Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, New Delhi, 1st April 2020. Multi ethnic societies are a complex structure at the primary stage of nation building. The greater challenge they face is to have a cohesive identity, as multiple actors often feel deprived of in a unilateral identity. Hence, the entire process of unified nation is fraught with challenges. Nepal, is a similar state that has seen its gradual transformation from a Monarchy to a Democratic structure of the Republic.
However, what is significant in this change is the increased tussle of certain groups that find themselves being marginalized. It is not just one community or a particular group that feel alienated, but there are multiple layers of groups and people that are divided over a period of time. This definitely is also accompanied by a large groups of women who remain at the backyard of all decision making processes, as is common among many countries of the world.
Nepal has been in the forefront of large-scale long term struggles to abolish all kinds of class struggles and exploitation. This meant a decade long civil war to realize that there is a need to build an independent state, which is self-reliant and self sufficient. Although, the dreams of actual realization remain far until today, yet Nepalese broke the barriers of a conservative society. There was a greater transition from a traditional society to a modern society, where many forms of individual freedom flourished. One could easily see variety of literature flourishing, popularity of pop music, discotheques, all day bars at every corner, casinos etc. To the extent that even former King Gyanendra Shah was seen dancing with his daughter Prerana and his daughter-in-law Himani Shah at a nightclub few months back.
Hence, on a broader lens, Nepalese society has become a very open and tolerant society. But the question remains as to what extend and how much tolerant ? Is it that Nepalese society is tolerant to certain specific kinds of acceptance and not completely intolerant? In specific, when we see the rise of nationalist forces in Nepal, it is inevitable to question what kind of nationalism does Nepal promote or accept ?
When I am talking of tolerance and intolerance, I am purely relating it to the social aspects of it and not dwelling into the political implications of it. I am also not referring to how there can be discord among political parties, which they are unable to mitigate due to ideological differences. However, what I mean in specific, is how people react to others’ thinking, way of life, believe, and faith. Does Nepal, a society that was known for accepting the Gypsy culture, moving towards rigidity of minds? Is there a rise of supra-nationalism that is closing the doors to outside ideas and perceptions. Is it that in Nepalese society, individuals’ right of free expression is curtailed by certain actors ? In particular, is it that the voices of certain sections and groups is suppressed ? Is it also that the mediums of open thinking is controlled by certain dominant actors, and hence a majority of the people are devoid to share the space of knowledge dissemination or lack tools of communication?
What is a Tolerant Society?
Giacomo Corneo and Olivier Jeanne in an article in 2007 titled “A Theory of Tolerance” stated, “Tolerance promotes peaceful coexistence between diverse groups and factors individual self-actualization. Conversely, intolerance hinders the manifestation of proclivities and talents and demands a heavy toll on those who dare to be different. Minorities enjoy a substantial degree of protection only in tolerant societies, and that protection strengthens democratic political rights.” In this rigid sense of tolerance, probably, Nepalese would identify themselves as tolerant societies, as they make laws to protect minority communities and allow different groups of people to coexist. The issue, however, is whether the society, not through any legal binding, allow everyone to be tolerant to the intolerant. This also relates to whether Nepal allows diverse opinions to be expressed in a free atmosphere?
Interestingly, as Nepal is increasingly becoming a very vibrant society with an active use of social media, multiple groups have emerged to raise individual concerns and thoughts in a free and open manner. Yet, the formal tools of communication have remained in the control of few. This includes the formal media groups that are dominantly controlled and run by certain elite structures of the society. During my visit to Nepal late last year, I was astonished to hear that even young educated people from Terai region lived in fear of freely expressing their opinions. The perception I was given is that in case their statements or ideas carry any political implication, then there are informal forces threatening and terrorizing them to restrict their speech. I was forced to think whether there is only a section of populace dominant or just few rowdy group of people able to make their space in the region?
Bernard Crick in his 1971 article “Toleration and Tolerance in Theory and Practice” states that “all societies accept to some degree, however small, some things, of which government, public opinion or tradition disapprove.” In that context, it is acceptable to be intolerant to certain things in a society. However, if we relate it to the degree of disapproval and degree of acceptance in Nepalese society, one finds amusing connection with the notion of Nation-state as an identity with the rise of ultra-nationalist forces in Nepal. This has led to multiple division of layers within which some things are acceptable to a certain degree; while others are strongly disapproved. Interestingly, this has also created a division of options of opinions based on pro-India and anti-India, which most of Terai people often face as and when they make statements or raise their voices.
Limitation of Knowledge Sharing
Tolerant societies are producer of ideas and knowledge. However, many of the traditional societies, even if they transcend to modern societies, find it hard to break the barrier of social structures, which can open the spaces for creative and innovative ideas. Nepal, in particular the Terai region, has still remained a socially traditional society, even though there are marked changes in the living style of the people in Terai. The life style changes has more to do with greater mobility of population traveling out of Nepal for various kinds of study and job related issues. We can easily find many Nepalese having education from India or China and many have a history of foreign travel.
In an ideal situation, foreign connections and travel should bring in greater ideas and knowledge back to the homeland. Yet, in Nepal, the social structure creates hindrances for these multiple ideas and knowledge to flourish, as the open space is not shared by everyone equally. Only a handful of those returning from abroad are absorbed in higher positions, and even lesser from Terai region have opportunities to rise to upper echelons. Therefore, the actual absorption of ideas and knowledge is a very limiting factor in Nepal. This can also be seen in the number of foreign writers contributing to the knowledge dissemination in Nepalese media houses, along with foreign publications available for social consumption in Nepal, as the government lays greater restrictions. Needless to say that there is almost zero visibility of foreign publication in rather backward Terai region.
Interestingly, even if Nepal has traditional and cultural linkages with India, one can hardly find Indian writers greatly contributing or sharing knowledge in Nepalese media or TV channels. It could also possibly be the strong reactions against Indians in the recent years that the doors for Indian writers are closed or limited. However, this results in a large knowledge gap, whereby all discussions and debates within Nepal fall in the category of narratives being floated and promoted by certain sections of the society. Any deviation from the acceptable narrative, hence, is discarded and criticized as promoting foreign interests in Nepal. In particular, any critical statement or opinion of Nepalese society, especially by an outsider, becomes an heightened issue of “nationalism” and anti-Nepal narrative. It is therefore not naive to state that even though Nepal has transcended to a far more advance society, the core of it remains closed for a free and open society that is inclusive and tolerant.