19 November, 2009

DECENTERING AND RECENTERING

SUSHMA JOSHI
Kathmandu Post
November 19: When I was in college, our American campus was abuzz with students talking about “deccentering” power. This decentering happened to all sorts of power centers, from white men to Europe to English Literature. White men, who as everybody knows are the center of the world, were a particular target: bright undergraduates would try to pull apart their Eurocentric patriarchal hegemony all the time with glee. Other times, they decentered language, or decentered meaning, or decentered other Grand Narratives of this nature. My primary emotion about all this decentering was that it was a thrilling process initially, but then as the years wore on and people went on deconstructing these structures but not providing an alternative, things started to feel a bit destabilized. I started, in other words, to feel like I had lost my moorings. If everything from the slippery meaning of words to the shape of thought was up for grabs, then what exactly could I believe in?

Coming back to Nepal after a month in the rather stable island of Bali, I can’t help feeling Nepal’s political scene is undergoing a similar process. Like a gang of college students, our political leaders have taken up the task of decentering power with a zeal. The problem is that they are not providing alternatives. Its okay to deconstruct old feudal structures like the Army and the bureaucracy, but its not okay to leave it all hanging in the middle without an alternative, like an unfinished piece of bad art. So lets get rid of everything old and musty, everything from the statues that used to adorn the corners of Ratna Park to the old five zones and 14 districts. Now what?

The question that occurs to me also is that can there be a functioning nation-state without a strong and stable core? Can Nepal exist in its profoundly decentered state, where we can afford to have 600 CA members—even India with one billion people has less people in Parliament than us--who represent all ethnicities impartially? Or will all this end and we’ll all have to get on one day with business—going back to governing a country of multiple ethnicities in which not all groups will get representation and parity at all governmental offices, where Tharus may dominate in one area and Madhesis will dominate in another, where choices will have to be made and where health posts will have to be manned and hospitals run and food depots brought back to functioning order? Army generals may have to decide to swear an oath to the people and the country rather than to an individual who heads a party or a monarchial system? That one day, we may all have to go back to swearing allegiance to some ideal larger than a party or an ethnic identity or a position in the government?

Nationalism has a bad rap in places like Nepal, where anything associated with the old system raises hackles. But can a nation-state exist if people don’t participate and repeat exercises which form the sense of national identity? I can hear the children singing the national anthem even now, but that’s about all I can see happening on the Nepali national pride front. You go to India and you know you’re in India—because the people themselves are reminding you every few moments where you are. Bollywood repeats the motif. So do their non-resident Indians. So do their writers, filmmakers, artists. So do their businesspeople and their politicians and their diplomats. Our diplomats get posted to New York as UN ambassadors and the next thing you know they’ve gotten a Green Card and migrated to Queens. Or maybe New Jersey.

I was in Humla a few months back, and the area was reeling from a series of bad winter droughts and a low-rainfall monsoon. The people, who’d planted apples in the hopes of selling it to urban markets, had seen their hopes dashed as none of the commercial carriers or governmental agencies had helped them carry their produce to market. The trees were loaded with fruit but everything else was in short supply. The cost of salt and soap was astronomical. In this environment, one man from Humla said, “We should have joined either China or India. At least they looked out for their people. Our leaders will not do anything for us. We can expect nothing from these people.”

When I came back and told some folks back in Kathmandu, they were shocked. “I hope you won’t write that in the papers,” they said. Then why am I writing it? Why am I writing the fact that the sense of disillusionment with the political process is so profound, especially with the poorest of the poor, that they would prefer to choose another nation-state, one which exudes a greater sense of coherence?

One Nepali migrant in Bombay told me he had gone each year to Mumbai for work for a decade, but he’d never once stopped in Kathmandu. That city, he said, was not on his way. His village and Bombay were his two worlds. For many Nepalis like this man, the nation-states of India and China may already provide direct benefits—in the form of decades of employment, remittances, cheap goods, and produces—than Nepal itself. For this reason, Nepal has to try extra hard to justify its existence as a nation-state. But where is that justification? Where are the Gandhis and Nehrus of Nepal who’d make us see, “yes, this is our country, and we need to work towards its well-being by putting its interest above everything else”?

In Bali, I was amused to see how people came there to “center” themselves. “Decentering”, it appeared, was an undergraduate phenomena, just as “centering” was a post-graduate one. Unlike college ten years ago, the discourse now was on mind and body connection. The act of “centering” oneself would bring the focus on the greater unity between not just mind and body, but the human being with the larger universe.

After decentering comes recentering. Nepal will remain an endless football of competing donor interests unless we get a group of people who believe in “centering” their individual selves towards the national interest. We have to create a center that’s not an all devouring, rapacious center, but one which looks out for the larger interest, as other centers of other nation-states have done. This centering process can go further—just as the mind and body are connected, we need to see the political process connected to the people. Otherwise, through default and necessity, through the simple faith that people put in those who take care of them, we might end up losing our self to either side of our big neighbours. Unless some visionaries with greater stakes take up leadership roles, we may end up dead as—forgive the pun—a cold yam.

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