| November 28, 2020

Manacles of Mahendrism

Manacles of Mahendrism
There is a reason some Madheshis feel they are lesser Nepalis if they don't possess elastic backbones that bend on cue

Nearly two-and-half centuries after the fall of the Malla Dynasty in Nepal valley, many prominent rulers of that period continue to worship their family deities from atop artistic columns erected in Durbar Squares of Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Kantipur. They fully deserve their lofty pedestals for they patronized the creation of some of the most aesthetic structures in the world.
Reflecting conspiratorial tyrannies of Ranarchy (1846-1951), equestrian statues of a few of these hereditary Premiers appear perpetually insecure, pompously pretentious and flagrantly flamboyant—all at the same time. Most of these usurpers have been left to guard the perimeter of Tundikhel parade ground.

For the ruler of the indigent principality of Gorkha, it must have been quite a feat to build a kingdom through a combination of native guile, courageous campaigns and coordinated conquests. King Prithvi (1723-1725) has the right to raise his index finger at whosoever cares to look up to him at the main entrance of Singh Durbar.

Contributions of King Tribhuvan (1906-1955) are less certain. His role was indeed instrumental in ending the Ranarchy; but the Shah Restoration in its wake turned out to be inimical for the institutionalization of democracy. He continues to sit atop the Martyrs' Memorial near Bhadrakali to the chagrin of his detractors.

King Birendra (1945-2001) watches the world go round and round from atop the modest platform at the center of a small traffic rotary in Jawalakhel. History will perhaps remember his gory end in the Narayanhiti Massacre rather than the glory of his rule. Nobody need resent his continued presence in the republican order. Even if nothing else, his statue serves as a secure flagpole to mount the Double Triangle on special occasions.

Iconoclasm of Maoist mayhem and Madhesh uprisings failed to penetrate what King Prithvi had appropriately called a natural and impenetrable fort—the Takhat Killa of Nepal valley. The statues of Shah-Rana era probably need to remain to remind future generation of Nepalis about travails of history their forefathers endured and survived.

Descendents of discredited rulers should have freedom to worship their ancestors. But these effigies don't just brave rains, heat, cold, dust, and bird droppings that are periodically cleaned to receive floral tributes from their biological as well as ideological progenies. Some of them are idolized for policies they pursued while alive.

King Mahendra (1920-1972) is remembered by his acolytes every Poush One for his 'courageous step' of suspending the constitution, dissolving the parliament, dismissing the first elected government in the history of the country, and imprisoning almost the entire Council of Ministers including Prime Minister BP Koirala—all in the name of what he had the temerity to call 'National Interest'.

It took nearly three decades to get rid of the doctored democracy Mahendra put in place. Other principles of his Panchayat experiment—ethnic definition of nationalism, developmental dreams divorced from ground realities, and pronounced anti-Indian posturing—continue to find committed adherents even in this day and age.

Patriotic prejudice

Contrary to what Samuel Johnson noted, patriotism is the first, rather than the last, refuge of Nepali nationalists. Some of them will undoubtedly keep up the tradition of queuing up at the Durbar Marg traffic island on Poush One where the statue of King Mahendra occupies prime real estate and continues to create movement hazard for motorists and pedestrians alike. Even the so-called democrats that mark the occasion as the Black Day in the history of Nepal failed to gather enough courage to consign the effigy of their villain to the attic of the Palace Museum.

Among the power elite, a strange fascination with Mahendra's misadventures in politics persists. It's not just the monarchists, Maoists, Marxists, Leninists and Stalinists that find Mahendrism appealing; even the strident critics of the absolute king in the ranks of Nepali Congress have suddenly become his admirers. When it comes to protecting parochial privileges and promoting ethnic interests, honchos of NC have little hesitation in making common cause with Maoists, Monarchists and Stalinists as was seen during the promulgation of perhaps the most contentious constitution to date.

To be sure, fundamentals of Mahendra's conceptualization of nationalism aren't too different from those of BP Koirala: Both agreed that Nepali language, monarchical culture and lifestyle of mid-mountains were basic elements of the idea of Nepalipan. While BP was agnostic, Mahendra shrewdly realized the role of Hindutva in safeguarding the primacy of monarchy. Assumptions of strengthening nationalism, however, were totally different.

For BP, the idea of nationality was inseparable from the practice of democracy, which made Nepalipan open to different interpretations in the plains and the hills. In Tarai-Madhesh, it was presented as an evolving idea that had the capacity to absorb different identities. Mahendra sought to 'ethnicize'—the process of erecting socio-political boundaries in order to protect integrity of presumed ethnic-cultural heritages and stigmatizing outsiders—the idea of nationalism. Such a fascistic formulation had been tried in pre-war Japan, Germany and Italy and had inspired the founder of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) K.B. Hedgewar in India.

The "one language, one culture, one religion, one dress and one lifestyle under the leadership of one Supreme Leader" is a well-known formulation of ethnicized nationalism. However, such a formula also needs enemies within and outside to thrive. Inner adversaries, in fact, are more important than outer ones to consolidate one's support base. For Hedgewar, Muslims in India fitted the bill perfectly. Ideologues of Mahendrism sought to fit all Madheshis in a similar mould.

When McCarthyism spread in the US in early 1950s, alleged communists were made the target to strengthen national resolve in the Cold War. Mahendra may not have been aware of intellectual intricacies and importance of enemy creation in the formation of false consciousness among the masses, but a variation of McCarthyism became a fundamental feature of Mahendrism.

Replacing 'communists' of the Red Scare with Madheshis, Mahendrism emerged as the "practice of making wild accusations of disloyalty against Madheshis; often unsupported by any proof or at best based on slight, doubtful, dubious or completely irrelevant 'evidence'." Over time, this practice strengthened prejudices, amplified stereotypes, consolidated harmful biases, fed discriminatory practices and offered Madheshis as convenient scapegoats whenever the nationalist mainstream felt its privileges were at the risk.

Unfortunately, Mahendrism has become the common sense of the mainstream media, which looks at Madhesh Uprisings with parochial lenses of dominant ideology of nationalism. King Mahendra has been dead for several decades, his legacy lives on.

Cultural capital

Designed to withstand the possible onslaught of Marxism-Leninism in Nepal, the Panchayat System was a rightwing version of the Maoist prototype. Demagoguery and populism were its twin allures. Panchayat sought to create the illusion of class coordination instead of endeavoring to resolve endemic conflicts. Ethnic perception was identified as an effective antidote to the lure of class consciousness. Mahendrism then became a rabid form of nativism, which is a policy of favoring supposedly indigenous inhabitants as opposed to perceived immigrants. The trouble of Madheshis now doubled—they were not just members of an 'out-group' but also 'outsiders' in their own land.

Enormous investment of physical and intellectual resources was made to amass cultural capital of exclusivity. It led to the formation of what the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus: "the way society becomes deposited in persons in the form of lasting dispositions, or trained capacities and structured propensities to think, feel and act in determinant ways, which then guide them". There is a reason some Madheshis feel they are lesser Nepalis if they don't possess elastic backbones that bend on cue.

The bad news is that the habitus of Mahendrism is intact. The good news is that its manacles are no longer considered ornaments to be worn with pride. Hope of change is in the air.

To paraphrase what Golda Meir said about Jews, pessimism is a luxury that a Madheshi should never allow herself. She has to fight against a political system that enjoys passionate support of the dominant ethnicity. Victory and freedom from fetters of Mahendrism is foreordained, but only after protracted, peaceful and persistent struggles.
CK Lal

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