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General News    H3'ed 7/13/08

Communalism Is Superior to Nationalism

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Editor's Note: In The Madhesis of Nepal, K. Yhome writes (paraphrased): "Dramatic events in Nepal have redefined the political landscape of the Himalayan nation in more ways than one. One important change is the visible rise of "marginalized" groups in national politics.  The "excluded" groups - cutting across ethnic, religious and language lines - are demanding their due rights.  In the midst of these changes is the rise of the Madhesis (plains people).  Madhesis are an important segment of the population in Nepal. They economically occupy the most significant region of the country with 70-80% of the country's industries located in the Terai region.  It accounts for 65% of Nepal's agricultural production. Nepal's economy depends heavily on the region. Strategically, the Terai belt constitutes the lifeline of Nepal.  All key transportation routes from India pass through this region, making it the gateway to landlocked Nepal.  Almost all the country's import and export takes place through this region.  Given these factors, any disturbance in the region involving the Madhesis becomes extremely critical as it has the potential to seriously jeopardise the country.  See map.   

Krishna Hari Pushkar holds special expertise in the areas of peace, security and conflict management with relevance to developing countries and is currently affiliated with Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of Nepal.

This paper looks into the issue of communalism and its superiority to nationalism, with a short case assessment of Nepal's Madhesis movement. The main hope of the paper is to begin an academic and political discussion about the conventional definitions and traditional concepts of nationalism and communalism.  Is communalism superior to nationalism? This paper presents my experiences and observation about communalism found in various cases.

Communalism means a hereditist spontaneous loyalty and down-to-earth commitment toward a similar ethnic community or caste or racial group to which people belong.  Communalism is stronger than nationalism, particularly when such people, groups, or communities represent a minority or less mainstreamed part of society who often suffer discrimination. This can include disabled people, lesbians and gays, or people of particular professions, religions, or any groups or communities that share and express like concerns.  Communalism is a spontaneous feeling or state of mind that binds people intellectually or emotionally to a particular course of action, to achieve specific goals.  Communal feelings force people to some extent to act in a particular manner.  This is done knowingly or unconsciously, because communalism springs from heredity, or conventional and contemporary practices. It is human nature to associate with an inherently recognized identity, or it can be constructed in some exceptional cases by particular society or groups to fulfill contemporary needs, e.g. to achieve rights or recognition, etc.  Communalism is part of natural phenomena, which exist, in every human society.  However, its level, type or degree may differ in person-to-person, society-to-society, region-to-region and situation-to-situation.

Conversely, nationalism is a broader umbrella term with limited horizons.  It is based on legal doctrines and connects citizenship with a specific geographic boundary.  But status within that boundary may be changed easily, as when people legally immigrate or emigrate.  Also, borders fluctuate, being unilaterally or multilaterally revised, so nationalism as a concept can be murky.  Further, nationalism promotes the idea that one culture and set of interests are superior to any other.  But in practice, where societies and communities are pluralistic, nationalism tends to be secondary to regional identities and concerns.  In reality, millions of people change their national citizenship simply to enjoy a better standard of living, or to take advantage of better employment opportunities, better education, or to fulfill some specific missions and goals.  Therefore, the notion of nationalism seems very fragile in contemporary society. 

Nepal and the Madhesi People 

The Madhesis are indigenous inhabitants of Nepal's plains.  While census figures are in dispute, the Madhesis comprise between 30 and 50% of the total population of Nepal.  The Madhes region comprises the southern plains, which stretches from southeast to northwest. Nepal is landlocked between India and China.  The major issue of Madhes can be presented in two versions: the general political version and the insurgents' version. The political version of the Madhesis issues can be understood from the demands of Madhesi Peoples Rights Forum (MPRF) who played a leading role during the popular Madhes movement 2006-2007.  Key demands include: 

* Constituting a federal democratic republic;
* Proportional electoral system;
* Autonomy in the Madhes region (one Madhes, one province);
* End of internal colonization;
* Regional autonomous governance system including right to self-determination;
* Rights to the land's natural resources and biological diversity;
* End of racial and regional discrimination; and
* Provide citizenship certificates to all Madhesis without discrimination.
The insurgents' version of the Madhesi issue is considered from the demands of one of the hardcore Madhesi insurgents named Jantantrik Mukti Morcha (JTMM: Jwala Sigh). The JTMM demands that: 
* Madhes should be declared an independent state;
* There should be proportionate participation by determining constituencies on the basis of population;
* All police, army and administration in the Madhes should be evacuated and Madhesi people should be posted;
* Population census should be conducted in Madhes and coordinated by Madhesi;
* All the revenue collected from Madhes should be spent for the development of Madhes;
* All the Madhesi killed by the state and Maoists should be declared martyrs and rupees 1.5 million should be provided as compensation;
* Citizenship should be issued from the central to district level as coordinated by the Madhesi;
* The land of Madhesi captured by Maoists should be returned; and
* Maoists should stop their donation drive and tax collection in Madhes.
Besides these conflicts, nevertheless, there are many similarities among the different political groups, including their demands, working style, action strategy, and more.  Both groups are continuously combating the government for inclusion of Madhesis in all principal organs of state, human rights, proportional representation and autonomy, rights of self-determination, power sharing, development, and abolishment of all types of discrimination against Madhesis.  Thus, two groups of Madhesis people seek similar goals but employ different strategies: one supports general political actions e.g. bandh, gherao, strike, blockade, demonstrations, etc.; the other involves itself in murder, kidnapping, shootings, bombings, counter war with national security forces, control over non-Madhesis properties, attack of governmental offices and its officials, etc. In short, there are two major groups, one who adopts civil political means and another that adopts a guerrilla warfare approach.  (Perhaps they learned from the recently ended Maoist insurgency.) 

