Nationalism is not going to run out of steam soon. It has gained a new lease of public life with so-called “strongmen” at the helm of several democratic nation states, including Nepal and India, in the past few years. Leaders who have risen with popular support have anchored their relevance and justification for continuing in power in the longstanding ideology of nationalism.
What KP Oli was to Nepal was not very different from what Narendra Modi is to India now. Nor is Nepal’s panchayat-nationalism particularly dissimilar from India’s Hindu nationalism. Maybe because of its perseverance as an ideology, the academic examination of nationalism is an ongoing process.
In his 2020 book I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today, Partha Chatterjee wrote that he had expected the counter-hegemonic initiatives of subalterns to begin against the hegemony imposed by elected strongmen. A year later, as though to provide an intellectual arsenal to those trying to formulate counter-hegemonic strategies in several discreet locations, Chatterjee has published that serves the purpose of a manifesto, The Truths and Lies of Nationalism: As Narrated by Charvak.
In this book, the materialist school or idea of Charvaka has metamorphosed into a personified narrator to expose the lies of nationalism and to lift the curtain that has fallen, somewhat ominously, on that particular “nation” which belongs to the “entire people”.
Untold stories in India
The narrator, Charvak, speaks to a particular listener. It seems that this listener, who has been told by the BJP and the Modi government to be faithful to India’s “national identity and culture” and to work to safeguard them, is a young North Indian man. Charvak’s underlying assumption is that this gentleman is misled by propaganda built on the “lies of nationalism”.
Towards the end of the book, Charvak says, “The claim that all Indian languages are derived from Sanskrit and that all that genuinely belongs to Indian culture (bharatiya samskrti) must conform to the norms of upper-caste North Indian society is patently unacceptable.” Before this conclusion is reached, the preceding seven chapters bring a great deal of historical details, factual accounts, interpretations of the Indian past and, interestingly, extend several invitations to the listener to walk in the shoes of the many “others”.
In one such instance, after a brief sketch of the excesses of the state, resulting in the devastation of the indigenous groups of the Andaman Islands in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charvak asks his listener to imagine himself as a young Onge woman. “What would you think of the Indian nation and your place in it? As an Onge woman, would you still be able to shout slogans about the greatness of Indian civilisation?”
Recounting the story of how the princely state of Hyderabad was brought under India following the independence, he cites a fact that remains missing in many history textbooks. “[D]id you know that some 50,000 civilians were killed in Hyderabad following the invasion of the Indian army? Most of them were Muslims.” This is an invitation to be cognisant of a number of such untold stories that actually scaffolded the Indian nation.
Meanwhile in Nepal
Many such suppressed stories related to the making of a nation had surfaced after the 2006 democratic revolution in Nepal. Those stories, however, were not told in a book, but were tabled as contentions in the popularly elected constituent assembly. After the unearthing of these untold stories, historically excluded communities, including the Madheshis, began to demand identity-based federalism. In other words, they wanted their ethnic identities to be one of its main bases.
These contentions unsettled the dominant communities – the Bahuns and the Chhetris, for instance, felt “otherised” and threatened. As a result, the first elected constituent assembly, failing to forge a consensus on federalism, could not promulgate a constitution.
The new constitution of 2015 – rammed through the second constituent assembly despite vehement protests – did not employ a clear basis for federalism, such as identity or economic viability. As a result, the provincial governments have failed to prove their relevance in the new arrangement. Instead, the centre acts like a monarch.
In the chapter titled “People’s Alliance Strengthens the Nation”, Charvak says, “It is a completely false idea that a centralised nation-state displaying its force of unity at the top in a strong party or a strong leader is the sign of a strong nation. The strength of such diversity as India can only be built on the basis of strong alliances among the people (lokamitrata) at the state and local levels.”
Nepal is almost as diverse as India is. The centralising tendency of the existing federalism, thus, is not going to solve the problems related to the historical exclusion of a number of ethnic communities.
The tragedy now unfolding in Nepal is that several powerful narratives have been built and spread against federalism. Alongside, the demand for a strong centralised state, led by a strong leader, has resurfaced in the last few years. Though not pronounced in clear terms, the resurgence of panchayat-nationalism was the major plank for the anti-federalist KP Oli to stand as the most powerful Prime Minister of the new federal republic.
The basic pillars of panchayat-nationalism are the Hindu religion, Khas-Nepali language (of the dominant Bahun and Chhetri communities), dominant Hindu culture, and the monarchy. Propounded in the 1960s by king Mahendra Shah, it might have borrowed intellectual resources from Indian nationalism.
Scholars of Nepali nationalism have found out that this brand of nationalism relied heavily on the cultural resources built by Nepali-speaking Indians in Darjeeling as they fought for their distinct identity in India. Interestingly, another element that remains conspicuous in present-day nationalist narrative in Nepal is fear – and, in some instances, hatred – of India.
Fear of the external has become a handy tool for political parties and leaders to tamper with the challenges put forward internally by the marginalised sections. This way, nationalism, as an ideology, serves the interests of the existing dominant communities, leaders, and parties. Reading Partha Chatterjee’s Charvak-avatar in today’s Nepal is, thus, an act of rebellion. It must be more so in India.
Chatterjee’s longstanding engagement with Indian nationalism as an academic and as a seasoned political theorist has made this popular form of writing (with negligible academic jargon and references) no less nuanced. Intellectual rigour is reflected in his crisp analysis and interpretation of past and recent historical events. Mapping the length and breadth of the relevant canvas, Chatterjee turns Charvak into a wonderful storyteller. I cannot thank him enough for a much-needed and timely intervention.
Ujjwal Prasai is a Nepal-based writer and researcher.
The Truths And Lies Of Nationalism: As Narrated by Charvak, Partha Chatterjee, Permanent Black in association with Ashoka University.