Day of ignominy and infamyPoush 1 should be a day of not just remembering the loss of democracy, but also of assessing its consequences.
Poush 1 comes and goes every December as a day of condemnation, complicity and euphemism. During the Panchayat years (1960-90), inaugurated by Nepal’s then king Mahendra on Poush 1, 2017 BS (1960) by dismissing the democratically elected government and Parliament, arresting the elected leaders and imprisoning them for years (or else co-opting others) and, most perniciously, imposing the one-dress, one-language nationalism on an extraordinarily diverse country. Well, after 30 years of struggle, Nepalis ended the Panchayat autocracy in 1990.
The culture of arrogance and modernised hill caste feudalism that the system developed over three decades culturally produced the Palace Massacre of June 2001, proving the adage 'what goes around, comes around' or that the chicken 'comes home to roost'. The bloodshed that annihilated the royal family occurred because the palace thwarted the crown prince’s decade-long love to maintain a pure bloodline, and he nearly finished off his clan. The Panchayat system also produced the Maoist insurgency by suppressing the cultures and languages of the myriad ethnicities of a diverse country, thus cutting off structural access of these groups to the state and its power and privileges.
Abolition of monarchy
The end result of all this was the abolition of the monarchy. We can, therefore, say that king Mahendra committed political suicide by his autocratic move. But even more importantly, he ushered in a system of ethnic nationalism of hill castes whose language became the national language, relegating other languages to second class status; whose dress became the national dress, relegating other dresses to a derogatory status; and engineering mass migration of the hill population to the plains through planned deforestation, thereby skewing the demographics of the plains all over, but especially in the eastern- and western-most districts. This planned migration and imposing of language and dress has created enormous inter-ethnic toxicity between the hill castes and the rest of the population.
So, every year, the media either doesn’t say much or remembers the day as a day of ignominy and infamy for the killing of democracy and imposition of autocracy. But what the media doesn’t highlight is the structural and ideological consequences of those three decades on the people whose languages and cultures were marginalised.
So, when I was invited to speak at Martin Chautari, one of the oldest non-governmental research and discussion centres, on the state of education in the plains (Tarai-Madhes) on December 10, I accepted because education, its possibilities and failures, have been my lifelong academic preoccupation. What motivates families, parents and children to be educated? What impedes education? Why are some hell-bent on being educated and others drop out?
From Plato to ED Hirsch, educators and thinkers have grappled with these questions. While Plato believes in prescriptive and mandatory education, Rousseau and John Dewey advocate letting inclination and instinct (nature) take their course when it comes to education. But everyone, including Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, believes that democracy cannot survive without a literate population.
In Nepal, the Rana oligarchy (1846-1950) outlawed education for the public. The Panchayat imposed one-language education in a multi-lingual country, which continues today. In the short period between the end of Rana rule and today, literacy has increased enormously in Nepal. Yet, statistics collected in the 2011 census revealed that while the literacy rate of the geographically challenging hill districts increased tremendously, the literacy rate of the accessible plains districts has gone down. Why? This was the question I grappled during my presentation on December 10.
By citing Paul Willis and Richard Hoggart (both founder-members of Birmingham Cultural Studies along with Stuart Hall) in their works, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1977) and The Uses of Literacy (1957) explore the truancy and predicament of working-class kids in schools. Using their theories, I said that from a Marxist perspective, the low literacy rate in the plains is a form of collective resistance of the Other of the Nepali monolingual state to its one-language, one-dress structure and ideology because the collective unconscious of the plains knows that even if a token few may get into the state structure, there is no room or provision for the whole plains people in the Nepali state under the present dispensation.
In fact, village after village, the traditionally wealthy non-Nepali speakers of the plains have educated their kids and themselves in college, but after college graduation have found no entry into the state structure—some becoming school teachers but most sitting unemployed. The ideology and the structure that Mahendra imposed in 1960 may have finished his clan, but they have stood as a wall for the linguistically excluded people. Consequently, the more the illiterate in the population, the more the possibility for revolution. But, personally, I side with Dewey and Jefferson that in order for democracy to succeed, the voters need to be not only literate but educated.
But what we see instead happening every year in December is mourning the day when Mahendra’s Panchayat was imposed, but basking in the consequences that his system produced, that is skewed access to the resources and power of the state of the people.
What's more, since last year, some topi-clad Nepalis have begun to celebrate Poush 1 as national flag day, using the national symbol to drown out the condemnation of the day of ignominy and infamy—the same way they have euphemised Prithvi Jayanti as national unity day, whereas king Prithvi remains a contested figure in contemporary Nepal.
Role of caste
In my presentation, I also mentioned that caste has played an enormous role along with the state because the Tarai Brahmins and Kayasthas still have a very high literacy rate, and was even higher than that of the hill Brahmins before 1970; but with the one-language discriminatory Panchayat ideology and structure taking root and producing its effect, the plains upper caste, too, have lost their edge.
So, in my view, the December day of ignominy and infamy should be a day of not just remembering the loss of democracy, but also of assessing its consequences—how more than two-thirds of the country’s population was marginalised systematically, and what consequences all this might bring for the future. In my walk around Durbar Marg in Kathmandu, I saw king Mahendra’s statue, damaged during the uprisings of 1990 and 2006, instead of being safely relocated to the Palace Museum, restored and standing tall, symbolising the present state of affairs of Nepal. As intellectuals, if we close our eyes to all this, we fail in our duties.
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