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For a tiny country such as ours, with little foreign clout, getting to see a Nepali performing superbly on the international stage swells the heart with pride. In 2020, various people with Nepali roots rose to global prominence. The list included Santosh Shah, a London-based Nepali chef, who reached the final round of the UK MasterChef Professionals competition, just falling shy of winning the trophy. He wooed both judges and viewers with his reimagining of various popular Nepali food. Coming from a humble background from Karjanha, Siraha, Shah not only made fellow Sirahalis like me proud, but also inspired people from many of Nepal’s small villages and towns to trust in their dreams.

As Shah proceeded with ease through successive rounds of the competition, he became the talk of the country. However, with all eyes on him, Shah’s decision to wear a dhaka topi inevitably entangled him in a web of political commentary on social media and in the press. Nationalists saw his donning of the topi as the ultimate indication that marginalised communities—despite the multiple ethnic movements of the previous decades—were finally coming around to accepting old national symbols. Many liberals would have liked to comment about how the topi is not the national hat, and some did on social media, but many did not want to ruin the moment and come off as malcontents. 

In light of Shah’s controversy and the recent celebration of a new faux holiday — ‘Topi Diwas’ — it is important to understand the controversial history of the dhaka topi that still casts a long shadow on the psyche of marginalised groups. 

A fraught history 

After a long, tiring century of Rana rule, during which the monarchs were relegated to forgotten symbols, the country finally got democracy in 1950 on account of various grassroots movements that emerged in the populated Tarai districts. The British had left the Indian subcontinent and India had become our next-door democracy. It was a time of excitement, self-ownership, and new possibilities, as the dark shadow of colonialism retreated from Asia.

However, in 1960, King Mahendra strangled that excitement by incinerating democratic aspirations and imposing an autocratic Panchayat system. Mahendra was uncomfortable with the widespread changes happening in the country: a diverse elected cabinet under BP Koirala; political parties in the Tarai advocating for an autonomous province; and Hindi, lingua franca of the Madhes, being spoken in Parliament. The king was troubled by how democracy had allowed people to assert their identity and culture. In a televised speech announcing the dissolution of the elected Parliament, Mahendra spoke about how democracy had not led to any meaningful changes and had only increased corruption. He also stressed how “communalism, regionalism, and other anti-society motives had given rise to numerous anti-national elements at the centre”. The Panchayat system would throw the country headlong into naked nationalism predicated on the supremacy of one in-group. 

Read also: Insights on the drafting of the Nepal’s 1959 constitution, the subsequent general election, and a new witness to King Mahendra’s coup d’état

From the 1962 Constitution, which recognised Mahendra and the Shah family as the “adherents of Aryan culture and Hindu religion”, to rajpatras that introduced Sanskrit and esoteric Nepali, it became clear that the country was going to be painted in the colours the royals wanted. Most significant among all the slogans that flowed from Narayanhiti to feudalistic posts and homes across the country was this: Ek bhasa, ek bhes, ek jati, ek des(one language, one dress, one nation, and one country). This slogan would also dictate how outsiders viewed the country (through a monopolistic lens), just as Nepal was beginning to open up to the world. And it would inflict trauma and humiliation on minorities and marginalised groups that would have devastating impacts on how they would be perceived even more than half a century later. 

The dhaka topi was central to Mahendra’s pet project of “Nepalinising”

Anchored by the slogan, the Panchayat system completely ignored the existence of the many peoples within the country, providing the sharpest rebuke to the dizzying diversity the region has always had. The homogenising tactic to form a “unified nation” was an imperialist tool to force the Khas Arya dress, language, and culture upon different communities. The imperialist toolkit included many policies intended to submit non-Khas Arya communities into becoming more like the king’s community

The homogenising of the national dress had immediate, wide-ranging impacts. Everyone was required to wear a dhaka topi for official purposes: to acquire their citizenship, passport, and driving licence. This provision — which was mandatory until 1989endured until 2007, long after the Panchayat system had receded into the recesses of national memory. The citizenship application form explicitly required, and stated, “a black and white photo must show both ears wearing a traditional Nepali hat.” 