The Madhesis are politically marginalized, though some of them are affiliated with various ruling and political parties such as Nepali Congress, Nepal Communist Party (UML), Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Nepal Sadbhawana Party, etc.  Few Madhesis sit in positions of authority, nor are they represented in the cabinet, parliament, or other high-level positions in the various political parties.  While many Madhesis are affiliated with various political parties and they practice the given ideology, during the 2006-2007 Madhes movement, all Madhesis united in one communal voice by ignoring all national and political ideological practices.  Some of the Madhesis politicians revolted inside the respective ruling political party.  Many sacrificed their political positions or disobeyed the imposed instructions by their affiliated parties to express solidarity and stand together during the Madhes movement to achieve the goals outline above.   Madhesi civil servants, Madhesis ethnic security personnel, and other professional people (e.g. engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.) also stood in community with the Madhesis movement, abandoning the norms and guidelines of nationalism, professionalism and any interests other than communalism. The Madhesis people living abroad also supported the movement through various means such as online communication, donations, media marketing, diplomatic pressure, and by use of their various resources to internationalize the issues.

Meanwhile, majorities of ruling political parties and their commanders and central leaders (including the Prime Minister of Nepal Girija Prasad Koirala, Pusp Kamal Dahal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, etc.) worked hard to suppress the Madhes movement.  They accused and frequently vouched that the Madhes movement was a conspiracy against Nepal nationality and an attack on national sovereignty and integrity.  Further, they impeached the Madhes movement as being against the verdict of the second national people's movement of 2006.  Some non-Madhesis remarked, "The royalist, pro-monarchical and Hindu fundamentalists are behind the movement," and some even went as far to say "it is a movement of regressive forces and criminals."  The anti-Madhesis politicians and some self-proclaimed nationalist parties officially supported suppressing the movement through use of force:  by using security forces with joint-action operations with Indian security mechanisms.  Majorities of non-Madhesis considered the Madhes movement an ominous movement for secession.   

However, no single Madhesis person diverged from the movement and its supporting mentality; Madhesis continued their actions toward effecting the desired common goals.   

Accordingly, a natural question arises:  why did the Madhesis people go beyond national interest?  Simply, the answer is due to communalism, which has a higher priority than nationalism.  Such hardcore communal solidarity emerged even while the nation endured transitional crises brought about by the peace process with Maoists, issues of constitutional assembly elections, monarchial abolishment, governmental restructuring, and many more other important inclusivity issues affecting regional communities, gender, castes, etc.

In practice, it has been observed in many case studies that people love and attach to their own language, socio-cultural or religious group to which they belong.  For instance, let's imagine four people living together in the same building in the U.S. or in any foreign country: a Nepalese person from Darjeeling, India, a Madhesi person from Darbhanga, India, a Madhesi person from Janakpur, and a Nepalí from Kathmandu, Nepal.  In that case, it has been seen that people from Darbhanga and Janakpur and the people from Darjling and Kathmandu are closer and more intimate than with those with the same nationality.  This is simply because of the stronger feeling of communalism. Shared common interests, practices, problems, and other relevant notions make people naturally closer.  It is commonly believed that intimacy and closeness should be guided by nationalism in most cases.  This integrates people in a single line as well as in a matrix. 

However, in practice, just the opposite is found to be true in dozens of case studies in various communities such as Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and America:  regional communalism bound each group more tightly than nationalism.  In other words, communalism is more deeply valued than nationalism. Thus, the presented case shows that the bonds of communalism seem stronger in a majority of ethnic communities around the world.  

Other Examples

In the border area of Germany and France, some German ethnic people have French nationality and vice versa due to redrawn borders from various periods of time. In this case, it has been also observed that people give priority to their communalism rather than their nationality.

In another example, the Turkish ethnic people who adopt German citizenship also retain their communal identity as Turks.  This communalism was openly revealed during the European Football Championship program 25th June 2008, in the semifinal match between Germany and Turkey.  Several Turkish ethnic German people violently reacted when Turkey lost the football game against Germany.  Few, if any, Turkish ethnic German citizens were happy that their nation's team defeated Turkey. They wanted to see Turkey win due to their natural communalism with a shared culture, rather than the artificial construct of nationalism.

A similar situation occurs in the case of Kashmir at the Indo-Pakistani border, where conflict is ongoing.  This situation exists in many parts of Indian Territory.  Hence, the degree of communalism is comparatively higher in the developing world and lesser in the developed world. However, communalism exists everywhere.  Nepotism, favoritism, racism, etc. are also inseparable consequences of communalism and its practices.  Communalism seems inversely proportional to the higher-level positive trend of development and directly proportional to marginalization, discrimination and under-development.  

The Rise of Communalism in Nepal Politics

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Mr. Pushkar was a DAAD fellow and studied research master in peace and conflict studies in Germany. Also, he holds an internationally honored first class master degree in public administration. He has participated in dozens of national and (more...)
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