| November 28, 2020

Dignity in diversity

Dignity in diversity
It's not easy to define dignity but it implies a person is worthy of respect for what she is rather than what is required of her

It was the day of Guru Nanak Jayanti and a Shabad Kirtan was in progress inside the Kupondole Gurudwara when someone texted to inform that Banbari Lal Mittal (1936-2015) had passed away. A pious and meticulous person in life, it appeared as if he had chosen a particularly sacred occasion—the night of Vaikuntha Chaturdashi when both Har (Shiva) and Hari (Vishnu) are worshipped together—for his departure from this world.
I don't know about businesses of BL too well to assess his contributions to the national economy. But I had known him far too long not to know that he resented not being accepted into the circle of "proper Nepalis" despite being one of the scions of 32-big business families (Battiskothi Sahus) of Nepal valley with a history of nearly one-and-a-half century in this country. He would have probably taken offence with Indian publications that noted his passing as that of an "Indian-origin businessman".

Fluent in at least five languages—Marwari, Newari, Nepali, Hindi and English—BL was as 'pure' a Nepali in body, mind and soul as anyone of his childhood friends in the Wotu Tole of Central Kathmandu. However, unlike many Marwaris of Kathmandu that disliked being lumped with Madheshis of Tarai-Madhesh, he sometimes joked that he too was kind of 'Marsya-Nepali'.

After passing out from JP school, BL had gone to Benares for further studies and then proceeded to Bombay for a business degree. A raconteur par excellence, he used to narrate how he had managed to get into the prestigious Elphinstone —Later I gathered that he had actually graduated from Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics, which probably shared the premises of Elphinstone in early years—by just telling the Principal in detail about travails of his travels from Kathmandu to Bombay. Without any further question, the college chief had admitted him on the spot.

Upon his return from Indian sojourn, he also acquired a second degree from the newly established law college in Kathmandu. His love of reading remained strong; and his eloquence and erudition shone through whatever topic he chose to dwell upon.

Cultural deficit

It was an autumn morning, with slight chill in the air, in late-1970s when BL saw me buying newspapers from the New Road footpath and asked me if I was free to accompany him in house hunting. He still lived in Wotu and his boys were boarders at some hill-station in Kumaon-Garhwal in India. On the way, he explained that he wanted to buy a new house where his modernized children would feel more at home.

Our first stop was Kalimati where a non-resident couple from the US had put up their mansion for sale. It was a beautiful building with spiral stairways climbing up to the living area from the entry hall. In comparison to prevailing rates of the time, the owners weren't asking too much; they had even offered a heavy discount if the payment were to be made in US dollars. The lady of the house asked the business of BL and remarked in an offhand manner, with a mixture of admiration, envy and resentment in her tone—Indians and Chinese excel in whatever trade they decide to pursue in any country of the world.

The deal wasn't sealed. The house was perhaps too fancy for the liking of BL and he also thought that living along banks of any river in Kathmandu wouldn't be pleasant within few decades. He ultimately ended up buying an old house in Gyaneshwar and restored it according to his needs.

Later that morning, I asked BL what he felt being called an Indian by a complete stranger when he never failed to emphasize his Nepali identity at slightest pretext. His haunting answer is relevant even today, "It hurts. I am a Nepali citizen. I pay my taxes. I observe laws of this land. I vote. I contribute to the welfare of our society to the best of my ability. But I console myself. We are all parts of the Indian Civilization after all. The lady has an advantage—her culture has the name of a country stamped upon it. Ours is diffuse."

Nearly four decades after that conversation, it's sad to see that Nepal is still being perceived by a significant section of the population as a uni-cultural country where nothing other than assimilation can forge national unity.

A Culture—in the sense of customs, ideas and practices of a particular people—evolves over ages. Noam Chomsky, perhaps the greatest living linguist in the world, has convincingly argued that the fundamental structure of all human languages is the same and a child learns the speech of her surrounding rather than that of parents.

There is nothing biological about race: All human beings share the same genes to the extent of at least 99.99 percent. All organized religions, despite claims of some to eternity, are social creations. Then what is it that makes nation-states prescribe monolingual, uni-cultural, and single religion policies as markers of national identity? Perhaps it's a stratagem to perpetuate the hegemony of the existing elite. No matter how hard the willfully 'othered' try to ape the manufactured 'self' of a nation-state, she still remains outside its standard definition.

Upendra Mahato has made a name for himself in trade, industry and philanthropy. Despite his contributions and achievements, it's extremely unlikely that even his Gorkhali chauffer would consider him to be a "true Nepali". Should he decide to drop the 'o' from his surname forthwith, his descendents may get assimilated into the mainstream after some generations.

Throughout his term in the Office of the President of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, Dr. Rambaran Yadav went out of his way to downplay his Maithil-Madheshi roots and emphasized the identity of a uni-cultural Nepali properly attired in Daura-Suruwal-Topi and speaking only lingua franca of the state. It seemed to work only as long as he agreed to sign on the dotted line set by PEON players. The moment he voiced his conscience, he began to be denounced by the same people who had earlier sung hosannas in praise of his nationalistic bearing.

Just as the shift in terminology from Negro to Black to Afro-American and then to African American hasn't succeeded in changing the lot of such citizens in their mother country, merely the wordplay of "Nepali First" isn't sufficient to turn Madheshis or the so-called Bhotes into "true Nepalis". The Lalbabu duo of UML—both Pandit and Yadav—are paraded by their party as "Model Madheshis", but they still remain mere Madheshis.

What then is the way to ensure that the dignity of difference doesn't need to be disowned in order to fit into the national description of authenticity? There are no easy answers. Along with the US and India, even countries such as China and France—where such questions were supposed to have become irrelevant—have now begun to grapple with the issue of plurality of identities.

Political prescription

It's not easy to define dignity, but it certainly implies that a person is worthy of honor and respect for what she is rather than what is required of her. All insensitive epithets and stereotypes—racial, ethnic, gender and religious—demean, even if unintentionally. Some scholars have argued that dignity is often more fundamental than welfare or autonomy, not only for the people but entire communities.

Plural politics seeks to address the quest of dignity in a country through the politics of diversity, which includes, but isn't limited to, institutionalization of jus soli citizenship, proportionate inclusion, representation based on population, federal structure and autonomous units of local government.

It's true that diffuse communities such as Sikhs, Muslims, Marwaris and even Dalits don't stand to gain much from federalism. However, the federal structure institutionalizes dignity in diversity, which goes beyond decentralization for governance, and benefits all minorities.

I know BL would have loved the discussion. But after 1990s, he got engrossed in his new businesses. We met perhaps only once or twice a year at Indo-Nepal Friendship events of Prem Laskary where BL would proclaim with all authority that cucumber was good with lunch but needed to be replaced with onion during dinner. I wouldn't get to tell him now that his advice wasn't very appropriate for young couples. Perhaps he would have replied: They know what is best for them, only the old need suggestions.
CK Lal

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