The dhaka topi was central to Mahendra’s pet project of “Nepalinising” the communities he deemed foreign, backward, and uncivilised. It was used to make these communities subservient to the Khas Aryas, show the marginalised their place in the polity, and demand loyalty from them under threat of a toxic nationalistic whip. Together with the dhaka topi and the one-language policy, the king tried to make life infinitely harder and unjust for many communities. 

The Khas Arya establishment never trusted the Madhesis because of the establishment’s ethnic paranoia that Madhesis owed allegiance to India, rather than Nepal, and could someday form an independent country or merge with India. To calm their own nerves, Khas Arya elites conducted many projects to withhold Madhesi suffrage, beginning with electoral gerrymandering and erecting citizenship hurdles to running negative campaigns against the community, which continue to haunt Madhesis today.

In his 1996 book, The Challenge to Democracy in Nepal, A Political History, T Louise Brown writes about how the state regrouped Tarai constituencies with Pahadi groups, essentially turning the local Madhesis into minorities. Over many years, the government enacted policies that triggered mass-migrations from Pahadi districts, which in several cases displaced locals and forced them to locate elsewhere. Since Pahadi people were considered more Nepali than Madhesis, it was easier for Pahadis to acquire citizenship and purchase land even in the Madhes. 

While the gerrymandering and mass migration sought to keep Madhesis as a minority, the subsequent tightening of citizenship provisions codified the disenfranchisement of Madhesis. Kathmandu, the toujours political capital, was not an economic capital. The Madhes, the country’s periphery, was becoming the country’s financial centre. Kathmandu’s elites were unnerved by the possibility that the Madhes could over time leverage its economic might into political might. The gerrymandering not only squeezed Madhesi voices but also enabled the rise of centre-friendly Pahadi leaders. The current batch of prime ministerial candidates — from Sher Bahadur Deuba and KP Oli to Madhav Nepal — are the products of past redistricting and migration policies.

A tool of humiliation

In April 2001, CK Lal wrote in the Nepali Times about the humiliation Madhesis have had to face to secure citizenship. In his op-ed, Lal laid bare the wounds, difficulties, and dishonour Madhesis suffered during the process of acquiring citizenship. He wrote about how Kathmandu viewed the providing of citizenship as an act of charity for Madhesis and not as a fulfilment of their inherent rights. From being compelled to speak broken-Nepali to wearing a foreign topi on their head, Madhesis had to abide by all the state’s protocols and satiate policymakers and Kathmandu nationalists before they could be deemed worthy enough to be a part of the state. And after being dragged through all the procedural hassles, Madhesis who sought to be regarded as Nepali had to rely on the appointed Khas Arya Chief District Officers (CDOs), who had the power to reject their applications. When the conflict over citizenship clauses arose and the issue was referred to the Supreme Court, the bench, comprising all Khas Arya judges, Lal writes, determined Madhesi citizenship cases.

My grandfather, a tea-seller from Siraha, with little state help to overcome poverty, only made his citizenship so that he could impart citizenship to his son, who wanted to study beyond the tenth grade. I never saw my grandfather, and I only know how he looked from the one picture we have of him — the one he took to apply for his citizenship. In the photo, with his long face, the wrinkles around his eyes, and a dhaka topi on his head, he looks stern — or grim. 

For Madhesis, it is an anti-Madhesi symbol, especially with Khas Aryas centering the topi as the essence of ‘Nepaliness’

When my father applied for citizenship during the Panchayat referendum years, he also had to wear a topi. In their citizenship cards, my two elder brothers — people of my generation — are photographed wearing a dhaka topi too. Up until 2007, anyone applying for citizenship had to wear a dhaka topi, as mandated by the country’s vague laws and enforced by uber-nationalist officials. I became the first in my extended family to not wear a dhaka topi to acquire a citizenship certificate because I applied for mine in 2012.  

