Nations and Nationalism in Contemporary South Asia: A Nepalese Perspective

The notion of nationalism and ethnicity is much pronounced now than ever before in Nepal. The idea of cultural sameness shared by the citizens of a nation and distinctiveness that differs them from what nationalism and ethnicity refers respectively to. This essay summarizes the main arguments made by Ernest Gellner in his classic writing on nationalism and ethnicity. The paper begins with definitions of nationalism, state and the nation followed by the reflection of these concepts in Nepalese context.

Ernest Gellner begins the writing by defining the political principle by which he means the congruency of political and national unit that includes political sentiment and political movement. According to him, political sentiment is the feeling about the fulfillment of the principle by either anger or satisfaction and political movemnet is actuated by this sentiment. For him, violations of the nationalism principle is through four reasons- political boundary of a state does not include all members of the nation, political boundary including some  foreigners, multiplicity of state resulting in no national state and rulers of the political unit belonging to another nation than the majority of the ruled. He further argues that Nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cross political ones. On explaing the state, Gellner cites the Weberian definition of the state which says that the state is an agency within society which possesses the monopoly of legitimate violence. He does this to explain that nationalism does not arise from stateless societies.

Gellner then explains the stages in mankind’s history where he outlines three societies i.e.  pre-agrarian society, agrarian society and industrial or post-agrarian society. Pre-agrarian society is characterised by hunting and gathering, small societies with no possibilities for political divison of labour and with absence of a state. Similarly,  the characteristics of agrarian societies was such that the most agrarian societies are state-endowed, state is one possible option and various forms of states. In the same way, post-agrarian society features  the state which is infact inescapable, once none had the state, then some had it, and finally all have it and large societies with high living standards need general division of labour and cooperation.

Nationality, accoording to Gellner is a given category and a modern man’s imagination. He provides an analogy of shadow to explain this concept. He says that nationality is a person’s identity and inherent with him like his shadow wherever he goes.  In fact, nations are no universal necessity. Nations and states do not exist all the time and under all circumstances. State emerged without the help of the nation. He further defines the nation on the basis of two criteria- cultural and voluntaristic.  Cultural definition stresses upon the sharing of a same culture whereas voluntaristic definition argues on recognition by others as having same nation.

As discussed above, states emerged in agrarian societies and agrarian societies are characterised by  two main factors – emergence of literacy to some groups and emergence of clerisy. Literacy was first required for keeping records (taxes / accounts) and functions were largely on legal domain for either contractual or administrative purposes. Those who were literate specialists  have chance of becoming a clerisy. The social structure of agro literate polity was such that ruling class was a minority with rigid separation and exaggeration of class inequality leads to  specialised sublayers. The stress was on cultural differentiation and there was horizontal lines of cultural cleavage.  Genetic and cultural differences covered functional differentiations. Production class was organized in small, inward-turned communities with no possible cultural homogenity. State interests were only on tax collection and peace maintenance. Clerisy was the only class which may have a measure of interests in imposing shared cultural norms, but the social structure prevented success. The definition of cultural boundaries was impossible, because culture and power were separated.

Gellner argues that cultural proliferation in this world does not generally lead to cultural imperialism and political boundaries and cultural limits are determined by totally different factors. Culture tends to be branded horizontaly in class or vertically in local communities. The proliferation is very complex and is based on different factors such as life-style, occupation, language, religion, etc.

The issue of nationality and nationalism has to be thought in context of people. Nationality is not a territory. It is often heard that Nepal’s King might have been autocratic but he was a nationalist. Often, it is voiced from a person who is not in King’s camp politically. It is surprising that how can nationalism be assured without people’s basic rights? Desh or nation is not a territory but people. This should be noted that Nepal is Nepal because Nepalese are living in Nepal. The territory may be there even in absence of Nepali but the true notion of Nepal as nation will not be there.

History suggests that current Nepal is the result of the expansion of Gorkha state by King Prithvi Narayan Shah. After the end of Mughal Empire in India during 18th century, many kings of this region were expanding their states by conquering other states. King Prithvi Narayan Shah was one of them. The primary purpose of unifying other states then was nothing but to expand his state. It would be wrong to say that it was unification because the concept of nationalism was not imagined during those days.  The brutality towards Newars of Kathmandu is the testimony that the conqueror was not acting like a statesman but a victor.  Sughauli treaty made the geographical territory of Nepal but not of the nation. After 1816, Nepal was formed but no attempts were made to make it a nation. The nationalism as a feeling was perhaps first experienced during 1950 (2007 BS) movement when people from the east and west and the north and south went to Nepal. The same was during 1990 (2046 BS) and 2006 (2063 BS). However, I doubt whether these movements were spontaneous or induced. Now, the need of the hour is again to form a nation not just to create a territory based on ethnicity or other. Only time can tell what will happen next.



Gellner, E. (2006) Chapters 1 and 2Nations and Nationalism, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pg. 1-7, 8-18, 19-37.

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