Nepali First: Nationalism and Citizenship in a New Secular Republic

Dennis, Dannah, Anthropology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Handler, Richard, Department of Anthropology, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I analyze the ways in which diverse groups of people are attempting to re-imagine Nepal as a secular, inclusive, democratic state while being confronted with institutionalized legacies of religious hierarchy and ethnic and regional inequality. These efforts to re-think national identity are taking place as the social and legal foundations of the state are shifting dramatically, from a unitary Hindu monarchy to a secular federal republic, and in the wake of such disrupting events as the 1996-2006 civil war and the political and economic crises occasioned by the major earthquake of April 2015. Many Nepalis fear that these changes will result in fragmentation of the country along ethnic, regional, and religious lines. I conducted 24 months of fieldwork, collecting data related to competing concepts of nationalism and citizenship that surfaced in the everyday experiences of Nepali people in Kathmandu. Primarily, I worked with people who are high-caste Hindus and middle- or upper- class, because these groups have historically been heavily over-represented in government and will almost certainly continue to be so, despite all efforts to shift toward a more inclusive state structure. People within these groups often assert that those who engage in identity politics are acting unpatriotically and threatening social harmony. They argue that all citizens should consider themselves ‘Nepali first’ and should put aside any other identity-based claims. I argue that those who advocate for unity by espousing a ‘Nepali first’ ideology are not actually promoting national harmony, but are in fact re-asserting their own privilege to arbitrate what it means to be Nepali.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Nepal, South Asia, political anthropology, nationalism, citizenship, secularism
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