The dhaka topi perfectly epitomises the Mahendra era, which was a period of cultural imperialism. From his reign onwards, for minorities, the hat, beyond subjugating them symbolically, also forced them to don it if they wanted to clear administrative hurdles. Marginalised groups, including various Janajatis, Tharus, Madhesis, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, never wore the dhaka topi as part of their daily attire. But to be a part of the state, they had to wear one, even if it meant going against their faiths, beliefs, or cultures. Even a report published by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) mentions how wearing the dhaka topi was mandatory to obtain citizenship. 

Description: King Mahendra attending celebration of Dashain holiday at old palace in Basantapur. Photo Credit: Jon Bensky, 1967 Peace Corp

Not surprisingly, the dhaka topi has been regarded as a symbol of internal colonisation by minorities. For Madhesis, it is an anti-Madhesi symbol, especially with Khas Aryas centering the topi as the essence of ‘Nepaliness’. The recent advent of Topi Day and the nostalgic reclamation of the headwear by Nepalis, without their understanding of its controversial past, shows the comfortable bubble they live in, and speaks of the apathy of the members of the ruling community and their unwillingness to confront the lows in Nepal’s history. The celebration is also tinted by the fear and resentment festering in egos bruised by the assertive multicultural voices finding space in a new Nepal, where the topi, to nationalists’ chagrin, is seemingly being relegated to the same level of importance as other ethnicwear. 

Killing language

Another policy that went hand-in-glove with the dhaka topi policy, and which was as sinister, if not more so, was the state’s adoption of the Nepali language for all official, educational, and public purposes. Scholars agree on how this lingual marginalisation induced the educational, social, and economic marginalisation of various communities. Owing to the one-language policy, non-Nepali speaking children fared worse in schools, as they struggled with a language no one in their community spoke. Many adult Janajatis, Tharus, and Madhesis without a Nepali background could not apply for government jobs as the jobs required them to possess Nepali language proficiency. Such was the Panchayat state’s Nepali language obsession that it wiped out more than 70 minority languages from its three decennial censuses’ enumeration.

The Nepali state controlled all the “cultural production such as literary text, print, and radio journalism” that flowed from diverse communities to the public sphere. It banned Hindi and Newari in 1965. Pratyoush Onta and Devraj Humagain write about how, during the Panchayat era, the office of zonal commissioners was in charge of content and cultural censorship. 

In their chapter, ‘Janajati magazines and the contents of the subaltern counterpublic sphere during the 1990s’, Onta and Humagain write about the suppressed rage and contempt the magazine editors and authors had for the state and its policies. Janajati magazines called out the “Ek bhasa, ek bhes, ek jati, ek des” policy as “cultural imperialism” and “cultural terrorism.” 

The one-language policy made the lives of marginalised community members agonizingly difficult, even as it enormously and disproportionately benefited Khas Aryas

The Panchayat era so grievously decimated local languages, literature, and cultures, and diminished the achievements of minority communities’ heroes that there arose a kind of desperte rush among these magazines’ leaders to “relocate” the literary figures and heroes they deemed essential to their communities. Anthropologists whom Onta and Humagain cite in their work say that for Janajati magazine editors and publishers, the immediate phase post-1991 was filled with both an “anguish” about, and responsibility towards, filling the “existential vacuum” the Janajatis had earlier experienced during the Panchayat system.  

As Nepali was the only official language, it was a herculean task for non-Nepali speakers to read, comprehend, and engage with official documents, often requiring translators and interlocutors. The one-language policy made the lives of marginalised community members agonizingly difficult, even as it enormously and disproportionately benefited Khas Aryas. This supremacy accorded to one language facilitated and sustained the Khas Arya’s capture of the Nepali bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies, including in the Tarai.

As Khas Aryas joined bureaucracies all over the country, most of them brought with them their mono-prismatic nationalism, through which they judged locals. The Madhesis could only stand back and watch the Khas Arya bureaucrats’ internal colonisation of the police, army, CDO offices, courtrooms, and land offices, which made it exceedingly difficult for Madhesis to reach out to officials and state representatives who actually understood their language, problems, and pain. As the unitary state provided enormous power to the appointed Khas Arya CDOs in distributing citizenships, a Madhesi’s chances of securing citizenship, despite their furnishing all documents, depended on whether the CDO’s lens was coloured with the same paranoia the establishment harboured of a Madhes takeover. 

