Postcolonialism and the struggle over the atmospheric commons

Discourse about colonialism and decolonization is often centered on the European variants for good reason - the scope of the European colonial project was global. The abiding legacies on language hegemony and epistemology are unmistakable. Yet variations of the colonial project at more intimate sites and scales are no less real to those affected. For a Newar from the Kathmandu Valley — known as Nepa by the Newars — self-identification as a Nepali citizen is itself a marker of colonization. While on the one hand, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of Gorkha who created the nation-state of Nepal in 1768—69, did so by ‘unifying’ the many erstwhile Himalayan kingdoms in order to successfully withstand encroachment by the British East India Company, it did so by defeating the Newar kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley in a brutal war that would be followed by the colonial subjugation of the Newar people, including the suppression of their language, culture, and their resource commons. Two and a half centuries later Nepal is a Federal Republic with multiculturalism and equality codified in the 2015 Constitution, but the hegemony of the Khas/Arya ethnicity and Nepali language persists in institutionalized forms in bureaucratic structures of governance. Assaults on resource governance structures such as the Guthi — deemed central to Newar identity and a civilization that is over 2000 years old — continue in the present day, with ongoing struggles in 2020. For an Indigenous person in South Asia, struggles with the modern nation-state are not uncommon (Roy 2004; Sivaramakrishnan and Cederlof 2006). Jal, Jangal, Zaineen is the rallying cry of the Gonds of Telangana and Jharkhandi Adivasis, among many others, against the Indian nationstate in response to its decades-long encroachment on Adivasi sovereignty and self-determination (Damodaran 2006; Parenti 2011). Both the Indian and the Nepalese nation-states exercise forms of colonialism over their own citizens in these ways. But there is also the bilateral relationship between the two countries that is noteworthy.

Although Nepal is an older nation-state than India and they have much shared cultural, ethnic, and linguistic heritage between them, the power dynamic between the two countries has always been uneven — in no small part due to the history of British colonial rule - India has often assumed a paternalistic and patronizing position towards Nepal. This was reflected most recently following India’s revoking of Jammu and Kashmirs constitutional autonomy in late 2019 when a new map publicized by India renewed territorial disputes with Nepal that have been attributed to “cartographic manipulation with a sinister motive” during the British colonial era, and perceived as a “blatant violation of Nepali sovereignty in total contravention of international norms” (Cowan 2015; Manandhar and Koirala 2001, 3—4; Zehra 2019). Gorkha-ruled Nepal in the 18th century sought to extend its dominion and territory beyond what its present-day borders are, but receded much of it in a 1915—16 treaty called the Sugauli Sandhi to stop war with the British East India Company. In the treaty, Nepal and British India agreed that the Kali river would form the border between the two sovereign powers. In maps produced between 1816 and 1856 the headwaters of the Kali river were recognized to be in Limpiyadhura, but cartographic manipulations made during the years 1857—75 would claim the headwaters of the Kali River to be southeast of the original headwaters, in Lipulekh. The updated map published by India in 2019 exercised further territorial transgression in disputed territory to legimitize Indian jurisdiction over a strategic trade and pilgrimage route between India and Tibet called Lipulekh Pass, prompting Nepal to assert sovereignty with its own updated map (Bose 2020; Manandhar and Koirala 2001).

While a full analysis of this recent bilateral dispute is beyond the scope of this text, I bring it up here, firstly, to highlight that the Global South is far from a monolith, and, secondly, to indicate that North/South struggles over the atmospheric commons cannot be divorced from struggles over land within the Global South. There exist sharp disparities within India itself and within the different nation-states that self-identify as nations of the Global South. India is clearly one of the more economically and politically powerful countries within the Global South (Rothermund 2008). It is fair to say that India is a regional hegemon in South Asia. But I bring up the textured depiction of (my own) identity in relation to different forms of colonialism earlier to illustrate the centrality of the nation-state scale of reference in contemporary politics — its reification despite its limitations — and to emphasize the importance of a two-way politics of scale. The fluidity and multi-faceted nature of identity enables a politics of scale spanning the individual to national to global and others in between. These claims need not be mutually exclusive. Despite the heterogeneity of the Global South and what is contained therein, this spatial imaginary resonates as a powerful counterhegemonic notion against Euro-centric colonial power dynamics. The Newar struggle against Nepali dominance and the Nepali struggle against Indian or Chinese dominance can simultaneously coexist with the joint struggle of various groups in Nepal, India, China, and many other countries against the hegemony of the United States and other countries in the Global North. Although the Global North and Global South are not inherently natural formations, they have come to be reified in the context of international relations and exchange. Debates over these identity markers are to be expected, and seeking to understand why these debates are occurring and what their implications are is necessary.

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