by the state. In some cases they even feel that they are discriminated vis-à-vis their culture, religion and language, among other things. And many such complaints are well founded.

For instance, Khas-Nepali (the language of hill Brahmans and Chettris) has remained the official language of the nation. During Panchaayat times, the entrance exams for officers in the civil service used to have one paper on Nepali language, which acted as a major obstacle for competitors whose mother tongue was other than Nepali.

Every country has one or more official languages for a practical propose. So it is not uniquely a Nepali thing to have an official language but we should also acknowledge that in a country with over 60 active local dialects, the special treatment reserved for one language is in itself a form of discrimination.
Overt or subtle it may be, but discrimination does exist in religious and cultural spheres as well. Till recently such discrimination was institutionalized by the constitution itself. The 1990 constitution defined Nepal as a Hindu state. Such a declaration has cultural ramifications. When the state is declared Hindu and the ruling elites subscribe to the state religion, state mechanisms begin to promote that particular religion, thereby discriminating against other religions. For instance, on a New Moon day Hindus generally don't eat meat. As a result, on that day, goat slaughter and selling of the meat is prohibited in Nepal. Local administrations punish those who violate this unwritten code. This means people from other religions also cannot eat goat on a New Moon day, which amounts to a case of imposing one's religion or cultural practice on others.
Exclusion from state organsExclusion of Madhesis, Janajaatis and Dalits from the state apparatus is an even more serious issue in Nepal. However, when we talk about exclusion, we should also not forget that many so called high-caste families have likewise remained excluded from the state for generations. Since Nepal has remained a feudal society, this exclusion is both caste-based and class-based. But this reality cannot overshadow the other reality that Madhesis, Janajatis and Dalits remain the most excluded from the state apparatus. This exclusion is severe in the administration, the judiciary and even politics.
For instance, according to Govinda Neupane's Nepal Ko Jatiya Prasna, 2001, out of 235 judges in Nepal's judicial system, 181 were Bahun/Chhetri, 32 were Newars, 18 were Madhesis and 4 Janajatis. There was not a single judge from among the Dalits! Similarly, of the 245 heads of public administration, 190 were Bahun/Chherti, 43 were Newars, 3 were Janajatis, 9 Madhesis and again none from the Dalits.

The Integrated Index of Governance prepared by Neupane, taking into account the representation in 12 key public and private sectors, shows that Bahun/Chhetris have a 66.5 percent share in the index though their combined population is only 31.6 percent.

Likewise the share of Newars, Janajatis, Madhesis and Dalits is 15.2, 7.1, 11.2 and 0.3 percent and their population percentage is 5.6, 22.2, 30.9, and 7.8 respectively. (The 2001 census result shows a significant variation in the population composition, which is not taken into account here, to facilitate comparison based on older data).

Challenges aheadThe future challenges in restructuring the state are threefold. 1. Secularization of the state 2. Making the state inclusive, and 3. Recognizing identity and fostering belongingness to the Nepali nation.
Secularization of the state

The interim constitution has declared Nepal a secular state. But undoing Hinduism's place in the state takes time and persistent effort. I am using the term "secularization of the state" in a much broader sense and it encompasses culture and language besides religion. The state becomes secular in a real sense when it does not discriminate between one religion and another, one culture and another and one language and another (except for a practical reason, for instance, accepting one language as the official language).

Making the state inclusive

Exclusion has remained in Nepal for too long and is too deep. And perhaps it could also be one of the most complicated issues to be addressed. This is because exclusion is real not only for certain castes and ethnic groups; instead, it cuts across caste and ethnicity. As Nepal has remained a feudal society since centuries only a handful of families with links and connections to the power elites have benefited from state largesse. Be it during the 104-year Rana oligarchy or the king's absolute rule for 30 years during the Panchaayat system, the ruling elites protected and expanded their vested interests through favoritism.

