The Hindutva template of hegemonyThe controversy over Bhanubhakta’s statue shows the emancipation of the subaltern is a long process.
Janakpur wears its identity of being the capital of Madhesh Pradesh on its sleeve. Appreciators insist that the condition of the city has visibly improved. Their assessment isn’t without some merit. The physical infrastructure in the long-neglected town has indeed gotten better. The main thoroughfares have been recently widened and freshly paved. The drains don’t overflow on to the pavement as regularly as before. Garbage is collected more often even though it still gets piled up in some of the backstreets. The ubiquitous e-rickshaws have largely replaced slow-moving pedal ones that once clogged its roads. Many shiny automobiles and fancy motorbikes create occasional traffic snarls, prompting drivers to honk merrily as if to announce that they have arrived in life.
Critics are equally vociferous in voicing their concerns. The city is slowly losing its character of being a cultural node of Maithil pride as it becomes the centre of Madheshi identity and the fulcrum of federalist aspirations. All eyes are on Madhesh to see whether Nepal’s experiment with nominal federalism can evolve into a substantial form of sub-national self-rule. There are fewer outlets that serve beaten rice, yogurt and jaggery with salt and a green chilli on the side. The famed lassi—drinking yogurt fortified with dried fruits and raisins—is served readymade from deep fridges rather than being concocted according to the preferences of the customer.
Politicos of all hues and fixers of different varieties seal lucrative deals over dinner and drinks in gaudy restaurants. Salesmen of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), peddlers of consumer durables, medical representatives and executives of the NGO industry outnumber pilgrims and tourists in the lobbies of newly opened or freshly refurbished hotels. The thread that seems to bind enthusiastic batters and bitter baiters of federalism is their common resistance to the idea of secularity. A sacred site of Vaishnav pilgrimage, Janakpur has always been known for its presiding deity Janaki, purifying ponds and the popular chant of morning prayers and evening Aarti from different temples that reverberate through the town during designated hours.
The identity of Ram in Mithila was that of siyabar—the gentle consort of the earthly deity Siya—rather than that of the fierce warrior being popularised by the militant mythmakers of intolerant Hindutva in Modi’s India. Whether intended or unintended, politics of Hindutva is likely to weaken diversity, vitiate amity, defame federalism, undermine inclusion, undercut plurality and ultimately end up legitimising the emergence of majoritarian democracy leading towards electoral autocracy that is based on the assertion of maintaining order and stability in society.
In any country with a long history of dynastic, aristocratic and oligarchic system of governance, ethnic nationalism based upon blood and belonging comes naturally to the dominant community. An “other” is then either identified or constructed to strengthen the loyalty of the faithful to the shared symbols of the hegemonic group. The founder of the Shah dynasty proclaimed “asali Hindusthana” as one of the fundamental principles of the territory that he had brought together through ruthless campaigns of military conquests. The first Khas warrior to claim a Rana title codified the Hindu hierarchy of castes and outcastes to institutionalise the stranglehold of the ruling family over society, culture and the economy.
The brief attempt at introducing civic nationalism, based upon belongingness to a plural political community consisting of people from various ethnicities with equal rights and duties, was squandered in the late 1950s when an elected government was ousted through a royal-military coup. The chairman of the council of ministers in 1960 sought to legitimise the centrality of the monarch in state affairs through the creation of homogeneity in society.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the so-called SuDhaPa trio of historian Surya Bikram Gyawali, poet Dharanidhar Koirala and educator-writer Paras Mani Pradhan had devoted themselves to the invention of the Nepali Jaati that had never existed before. Through a pair of scholarly papers published in the 1990s, historian Pratyoush Onta brilliantly deconstructs the process of manufacturing homogeneity in the prototype of ethnonational majoritarianism. Chairman Mahendra added territorial dimension to the Nepali Jaati template of SuDhaPa and began to promote it aggressively through textbooks, mass media and authoritarian politics. The aid industry of the Cold War era supported the campaign in the name of development and modernity.
With the index finger of one hand raised in the manner of a paterfamilias and the other hand holding the hilt of a sword like a protective potentate, King Prithvi of Gorkha came to be portrayed as the territorial “unifier”. Pandit Bhanubhakta Acharya from neighbouring Tanahu, also of the Gandak region, emerged as as the cultural “integrator” with his quill pen and a copy of Ramayana. When Nepal decided to be a federal and democratic republic in 2008, the Nepal Army lost no time in replacing the portraits of the king and queen in its auditorium with those of King Prithvi and Pandit Bhanubhakta.
There was nothing in the ethnonationalist proposition that recognised the identity of Madheshis or addressed their aspirations. Left with no option but to accept and cope, some upper-caste, upper-class and upwardly mobile Madheshis devised different ways of securing their place in the exclusionary and ethnonational power hierarchy. Patterned after the Uncle Tom Syndrome of passivity, submission and sublimated rage, I had grouped Madheshi conformists of the ethnonational imagination into three fictional categories—the Bechu Babu, the Bechu Kaka and the Bechu Baba—that defined the everyday life in Madhesh up until the first Madhesh Uprising.
The Hindi-speaking Bechu Babus of the pre-1950 era, almost entirely of the upper caste and relatively upper class, were revenue contractors of the Ranas that hobnobbed with the Pahadi Birtawals when the Khas-Arya aristocrats and their Newar courtiers climbed down into the plains during the winter months. The Bechu Kakas emerged after 1959 when the birta system of revenue-free land grants was abolished and former Birtawals were forced to engage local partners to keep their possessions gainfully intact. The Bechu Kakas looked after the property of absentee landlords as their own and learnt to speak Nepali to integrate into the family of their masters.
The Bechu Babas are of post-1970 vintage. Malaria eradication in Madhesh and expansion of land for cultivation due to rapid deforestation made it possible for many absentee landlords to take up semi-permanent residency in the plains. Constant interaction created conviviality between communities while close familiarity also bred contempt. Conversant in Nepali, Bechu Babas saw nothing wrong in disowning their ethnicity to integrate into the mainstream.
While it is true that the burst of Modi wave across the border has speeded up the “saffronisation” of Madhesh, part of the trend appears to be entirely homegrown. After lying low for over a decade, the Bechu Babus, Bechu Kakas and Bechu Babas seem to have suddenly realised that their former patrons, protectors and promoters are one in their aim of asserting ethnonational hegemony of the Khas-Arya under a Hindu republic. The controversy over the decision of the sub-metropolitan authority to reconstruct the statue of Bhanubhakta—a detested relic of the Panchayat-era—at a busy crossroads is a bleak reminder of the fact that emancipation of the subaltern from mental slavery is a very long and arduous process. The uneasy calm in the Madheshi heartland appears to be deceptive.