Cutting the cake

KATHMANDU, DEC 20 - The music was akin to jatra music. I was walking on the Lazimpat road and assumed the music was for some festival. Oil lamps burnt on the ground, and men carefully put red powder on the words. I mimicked the dance — one man smiled. Then I looked down and realised the words said: The autonomous Newa state. Ah. Then I looked deeper into the crowd, and readjusted my eyesight. Except for the one woman dressed up in her lone jyapu outfit, the rest of the men were a familiar species — Brahmin men.

Now this was an intriguing sight indeed. A group of Brahmin men celebrating the birth of the Newa nation. I took out my camera to document this interesting fact. The leader of this little group took out a little mike, in response. “Down with anybody against federalism!” he intoned. Immediately the tenor of the group changed — threatening, more intimidating. My hackles rose. Having grown up fighting authoritarian Brahminism, I can recognise an orthodox tone of morality when I hear one. And this guy was definitely one of these old bahun bajays telling me what to think. I am not against federalism, as those of you who’ve read my previous articles know. It was the authoritarian manner in which he was using the mike against me that made me go: Ah ha. I know your kind.

Well, is it any surprise that the Brahmin men who run this country have now decided to split up the country into little ethnic pieces? After the Second World War, the Europeans gathered together to do something pretty similar. In their term, it was known as “the cutting of the cake.” In the Western world, after a marriage, the bride and the groom cut the cake and this is seen to cement the marriage. The Europeans used this trope to cut Africa into little pieces — the English got the East, the French got the West, the Dutch got Congo and Belgium got another part of Congo. If you’re wondering, as I often did, why African nations always have very straight national boundaries, its because the Europeans literally sliced through the heartland with a knife. You take this part, I take this part. It worked very well for the Europeans, who enjoyed, for the next half century and even now, unprecedented access to natural resources, precious minerals and stones, petroleum and other riches of Africa free of cost, as the small African leaders squabbled within themselves and proceeded to kill their own people. The Hutus killed the Tutsis, the Tutsis killed the Hutus. Sierra Leone’s rebel leaders drugged and chopped off the hands of their own youngsters. Meanwhile, diamonds, gold, bauxite, other precious minerals, and oil continued to flow out of Africa into Europe while the people continue to die of preventable diseases and starvation.

The straight lines that cut off Gabon from the Cameroon also cut off the small ethnic groups from each other. So if you take a knife and cut off little chunks of Nepal into Sherpaland, Tharuland, Newarland and god knows what else, you are saying that the smaller groups of Rais and Magars and Dalits and Brahmins who live within those nations may one day not find themselves so welcome there. A British journalist told me an interesting story of what she’d observed in Limbuwan. Two best friends, one Rai, one Limbu girl, were sitting together in a little meeting when the topic of Limbuwan came up. The Rai girl was so upset she ran out crying and wouldn’t come back. Seems familiar? This is known as the old strategy: Divide and conquer. Do you think these Brahmin men from autocratic backgrounds really care about ethnic autonomy, or are they just using this in the old-age way? Cut up people’s linkages to each other, throw them a few bones, and watch them fight? 

If Brahmins seem happier at the formation of the Newa state than the Newars themselves (some of my urban Newar friends are pretty embarrassed about this whole business), then we have to ask why. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of Newar culture and am delighted to be living within the Newa autonomous state — in fact, I don’t think we ever stopped living in it. The Shahs were deposed but the Taleju ceremonies goes on, as it always did. One layer of colonisers gives way to another, but the Newars seem indestructible in their pride for their culture. I’d be the first to be secretly delighted if an architectural Nazi started to impose Newari architecture on the Kathmandu Valley and took down all the ugly wedding cake homes. Recently at a jankhu I was the only one demanding bhoj food (the Newars apologised and said it took too long to make — would I like some greasy aloo gobi?) I support the Bhaktapuri fabric industry more than your average hip young Newar.  And I still blame my friends for fooling me and telling me “shyau” (apple) was “miaw” (as in cat’s miaw) when I was sixteen and wanted to learn Newari. Now I am stuck with a teenage vocabulary of three phrases — “I am hungry”, “shut the door,” and “Shut up or I’ll beat you.” Maybe if I’d grown up in the Newa autonomous nation, I may know a new language, eat healthier food and secretly assuage my Gandhian need to wear handloom fabric. But as the times show, these (dare I say Brahmin) ideas of cultural purity can barely be imposed on a nation of multi-cultural and modern identities and aspirations.

So what exactly will these autonomous nations do, besides giving the Maoists a platform to plant their flags on their little ethnic pieces? The Shah kings used to make the ethnic groups dance in their costumes, and now the Maoists are doing the same. What is the difference in this divide and conquer strategy? Will it cause more quarrels as 59 different ethnic nationalities all start to resent the heavyweights who got their own states? I am not against an ethnic state or two if those are mixed in with states that are formed for other reasons — geographical or linguistic. But to have Nepal split up along ethnic lines seems foolhardy and against the fabric of a multi-ethnic nation.

Recently I met with two Bosnian filmmakers who were in town. When asked about the ethnic fighting in Bosnia, the woman said simply: “Our family was multi-cultural. We had everybody in it. There were Muslims and Christians and Bosnians and other nationalities. We didn’t want to choose, so we left the country instead of having to choose one side or the other.”

Most Nepali villages are a mixture of ethnic groups. I don’t think we should be surprised if the Maoists (or their offshoots) start to trigger ethnic cleansing, as seen in parts of the Tarai. The only thing that might save Nepal is its famous tolerance. I was in Janakpur about five years ago, sitting in a bangle shop, when a janjati man came into the shop and started raving about the Madesh. He was a former Army man, he said. He’d lived all his life in the Tarai, given his life to the place. Now they wanted him out. He was upset feeling the heat of local politics. His tone, aggressive, was meant to provoke. The bangle seller listened with phlegmatic calm, and did not say one word in response. In the end, as the old man left, the bangle seller said: “he’s been here all this life. That’s his personality.” I still remember the encounter if only because it was an emblematic moment in which a local situation that could have spiraled into conflict was defused by one wise bangle-seller.

That same calm and tolerance may save the people of Nepal as they weather this next storm. There are always leaders who seek to divide, rather than to unite. It is Nepal’s bad luck that our revolutionary leader originates from atavistic Gorkha rather than liberal Dharan or Dhankuta. The key is to recognise that the aim of leaders may not always jive with those of real lives and real people. Whether they get applause in the Asia Society or get money from international donors, whether they are elected officials or well-known academics, the incredible and inborn common sense of the Nepali people should win over fanatics and fanaticism. Ethnic warfare has defined this age for other countries and continents. We must all be vigilant that this doesn’t happen in our own country because some Brahmin men decided this was the only way to hold on to power.  

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Posted on: 2009-12-21 04:21