What privilege looks like in NepalLiberalism seems to die a quiet death when it comes to addressing its own failures.
Amish Raj Mulmi
When federalism was adopted in Nepal, it was watered down. Yet, it was hoped that provinces at the forefront of the battle for rights and representation would strive to lead the way in addressing the historical wrongs that the federal movement had intended to correct. A few weeks ago, this assumption was proved to be wrong when a Visit Nepal 2020 promotional event kicked off in Province 2. On stage were a litany of men, men and only men. The impression such pictures give is exactly what they intend to do, that only men are relevant in Nepal. What's sadder is that a progressive lawyer posted the images without realising the irony in doing so, especially since the highly regressive citizenship law that targets Nepali women was brought about due to fears of a supposed demographic change in the Madhesh.
Then last week, after the Occupy Tundikhel event was over, I came across a social media post that pointed out a sukumbasi basti had come up inside the Tundikhel grounds with their 'tinned roofs' and 'dish antennas', suggesting they were responsible for the current state of Tundikhel. The post questioned the government in allowing sukumbasis to settle in the centre of the city as if their presence with their dish antennas had corrupted the city's glittering skyline.
While both instances came from a well-meaning place that, in the first case, sought to highlight a promotional event, and in the second, showed concern for the degradation of the capital, it was the ease with which the urban, upper-caste Nepali elite (who are usually men) can exercise their privilege that got my attention, and by doing so, perpetuate the status quo that many fought to change (including some of the elite themselves). These two instances speak of how complicit we (including myself, as an upper caste Nepali man) are in allowing imagined hierarchies to continue in our society, and how our existing privileges blind us to the reigning inequalities within society, despite calling for change, criticising our government, and providing all-round suggestions for social improvement.
The charge often levied against the liberal elite by conservative leaders is that it is a hollow and hypocritical idea that seems to die a quiet death when it comes to addressing its own faults, whether it’s the Democrats in the US or the left-of-centre parties in our part of the world. Liberalism has taken a beating across the world—but it’s no wonder why the criticism is apt considering the liberal elite is itself complicit in preserving the status quo.
One may question whether offering women equal representation and addressing urban concerns is a case of apples and oranges. But what is evident in both issues is a self-preservation instinct even while insisting change must occur. For instance, is the issue the fact that the landless have settled in Tundikhel, or is the root cause a lack of urban planning, prohibitive land prices, and lack of access to cheaper finance and housing? Could urban migrants possess the same choices as those who’ve lived in Kathmandu for long? ‘For the urban poor, a constituency of this composite called the city, this realm of everyday life is governed less by policy and more by politics, whether that means claiming territory on a sidewalk to set up shop or occupying a vacant land in the city to make (a shelter) and shift,’ urban researcher Sabin Ninglekhu has written. Furthermore, any agency they may have is made redundant by the state’s constant attempts to remove them.
It’s immediately clear that the institution that occupies the most land in what was the historical Tundikhel area is the Nepal Army. But in most instances, it is a faceless government or urban authority that has become an easy punching bag and faces the ire. Even the organisers, who called the movement ‘apolitical’ and did not list the Army as one of the institutions responsible for the modern state of Tundikhel, showed a tendency to disregard the institution’s encroachment into public land. As another writer has argued, the organisers weakened the case for what should inevitably lead to a democratisation of the Army. There has been a traditional elite reverence for the institution as an ‘apolitical’ unit, although the reasons behind such labelling are difficult to explain.
Similarly, the promotional tourism event perhaps intended to send a different message by kicking off from Province 2. But once again, with an extraordinary-sized ‘manel’, it short-circuited any hopes of an inclusionary message being sent out. Surely the organisers could have found a few women who work in tourism in the province? The province, which should have been a spearhead in the battle for rights, has instead shown itself to be as limited in its vision as the very ideals it fought against. An overwhelming presence of men on any stage is commonplace in Nepal, but surely a few of those on stage could have noticed this. Instead, the status quo has been preserved, and the existing social order retained as is.
In a recent essay, Pankaj Mishra wrote that ‘it is not so much liberalism that is in crisis as its self-styled campaigners, who are seen, not unreasonably, as complicit in unmaking the modern world’. In the first instance above, the case for equal citizenship is undermined by the propensity of Nepali men to not take a proactive approach towards equal representation, which is further rooted in the fact that us men do not even recognise the need to do so. In the other, Kathmandu is seen as an unchanging, idyllic space that has been encroached upon and corrupted by undeserving migrants to the capital, who are blamed for the mess it is in. In both, an imagined state of affairs creates an exclusionary space, within which only a select few possess the voice to be heard. Despite both being rooted in a desire for inclusion, representation and change, praxis suggests otherwise. By capitulating to the status quo, we are all complicit in the death of liberalism.