Those who had connections with the ruling elites or were able to establish connections with them prospered while the majority of the populace floundered in poverty. Mostly it's the Bahun/Chettris who benefited from the largesse of the Shahs and Ranas as they were close to the ruling elites since the very founding of the Nepali state some 240 years ago. But there are also a handful of beneficiaries from various ethnic groups who were used by the rulers as window dressing. From Hira Lal Bishowkarma to Narendra Prasad Choudhary to Parsu Ram Rai to Ranadhir Subba all are examples of such window-dressing. Even the late Harka Gurung, one of the finest scholars and social scientists Nepal has ever produced, was used by the ruling establishment during Panchayat times.
The majority of families in Nepal, across the caste and ethnic divide, are not only poor but have never had a single member in the bureaucracy, judiciary or any other state organ. These are the people who have remained truly excluded from the state apparatus and the real challenge that the Nepali state faces in future is how to increase their participation. Inclusiveness will require some affirmative action but designing such action along caste and ethnic lines alone will institutionalize another form of injustice, against the 600,000 so called high-caste families (Bahun/Chhetris) who are below the poverty line and have never been represented in state organs in generations.
But again not opting for affirmative action would mean continuation of historical gross injustices that currently exist in the country. To sum it up, the real challenge that lies ahead is how to strike a balance between caste and class while designing affirmative action. Recognizing identity and fostering belongingness to the Nepali nation.

The Madhesi movement was for recognition of their identity as equal Nepali citizens as much as it was for fair representation in the state organs. No longer can a centralized and unitary Nepali state represent and promote the identity of Nepal's diverse ethnic groups. Nor do these groups identify themselves with the unitary state. Nepal, therefore, has no option but to opt for federalism. But what type of federation we want to embrace is a big question, so is the basis on which such a federation will be constituted. Many models - ranging from a federation based on geography to consociation of various ethnic groups - have been suggested by different scholars, social advocacy groups and political parties. Since questions of the right model will have to be addressed democratically, the process will be again a key issue. The main challenge, therefore, will be to reach an agreement on the process through which we, Nepalis, will settle the critical issue of restructuring the state.

Valentine's Day In Shakespeare's Love Equinox: The Birds And The Bees

Edwin A. Sumcad
February 14, 2007

It only happens in the world of literature. In love, Shakespeare defied Nature’s law by creating his own Vernal Equinox.
Vernal Equinox is “… the first day of the spring season … of the year when the Sun crosses the celestial equator moving northward …” [1] let’s stop here before we reach the edge and fall over the cliff of cosmic science. Here we are talking about love with a spice of literary novelty that knocks at the door of literature which my rusty hand is trying to open.

We are not talking about the Galaxy or about the theory of relativity. We are talking about the birds and the bees in springtime … in Valentine’s Day, if you are Shakespearean. It’s not about Einstein. It’s about Shakespeare. So let’s drop our anchor here before we proceed.
Recalling the rainbow years of my literary days when the sun was shining over the study of Victorian literature as bright as if not brighter than it shines today, it is clear to me that it was Shakespeare who alluded to the 14th day of February as the day sacred to St. Valentine when birds “begin to couple”.
American lexicographer Noah Webster had this lexicon written in stone. [Tryon Edwards, The New Dictionary of Thoughts, Grosset & Dunlap, New York.
It is about six days immediately prior to the 14th day of February [2] that letter carriers bend their back carrying bags of letters and tons of Valentine Cards – approximately half of the total one billion pieces annually -- that profess a lot of love and care for someone dear. [3] This great volume of affectionate cards is second only to an avalanche of Christmas cards that inundates the post office during Yuletide Season.

On top of it, flowers bloom in the heart of lovers – someone’s lover or a lover of someone – and with chocolates and a truckload of gifts, sweep loved ones off their feet!

But let’s say it in a Shakespearean way: It is the time when the birds and the bees start “to couple” – got it?

The preservation of the human specie is no different from the way the birds and the bees preserve their own. As engine of procreation, love works overtime, mostly at night when human couples are too busy working during the day to give each other the required attention, just as bats sleep during the day and works overtime only when the sun is down.

Efficiency-wise, it reminds us of road construction workers who do their thing most cost-effectively from midnight to the first ray of dawn when the flow of traffic is kinder, and roadwork can be done with less obstruction and minimal detractions. On the road, they put the “detour” arrow sign that points “this way”, or “that way to …” In hotel rooms, you don’t knock at the door when you see the “don’t disturb” sign hanging on the doorknob.

Shakespeare would most probably jolt you out of your forty winks. With those peculiar squinted eyes and plaintive smile, Shakespeare would most likely snap: “Don’t knock, it’s occupied. Dig?” That’s because motel rooms are actually “restrooms”. It’s private.

