Post-2006 Tarai/Madhesh Unrest in Nepal: A Byproduct of Secularism

In the print version, this article is published in Shweta Shardul, Vol. 7, 2010.

Post-2006 Tarai/Madhesh Unrest in Nepal: A Byproduct of Secularism
By: Nirmala Mani Adhikary


This paper is the outcome of a study regarding the post-2006 Tarai/Madhesh Unrest in Nepal. It is an analytical study employing the psycho-political research approach. The objective of the research is to theorize the aftermath of the declaration of the House of Representatives (18 May 2006).

The declaration has opened up vistas that perhaps the people never dreamed. It has not only encouraged different readings of Nepali history but also new storytelling practices under the auspices of the Lokatantra, another name popularized against Prajatantra to denote the democratic system. Such practices have been viewed both positively and negatively.
The causal analysis and interpretation of the unrest has been done in various ways. Some prefer to observe it as “natural outburst against century long domination by the Pahadi power elites.” There are others, who view the happenings as “conspiracy of reactionary royalists.” Some others are even fond of alleging India or the US. In this article, I shall argue that the post-2006 unrest in the Tarai/Madhesh is a byproduct of secularism. And, unrest of this sort or another was inevitable after the “historic” declaration of the then House of Representatives on 18 May 2006, which declared Nepal a secular state.
It was the Hindu identity of the state that was crucial in bringing Madheshi and Pahadi communities together, despite fundamental differences of language, caste, ethnicity, color and regional consciousness as well as power sharing. Since the 18-May-2006-Declaration removed that very binding force, identity crisis was unavoidable among various communities of Nepal. Various communities of Nepal are witnessing decisiveness of transformation wrought by the encounter with secularism and the Madheshi community is just an early example.

The Identity of the Madheshi in Hindu Nepal

To be a ‘Madheshi Nepali’ is obviously a matter of identity. “Identity is people’s source of meaning and experience” (Castells 6). And, “from a sociological perspective, all identities are constructed” (Castells 7). However, identities are not false. “Asserting that identities are socially constructed does not imply that they are false or arbitrary, but that identities are not things, but matters of social dispute” (Mato 284).
Identities may be originated from different sources. “The construction of identities uses building materials from history, from geography, from biology, from productive and reproductive institutions, from collective memory and from personal fantasies, from power apparatuses and religious revelations” (Castells 7).
“Any community has a given identity that is sedimented by the imbrication of many histories. There is also the desire to produce from the given identity an ideal community which one can call one’s own” (Radhakrishnan 18). Thus it is not uncommon to develop a strong collective identity.
At a personal level, “Identity refers to a person’s sense of inclusion in (or exclusion from) a range of social roles and ways of being, both ‘real’ (those derived from lived experience) and imagined (those encountered in realms beyond the everyday: tales, religious epics, mass media, etc.)” (Liechty 167). It is considered
that identity is not in the main an individual affair. Individuals make their own identity, but not under conditions of their own choosing. … They (identities) are both imposed and self-made, produced through the interplay of names and social roles foisted on us by dominant narratives together with the particular choices families, communities, and individuals make over how to interpret, and resist, those impositions as well as how to grapple with their real historical experiences. (Alcoff 3)
The identity of ‘Madheshi Nepali’ consists of at least two selves: a Nepali citizen and a member of Madhesi community. The being of ‘Madheshi’ is originally associated with a region (place), called Madhesh, within Nepal. Since Madheshi people, just like Pahadi people, are historically parts of the state (Nepal), they have inherited Nepaliness naturally. Moreover, in the past “a community did not claim to represent or exhaust all the layers of selfhood of its members” (Chatterjee 117). In this sense, these two identities are not necessarily conflicting.
However, being Madheshi is not the mere association with a particular region. Historically, the Madheshi people have been perceived as having “strong cultural and linguistic links with India” (Hoftun 331). And, they are seen “identical to the inhabitants of the neighboring Indian states, Bihar and Uttar Pradhesh” (Hoftun 331). Though originated from the very notion of the place called Madhesh the identity of Madheshi community is inherently associated with the unique cultural personality that is different from that of Pahadi community of Nepal. That is why, a person migrated even generations ago to Madhesh (Tarai) is not identified as Madheshi, but just as Taraibasi (a resident of Tarai), if he/she is of Pahadi origin. In this light, and also keeping in view of the state’s preference over ‘Pahadi culture’, itself a vague and perhaps controversial concept, and Nepali language, the position of the Madheshi community does not seem as straightforward as that of Pahadi community.
Thus the Madheshi community of Nepal had to develop such an identity which could surpass both the above mentioned identities. In fact, “the nation provides its members with a share in a life which transcends their own” (Poole 272). Nationalist movement in Nepal, under king Prithwi Narayan Shah as well as king Mahendra, had invented a national identity that was enshrined by the state and successfully persuaded the people to accept the identity. As such, having two identities did not prevent Madheshi community from developing hybridized identity of being ‘Madheshi Nepali’. Madheshi community, through the hybridization of two distinct identities, produced a ‘grand identity’ of being ‘Madheshi Nepali’ compatible with and dominant over other identities. There was one agency, the Hindu religion, or the Hindu identity, working to keep the ‘grand identity’ intact.
The Hindu identity was, and is, such an agency which was, and is, shared by the vast majority of both Pahadi and Madheshi people. At least, during the process of unification it was so. “Put bluntly, Hinduism was in people’s blood” (Hoftun 319). Drawing on this, the nationalist movement in Nepal could successfully persuade the people to accept the Hindu identity. The Madheshi community in general and, since identity provides meaning for a person “through a process of individuation” (Castells 7), a Madheshi individual in particular had found satisfactory identification with ‘Nepali national identity’ by negotiating through religious identity.
The integration was “towards a nationality or a nationhood which accommodates both unity and diversity” (Khanal 4). Hence the ‘religio-national identity’ of Madheshi community was successful in retaining the Madheshi identity and easily accommodating it with the identity of being a Nepali.
Of course, Madhesi community had and has other identities. But it is to note that the dominant identity comes out of “the process of construction of meaning on the basis of a cultural attribute, or related set of cultural attributes, that is/are given priority over other sources of meaning” (Castells 6). Only the identity of Hindu was capable of functioning as the bond and thus originator of the dominant identity.
For any identity to participate equally and meaningfully in a comity of identities, it has to ensure that its knowledge is accorded objective validity by all other parties at the very outset of the meeting. Without such a recognition, some identities are bound to be equal and more than equal, whereas others will be perceived as less than equal, for lack of an evenly realized universality (Radhakrishnan 19).
However, any identity is not final and stable. Individuals, social groups, and societies do not take the materials for identity formation always in the same way. They “process all these materials, and rearrange their meaning, according to social determinations and cultural projects that are rooted in their social structure and in their space/time framework” (Castells 7). In case of an individual,
Identities may be claimed or ascribed and hence can change depending on the extent of an individual’s authority in any given social context. Identities may be lived or imagined; while some identities are manifested daily in such things as labor and gender roles, other identities may never be actualized yet exist in the imagination as potentialities or desired ways of being. Identity formations are never stable; they constantly change as people move through life cycles or through cultural landscapes in which they encounter (and must learn to function in) institutions and social relations based on a variety of social values and epistemic frames. Identity formation is a process and identity formations are always ‘in the making’ as subjects move through time and space (Liechty 167). (Emphasis added.)
Hindu identity was crucial as that bond, which was giving Madheshi people the sense of attachment with the state sometimes referred as “an inescapable structure of experience” (Poole 272). There would not have been acceptance of Nepaliness, identified with Pahadi culture and Nepali language in most instances, by the Madheshi community had there not been Hindu identity of the state.

