Identity politics, whatever form it takes, always carries with it a risk of violence and thus must be navigated very carefully. However, while identity politics (or ethnic politics) may not be palatable to everybody because of its potential for creating communal strife, the idea of ethnic politics itself is not wrong; especially if the group in question is marginalized, discriminated against, or subjugated. In fact, identity politics is generally the preserve of downtrodden members of society, who often use communal solidarity to push themselves out of the dregs.
The violent incident in Tikapur in Western Nepal in which thousands of Tharus – an oft downtrodden and marginal community – brutally killed eight police officers with spears and homemade guns has brought both these ideas to the forefront of Nepali politics. The protesters were demonstrating against a division of the country that fails to take ethnic considerations into account. In particular, they worried that the Tharus would not be given their own autonomous province, but would be subsumed within two territorial entities delineated on the basis of geography.
In Nepal, identity politics has, since the reinstatement of democracy in 1990, taken various forms. The most conspicuous of these is the demand for separate, ethnically delineated provinces such as the one that the Tharus had been demanding. Proponents of this idea called it “ethnic autonomy,” or more commonly “ethnic federalism.” Not all ethnic groups have historically been supportive of this idea. Significant numbers of only two groups – Limbus of the Far East and the Madhesis of the Terai – generally wanted complete autonomy for their regions. They believed that they were culturally different from the rest of the country, and thus should be able to determine their own future.
However, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) began to champion the idea of ethnic autonomy in the late 2000s, promising to create a new constitution in which federation along ethnic lines would be a key component. Although they were initially a ragtag mix of guerrillas, the Maoists quickly became accomplished fighters. By 2006, they had signed a peace deal with the government and joined mainstream politics. In 2008, they became the largest party in the country, a position they enjoyed until 2013.From the outset of their entry into democratic politics, the Maoists strove to bolster their credibility with ethnic groups by guaranteeing a Constitution in which states would be demarcated on the basis of identity.
As a result of their support for a constitutionally guaranteed ethnic autonomy, the elites of other ethnic groups also became more receptive to the idea. The support of a group as powerful as the Maoists for such a move bolstered the faith among these ethnic elites that constitutionally mandated ethnic autonomy was indeed possible. In Nepal, although groups other than Limbus and Madhesis have rarely given overt support to the idea of formal ethnic autonomy, they have always resented the way in which the values and mores of the dominant community has been imposed on them, such as the way in which symbols dear to Hill Aryan elites have been declared “national” symbols. The Nepali language – the most potent and far reaching symbol of Nepali nationalism has significantly weakened fluency in ethnic tongues. Although the ruling political elites in Nepal almost always profess to be progressive, they often have a blind spot when it comes to culture – equating their values with those of the entire nation. By contrast, the Maoists had promised to be different, treating all communities equally.
Thus, contrary to public opinion, the Maoists were never a truly “communist” party in any of their avatars. They strongly supported ethnic politics both when they were guerillas and when they laid down their arms and joined democratic politics. They had always tried to support the culture and the traditions of communities they worked with – by using cultural troupes, for instance. Why were the Maoists so invested in promoting ethnic culture (and later, ethnic autonomy)? Perhaps they hoped to win more supporters amongst indigenous people who might otherwise not be particularly fond of communism. In any case, they became identified with the idea while their detractors accused them of promoting communalism. Their detractors’ ideas began to take hold, and increasingly the public and even some of their own supporters began to fear that ethnic autonomy and identity politics could lead to communal polarization. It became a somewhat absurd contest in which both sides accused each other of being regressive. The Maoists, who fancied themselves as being at the vanguard of the progressive movement in Nepal, accused the opposition parties (the Nepali Congress and the United Marxists-Leninists or UML) of seeking to revert to a unitary, “feudalistic” system in which the dominant ethnic groups would once again play the leading role, leaving the marginalized out in the cold. Their detractors accused them of playing communal politics by creating an ethnically divided society in which loyalty to caste and ethnicity would outweigh loyalty to the nation and even lead to the break up of the country along communal lines. Sound and fury often outweighed substance.
Indeed, there has been no real substantive debate on federalism. Initially it was accepted almost as a fait accompli, but without any real consideration of its aptness for an ethno-linguistic hodgepodge like Nepal. In almost the same manner today, opinion seems to be turning against it. Given more incidents like the one that occurred at Tikapur, opinions will harden still further.
In addition, opinion has also begun to harden against the Maoists for their role in “incubating” ethnic passions. Many thus hold the Maoists indirectly to blame for the incident at Tikapur. This is not entirely fair. While the Maoists themselves committed numerous atrocities during the war years, they did help bring to light atrocities committed against marginal groups like the Tharu. There is no denying that the Tharu were the indigenous occupants of the place that is now called Tikapur, and that many of them were systematically driven out – or worse, held in bondage. These bonded laborers, called Kamaiyas, were legally freed only in 2000, well after the state’s war against the Maoists was underway.
It is not unreasonable to suspect that the Maoists used ethnic groups cynically in a move to gain power. Indeed, today, the mainstream faction of the Maoists has come out in support of a distinctly non-ethnic federal model, indicating thus a malleable ideology on their part. If there is something for which the Maoists should be held accountable, it is their complete betrayal of their earlier stance on ethnic autonomy.
As the evolving situation with the Patels in Gujarat shows, identity politics is in no danger of dying out in South Asia, even in its more capitalistic and entrepreneurial districts. For South Asians, the bonds of caste and community will always be very strong, often rivaling those of a state or nation. Moreover, unlike the economically and politically powerful Patels, the Tharus and other marginalized communities in Nepal often have very real grievances. Identity politics, then, for all its shortcomings and risks, would appear to be the most certain way out. Violent identity politics is almost guaranteed unless the state, and society at large, make an honest effort to understand the grievances of its most marginalized elements.
Yet the most marginalized ethnic groups have to understand that using violence to advance their aims will bring opprobrium, potentially leading to more setbacks, hardened opposition, and a reversal of progress. The lives of the policemen who were so barbarically murdered are as important as those of the Tharu Kamaiyas who were deprived of their freedom and dignity for so long. Surely this could be the minimum shared understanding based on which peace can prevail.
Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Miami University and Kathmandu University. He is a consultant and writer.