It has been said that Shakespeare’s disciples in the literary world would probe nonchalantly those whose mind snores when attempting to tackle Shakespeare as Shakespeare. In the audience, attention span is normally from narrow to zero. In lectures, there is that irresistible urge to rudely wake them up. I thought of a handy bucketful of ice water that should do the trick.
The sad truth is, high heeled intellectual pretenders would pay handsomely to get to the arts theater to see and attempt to digest and appreciate Shakespeare only for you to see them snore on their seats with their eyes open. The moment you are out of the theater, you cannot talk about the play to a bunch of somnambulists whose minds are blank, and you feel offended when they roll their eyeballs upward because you were trying to strike a conversation which to them was something mentally past midnight.

To me Shakespeare’s emotional tragedy on the stage has also a much more awkward tragedy in the wrong audience

Littérateur extraordinaire, Shakespeare would say in a thousand different words what you think and what I think about the birds and the bees on Valentine’s Day when they “couple”.

The most important point to consider if you want to know more about Shakespeare is that this literary genius may be fiercely dogmatic and brutal in treating the characters of his literary creations -- he stabbed them, choked them, poisoned them, or crowned them with laurels in the throne of success or nailed them down on the cross of failure with unimaginable cruelty like how he exploited the weakness and meanness of man in Macbeth when he wrote about tragic love, trust and treachery with such intellectual aggression and emotional pull, but he was never street-like vulgar, indecently loutish, and has neither been obscene nor has ever been morally compromising with unleashed passion when he wrote his heart out in Romeo and Juliet .

Shakespeare’s natural state of the art skill to obscure the lewd and the obscene [it is not actually what you read or there is more to it than what the words say] when he uses the quill and the ink to good advantage, convinced me that William Shakespeare is one of the smartest brains any investigating scholarly artist may yet discover in the evolving old literary scriptures, and even in the nebulous storybook of modern literature. Trust me for, with conviction, I say this where my mouth, bread and butter have been some years back.

While the legendary fountain has the elixir of youth, springtime has the elixir of love. Yet to Shakespeare it is not in spring but in Valentine’s Day -- just about right in the reclining acme of winter -- that Cupid shoots his arrow and hits the heart and explodes it with infectious love wildly spreading all over the world.
It simply means that Valentine season is when we start to talk about humans, the birds and the bees that “couple”, whereas springtime is about flowers that bloom, which is a strong invitation to romance. It is the Ying and Yang of time when the male pursues the female and vice versa as if it is a natural law only to be obeyed by the living in the animal kingdom.

No one can defy this natural law or go against its powerful command without the specie’s self-destruction [my other self-part in economics established this indomitable finding, i.,e., because of defiance, the progression curve of increase or expansion hits zero and crosses down the negative horizontal axis of the tracking graph]; it is so naturally designed with faultless infinite wisdom that its natural course is like that of the river that only flows downstream, never upstream. Yet, there is a pleasant surprise behind all these.

In literary art as it is in economics, only Shakespeare could make this defiance work with positive results, even turning it into more attractively romantic. At least in the United States and the rest of the northern hemisphere, spring does not arrive until March. If we look at the Gregorian calendar, the first day of spring does not come until in-between March 20th-21st of the year, otherwise known as the arrival of the Vernal Equinox. [Refer to Note (1)] For love, Shakespeare made February the first month of spring.

In springtime, the day is much longer, giving soul-mate seekers ample time for flirting and courting; there is also much more time for the birds and the bees to enjoy life as “couples” loving each other one at a time.
What is happening in spring that makes one feels heavenly attracted to the opposite sex? From the spirit of gardening, Willa Cather has this to say of springtime that seduces the lovestruck:
“The air and the earth interpenetrated in the warm gusts of spring; the soil was full of sunlight, and the sunlight full of red dust. The air one breathes is saturated with earthy smells, and the grass under foot has a reflection of the blue sky.” [4] Pregnant with possibilities, the earth is there lying naked under the sun, only waiting for someone to touch, this I might add.

But like the river parable, Shakespeare moved springtime upstream -- from March upward to earlier February -- thus breaking the law of the Vernal Equinox. For posterity, American lexicographer Noah Webster recorded Shakespeare’s defiance of Nature’s prescribed law. After all, the literary guru could not be wrong on February the 14th as real love’s dateline ex cathedra. St. Valentine was there to back him up.

It then goes without saying that in love, Shakespeare created his own Equinox. And that’s how powerful the Shakespearean Equinox has become to this day, especially on Valentine’s Day.#
© Copyright Edwin A. Sumcad. Access February 13, 2007