Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2006, Nepal has been ‘in transition’—a perennially-favoured descriptive term for the country, along with ‘Nepal in crisis’ and ‘Nepal at the crossroads’, regardless of the specifics of history. This transition—termed ‘post-conflict’—has encompassed an ever-extending period of time. In this phase, peace-building has been stressed with, among other things, the creation of a framework for a New Nepal via a new inclusive, popular, democratic constitution. Two relatively peaceful Constituent Assembly (CA) elections appear to have legitimised the main political actors entrusted with moving Nepal away from the exploitative feudal state structures that allowed a small elite to repress and rule the many as their subjects. Thus, this transition is expected to finally enable ordinary Nepalis to become equal rights-bearing citizens.
However, this has been a period of political party posturing, individual political ambitions and manoeuvrings, (un)diplomatic interventions, and flawed solutions proffered by the all-important foreign aid sector, forever ignorant of history, suffering from a lack of institutional memory, and in continuous need to fund and show immediate ‘results’ to legitimise their existence. Exemplary of such dynamics was the early November 2014 public urging by certain Western ambassadors for the meeting of the constitutional writing deadline—a feat only possible even at that time by disregarding the need for meaningful participation by citizens. The consequent reassurance by the political elite that the constitution would be completed ‘at any cost’ may have been positively received by the intended diplomatic audience at that time, but it issued a collective chill down the spines of the many historically excluded. The bulldozing through of elections, laws, and regulations in the name of ‘deadlines’ to the detriment of the rights of the marginalised has been a favoured strategy of the elite.
Lessons from CK Raut
A key to understanding this period is the much reiterated phrase, ‘lack of political commitment’, which occludes the willingness of the elite to fake democracy for their own political legitimisation, while undermining the very core of democratic principles. For many reasons, this is no better exemplified than in the case of CK Raut, arrested on the charge of sedition.
To begin with, as many others have pointed out, there is the issue of freedom of expression. One need not agree with Raut to fully back his right to freely express his views in a democratic country. All other citizens with different opinions should now be supremely afraid of when their own views might be randomly declared a ‘threat’ by whatever political elite might be in power. Adherence to democratic values and principles forms the crux of defence for all against the random decisions of the few. The irony is, again as pointed out by many, that the current political elite—Maoists included—have revealed no moral qualms about utilising the same autocratic Panchayat-era rules of repression against dissent that were wielded against them. How then is Nepal not a weak, illiberal, proto-democracy masquerading as a robust liberal democracy?
The other issue related to the Raut case has been less obvious, but is key to understanding the nature of the weak foundations of the culture of democracy assumed to already exist, but which in actuality are in need of active creation, expansion, and protection. In the morning after Raut’s late night arrest, a press release by leading figures of Nepali civil society calling for his immediate release was widely disseminated. Apart from the cross-ethnic, caste, class, gender, region, and religious nature of the signatories, notable was the sheer speed with which the press statement was released. As later confided by two signatories, “We needed to make sure he wasn’t killed by the state.”
Well documented by organisations such as the Tarai Human Rights Defenders Alliance (THRD), and a lived reality for many, especially young, male Madhesis and their families, the fear of arbitrary detention, torture in custody, and extra-judicial killings haunts the inhabitants of the Madhes. And yet, unlike the issue of the killing of young, African-American men in the United States, the killing of our Madhesi youths by the state is not a national issue. We have no nationally/internationally circulated hash-tag #Madhesilives matter. Protecting the nation’s most vulnerable and marginalised should be our priority—revealing our moral values, ethics, and determination to live in a just, fair, rule-bound society. In the absence of the latter, and as in the case of the right to freedom of expression, other citizens should be very afraid of when those in power (in the present and future) deem their lives and their rights, and those of their near and dear, unworthy of proper state protection and the due process of law.
It is unclear how a political elite unwilling to defend such basics as the right to life and the freedom of expression is doing anything but faking democracy.
Conflating peace with democracy
As we go into the new year, it is important to note that since 2006, peace-building initiatives in Nepal—consolidating peace in the immediate aftermath of war and carrying out activities that help prevent the reoccurrence of war over the long term—have centred on building consensus. Here, the conflation of the analytically distinct concepts of peace and democracy in this post-conflict period has been the most obvious. The ultimate goal of peace-building is war prevention—not democracy. Furthermore, unlike the relationship between levels of democracy and interstate peace—democratic states do not go to war with each other—democracy as the best, easiest, and safest peace-building strategy has not been as robustly proved in regard to civil war contexts.
As made clear in numerous Martin Chautari reports, ‘consensus’ in Nepal has become problematic, not only for the stalemates that have resulted, but in the devaluing of democratic rules and procedures it has enabled in Nepal as a whole (at the local and national level), and in the constitution-writing process in particular. The elite-driven nature of the peace process, the inability and unwillingness to build trust and meaningful consensus, and the consequent prolonged transition period has legitimised the capturing of political space by political party elites, and the marginalisation of civil society and citizens.
An enabling environment has been created for the expansion and strengthening of political party patronage networks and the corruption and criminal/political nexus. The long-term consequences of the prolonged transitional period in extending and making rigid power relations and structures that work against the construction of legitimate, effective, and accountable government institutions have yet to be calculated.
While peace-building and therefore ‘consensus’ endows legitimacy to political dynamics, it is not at all clear how Nepal’s ‘post-conflict’ politics today differs from the run-of-the-mill power plays, patronage manoeuvres, and wealth accumulation strategies typical of politics in the South Asian sub-continent. Stressing democracy not for peace, but for the securing of norms and values and institutions that ensure the promotion and protection of fundamental rights for all should be the key goal for the new year.
In the short-term, regardless of deadlines, this should at the very least include the right to have meaningful and
participatory outreach programmes with the draft constitution when it is produced, including clear mechanisms for the inclusion of people’s voices into the draft. For example, for women who constitute over 50 percentage of the
population, there is no debate over the meaning of ‘equality’. Their input into the ‘and/or’ debate on citizenship rights (citizenship to be conferred by ‘father and mother’ or ‘father or mother’) should be able to wrest it from the elite, high-caste Hindu men who seek to make women’s uteri the arena for foreign policy and national security, and end the debate conclusively.
To end, this new constitution will frame the basic and fundamental rights of this and other generations of Nepalis to come. It is far too important a forward-looking document to leave to the hands of an elite unwilling to take seriously in the present, the basic democratic rights, principles, and moral values necessary to establish equal rights-bearing citizens of New Nepal.
Tamang is a political scientist based in the research and policy centre Martin Chautari