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Rise of the Subaltern

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(Originally published in The Kathmandu Post, 25 June 2011,

Nepal is not just about Kathmandu anymore. Nepal is not just about men, about Bahuns and Chettris, about hill-folk, about rich-folk, about middle-of-roaders. We are about women, about Janajatis, Dalits and Madhesis. We are not just about Marxist-Leninists and the Congress but about Maoists too. We are no longer about a monarchy but about a republic, about decentralisation. We are not just about the hills but about the mountains and the plains.

We have transcended monarchy and feudalism, we are trying to get rid of patriarchy and nepotism. We are going to be a republic, a federated one. Maybe it is my naive optimism or maybe I’m just tired of being pessimistic, but when I see the composition of our Constituent Assembly, it sends shivers down my spine. Each time I think of the responsibility they shoulder, it makes me squirm with nervous pleasure. We are rewriting the constitution, the document that is the very fabric of our nation. And although it is taking much longer than we would’ve liked, we do need to understand just what is at stake here. We have people whose voices have long been denied. There is a lady who was selling handkerchiefs outside New Road when she found out she was a CA member. There are Maoists who have fought in a bloody civil war, held dead bodies in their hands and wept over lost husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. There are CA members who had never been to Kathmandu, who had never set foot in an airplane, who had never left the country. They have been labouring for a long time, many of them fighting for issues that they believe accurately represents their communities. There are women demanding a 50 per cent representation in all organs of the state. There are Madhesis and Janajatis demanding proportional representation. To echo prominent columnist CK Lal some weeks ago, the promulgation of the constitution is not something to be hurried and it is definitely not a 9-to-5 job where you earn a salary—a “jyala.”

They were subalterns, as per Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha. It is not just that they have been discriminated against, marginalised and neglected, but that they have been forcefully and categorically denied a right to expression. This expression can take the form of representation in politics, in art, in culture or in voice, it doesn’t matter. Until now, they weren’t even been blips on the radar. The hegemony of Kathmandu, of the upper-class that resides in Kathmandu, of Bahuns-Chettris who form the crux of the political elite in Kathmandu, they have been doing the denying. Subalterns are outside the sphere of influence, outside hegemony. They are not simply Newars from the Valley, who, although Janajati, cannot claim the subaltern. For they have long been members of hegemonic discourse, simply by being a part of Kathmandu and its imperialism. It is no fault of their own, it is simply the state of things. So while they may not have had as much access to the discourse itself, they are still located within the power structure and therefore, not strictly subaltern. But Dalits and Madhesis and Tharus (to name a few) are subaltern. They possess a power that is frightening to those in dominance. Once visible, they are able to subvert the system and their very presence threatens those who hold hegemonic power. This is because they present a portrait so alien that they cannot be denied. They are present in their nakedness, unabashed and all one can do is gaze. And in that gaze, recognise.

Women are subaltern, especially in a country like ours. They have always been here, as wives, mothers, daughters, but mostly behind their husbands, sons and fathers. But they are growing, slowly and nightly, like Sylvia Plath’s mushrooms. Their foot’s in the door at 33 per cent and I hope they’ll widen the crannies, to a full 50 per cent. It is bodies like the Women’s Caucus that is attempting this widening. It is refreshing to see, and empowering. In the Caucus, women take their own stage, they tell their own stories. It is an extension of the CA, where men still rule the roost. But not much longer, for women are now telling their own tales, they are demanding the right to be able to tell their own tales. No longer will it be for men to say “Tell me your story and I will tell the world.” For no matter how sympathetic, women remain objects and men their keepers. The act of telling someone else’s story is itself hegemony, and unless women take charge, take control of their own stories and tell it like only they can, power will never change hands. The Women’s Caucus encourages such discourse. It attempts to bring these subalterns out of their state of shadow, to provide them with a voice uniquely and privately their own. It is not a gift, it is not a hand-me-down; it is a thing bloody and hard fought.

To represent, that too, faithfully represent, is difficult. I am not so presumptuous as to try and give advice but only to remind what I think is important not to forget. Being Nepali is not a simple thing anymore, although I doubt it ever was. There is a multitude now and we aim at a society where each identity is as important as the next. The fight for an identity is often fraught with conflict, between oneself and the identity one chooses and those different. To become woman, one must not be man. To become Dalit, one must not be Bahun-Chettri. To define is essentially to define against. But even within this definition, we, all of us, must not forget that we are rhizomes. Our borders and boundaries are permeable and no matter how many walls and fences we erect, how much barbed wire we line, there will always be a point of escape and a point of entry. This is the challenge the subaltern faces, to not fragment while defining and to always recognise that we are parts of an assemblage, that nothing exists in a vacuum and we are always linked, one way or another, to everyone else.


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