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SREBRNIK: Identity politics in Nepal

Henry Srebrnik
Henry Srebrnik - Contributed

In the Himalayan state of Nepal, identity issues have dominated its political landscapes in the past decade.

There are more than 125 ethnic communities in Nepal, and the majority of people are also peasants.

The dominance of Hindu groups began after the unification of various principalities into modern-day Nepal by the Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah in the 1770s, establishing a Hindu dynasty in Nepal.

However, Nepal witnessed a series of peasant rebellions against the state and landed aristocrats in the 20th century, culminating in a full-fledged Maoist revolution that overthrew the old order.

Ethnic peasants were at the forefront, demanding autonomy, dignity, and an end to state violence. Since then, however, the idea of indigeneity has become more pronounced.

As identity politics became the dominant ideological force, this has undermined the course of radical political developments in the country.

People who do not fall within the Hindu caste hierarchy and have their own language and cultural identity claim themselves to be ethnic populations.

Madhesi communities in the southern Terai area, which borders India, and who constitute one-third of Nepal’s population, consider themselves as a separate ethnic group.

The Maoists entered into a peace agreement in 2006 and two years later won the first elections of the post-war period. They declared Nepal a republic.

However, in the aftermath of the revolution the powerful ethnic and peasant movements were gradually replaced by identity politics as a new consolidating force in Nepali politics.

Dozens of political groups emerged demanding political autonomy for indigenous people and identity-based federalism in Nepal. Taking advantage of this, urban and ethnic elites, have reconsolidated their political and economic power.

The Maoists had effectively mobilized the idea of ethnic autonomy to enroll the rural peasantry into the revolution, not realizing this might eventually boomerang and reproduce, via new forms of identity-based political mobilization, a return to upper-class dominance.

By prioritizing ethnic autonomy, the Maoists had created an opening for identity politics to displace core concerns regarding social, cultural, and economic exploitation.
As identity politics surpassed other political ideas, the Maoists themselves were left with ethnic federalism as the only agenda for their political campaign.

Ethnic identity politics became particularly strong in the Terai region, where the Madhesi people faced the most entrenched economic inequality and caste discrimination in the country. They have long been exposed to racial slurs and to being framed as Indians or illegal migrants.

They had come to champion a Madhesi state within a proposed new constitution. But the Maoists voted out of power in elections held in 2013, were forced to accept a new constitution, passed in 2015, which created a geography-based federation, dividing Nepal into seven provinces.

Madhesi activists argued that it separated them into different jurisdictions, increasing rather than alleviating their discrimination.

So while many Nepalese celebrated Constitution Day this past Sept. 20, Mahanta Thakur, leader of the Madhesi-based Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal, told protesters that the Madhesi people “have been fighting against oppression, injustice and discrimination for a long time.” That is why “we consider this day a black day.”

The Nepalese situation is another demonstration of the law of unintended consequences, as the Maoists learned the hard way.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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