Identity and nationhood

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This is in response or a follow-up to Dinkar Nepal’s article (,877) on nationhood where he rejects ethnic national identity and sought for a more practical identity.

There is no better way to know about identity than reading the great medical doctor, neurologist and science writer-Oliver Sacks. For instance take one of his section on his book “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”, where he describes his patients with loss of visual perception, loss of proprioception and even loss of memory. These patients are human beings who have lost certain mental faculty but even then could build their own “identity” around their losses described in beautiful prose by the author. Oliver Sacks writes “There is always a reaction on the part of affected individuals to restore, to compensate and to preserve his or her identity”. In short, to build our own identity around circumstances is to be human.

But how does buildup of a nation and identity relate to each other? Whoever says nationhood is not important would be lying. For example, belonging to a particular nation may give certain advantages to a person that one belonging to another nation would not get. A person of British nationality may be able to travel a lot of countries without restriction, and may get free health care under NHS that a person from Nepali nationality may not get. These all things ultimately will have an effect on the psyche of the people.

Let us take for example division of nations. No doubt division of India, Korea and Germany during the 1940s should have a profound effect on the psyche of the citizens of those countries at those times. When a nation disintegrates and a new nation is formed, it can create a sort of chaos in the mind especially if the belonging is strong. The Indian American author Siddhartha Mukherjee, in his book, “Gene-an intimate history” blames the partition of India for the mental illness in his family. In the similar note my own mental illness could be related to the instability occurring in Nepal. As we grow up in a country, it determines who we are.

But we build up our own identity with our own circumstances. Rene Descrates, the French enlightenment philosopher, once said that a devil cannot fool him into believing that he no longer exists because he is a thinking being thus the dictum “I think therefore I am”. But our thought changes every day. In the near future we could experiment with the theory that self is changing itself or not because so much is stored nowadays. I once read my old emails and could not believe that I could have written those things. The central gravity that holds our self and identity could indeed be a changing entity that changes according to circumstances we face in life.

My own sense of being has been profoundly affected by what happened in my country while I was growing up. The change of Kathmandu, as I grew up, from a relatively silent city with less traffic to a modern cosmopolitan and noisy and dusty metropolis it is today, made me realize the arrival of modernity in Nepal.  I am witness to the days when King Birendra was regarded as Lord Vishnu, to Maoist insurgency, to the change to republic and ethnic conflict that happened while I was in my 20s and travelling in and out of Nepal. No other generation of Nepalis has witnessed such massive amount of changes as the millennial Nepali generation has. We are still trying of to make sense of all this. There is certainly no black and white answer to the question “Who is a Nepali?”-  a question once asked by the NGO-Code for Nepal. Although I do not live in Nepal now, I could say being witness to the events that happened in Nepal in my youth, worrying about the country- all of which has an effect on my psychological wellbeing, makes me a Nepali.

Let me take a short detour to ethnicity. Actually ethnicity mixes with national identity. But in Nepal, the topic of ethnic identity is getting so political and heated up, that it is better we avoid it while we are talking about rights of certain ethnic groups. When identity is mixed with political activism, it is a bad mixture. To say that you have same opinions as others simply because you belong to a particular group would be a wrong suggestion. Why should a person belonging to a Kirat ethnic group have the same opinion on solution on poverty of Nepal with another Kirati? Facts do not change simply because you belong to a certain tribe. We should talk about specific issues rather than being bogged down by politics of identity. And furthermore identity politics feeds on narcissism. Tribalism and narcissism are indeed the worst outcomes to come out of identity politics. It is better we avoid that.  

Dinkar Nepal, in his article in Nepali Times, says that we need a more practical definition of being a Nepali. Actually we do not need that. In his brilliant paper, “What it is like to be a bat?” (, the philosopher Thomas Nagel creates a thought experiment on what it is like to be another being. For Nagel, it is impossible to imagine what it is like to be another being because we are bound by our subjective experience. Science and advance philosophy may answer that question someday but it is indeed a very difficult question to answer. The answer to the question “What it is like to be a Nepali?” involves similar philosophical complications. The matter of fact is we should just keep on living and brain will create itself of what being a Nepali or a Canadian feels like. For now without going into the philosophical conundrum, we can just say being a Nepali means a being whose favorite dish may be Momos, who may eat rice and curry daily, who speaks Nepali or any other ethnic languages,…and we can go on and on.



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