| August 10, 2020

Contempt of familiarity

Contempt of familiarity
Some Dhotis in New Delhi perhaps realize that so long as Dhotis inside Nepal don't get their due, their own Dhotis will continue to hang loose in Kathmandu

Pretentiousness is the primary property of pompous polities. After cancelling the scheduled pilgrimage of President Bidya Bhandari to Simhastha Kumbha and recalling Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhayay from New Delhi, the coalition of Monarchists, Maoists and Stalinists reigning from Singh Durbar is pretending as if it's business as usual in the land of the thick-skinned Gainda, a wild animal otherwise known as one-horned rhino elsewhere in the world.
Meanwhile, the PEON that controls the reins of ABC (Army, Bureaucracy and Courts) of autopilot government that mostly runs on clouded intelligence of busybodies seems to be under impression that the China Card has succeeded in overwhelming the South Block once again. Their conceit is likely to cost the country dear. The silence of the habitually garrulous security hawks of New Delhi is ominous: When this group is not screaming, it's probably scheming. The resentment of the Indian middleclass too appears to be mounting.

A lot of Indian visitors take the trip to the golden triangle of tourist destinations (Pokhara, Lumbini and Chitwan) after they have completed customary obligations of Pashupati Darshan, gawking at Bhat Bhateni displays, and shopping around Mahaboudha and Indra Chowk for Chinese bargains. One of such guests recently asked me with genuine bewilderment, "Why do you Nepalis hate us so much? Why is Dhoti an expression of loathing in your country?"

There is nothing new in the clichéd question except the fact that the authentic Dhotis of Hindutva variety are in charge of the country that surrounds the secular nation of Sanatan traditions.

Normally I find the use of first person singular somewhat superfluous in a newspaper column. When discussing events, trends or ideas, why belabour the point that views are personal in pieces that are presumed to be opinionated almost by definition? However, when the issue is emotion, personalization perhaps becomes necessary. Since it's not just facts, reasons and arguments but also experiences and impressions that affect the expression, forthright admission of one's predispositions become necessary.

It took some effort, but I patiently explained to my Indian interlocutor that it wasn't just him; even I was merely a Dhoti in the eyes of a significant section of my countrymen. However, the encounter did stoke my own curiosity all over again. Indeed, why even those who must perform all their rituals in Dhotis use the term as a synonym of derision and disgust? Myths, rather than history, perhaps provide more convincing explanations for such socio-cultural frictions.

Inherited hostility

Antipathy of Pakistanis for Indians is perhaps born out of sibling rivalry. Created together from the cadaver of colonial possessions called British India, the Land of the Pure probably needs to keep convincing itself that religious homogeneity is better than cultural heterogeneity for political stability and economic prosperity of newly created countries. Somewhat similar convictions of heavenly uniformity make Buddhist Singhalese assert that Serendib is a blessed nation-state separate from the Sub-continent of cacophonous diversities.

It's understandable that Bangladeshis should make all attempts to grow out of the shadows of a regional hegemon that helped in its independence. Be it a person or a country, brashness is an early sign of coming of age. In addition to individual anxieties, most South Asian countries become supercilious just to show that they are different from a political entity that has appropriated the name of an entire civilization for itself. Theoretically, Nepal should have been free from such compulsions as its existence predates most of the newly independent countries of the postcolonial world. But apprehensions of Nepalis have deeper roots in the collective psyche.

Somewhat similar to the Nietzschean concept of "ressentiment" that justifies the assumption of moral superiority to hide temporal powerlessness, many Nepalis detest Dhotis because they are ashamed of their own inadequacies of the past and present. The loathing is thus born out of fear, shame and helplessness rather than confidence, rivalry or resentment.

Contemporaneous to the Shakyas of Lumbini, the Lichhavis were one of the eight powerful clans of the Vajji Confederacy till the time of Buddha. Some legends hold that when Lichhavis were defeated by Ajatshatru of Magadh, a few oligarchs of the Vajji Republic climbed up the Mahabharata Ranges and established petty principalities on hilltops. Monarchies need to denounce republican anarchy to perpetuate the myth of their indispensability. Since confederacies that succumbed to the Magadh onslaught have been oligarchic republics, Vajji became shorthand for a leaderless land. Perhaps the derogatory term Bajjia in Kathmandu colloquialism owes its origin to later refugees from Vajji rather than Baje for priests as it is commonly believed. Dhoti was the primary attire of Bajjias from Vajji that lay between Koshi and Gandak rivers in the Ganga plains.

