Inventing social categories…

“Everywhere I go I hear what’s going on
And the more I hear the less I know…”

[Oysterband “Everywhere I Go“]

The more I read….the more the sands shift. So…here’s what’s been exercising my mind recently.

“Inventing social categories…” seems to be a phrase which quite aptly links together discourses on both development within Nepal, and the move towards a new, ostensibly more secular state. It has been argued (1) that development actors, and indeed the Nepal government have placed the village at the centre of the development dialogue. There exists a coalescence of views leading to the formulation of the ideal of a generic village, to which development can be done in order to bring about improvement to the lives of villagers. This ideal permeates the entire development dialogue, resulting in a Nepalisation of development, such that the idea of development is universalised. Certainly it is true to say that whatever their degree of geographical separation, the majority of Nepalis have some kind of intimate relationship with the village which is bound up with notions of family, home and community. To this end the idea of the village looms large in the social imagination of Nepalis, and it is through the prism of  the village that images of progress are viewed.

Tilki, Kailali District. John Callaway 2011

Tilki, Kailali District. John Callaway 2011

It may well be the case that Nepalis do not see development as culturally foreign. The Nepali notion of development (bikas), encourages the formation of an imagined national community which focuses upon the idea of social transformation, whilst ostensibly transcending differences of language, caste and religion. This notion of development preceded the opening up of Nepal in the 1950’s to international development, and the apparatus of foreign aid. There are tensions which arise as a result of these two imaginings of development. Ostensibly the external drivers of international development do not foster an enlightened approach to social transformation, but instead are rooted in “predatory selfishness and cut-throat social callousness”. Thus exists a fundamental disjuncture between the ideal and the real. (2)

Recent analysis of this process by the Martin Chautari Centre, based in Kathmandu, suggests that political parties have been more interested in capturing and consolidating power than in demonstrating a commitment to the ideals of inclusion and representation (3). An overemphasis on the creation of strategic alliances, and a general disregard for Constituent Assembly (CA) procedures has significantly undermined its efficacy and authority. As an elected body given the task of ensuring greater inclusion and access to political power to those on the margins it appears to have curtailed these aspirations through its use of parallel processes of informal decision making outside of the CA. The poor levels of attendance by the leadership of virtually all of the political parties suggests that they see little value in the CA. This is also reflected by the continued diminution in participation in the process by many social groups, most notably the Madhes, Muslims and Marwari.

 The Chautari Centre’s assertion that the bypassing of constitutional procedures, and the associated lack of transparency has resulted in the perpetuation of pre-existing structural hierarchies. I would suggest that some of the challenges faced by Nepal in turning aspirations into reality can be seen in the journey towards a secular state. Despite Nepal being declared a secular, federal, democratic republic since May 2008, the question still arises as to how secularism can be advanced in a country which has claimed Hinduism as a fundamental component of its national identity since the mid 18th Century, and which still has many aspects of Hinduism embedded within its legal system and institutional practices.

Ancient or modern? John Callaway 2011

Ancient or modern? John Callaway 2011

There is a sense in which secularism may be seen as part of the process of global modernisation and as a means of advancing emancipation from religious norms and institutions. This notion is inextricably linked to the historical transformation of western Christianity and as such needs to be re-imagined and re-interpreted within a non-Western context. Although secularism has become part of the language of modernisation within Nepal, it needs to be reframed in such a way that enables religious belief (of whatever stripe) to be accommodated within the secular state. (4)

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References:

  1. Stacey Pigg (1992): “Inventing social categories through place: social representations and development in Nepal” in Comparative Studies in Society & History 34
  2. Tatsuro Fujikura( 2001) : “Discourses of awareness. Notes for a criticism of development in Nepal” in Studies in Nepali History and Society 6(2)
  3. Martin Chautari (2013): “The debilitating dynamics of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (2008-2012)”. [Briefing Paper No. 8 March 2013]
  4. Chaira Letizia (2012): “Shaping secularism in Nepal” in European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 39
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