[PATAAL LOK] Hegemonic Gorkha Masculinities and Anxieties

The recent amazon prime series “Pataal Lok” has witnessed wide backlash from the Indian Gorkha community who are protesting against the slur “Nepali Randi” used in the series. The community asserts that the usage of such slur is offensive to the Nepali speaking community at large. In the immediate aftermath, multiple FIR’s have been filed against the series, and the producer and numerous letters have been written to distinguished persons in the government calling for its withdrawal. Social media and Facebook, in particular, has become the new battleground where the “honour” of Indian Nepali women, whose moral standing in the use of the word “Nepali Randi” allegedly degrades, is now being fought. The past few weeks have seen Nepali men’s chauvinism and masculine need to protect the “honour” of the women in their community on an unprecedented scale, given the space that is now being provided by social media.

Firstly, we are writing this to express our solidarity with research scholar Marina Rai who has been at the receiving end of much patriarchal jingoistic backlash for daring to express her opinion against the mainstream narrative in her article “I am a Nepali Woman, But ‘Paatal Lok’ does not Offend me”. Rai has been receiving threats both physical and verbal in the past few days. Secondly, we also wish to express our discontent and disagreements with the misogynist nationalist claims that the series has provoked within our community. We strongly believe that the backlash has got to do more with the Indian Nepali society laying claims of control over the women in the community, than their emotional egos which they claim the usage of the word has hurt. We also strongly support and reverberate the arguments that have been made by Rai in her article, and most importantly we believe in the independent agency of Nepali sex workers, asserting strongly that they are as much a part of our community than any other trying to make ends meet with the little that is provided to them in this trickle-down system.

Since the past few days, we have witnessed numerous bogus claims being made against Rai. The comments reveal the deepening masculine anxieties as expected gender roles are weakening with women moving towards metropolitan cities for better job opportunities and economic independence. Given that these urban spaces are not bereft of discrimination, women from Nepali communities already hold precarious positions as “Outsiders” and our personal anecdotes are testaments to the vulnerabilities we face for being and looking different. This situation is further exacerbated when women are portrayed in the same light by our own communities. Some have questioned Rai’s moral standing on grounds that since she is based in Delhi she must have eloped with brown men which has caused her to express such views. This not only shows the anxiety over exogamy and the need to control women’s sexuality but also how a women’s independent agency to think for herself is still yet to be digested well in the society. The use of exogamy as a threat to the “honour” of a woman is stringent enough to ostracize her. This online bullying has also showcased the internal classist attitude with some saying that her opinion “shows her family background”. Rai has been subject to repeated infantilization at the hands of Nepali men calling her “Bunu” and other such names used for children in the Nepali society.

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Marina Rai’s case is not a lone one for this remains an everyday reality for so many of us who have left our homes temporarily or permanently in search of education and work opportunities. Under the grab of tradition and honour, the need to control women be it her lifestyle, her sexual choices, her agency has a direct bearing on the concept of a “good woman” contrary to the “loose/promiscuous” woman. The Nepali woman bearing the onus of upholding the dignity of her community. This also calls into question the problem with the word “Randi” that has been echoed by a large number of people. While the word in itself is multifaceted, the unwillingness to associate or rather alienate oneself from it because it is undignified makes it extremely problematic for a lot of women participating in sex work. It is hardly a revelation that women from Nepali and North-eastern communities are engaged in prostitution willingly, or sexually trafficked by luring them into finding better jobs in big cities. Instead of calling out this illegal sex trade and trafficking affecting a disproportionate number of women belonging to our community, a rather privileged stance has occupied the debate. The trouble is not in calling for self-respect, dignity, and justice for it is inherently our right, but doing so at the expense of other marginal communities who already live in vulnerable environments will only perpetuate their stigmatization further.

Ironically, some are opposing the usage of the word “Nepali Randi” on grounds that the word creates a stereotype where an occupation is attributed as being synonymous to a particular community. Indeed, the Nepali Indian Gorkha community has time and again asserted its rights on the basis of its history in the Armed forces, even though today most people from the Indian Gurkha community no longer see the Army as a lucrative occupation. It is therefore not prostitution as a profession that has irritated multiple fragile egos, but rather the word “Randi” being used simultaneously with “Nepali”, bringing under question the society’s construct of an “Ideal Nepali woman” and her dignity on which all social rituals and traditions rests.

Much of the debate has been blown out of proportion with accusations of not being able to comprehend the sensitivity of the racist undertones in spite of belonging to the same community. What has been conveniently ignored is that Rai’s article never states that Nepalis are not subjected to racism or sexism or that our personal experiences are devoid of such acts. Any form of art is open to subjective interpretations and in the case of the series what it is trying to convey to the viewers. Notwithstanding the difference in opinions, what has manifested in an outburst is a 50-second clip that has collectively enraged majority of the people, most of them who haven’t even watched the series and are unaware of the context or storyline. Racism is a real structural problem that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with unequivocally but calling for censorship and tokenistic representations online as an adequate substitute for real and transformative changes only becomes a vacuous quest for dignity and self-respect in the long run. Further, this self-righteous indignation not only confines us to mindlessly pledge our unanimous loyalty to one particular view but it also obliterates the need for democratic spaces.

Marina Rai’s current position epitomizes the stature of any woman in the Indian Nepali society who dares to speak against the internal problems within the community. In a community where every achievement or milestone achieved by a woman is applauded as “Our Daughter, Our Pride’, “Hamro Cheli” etc., the recent backlash showcases how appreciation and praises for a woman are subjected to numerous Patriarchal boundaries of what she is allowed and not allowed to do. Women or “Cheli” (the ideal Nepali woman with the status of a deity) remain the focal point of all control whose functional representation remains in the domestic and to venture into the public amounts to severing the boundaries created by this patriarchal society. We see this today happening to Marina Rai, as she steps out of the private to the public, daring to do the minuscule act of speaking her mind, which is seen as dangerous enough to be vilified in public.

The online bullying she has been facing only serves as a testament to the larger structural problem that remains unacknowledged in the disguise of a “gender-equal” society where women are said to be treated much better in comparison to the mainland Indian society. With everything that has transpired, we need to identify the dangers that come with this misguided power of righteousness that is rarely accompanied with a sense of reflection. As a community, we certainly need to form solidarities but our struggle for self-respect should not come at the cost of women’s oppression, no matter what occupation they may be engaged in.

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Malavika Pradhan, Jawaharlal Nehru University Dawa Lhamu Sherpa, Ambedkar University Shradha T K Lama, Delhi University

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