What made CPN-UML’s ex- prime minister KP Sharma Oli wasn’t just the anti-India rhetoric. Oli represented the vein of poor, impoverished Nepal, which is the large majority that could not understand the rhetoric of “hill-elite” presented by Madheshi leaders.
This is quite similar to what has happened in America with Donald Trump’s victory. President Trump won because mainstream media and the liberals have for so long discounted the views of poor, white America that live in rural areas and hold low-paying jobs.
While the color of their skin might suggest privilege to the larger world, they are struggling with poverty, a lack of education, and cannot understand the forced rhetoric of privilege much like the poor hill elites of Nepal.
Trump’s victory is quite relevant to us as Nepal as we recently faced a Madhesh andolan where an ethnic group, mostly along the border of Nepal, felt discriminated by the constitution and in-turn supported a border blockade by India as a means of revolt against the state.
While the two different circumstances are not comparable, they bear some similarities. The rhetoric during this protest was against the “hill-elite” lumping an entire population diverse in caste, economic backgrounds into one. This is similar to the use of white versus rest in America. The term “hill-elite” also often got lumped together with “Kathmandu-elite”, reducing, discounting and often erasing an entire group of diverse but very poor group of people who live in rural hill areas with no access to food or electricity or state privileges. It also discounted the identity of those hill folks who later moved to fertile Tarai lands in search of better opportunity, often making Tarai/ Madhesh appear as a homogenous entity with one prevalent ethnic group, when in reality it is diverse in its makeup.
The rural “hill-elite” pushed to the brink of poverty, many who migrated to fertile lands in the Tarai, the region where the protests took place cannot understand their privilege. They don’t hold positions in the government, bureaucracy, and they don’t benefit from the development of Kathmandu. Many are dirt-poor farmers, who are struggling to feed themselves. Many have been forced to send their children to the Middle East for a better income and livelihood, and many lost all they had in the devastating earthquake of 2015.
While the scale of isolation with the use of the term “hill-elite” may not be as widespread as the isolation felt by rural America, it is something to be aware of. Trump’s win is sobering to a lot of people, and should be for us too. Most of us must take the lessons seriously, the first being to stop vilifying other people based on categories.
Not all white people are made of money, nor are all white people racists. The same way, it’s time to recognize the isolation the label “hill-elite” can have on people. Not all people with origins in the hills of Nepal feel privileged. In fact, they may feel more isolated with labels meaning to vilify. It is no surprise that Oli rose to fame during the Madhesh andolan. Rhetoric then was heavily polarized, with one side demonizing the other, sometimes so brutally that it mirrored the rhetoric of hate.
We cannot ignore the rural poor nor can we isolate them. They cannot be silenced and should not be silenced. Instead, we must practice compassion – compassion for all who feel at a disadvantage, and compassion for all those who feel discriminated and are thus angry. We cannot be selective in our compassion for we too risk the chance of electing a Donald Trump in Nepal.