Dialogic Politics of Knowledge


Social Science Baha arranged a panel discussion on 17 July 2004 about book Nepal Studies in the UK (2004) which is 'conversations with practitioners conducted by Pratyoush Onta with 19 British scholars. They have been working in different fields of knowledge and specialisation over the last 30 years or more. This small discourse interestingly indicated a new mode in the dialogic structure of knowledge in Nepal vis-a-vis the works of the British scholars about this country. Among the 19 scholars, only three-john whelp ton, Rhoderick Chalmers and Ian Harper were available there to speak about their texts. Pratyoush Onta answered the problematic raised by Rajendra Shrestha of Social Science Baha and described his own modality of producing the texts of self-storying by these scholars on the basis of what he called his perception of the politics of knowledge.

Pratyoush Onta has been using the term 'politics of knowledge' to discuss about the discoursal power of knowledge in Nepali media and social science studies over the last few years. This terminology may have its origin in the Foucauldian and Edward Saidian discourse of power but Onta's choice of it to discuss the structure of the so called Nepali episteme in the realms of social science studies media and literature has impressed me in a number of ways First this terminology reflects the desire of a Nepali scholar of the younger generation for a meta critical study of the Nepali system of knowledge. Secondly, this terminology reflects the new emphasis of study about Nepali history. Thirdly and very importantly to me the politics of knowledge covers the studies of the foreign scholars on the subject of Nepal from both the earlier and present times.

Nepali scholars of the new generation have started questioning the canonical structure of knowledge its palimpsest effect in historical studies, anthropology and culture whether they are produced by the native or the foreign scholars. They want to open dialogues with the producers of knowledge whoever they may be.

British scholars' views about Nepal have always been valorised by Nepal scholars. They have been quoted. Some of them were addressed as mahodaya or sirs by Nepali historians. Showing respect to the epistemology in the domains of history, linguistics, and social science studies about Nepal found in the works of the British scholars has its origin mainly in the quality of the work itself and partly in the colonial legacy. English language is associated with power and prestige in South Asia. Those of us who studied English literature perse found the realm of British scholarship a very acceptable phenomenon. To us the leafy trails around Lake Grass mere in the Lake District walked by William and Dorothy Wordsworths have been more valid emotionally than any Mexican mountain trails. Naturally, through academic associations we have made friend among the British. A schoolteacher of sociology harshly expressed his ire through a letter in this paper two weeks ago about my reference to my British friends and academic associations. I don't see any reason why I should not talk about the academic and literary texture of my experience. But we are not romanticists. We interpret the English legacy through post-colonial perspectives and our students and we are fully familiar with the dimensions of these discourses.

Younger generation Nepali scholars' association with the British scholars has a different basis. They represent a new generation of the Nepali historians who interpret the historiography and the theories of sociology in an entirely new perspective. They have opened up a different dialogic mode of the epistemology warranted by history. Even as an outsider I have joined the Martin Chautari debates at Thapathali and I still do. Several of these British scholars interviewed here have made their presentations at that den. Audience would question the presenters sitting around on chakati. A friend and scholar Michael Hutt, who has done great works to promote Nepali studies at SOAS, character ised that space as a lion's den. Jokingly he wrote to me in Tokyo, ''I'll be like Daniel in the lion's den''. He was happy with the ambience at the presentation. In essence, Onta's Nepal Studies in the UK, though the scale of the work is small, represents that new dialogic mode opened by Nepali scholars of the new generation. To them the British scholars are not mahodayas but friends.

These brilliant Nepali social scientists have very good scholarship and their perception of the western epistemology is different than those of the historians of the erstwhile era. Similarly, the Nepali social scientists have opened up new areas of discourse in Nepali anthropology. Writings of Krishna Bhattachan, to take one other example, have opened up new discourse dimensions of the Nepali ethnography, hegemony and power in recent years. I have been trying to coax another brilliant scholar Hari Sharma a political scientist, into completing his book that will cover topics in the domain of space, territory and power and the question of frontier states. This work when published will initiate a new mode of political discourse. Books on the subject of Maoist movements by the Nepali scholars have opened new vistas of debates in the realms of social science studies, ideological perceptions and constitutional questions. Various anthologies of different writers' essays under the common rubric Nepal have opened up more areas of debate. British social scientists of the younger generation interviewed in the Studies have not shun the earlier domains of study John Whelpton's serious research on the ideological questions of the 19­­­­­th century history, David Gellner's study into the texture, Mark Turin's linguistic studies, Rhoderick Chalmers brilliant study of the Sankrit semantics and the historiography of literature associated with print technology, Michael Hutt's eclectic works and those of the others have convinced me that these British scholars of the new generation have taken the topics of study handled by the erstwhile British scholars over to a new era of scholarship.

The comment made by the late eminent British sociologist Ernest Gellner while reviewing John Whelp ton's first book Jungabahadurin Europe (1983) in Times Literary supplement (December 23, 1983) represents in essence the British scholars' perceptions of Nepal. He says, ''Nepal probably remains the nearest thing available for direct observation of the traditional Asian state. But how did it manager to survive so long to possess a bicentennial anniversary so close to that of the Americans?  Had it been a fully paradigmatic Asian state, operating in the traditional context, its longevity probably would not have been as great''.

The new British scholarship too looks at this question of the paradox between the paradigmatic context and longevity of the state. The British scholars, some of some of whose experiences may be closer to those of what Edward Said calls specular border intellectuals by virtue of their expatriate positions, have very importantly enhanced their links to Nepal. To others, Nepalese study is a scholarly expression of love for this country by which token it may represent their lyricism more than the Gellnerian British perception of a paradigmatic state uniquely resolving its conflict with the need for continuity and change. Nepal Studies in the UK is a modest but very important beginning in this direction of opening the dialogic mode of British scholarship about Nepal.

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