Different cultures have long coexisted in Nepal and yet they have rarely mingled. That is why it is difficult to speak of a singular ‘Nepali’ culture. True, boundaries have been erased, but not by that much. For most people in this country, their ethnic identities still remain
very important, perhaps more so than their national identities.
If they weren’t, as one Nepali political scientist has suggested, we would long ago have had a single ‘Nepali’ caste. The fact that Nepal is as heterogeneous as it is suggests that ethnic and linguistic identity has not, and will not, easily be dissolved. It is not such an easy matter as some might think to create a single ‘national’ community. Many ethnic and linguistic groups prefer to hold on to their ways of life rather than be assimilated with the mainstream culture. Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, people like to mark their differences as much as their similarities.
In culturally diverse Nepal, different communities have always rather doggedly protected their own ways of life. Even as a ‘national’ language and religion were foisted on the country, groups kept alive their own languages and religious customs, often ‘integrating’ only in part. Integration has many different aspects to it – it covers everything from giving up one’s language in favor of a ‘national’ one to complete intermarriage between communities. The former may be easier to do, at least for a little while, but it will be very hard to bring the latter about. Even more liberal communities frown on intercommunity marriages.
It would be instructive to consider how other similarly diverse countries have attempted to make sense of the issue. In many countries, a dominant ‘nationalist’ narrative often imposes itself on the country at the expense of other ‘sub-national’ narratives. To a smaller or larger degree, this happens probably in every country in the world. There will always be one group that is more powerful and more influential than others and wittingly or not, its’ culture may come to become the defining one.
In countries with a stronger tradition of imposing the dominant national narrative on others, the backlash can be stronger still. Take Spain. It has long been associated with bullfighting and flamenco musicians. Francisco Franco, the former dictator of Spain, was very concerned to ‘unify’ his country by means of a common culture. During his years in power, he promoted rather heavily the traditions of flamenco and bullfighting, hoping that they would help cement a national identity. At the same time, he tried to marginalize the traditions of other regions. Yet many of these regions of Spain have their own cultures and traditions, some quite different from that of the mainstream. In Galicia, a northwest Spanish province, it is the bagpipe and not the flamenco guitar that has traditionally been the most popular musical instrument. The practice of bullfighting too, is virtually nonexistent in this province. Ironically enough, Franco was a Galician.
The province of Catalonia is another one where residents say they have a culture that is often different from that of the mainstream Castilian one. They had voted in 2010 to ban the practice of bullfighting within its borders, not it is thought, because of pressures brought about by animal rights activists but because they wanted to assert their independence. Yet, only a few years ago, in 2004, residents of Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia had gathered in massive numbers to show their solidarity with the residents of Madrid. Then they acted as Spaniards. In 2010, when they voted against bullfighting in their province, and came out in huge numbers to protest the decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court to deny them more autonomy, they acted as Catalans. Today, the idea that people have multiple identities which they can express freely without one impinging on the other is taken as axiomatic. It is taken as a given that national identity is in no way compromised by having a strong identification with religion, language or other aspects of culture. Unless a particular community acts in a way that specifically goes against national aims or values, these acts should not be seen as ‘harming’ the nation.
The nation-state is a relatively young phenomenon in world politics. The idea is generally thought to have emerged out of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. That brought about an end to the Catholic Church’s powers over European states. It also brought about an end to religiously motivated intervention by one state on another. Henceforth, the state would be sovereign over its own determined territory. But what was this territory? It was everything that had been conquered by the dominant nationality.
The same thing can be seen here. A particular culture has come to be thought of as being the ‘national’ one but that is not really the case. As ‘sub-nationalities’ (here in Nepal called ethnic groups) have begun to assert their own identities, it
is being made increasingly clear that the older logic
will not hold. Nepal is, like Spain, a nation of nations. Any attempt to try dissolve the ‘sub-nations’ to try
to create a ‘national’ identity will not work. Better to
create a national identity that is complementary with the aspirations of ‘sub-nationalities’.