History, memory and identityThere is nothing like a theatrical performance to capture the absurdities of a complex life.
The real identity of a certain M Adhikari, listed on the rolls of the CPN-UML as a member of its finance and planning department, remains a riddle. The return of Janardan Sharma as finance minister within a month of facing allegations of irregularities, abrupt resignation, instantaneous parliamentary probe, prompt acquittal and immediate reappointment is a mystery. Why Sher Bahadur Deuba had to reshuffle his cabinet almost a dozen times within a year is an enigma.
Amidst all these absurdities, the leader of the opposition in Parliament and ethno-nationalist chieftain Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli was reportedly seen practising his hand on a badminton court in Birtamod. He then came back to Kathmandu and went to observe Bagmati Ganga Aarati at Pashupati to mark Saune Sombar.
With so much real life drama, who needs to write and stage plays to depict peculiarities, perplexities and paradoxes of everyday life through imagined realities? The ground realities, however, aren’t the same for everyone. Sensitive souls perceive the world in ways that the rest fail to comprehend.
Playwright, director and actor Sarita Sah attempts to capture the complexities of the citizenship issue in an intriguingly named play Dhakiya Me Nagarikta, which can roughly be translated as "the certificate of citizenship in a bamboo basket". The title perhaps alludes to the burden one has to carry on the head to survive in a country where an official identity is necessary for every need of a person from the cradle to the cremation ground.
After being staged in Kathmandu on Saturday afternoon, the play has been taken to Rautahat, Dhanusha, Siraha and Saptari districts of Madhesh Pradesh. Since the Putsch Ek royal-military coup, the establishment in Kathmandu has been portraying Madheshis as the other of the Nepali self and has institutionalised the archaic principle of jus sanguinis that requires proof of ancestry to establish one’s belongingness.
The idea of nationality as a marker of belonging emanating from one’s ancestral land is neither new nor unique. Montesquieu (1689-1755) is justly famous for theorising about the necessity of the separation of powers. He also philosophised that cultural identity based upon the esprit de la nation was the most authentic basis of establishing a unified political authority.
Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) outlined the still evolving idea of Volksgeist (national spirit) and initiated the movement for the inherent uniqueness of people that differentiated them from everyone else. Volksgeist has remained the zeitgeist of Germany ever since. The cultural uniqueness of Japan expressed through the concept of Nihonjinron is similarly an attempt to assert the primacy of inherited belongingness.
The pitribhoomi (ancestral land) and punyabhoomi (sacred land) formulations of Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar (1883-1966) was a project of imagining a nation of political Hindus. The Sinhala majority’s minority complex of being overrun, outbred and replaced by the ethnic "others" is as much a product of demagogic populism as a concoction of conflating ethno-nationalism with citizenship.
The junta that has ruled Burma since its independence refuses to accept that ethnic purity of a political entity is a fascist concept. Apart from expelling long-time residents that had come from other parts of British India during colonial rule, Burmese law requires all immigrants to assume a Bamar name and acquire proficiency in the national language even to retain the lowest category of citizenship.
All prosecuted ethnicities suffer in their own ways, but the characterisation of Rohingyas as the Jews of Asia was perhaps aimed at internationalising their plight. It failed to awaken the conscience of the international community.
Despite their republican aspirations, a very large section of the dominant community in Nepal hasn’t been able to grow out of the Panchayat-era paranoia of being outnumbered and swamped through so-called Fijikaran and swallowed through Sikkimikaran.
"The Sinhalese stigmatisation of Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Sunni stigmatisation of Hindus, Christians, Ahmadiyyas and Shias in Pakistan, and the Buddhist stigmatisation of Rohingyas in Myanmar are all cautionary tales,” historian Ramchandra Guha wrote. He forgot to add the stigmatisation of Madheshis in Nepal where Khas-Arya supremacism has remained the defining feature of ethno-national hegemony of the dominant group.
Paradoxically, the French were one of the first to replace the idea of nation-state with the imagination of state-nation composed of "le citoyen" after the French Revolution. The concept, however, required that the "patrie" enjoying equal rights under the constitution become one in culture, language and political beliefs to qualify as "bon citiyoyen". The republic aspired for unity of the state-nation through assimilation.
The process of unification through gradual integration but with the right of self-determination of component nations was a Leninist idea that evolved after the Russian revolution. The union of states, however, continues to be a fragile concept with the exception of the United States.
The imagination of multinational-state began to gain popularity to retain the unity of post-colonial countries with randomly drawn boundaries that had failed to generate the feeling of oneness among its people. India once exemplified the objective of establishing unity in diversity. Ironically, it has begun to regress into the exclusivity of the Hindutva project.
The concept of multinational-state is meant to maintain fragile unity of state-nations wherever fissiparous tendencies of creating multiple nation-states have begun to gain ground due to existing inequalities made worse by the process of globalisation.
The predicament of contemporary Nepal is that its dominant community wants to retain the 19th-century notion of nation-state through assimilative policies, but is unwilling to accommodate integrative measures established in the 20th century while the diversities of the country wish for nothing less than the 21st-century imagination of a federated state-nation.
For ethno-nationalists, the first amendment to the Citizenship Act is a device to dilute the purity of "organic Nepalis" for whom identity can only be inherited through unmixed bloodlines. Nepal is one of the few countries in the world that institutionalises a hierarchical order of citizenship with ancestry at the top, marriage in the middle and naturalisation at the bottom.
The prescribed duties for all categories of citizens are equal. The same laws apply to everyone. Tax rates are identical. But rights vary depending upon one’s gender and class of citizenship. For example, a person of non-Nepali ancestry is constitutionally barred from holding certain government posts even when she has fulfilled all other criteria.
There is nothing like a play to capture the absurdities of a complex life. Art in any form is a powerful medium of encapsulating the vortex of emotions. Poems help overcome agonies. Paintings free the imagination. Music calms the mind and agitates the heart. Being a combination of all forms, the theatre is a slice of life as experienced, imagined, desired, denied, drained or rejuvenated.
A good play is an enactment of poetic emotions, an expression of feelings that no word in any language can fully capture on the page, a performance of the stridency of silence that no musical note can signify, and an illustration of moods that lines and colours on the canvas can only suggest. Let there be more plays that enrich the collective imagination.