Understanding Identity Within Nepal’s Current Crisis

Dear Readers,

Understanding identity—understanding the concept, understanding others, understanding my identity—has been an unexpected journey that has brought many contradictions into my life. Contradictions that clarify the mysterious nature that comprises identity, bringing me closer to understanding who I am, revealing my identity components, my identity markers, but also revealing the elusiveness of identity. I learned through my head injury the way in which people attach themselves to activities, to other people, to appearances as a means of identity formulation—a process that grounds us, that helps us find direction in life. However, as I learned, life often will alter our plans, disrupt what we identify with, and therefore disrupt our identities. A disruption of identity can come in varying degrees with varying responses—sadness, defeat, anger, anxiety.

During my time here, I have been learning—learning about people, about culture, about my surroundings. In each day of learning, I confront difference. Confrontation of difference is how we discover bits of our identity; seeing what we are not gives us insight into who we may be. The process of confronting our differences is uncomfortable, painful at times, but these feelings can be translated into beauty, into sharing, into transformation of self and others. However, identity comes in many forms. The identity I have been writing about is personal identity, but there are collective identities as well formed by the people around us, our surroundings, our culture.

When I was studying International Relations for my Bachelor’s degree, I often read about how some societies are comprised of individualistic identities, while others are comprised of collective identities. Understanding these concepts from a book is very different than experiencing these concepts. Living here in Nepal highlights my past experiences, my background as an American girl living in a society comprised mostly of individual identities. I have been learning what it means to live in a collective identity during my time here, confronting my differences in this way. I have been learning about the identities of the Nepalese people, often associated with ethnicity, region, caste, gender, and family relations. These components become visible to me as I confront them with the differences in which I have been composing my identity.

In each of my adventures here in Nepal, the current crisis the country faces due to the blockade of the Indian border is visible.  In this adventure that I find myself in now–participating in cultural exchange at a boarding school in the Terai region of the country–I have been able to view this crisis from an ethnic identity perspective, but more importantly, from a human perspective.  Throughout my time here I have heard much talk about the Madhesi ethnic group; this is the group that is concentrated in the Terai, or southern part, of Nepal.  The students who stay at this boarding school just so happen to also identify as Madhesi.

Despite the small size of the country, Nepal’s geography is an important factor to understanding the people.  There are three distinct regions of Nepal–the Himalayan or Mountainous Region, The Pahad or Hilly Region, and the Terai or Plains Region. The Terai is also called the Madhes in Nepali as this is the area in which the Madhesi people come from. Within each of these regions, different people, customs, langauges, and cultures will be found.  Before traveling to this boarding school, my time in Nepal consisted only of the Himalayan and Hilly Regions, therefore everything I knew about the Madhesi people was from what I read and from what others around me told me.

Many people in the country are upset with this ethnic group, blaming them for the political agitation that is resulting in the blockade of the India-Nepal border.  In times of crisis, finding a group to place blame is a common reaction; however it is a reaction that can place a collective identity on each of the individuals.  I have seen many pleas of Madhesis to be recognized as citizens of Nepal–a legal category of identity within the nation-state system.  Within the current international nation-state system, legal identity is given in the forms of citizenship, refugee status, driver’s licenses, etc.  Without these documents, and without the recognition of this status, a denial of identity occurs.  Denying someone of identity in any form is a denial of the humanity of the individual.

I have had the rare chance to spend time with these individuals, to laugh with them, to share with them, to teach them, and to learn from them.  The school system here is very different; Nepal is very different; however, in saying this I must qualify that what I see as difference is a result of my perspective as an outsider.  From the perspective of the students, I am very different–the way I look, the way I greet them, my gestures, my language.  Difference can be met with varying reactions; at this particular time, we are meeting difference with mutual fascination.

Rahul, pictured above, is a student from grade 8.  On one of the first days of my time here he said to me

You teach us what we don’t know, and we will teach you what you don’t know.

At the age of just 14, Rahul is a leader within this school.  Yesterday, while walking to the market together, he confided in me that his family situation is one of poverty.  He explained that this is his motivation to study hard and to do well in school. “If I succeed in this, then I can help my family,” he explained to me. Rahul has quickly found a place in my heart, along with the other students here, showing me that despite circumstances, love can prevail.

The boys here have told me that each of the boarding students here are their brothers.  From what I have witnessed, this statement is true–they play like brothers and they fight like brothers, but their love and loyalty for one another endures in every action.  It’s a beautiful piece of humanity to observe.  It is this human perspective that I am interested in understanding; it is this perspective that is so particularly interesting to view the current crisis of Nepal as it is often a perspective not shown in the news.