A constant, bitter reminder 

Over the decades, the dhaka topi continued to monopolise the definition of who was seen as a Nepali. When Prashant Tamang from Darjeeling wore the hat  during Season 3 of Indian Idol in 2007, he became more Nepali than Madhesis were ever deemed to be. In 2007, Kathmandu’s editors drooled over the Tamang phenomenon even as they condemned Madhesi protesters for speaking out against the country’s monolithic identity. To make matters worse, the dhaka topi was readily worn by visiting foreign celebrities and diplomats, from David Beckham to Kevin O’Brien, increasing its importance in nationalists’ eyes. In the political sphere, Dr Ram Baran Yadav, Nepal’s first President, a Madhesi, gave in to political pressure and ended up always wearing the hat during his term to prove his loyalty to the centre and allay the perennial fear of Kathmandu nationalists of a Madhesi takeover. Yadav cast aside his own culture to appease the ruling community. Minorities, in other words, have to cave in, his presidency demonstrated, and cannot be unapologetically themselves if they are running for national office. 

Photo Credit: YouTube screenshot

The dhaka topi has dominated social studies books, Kollywood, and institutions. During cultural programmes in the Madhes, young kids, unaware of the history imposed on them, happily dance in foreign clothing. Abroad, the numerically dominant Khas Arya Nepali students have made daura suruwal and chaubandi cholo the default uniform for cultural programmes for themselves, and for minorities. When Gyanendra visited Siraha in 2006, all the Madhesi leaders wore a dhaka topi. Even today, when ministry-level officials visit the Madhes, local state officers wear the topi because they harbour the faux belief that a topi — symbolising their patriotism and loyalty to the land — will earn them brownie points. In other words, the dhaka topi validates the Nepali status of Madhesis by playing on their fear and insecurities relating to acceptance.

The dhaka topi validates the Nepali status of Madhesis by playing on their fear and insecurities relating to acceptance

The Panchayat system is gone, but its fumes still choke the lives of Nepal’s various groups. The decades of linguistic, political, civic, and economic marginalisation have contributed to non-Khas Arya communities having the lowest human development indices. For example, some districts in the Tarai in Province 2, as reported in a 2014 United Nations Development Programme study, have the lowest HDI in the country. Lack of opportunities there have forced the most youths per provincial capita to go abroad and work as labourers. Similarly, the heady fumes of Panchayat-era nationalism have continued to embolden Kathmandu elites and the Khas-Arya-dominated media to demonise Madhesi movements in 2007, 2008, and 2015, with little self-reflection. The decades of state-aided othering, racism, and dehumanisation have empowered celebrities to don blackface and mock Madhesi accentst with ease and impunity. 

But it is unnecessary for us to glorify the hat and promote it as a unifying agent that brings various communities together. In fact, it does the opposite

The Panchayat era’s mass-migration policy, which made the locals a minority in several districts in the Tarai, robbed them of their desired statehood in 2015. Despite having a distinct identity, the numerical strength, and aspirations, Tharus, for example, were denied self-determination. The all-powerful Khas Arya establishment, concentrated in communist factions and the Nepali Congress, grudgingly set aside a small province to appease the Madhesi protesters. During the same period, Janajati constituents were split into separate provinces despite the decades their leaders had devoted to their self-rule movements.

Santosh Shah’s decision to wear a dhaka topi is his choice. But it is unnecessary for us to glorify the hat and promote it as a unifying agent that brings various communities together. In fact, it does the opposite. The dhaka topi has categorised Nepalis into two groups: those who have been deemed citizens and those who have not. It has raised one group and marginalised others. It has demanded either complete acceptance as the chosen symbol of Nepaliness or alienation from the prescribed Nepali identity. Not wearing it is oftentimes enough to invite racism at state offices and on the streets of Nepal’s hilltowns. 

For the last 70 years, the dhaka topi has divided us and marked uncountable sons and daughters of the soil stateless. Rather than being a unifying symbol, it has played an instrumental role in the state’s project to humiliate Madhesis and other communities and force them to don the ill-fitting, othering garb of ‘Nepaliness’.