Author of "Running from the Dreamland," "Sex, Gender, and Disability in Nepal," and "Mochan."

Let The Subaltern Speak

Some time ago, one of the parliamentarians questioned to my question: “Who would listen to me in the parliament?” when I asked him “Why could not you bring about any reformative change in your territory from where you were elected?” My question was regarding people’s social and economic status. He was elected through the proportional voting system.

He further said, “I am bichara (poor) there. My voice is not heard. I feel like I am merely there to fill in the gaps in the parliament. I feel like I am one of the oppressed here, but I never felt so in my community.”

The Subaltern
In “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Gayatri Spivak writes: “The subaltern has no history and cannot speak.” According to Spivak, the subalterns are the oppressed group of people. It can be anyone among the “lowest strata of the rural gentry, impoverished landlords, rich peasants and upper middle peasants all of whom belonged, ideally speaking, to the category of “people” or “subaltern classes.” All those who are oppressed cannot be subaltern, but all the subaltern can be oppressed. The subaltern can be heterogeneous in composition or demographic, and economically and socially uneven. A class, a group of people or a person “dominant in one area could be dominated in another” (Spivak).

Candidly speaking, the parliamentarian’s woe was an indication that even if he was dominant and popular in his area from where he was elected through the proportional voting system, he was among the oppressed ones in the parliament, meaning nobody heard his voice. Thus, he could not truly represent his people, nor was he able to speak up, nor would anyone hear him out. This is, indeed, the situation in Nepali politics where the majority of the politicians cannot truly represent the marginalised community, people’s mandate, and their voices.

Nepali politics has historically been dominated by elitism, by certain class of people, by a “bourgeois-nationalist elitism,” that merely reinforces the idea of the collective consciousness of nationalism without reaching out to the individual consciousness or the narratives of diverse Nepali citizens. It is important to understand and respect how each individual view the nation and themselves and their expectations. Nepali population is heterogeneous, demographic, and socially, culturally, economically, and linguistically diverse.

Until we hear them or the one who represents them out, certain sections of people will be left behind and will always remain oppressed, including other marginalised people, such as women, disabled, people in poverty, Dalits and so on. The certain class of people in Nepali politics fails (or chooses not) to understand that Nepal’s population is diverse in terms of culture, castes, and creeds. The result will be the woes of the oppressed like how one of the parliamentarians felt.

The leaders of our nation essentialise the evenness of Nepali demography based on their perspectives and impressions without checking the facts, looking back to the past, or not going back to the source they came from or the society they lived in. Until they hear the voices and narratives coming from different people living in different strata of society, the leaders can never do good for the nation and its well-being. The master-slave narrative unconsciously hangs in the so-called leaders’ mind that does not let them prioritise the voices of the subaltern in politics. The leaders think in terms of their own limited interests which Sigmund Freud might call “libidinal” instead of social or national.

The meaning of the word “libidinal” I have used here in this context is not relating to the libido or sexual, but to the economic self-interest of the politicians. In his book “Libidinal Economy (1974),” French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard uses the term referring to the systems of exchange and valuation for fantasies, desires, fears, aversions, and enjoyment.

The irony lies in Nepali politics. Political parties advocate for the rights and representations of the oppressed and the subaltern. They have brought women, disabled, homosexual, and other indigenous representatives in the parliament to represent the voices of the voiceless, to address the conditions of the people who are left on the margins, to ameliorate the conditions of the oppressed group of people. But the question is: do the oppressed have opportunity or encouragement to speak? Can they represent the marginalised, the oppressed, the subaltern? Are their voices being heard? Going back to the parliamentarian, I mentioned above: Who will speak for the marginalised? Who will hear them out? How can truly one represent the consciousness of the subaltern, their rights and their woes?

Guided by ‘self’
Some politicians in Nepal are guided by the ideology of “self” while the marginalised ones remain as others and that is exacerbating when the political representation is divided between self and other in practice. This will continue to pressurise the marginalised/oppressed to follow the ones in power and watch the politics of the oppressor.

Yes, after many political movements and upheavals, we have noticed that political parties raise the issue of the “subaltern,” but that doesn’t seem to be materialised yet besides being able to fulfil their own personal interests. However, they continue to keep their agendas up for their popularity, and that will continue to create an illusion of what they are going to do is to create a “good society.” When they don’t do what they say, it is high time we knew their intentions and penalise them in the election using our voting rights.
Let’s think about politics: Can the subaltern speak?

Author: Dr. Tulasi Acharya

(The author is a founding member and director of Social Science Department of NIRI (Nexus Institute for Research and Innovation).

The article was originally published in the Rising Nepal dated 22 November 2021

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