The Identity Crisis in Secular Nepal

The Hindu identity of the state was in conflict with the interests of CPN (Maoist) and some ethnic politicians. With the success of Janaandolan II indebted to Maoists’ support, their agenda became dominant over all. “Althusser argues that we are all vulnerable to dominant ideologies in society to the extent that these ideologies influence and even create our own individual identities” (Allen 21). Perhaps, Althusser’s explanation is quite relevant here to understand why Nepali Congress, CPN (UML), and other political parties previously feeling compatible with Hindu identity of the state, did such a hurry to declare the state secular. In this light, the declaration of Nepal a secular state basically qualifies as a political gimmick.
The triumph of secularism over the Hindu identity of the state in Nepal has brought all communities, groups, and castes in the crossroads, where traditionally accepted identities are not simply working. Not only the Madheshi but all, even Pahadi Brahmans and Kshetris, are affected. However, the effect is even significant in case of the Madhesi.
For Madhesi people of Nepal, the religious and national identities were practically same. Now, its bond of togetherness, being Hindu citizen of a Hindu nation, has been wiped out. Devoid of that bond, their identity as ‘Nepali’ has become problematic. Either the state has failed to provide alternative identity or any identity provided by the ‘new’ state is not simply functioning. In any case, a Madhesi individual, being deprived of religious identity, has been deprived of national identity too. In other words, with the declaration of secularism in Nepal, overnight the Madhesi community has been deprived of two frames of reference within which it had placed itself.
Secularism has brought Madheshi community in general (and any Hindu Madheshi individual in particular) to suffer from psychological inadequacy. As an anxious individual deprived of historically accepted identity, any Madheshi person is vulnerable to irrational loyalties sparked by regional political parties, fronts or leaders. It is to note that protests immediately after the 18-May-2006-Declaration were “at and around Birganj area” (INSEC 103). Certainly, it was the declaration, which, by putting the Madhesi community in identity crisis, opened door for Terai/Madhesh unrest.
For many communities in Nepal including the Madhesi, seeking new identity in secular Nepal is inherently problematic. Since the traditional religio-national identity of the Madheshi community could not find normal play in public life, it sought alternative expressions. The mass agitations by Madhesi community were inherent efforts in the process of seeking new identity. This new search for identity should be considered as an attempt to compensate for a perceived incomplete identity.