The Kathmandu Post reported on December 12, 2015, “The blockade is led by ethnic minorities who say they are discriminated against in the new constitution.” Find the full article here.  Placing blame on ‘ethnic minorities’ blames full communities, but is this the case in Nepal? I have met some of the most delightful, peaceful, and welcoming people coming from these ethnic minority groups during my time here in the Terai.  Essentializing identity in this way, placing blame on a community rather than individuals, rather than situations, rather than geopolitics, fosters discrimination on the innocent members of the community.  Discrimination fueled by misinformation, misinformation that leads to fear.

In the post-earthquake state that Nepal finds itself in, the people are looking for solutions from a non-responsive government.  The people are suffering, the government is remaining quiet.  Coupled with the current crisis, the situation is becoming dire.  With transportation becoming increasingly more difficult, people find themselves out of work.  Without work, they are not earning money.  Without money, the simple questions of how to feed their families, and where to find shelter become more and more pressing each day that the blockade remains.

The common way of cooking in Nepal is to use gas from a cylinder.  This method of cooking is becoming impossible for almost everyone here besides those belonging to the high classes.  These are the people that can afford the exorbitant black market prices.  Where do these black market goods come from? India.  They are trickling over the border and sold at prices double and triple the normal value.

In the picture above, the common gas cylinder is seen next to the improvised method.  Structures such as the one to the right of the cylinder are seen in every home, market, and restaurant that I have visited as the crisis worsens.  People are forced to improvise.  What other options do they have?

These improvised cooking devices are made at home in such a way as the picture below shows.

As you can see, firewood is becoming increasingly more important in order to cook food here.  Firewood comes from trees found in forests; forests that are slowly being destroyed due to this new method of cooking.  In the Terai, open spaces permit more safety in using this method to cook; however, in the capital city of Kathmandu cooking with firewood is dangerous.  Medicine, ink, and paper are in shortage affecting hospitals and schools.  The whole of Nepal’s economy is being affected.  People are desperate and in desperation, we blame others.  This has become a case of competing identities, of us versus them.

My friend, Madan Acharya, grew up in the Terai region of Nepal amongst the Madhesi people; however, Madan is not a Madhesi person.  His family originally comes from the Pahad region of the country and so he and his family are designated the identity of Pahadi; an identity that is commonly found in the Terai.  Madan explained to me that during his childhood, the Pahadi and the Madhesi people played together, studied together, and respected each other.  It was a time of peace; however, once difficult times came, these two identity groups became more hostile.  Why? Madan’s answer characterizes the issue with political roots.  He explains, “The Madhesi leaders want security from the Pahadi people.”

It is a quest for identity preservation; such quests often emerge when a group fears that their identity is in jeopardy of being destroyed.  During such times, differences are often exploited.  Madan explained to me that the distinctions have caused Pahadi people to harass the Madhesi people as backwards, illiterate, and not developing along with the rest of the population.  Pahadi people easily identity Madhesi individuals through their clothing, and skin complexion–often much darker than the complexion of other Nepalese individuals.  Madhesi people are often called “dhoti”.  Dhoti is the name of the long white cloth that the traditional Madhesi people wear, clothing that has roots in the Madhesi ancestry.  Madan explained that by calling a Madhesi person a ‘dhoti’, the connotation is:

You are not developed.  You are illiterate.  You are still using the clothes of your ancestors.

The situation is complex for those who identify as Madhesi.  They are being designated as an “other” within the Nepalese society; however, these individuals are also being suppressed by their leaders.  The Madhesi leaders are those in charge of the agitation, fearing what will happen to the culture of the people without a strong political voice.  The leaders as of now do not have the support of the people, but it is the people who are suffering.  It is the individuals found within this community who are being harassed, who are being feared, whose identity is at risk.

Individual identity is how I began this post.  This aspect of identity–how we define ourselves, how we know ourselves–has become so important to me and so intriguing to me over the past couple of years.  I would like to end this post with the remark that in human interaction, the individual identity must always be taken into account.  We each have our collective identities, and within these identities there will be people who disagree with us, but it is the individual who stands in front of us and because of that we must view them from their individual identity.  I am lucky enough to meet some of the most beautiful individuals who identify with the Madhesi community but differ in so many ways individually.  It is these differences that makes us human and it is these differences that I am so grateful to be encountering.

Thank you for reading.  Until next time,

Jennifer