During the heydays of Buddhism, many orthodox priests ran away with the loot of their temples to find shelter in isolated valleys across the Shivalik and Mahabharat Ranges. In order to shield themselves from the prying eyes of outsiders they fanned fears of southerners. Thus the Dhotis themselves institutionalised Dhoti-loathing. Only for a brief period during the upsurge of Shaivism uder Adi Shankaracharya, Dhoti had some respectability in the Himalayas.

Fast forward nearly a millennium and a figure that most Hindus love to hate—Emperor Aurangzeb—emerges as a cause for Dhoti-loathing of Dhoti-wearing priests. Contrary to the Hindutva propaganda, the great warrior was no bigot. Historians have shown that "Aurangzeb built far more temples than he destroyed," and that "the proportion of commanders, senior court officials and provincial administrators who were Hindu rose from 24 percent under Aurangzeb's father, Shahjahan to 33 percent in the fourth decade of the Aurangzeb's own rule." Like most warriors, however, Aurangzeb had little tolerance for deviance from the norm. He dealt strictly with jizya-dodging merchants and Hindu priests that exploited ordinary pilgrims.

Even today, Kashi has a hierarchy of priests that begins at the top with law-interpreting Dharmaadhikaris; Mahanth sect-chieftains; hereditary Tirthpurohits; ritual-performer Anushthanis; scripture-narrator Kathabachaks; the guides of rites Karmakandis; pilgrim-hunter Yatrawal and Bhaddars; and the priest of riverbank Ghatiyas with the monopoly-holder over last rites the Mahapatras standing apart from all the rest. Collectively, they are called Pandajis. Pandas in Gaya and Baidyanath, however, are mostly titleholder priests that function as facilitators for pilgrims. Aurangzeb had a strict order to banish any Panda that fleeced his customer beyond Sarhad—the frontiers of Mughal Empire where sovereignty and civilization was supposed to end.

Many of these exiled Pandas, resourceful as they were, co-opted Janjati chieftains of mid-mountains—especially Khas, Magars and Gurungs—as Thakur-Kshetris and instilled in them the horror of Islamic incursions in their principalities. Ever since, Muglan has been a synonym of the Great Unknown and Dhotis potential enemies.

Colonial instruments

Antecedents of Dhoti-loathing probably also include an aversion of an attire that needs regular wash among potential warriors. All great empires need mercenaries to hold on to their possessions and the East India Company discovered the utility of hardy highlanders from Himalayas when the Gorkha Paltan fought for the Sikhs while Naseeri Battalion bled for the British during the First and the Second Sikh Wars between 1845 and 1849. There is some irony in the fact that the Dhotis of the Bengal Army that had defeated the Gorkhalis and the Sikhs were declared non-warlike races after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 but the vanquished groups were hailed as martial races!

The gallawal recruiters of the British Army had reasons to spread hatred against Dhotis in the colonial army; without it, General Dyers' Gurkhas may have hesitated to shoot upon silent assembly in Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 in Punjab.

A huge investment of religious, social, and political authorities has gone behind the creation of Dhoti-loathing that manifests itself in disdain for Marwari businesses, Madheshi commoners and the Indian establishment. It will require equally enormous and sustained effort to overcome something that is a combination of bias, stereotype and prejudice.

For a long time, the Indian establishment gave continuity to colonial convictions of the British and faced its diplomatic consequences with indulgence. With China as a game-changer in the region, that attitude may not continue for long. Some Dhotis in New Delhi have perhaps begun to realize that as long as Dhotis inside Nepal don't get their due, their own Dhotis will continue to hang loose in Kathmandu. This could prove to be an opportunity or a threat depending upon the way Nepal takes the crisis of political economy looming large.