Thursday, 25 April, 2024

Cultural Construct Of National Identity

Dev Raj Dahal


A nation’s sense of life is shaped by conscious poise of its citizens and leaders and their will and ability to control their fate as a collective entity. Human capacity for cultural learning sets them apart from other animals. Enculturation unfolds the path to civilisation which passes on from generation to generation. Generalised rules of conduct, intellectual progress, worldviews, beliefs, values, symbols, rituals, institutions and national characteristics, shared by all inhabitants of a geographical space, append values to cultural milieu and hence the formation of national identity. A nation is thus created by the people, enriched by their languages, rituals and religions, fortified by their gallantry and nourished by an enduring power of unity with the state’s imperatives.
Ayn Rand says, “A culture provides a nation’s intellectual leadership, its ideas, its education, its moral code.” But the meaning of the nation is shifting from what Juergen Habermas calls “a pre-political" identity to “the political identity of the citizens of a democratic polity.” He makes a distinction between “ascribed national identity” of a nation to “acquired democratic citizenship” of the state. Nepali Constitution has recognised the sovereignty of people.
Cultural cohesion and unity against the outsiders create an awareness of national identity. But modern nation-state, espousing human rights, seeks to preserve cultural pluralism and unity in social diversity. Democratic revolution fused the pre-political nation into the equal political state whose primary building block is citizen enjoying equal rights, duties and opportunity. In a pre-national stage, feelings are largely tribal, parochial and patrimonial. The surge of national feelings by poets, singers, artists, historians and leaders helped transform the state of nature into culture, survival of common ancestry to competitive success of citizens and ascribed fate to self-chosen fortune helping to transcend primordial sub-national allegiance to the nationality of the state.
Political leaders are cultural representatives of the nation-state. Nepali leaders’ representation in the United Nations or other platforms, their statements during national rituals and festivals and their appeal to the people in hours of national crisis stir not only emotional tone but also rouse national sentiments and hopes. Genuine national leaders do not hang on tough of platitudes only. They love to wear national dress, adore its symbols and express national feelings to mobilise popular support for their worthy initiatives. A nation’s sense of life is not often based on rational interpretation of social scientists, objectivist portrayal of scientists based on the theory of causality or romantic ones akin to those enjoyed by drunken hippies.
Nepal’s classical treatises see human beings not an isolated piece with split values, an end in itself like Immanuel Kant said but in terms of cosmic web of life interconnected to all living species. The global ecological crusade now is prompted by their survival imperative. Human survival depends on the resilience of plants, animals and micro-organisms they consume. Cultural awareness, as sedimentation of knowledge tradition, is important for the survival of national and global civilisations. Nepal’s diverse topography and climate have produced 125 caste and ethnic groups, 123 languages, over 7 religions and about 136 cultic sects.
Nepal’s ancient philosophy of Shivaism and Buddhism have narrated human beings’ two-fold openings to enlightenment--to their own inner self atma gyyan for vigilance and the outer world which can be gained through interpretative, analytic and scientific knowledge and aid to life’s efficiency along three paths- knowledge, devotion and work - based on their respective virtues. The roots of national culture of Nepal manifest in its sacred ancient texts Vedas, Astavakra Geeta, Ramayan, Mahavarat, Bhagbad Geeta, Upanishads and Niti Shastras (policy sciences), writings of sages and inscriptions dotted in monuments of religious figures who had higher cosmological plans than self-will.
Nepal’s heroes and builders such as Janak, Sita, Gargi and Buddha had greater view of common good. Others such as Mandeva, Amsuverama, Narendra Dev, Ram Shaha, Prithvi Narayan Shaha, Bhimsen Thapa, Balbhadra Kunwar, Bhakti Thapa, Jung Bahadur, etc. acted in defense of national values and cultures. Other sources are several intellectual and religious sites, such as Pashupati, Goraknath, Taleju, Lumbini, Janakpur, deities of Barahachhetra in the east, Chandannath in the west etc. where people often meet, interact with their cultures and revive common memories. Several Aashrams of Sages and Gurukuls also played a part in conserving knowledge and culture such as Ashrams of Pul, Bishwamitra, Rishav Dev, Balmiki, Ved Vyas, Panini, Ne Muni, Chayavan, etc. Sages mediated in secluded places, tested their knowledge in a critical discourse in an epistemic circle for validation, diffusion, statecraft and further inquiry about truth.
