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Collective identity of all groups should be in the constitution

Consultations are ongoing for a new political force led by Adivasi Janajatis. Partly engaged in the consultation process is Dambar Chemjong, a Cultural Anthropology lecturer at Tribhuvan University. Chemjong is also a PhD candidate in anthropology at Cornell University with a focus on indigeneity, identity, nation and Limbuwan politics. The Post’s Gyanu Adhikari spoke with Chemjong on the new party and its implications for Nepali politics. Excerpts:

Why a Janajati Adivasi party?

Because of the failure of Nepal’s politics to address political and historical marginalisation and identity issues. The dominant parties failed in the final exam. For example, when the time came to voting in the CA, the leadership of dominant parties avoided it at all costs. In fact, the same people who call themselves messiahs of democracy in the Nepali context avoided a democratic process. Right after the Adivasi Janajatis, Madhesis and Muslims forged an alliance to vote for the proposed 14 provinces tabled in the CA, Prachanda, Jhalanath Khanal and Sushil Koirala began holding meetings for consensus. Under the pretence of seeking consensus, they’re in fact harming democracy.

Granted, there’s a lot of disenchantment with the existing parties. But what new vision for the country does the proposed party have?

The failure to write a new constitution and the dissolution of the CA has divided Nepali politics and people into the status quoists on one side and the federalists on the other, especially those who want federalism with the recognition of collective identity. Those who want to build a new force are also in continuous consultation with local people all over Nepal. These include Nefin and dissenters in the UML and Nepali Congress—but not the Maoists. There’s a lot of pressure from the ground up. This was expressed for the first time during the national convention organised by Nefin where 95 percent of participants were for forming a new political force.

So the primary agenda for the new party is federalism?

Yes, federalism with recognition of collective identity of the different peoples.

But doesn’t that make it the proposed party a single-issue party? What if the agenda is achieved, will the party disband after that?

There’s the question of implementation of federalism, which is a long-term project. As soon as the new constitution comes into effect, the real devolution of political power will begin.

The political issues are many, does it make sense to focus on just one?

What is unique about federalism is that it will guarantee the rights of the people at the local level. Local people, including Madhesis and other marginalised people, are said to be very good at managing natural resources like forests, pastures and water. But as soon as they begin to claim to manage

their politics as well, the dominant parties begin to whine, saying it will break the country into pieces. But the fact is that  they don’t want to give up their power and they don’t want to see the marginalised empowered in a real political sense.

A number of politicians and commentators say that creation of a Janajati party, if anything, will further polarise the Nepali polity and disturb communal harmony. Comments?

That’s unfounded. If you visit local communities you will find different caste/ethnic and other marginalised people living in harmony. There are forces that bind different peoples together while there are also forces that divide them. Society exists in a state of dualism and dialectics. Harmony alone doesn’t drive society. What keeps society dynamic is dialectics. Globalisation has been integrating us economically but differentiating us politically, as the anthropologist Terence Turner says. A labourer moves from one place to another, and consumes products from all the place. Still, politically he has a distinct identity. It is not the economics that is uniting us but our political ideas, for example identity, history and socio-cultural marginalisation. These are the reference points along which people are being organised politically.

There are some who believe federalism will weaken the Nepali state even further?

It’s actually neo-liberal capitalism that weakens the state. Take for example, the Nepali state that has accepted pre-conditions put forward by INGOs and donors when accepting loans/development aid. The state does very little for education, health and employment today, and is becoming weaker and weaker. Whenever the state is weak, groups of people who were marginalised by the state unite politically to address historical domination. On the one hand, dominant politicians are arguing that the state will break into pieces if we establish identity-based names for the state. At the same

time, they’re the ones who weaken

the state by adopting neo-liberal economic policies. Federalism will enable the people to decide what kind of relationship you want between yourself and the state. The centre will further weaken, unless we establish a federal union concept—that is what we understand as new Nepal.

Professor Chaitanya Mishra  has said in this page that we’re creatures with multiple identities that are always fluid. If so, why has Janajati/Adivasi identity been such a powerful unifier recently?

To say identity is fluid and individuals and people have multiple identities is a lopsided understanding of identity. Identity has to be understood at two levels with two types of implications—identity exists at individual and collective levels. So individual identiy is fluid, like a slippery slope. As an individual, I might choose to prefer changing my language and identity, and that’s fine, as professor Mishra put it correctly. But what is collective identity? The same individual may have his or her identity that comes from caste/ethcniciy/indigeneity, etc which he or she cannot change. That identity is static and permanent. It is beyond the individual’s capacity to change. Collective identity also emanates from your territory, history, internal colonial domination, etc. The unequal relationship between the state and the peoples is what is behind this unifying drive that seeks to change that relationship.

What is at the root of the discontent of Janajati leaders in mainstream parties?

They had hopes the parties would address their concerns in the new constitution and  solve the problem of collective identity. But the parties didn’t want to do that in the end. The dissenters, including Ashok Rai, Rakam Chemjong, Bijaya Subba and Prithvi Subba Gurung, were removed from their responsibilities. This example shows who dominates the parties. The next day, Shankar Pokhrel said if they [Janajati leaders] become active in party activities then they can be given back their responsibilities. He always wants to be the giver. This is a type of patron-client, giver-receiver relationship. KP Oli said the other day in Pokhara, alluding to Ashok Rai, that they were brought to the party as

“pots to heat the milk” but now the “the pot itself want to drink the milk”.

The position of Janajati leaders was always subordinate in the party. At the end of the day, the issue is not about the party post, it is about collective identity and federalism that the parties failed to address.

Why is it important that collective identity of groups across different castes and ethnicities is reflected in the constitution, as demanded by Janajatis and Madhesis?

The constitution is the most sacred document in modern politics. This is what Maurice Godelier says in “The Enigma of the Gift”. At least in one letter, one word, one phrase, the constitution should reflect the identities. Politically, being inscribed in the constitution goes beyond each group’s sacred ancestral symbols. Translating this to the modern constitution

somehow means that people will embrace it as collective property.

This is what Chaitanya Sir doesn’t understand—even though he’s a Marxist, he’s also a Hindu. If for 15 generations we are a Hindu state and expand Khas-language, how are the marginalised going to accept a constitution that retains those features? If the constitution actually inscribes the names/collective identities of all different groups of population, this will make all realise that this is our collective property. They wouldn’t burn it. This is how we make different groups of population feel that the constitution is theirs, too.

What will Nepal gain, if anything, by accepting identity-based names for federal states?

It will lose nothing but gain if we have a constitution on the basis of identity-based state names. All different hitherto marginalised politically and socio-culturally will realise that the constitution belongs to them as well. It will become their collective property, and it will become, in an actual sense, their most sacred political document. By having this kind of constitution, we may be able to prevent new conflicts from starting. People have a false sense of calm these days without a constitution. I’ll give you another example,

just a few days ago, Limbuwan activists said that if there’s a Limbuwan state, they’ll guarantee that there won’t be a banda in that state, whether Kathmandu-centred people believe it or not. Also, when people realise that the constitution has really recognised their collective identity, they will

also invigorate enormous capability within themselves for further development of their states, for capability ultimately depends on the fulfillment of political goals.


Via: The Kathmandu Post

Published Date: Saturday, August 25th, 2012 | 02:06 AM

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