Centuries of structural exclusion, segregation, nepotism and corruption have created deep fissures in Nepal
The long and harsh anti-India tirade of Mohan Baidya at the launch of his breakaway Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) in Kathmandu last month shows how Nepal’s transition to peace remains entwined with complex and deep-rooted fissures inside and to the propensity of Nepalis to hold India responsible for whatever happens in their lives.
Nepal in Transition provides a collection of well-researched essays on the why and how of this quagmire. Eminent experts and practitioners here examine various aspects of Nepal’s historical evolution and the role of outsiders in its on-going transition to becoming a federal democratic republic of Nepal.
Deepak Thapa sets the stage narrating how, from 1740s, campaigns of Gorkha King Prithvi Narayan Shah, followed by Rana rule (1846-1951) and party less Panchayat (1960-1990), the Nepali elite had managed to sustain a unified kingdom but only in symbols and rituals leading to “systematic marginalisation of Dalits, Janajatis and Madheshis and other religious minorities” resulting in the neglect of their languages, traditions and cultures.
Male members of the ruling Rana family were appointed to senior army positions at birth and till 1999 army canteens did not allow Dalit soldiers to eat together with their upper caste colleagues. It is this widespread nepotism and corruption and the resultant disconnect between various ideologies, interest and institutional cultures, says Rhoderick Chalmers, that lies “at the heart of the deadlock” in the current transition process.
Mahendra Lawoti shows the 1990s marking Nepal’s final shift from hegemonic mono-ethnic to democratic poly-ethnic politics putting an end to centuries of domination by the hill Hindu upper castes. The image of Nepal as Shangri-La of ethnic harmony, maintained through stifling all reformist voices, finally stands undermined.
It was the simmering disaffection and rising consciousness that created fertile grounds for a Maoist insurgency. The King’s final attempts to usurp power from political parties during 2002 and 2006 only reinforced this popular anti-elite sentiment that was further accelerated by the People’s Movement fired by new actors like Madhesis, Dalits and Muslims.
These social upheavals were to result in the two-centuries-old institution of Monarchy being abolished unceremoniously and King Gyanendra given a fortnight to vacate his ancestral palace. But, says Lawoti, even now, groups other than hill-Hindu-elite continue to be debarred from Nepal’s political executive, judiciary, bureaucracy, and even media; only occasionally showcased for seeking legitimacy.
It is in this backdrop that the book highlights how even the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) of December 2006 and the Constituent Assembly — that was elected in April 2008 and mandated to set up a secular federal republic — remain aimed rather narrowly at settling the Maoist-led conflict ignoring the larger social issue of managing rising ethnic aspirations of the Nepalese masses.
Chapters by Teresa Whitfield, S. D. Muni and Prashant Jha underline the role of outsiders and India’s indispensable role in Nepal’s transition from People’s War to its on-going tryst with peace building. India’s pre-eminence was automatic in view of the “somewhat confusing mass of activity” of international agencies that made India a far better connected and effective actor.
Indeed, right from 2001, Maoists had approached the Vajpayee Government in New Delhi. Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, current prime minister of Nepal and formerly student of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), had enlisted Prof S.D. Muni of JNU for this purpose.
However, it was not till the height of Maoist People War that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh approached communist leader, Sitaram Yechury, to use his contacts at JNU to “bring them [Maoists] into the mainstream democratic process.” This saw Indian interlocutors successfully shifting Nepal’s peacemaking to New Delhi and facilitating both ceasefire and comprehensive peace agreement in December 2006.
But Maoists were also constantly sceptical of India’s influence and in 2005 their interlocutor Dr Baburam Bhattarai was suspended by Maoist supremo Prachanda for favouring negotiations over People’s War. New Delhi had also continued to be in touch with other power centres i.e. Nepalese Seven Party Alliance as the King was engaged by senior Congress leader Dr Karan Singh.
Even today, India’s stakes in Nepal’s transition remain critical for several reasons. First, China’s rising influence has to be viewed through the prism of its contentious relations with New Delhi. Second, transition processes in Nepal have direct lessons for India’s own struggle with its Maoist insurgency. Third, to the discomfiture of New Delhi, transition in Nepal has witnessed increasing injection of international agencies frontloading human rights and aid-with-strings of free-market and liberal democracy.
Sujeev Shhakya provides one out-of-box narrative. Exploring Nepal’s economic potential from a businessman’s perspective, he underlines how centuries of structural exclusion has generated popular self-perception of being “small, poor, landlocked, and wedged between its two large neighbours” where the elite has continued to be self-absorbed and myopic. For him, Nepalis should take pride for having abundant resources of water, tourism, youthful labour and biodiversity and “immediate land access to two economic superpowers” who are hungry for Nepal’s market, commodities and services.
Most other authors and editors remain pessimistic and share a common refrain criticising Nepali elite’s exclusionary policies as responsible for Nepal’s plight. Yet, the book itself fails to include anyone beyond the limited charmed circle of the representatives of international agencies and those from Nepali elite with affiliations or access to those circles. It is not clear who, in the book, represents the deprived masses or Maoists.
A few chapters betray their incline in projecting Maoists as opportunists, a divided house and nothing more than a transitory irritant. S.D. Muni is the only author who makes inclusion of Maoists conditional to the realisation of a peaceful new Nepal.
The book fails to credit the Maoists for recognising and channelising the groundswell or for having sheer guts to persist; or for their ideological clarity and commitment that guides their vision.
NEPAL IN TRANSITION — From People’s War to Fragile Peace: Edited by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Malone, Suman Pradhan; Cambridge University Press, 4381/4, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 495.
Keywords: Nepal politics