Problematic Encounter with Secularism

Nepal’s encounter with secularism is problematic. There are various reasons in this regard. I shall discuss some of them one by one.
First, the notion of secularism itself is not understandable in Nepali context. Secularism owes its origin “to the Judaeo-Christian world-view and secularism particularly has no theological status outside Christianity” (Shahi qtd. in Nandy Bonfire 119). In other words, secularization project is based on Western values and thus Christian in nature. Secularity was a condition of the West. It was taking place within the Capitalist, Christian societies. In other words, it is part of the unique history of Europe.
Second, secularism as shift of political loyalty from religious identity to national identity is something unusual and even unnecessary for Nepali society. The separation of church and the state was exclusive issue of Europe. As Huntington observes,
God and Caesar, church and state, spiritual authority and temporal authority, have been a prevailing dualism in Western culture. … The separation and recurring clashes between church and state that typify Western civilization have existed in no other civilization. (70)
And, to accept it as universally valid
is the hubris of Western thought that accommodates the belief that the West’s antinomian struggle with itself is the universal form of all revolution, and that other cultures should genuflect to the jurisdiction of Platonism and its alter ego. To vary Derrida’s dictum, it is as though the world can never really step out of the pages of Western thought; the only alternative is to turn the pages in a certain way. (Radhakrishnan 16)
In case of Nepal, religious loyalty and national loyalty are not contradictory. The conflict between religious institutions and political/national institutions is not seen in Nepal because Hindu Dharma never demands theocratic state. “Only in Hindu civilization were religion and politics also so distinctly separated” (Huntington 70). In Hindu society, there is obvious demarcation of religious institutions and political institutions. The national loyalty does not demand rejection of religious loyalty and the religious loyalty does not contradict with national loyalty. Rather, as evident in the case of Madheshi community, religion can play crucial role as an agency to develop higher level of national loyalty.
Third, it is not to forget that religious institutions and practices were crucial in the formation of Nepali national identity. Nepali history would be certainly misread in secular eyes because secularism “leaves major historical developments, such as the emergence of the national form of societies, outside the picture” (Veer 14). In fact, Hindu identity was the only distinctly visible common identity of Nepali states even in the distant past about which we have not been able to know more (Nirmal 53). Christianity never played such a role in Europe. France, for instance, is not indebted to Christianity for the formation of its national identity. Here, Hidnu Dharma, though under criticism and sever attack these days, was the binding force during the national unification process.
Fourth, in Hindu viewpoint, there is no harm in paying respect to religion by the state. In the West, the religion is taken as a threat to freedom of thought and expression. Nepal’s case is quite different because there was not such conflict. In case of Hindu society, “the opposition between religious intolerance and secular liberty is mistaken” (Veer 29). Nepal could be a Hindu state guaranteeing all sorts of liberties as was the case with the Constitution of Nepal, 1990.
Fifth, and most importantly, the notion secularism as the replacement of religious identity might have been perceived as the disobedience of the politics in front of Dharma. This is to note that an ideal Hindu thinks, as Mahatma Gandhi, that “politics divorced from religion becomes debasing” (qtd. in Nandy Bonfire 109). In this background it is understandable that secularism as opposed to religion (Dharma) is not acceptable to a Hindu mind.
Inherent with such problematic aspects discussed just above, secularism does not seem successful project in case of Nepal. The case of India, from where Nepali politicians adopted the concept, does not encourage being optimistic. In newly independent India,
much emphasis was placed on its secularism, and there were few voices dissenting from that priority. In contrast, there are now persistent pronouncements deeply critical of India secularism, and attacks have come from quite different quarters. (Sen 294)
As Nandy observes, “By most imaginable criteria, institutionalized secularism has failed” (Bonfire 115). Madan also aggress, “Secularism as a widely shared worldview has failed to make headway in India” (qtd. in Veer 15). In other countries too, the trend to secularization and toward the accommodation of religion with secularism has gone into reverse (Huntington 96).
As Paulos Mar Gregorios observes, “Secularism creates communal conflict because it brutally attacks religious identity while pretending to be tolerant of all religions” (qtd. in Nandy Bonfire 110). Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies also agree that “fundamentalism is a direct creation of secularism – ‘the last refuge from the abuse and ridicule of the secular mind’ and ‘a grotesque projection of the worst nightmares of secularism on the world stage'” (qtd. in Nandy et al 20). Secularism has been experienced as “poisoned remedy” (Radhakrishnan 25).
It is not clear how secularism will bring different consequence in Nepal only. Nepal’s encounter with secularism has already found distorted expression in fundamentalism, race-ism, ethnic-ism, caste-ism, and regionalism. The case is even dangerous because the secularist project has come in contact with the politics of hate practiced and flourished by CPN (Maoist). And, some groups, for instance factions of Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha, have started even to demand independent Tarai.
Secularism has failed since the political loyalty of Madheshi people could not be transformed to new secular national identity. Such failure in shifting the political identity is quite similar to Indian case. In India, too, “political loyalty could not be transformed from the religion to the national” (Veer 22). Instead, religious fundamentalism and race, ethnicity, caste, language, and regionalism came ahead to fill the void.
It is not clear how much significant role religious fundamentalism will play in Nepal yet. But ethnicity, caste, language, and regionalism seem already replacing religion as the most important marker of national identity. New identities are being constructed taking materials from regional, ethnic, racial, language and cultural differences. We cannot predict the future of Nepal, but nothing persuades to argue that secularism has become better alternative to the Hindu identity of Nepal. Instead, secularism has in a way committed a theft of stable identities including the Hindu identity of the state. Of course, people have already started to search a new identity but Nepal remains vulnerable of clash of small (as opposed to grand) identities of Nepali people due to a shift in the location of political loyalty from broader religious and national identity to ethnic, caste, language, regional and narrower sectarian religious identity.