The recent events- the government effort to regulate Guthi in a new style, and cancellation of subsidy to celebrate Indra Jatra and Democracy Day fired the passion of people up showing how much they are emotionally attached to their cultural memory. The ruin of Dharahara (city tower) by the earthquake is another example where Nepalis of each hamlet in Kathmandu valley created its miniatures to keep nation’s memory till the leaders decided to reconstruct it. Reconstruction of heritage goes beyond the declaration of the nation secular which sought to replace cultural memory by ideology. National identity, like culture, is socially constructed, not the derivatives of biology or ideology.
Leaders kept Nepali language as lingua franca perhaps knowing its value in building national communicative space for Nepalisation. Nepalis feel pride in Pagoda architecture invented by Arniko that spread in East, Southeast and South Asia, its literature, music and memory conserving intellectual sources and the glory set by Bhrikuti. But the new leaders’ temptation for market expansion has hurtful effects for the keeping national identity. Agnes Heller asserts, “The functioning of market demands the destruction, not preservation, of cultural memory,” public sphere, moral good and ecological code in the same way as “future-oriented political movements” of civil society as they do not “create any cultural traditions which might have some validity for future generations.”
Obviously, they are based on rationalism and utilitarian calculation. The lament of the tradition begins from the converse cultural construction as it is driven by ahistorical market logic of post-modernism. The modern version of civic nationalism of Nepal demands bigger premium on citizenship, their ability to concert each other on the resolution of shared problems and active coexistence in the nation-state.
The notion of national identity in Nepal does not undermine multiple belongings to personal, social and national identities. This is why Nepal historically and even now harbours realistic understanding of culture and society and disfavours cultural homogenisation or clash of cultures. Its syncretic culture, toleration of all castes as priests in various temples and reconciliation between Hinduism, Buddhism and various sects represent its cultural fusion vital for shaping national identity. The Constitution of Nepal has sought to bridge the social chasms that divided people, abolished Dalits’ shared feeling of being disrespected, established women, Janajatis, Aadibasis, Madhesis and Muslims’ collective struggle for recognition and minorities’ identities.
Nepali identity is facing a number of challenges. First, the adverse activities of supra-national institutions against Nepali values, religion and culture, market institutions as explained above and non-state and subsidiary identities demanding special privileges, recognition, autonomy and resource. Second, the global flow of population, capital and goods and services are posing newer sources of challenges to Nepali identity prompted by multinational state, multi-cultural policies and group identities that risk overwhelming individual rights and national identity. Third, post-modern turn poses another challenge to the state’s monopoly on power, the social contract and its sovereignty with its focus on differentiation, not unity. Fourth, growth of autonomous organisations linked to geopolitical centres aim to desolate its spiritual spring, erode its soft power to glue state-citizen unity and pull Nepalis to a post-national identity, not caring welfare benefits to citizens.
In the absence of common civic education for all Nepalis, split of education into public and private and geopolitical imperatives can also undercut mutually beneficial international cooperation and erode national aspirations for identity. Nepal has enough experience of either being the centre of strategic attraction and adapt to a balance among them so as to prevent national polarisation and geopolitical determinism.
Nepalis have never constructed national identity on the basis of xenophobia. Major challenges for Nepali leaders are how to revive its national will and capabilities from exhaustion caused by internal power struggle, defuse conflict, cultivate moderation and toleration to the legitimate voice and discourage extremisms of all sorts. Only oneness and greatness of Nepali nation can fill the feelings of poets, historians, litterateurs, scholars, journalists and statesmen and hone the spirit of youths to love this nation. The sense of unity among the Nepalis can bridge the state-citizen gaps and attain security, order, stability and progress. The continued survival of Nepali nation-state is determined not only by its rugged geography but also language, religion and culture that gave the natives eternal freedom. Now leaders need to critically assess about it and relevance of their policies. It is vital to leverage its national strength in foreign policy and independent national identity.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)