Works Cited
Alcoff, Linda Martin. “Introduction.” Alcoff and Mendieta. 1-8.
—, and Eduardo Mendieta, eds. Indentities. UK: Balckwell, 2003.
Allen, Richard. “Literature and History.” Literature and Nation: Britain and India. Eds. Richard Allen and Harish Trivedi. London: Routledge, 2000. 9-28.
Castells, Manuel. The Power of Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1997.
Chatterjee, Partha. “Communities and the Nation.” Postcolonial Passages: Contemporary History Writing in India. Ed. Saurabh Dube. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. 115-131.
Hoftun, Martin et al. People, Politics and Ideology: Democracy and Social Change in Nepal. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, 1999.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1996.
INSEC. Nepal Human Rights Yearbook 2007. Kathmandu, 2007.
Khanal, Yadu Nath. Nepal after Democratic Restoration. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1996.
Mato, Daniel. “On the Making of Transnational Identities in the Age of Globalization: The US Latina/o–”Latin” American Case.” Alcoff and Mendieta. 281-294.
Liechty, Mark. “Youth Identities and the Experience of Modernity in Kathmandu, Nepal.” Youth Cultures A Cross-cultural Perspective. Eds. Vered Amit-Talai and Helena Wulff. New York: Routledge, 1995. 166-201.
Nandy, Ashis. Bonfire Creeds: The Essential Ashis Nandy. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.
— et al. Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and Fear of the Self. in Nandy, Ashis. Exiled at Home. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2005.
Nirmal, Ayod Dahumya. Asthako Shanti-Yuddha. Biratnagar: Nepali Bhasha-Samskriti Pasishad, 1999.
Poole, Ross. “National Identity and Citizenship.” Alcoff and Mendieta. 271-280.
Radhakrishnan, R. “Postmodernism and the Rest of the World.” Theory in an Uneven World. Kundli: Blackwell, 2004. 1-30.
Sen, Amartya. “Secularism and Its Discontents.” The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 294-316.
Veer, Peter van der. “Secularity and Religion.” Imperial Encounters: Religion and Modernity in India and Britain. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001. 14-29.

5 Responses to “Post-2006 Tarai/Madhesh Unrest in Nepal: A Byproduct of Secularism”

  1. Eak Prasad Duwadi Says:

    Nirmal Mani Sir

    It’s mind blowing article. Of course, status quos of Nepal is going to be bad to worse. As you have pointed out in your essay, NEW NEPAL is going to suffer a lot because of racial, lingual and religeous conflicts if the stakeholders don’t take any action on time.

  2. Indra Dhoj Kshetri Says:

    It’s a good analytical and argumentative article from sociological perspective. The issue has been raised and I think it requires broader empirical evidences.

  3. रोशन कोइराला Says:

    It is a very incisive and intriguing explanation of the Madhesi issue vis a vis the adoption of secular state. Years have gone down the lane of national experience to convince us as to the accuracy of the analysis. I would feel gratified to be linked further to your other exceptional writings on the whole ball of wax of this issue.

  4. Swagat Nepal Says:

    I pay a great salute to the writer Nirmala Mani Adhikari for his great job. I think the secularism could be symbol of national unity in new context…

  5. bhim lama Says:

    “Youth Identities and the Experience of Modernity in Kathmandu, Nepal.” is the good plan …

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