Book: Nepal in Transition: From People’s War to Fragile Peace
Author: Edited by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Malone and Suman Pradhan
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Price: Rs 495
When the Nepalese talk about what is going on at this very untidy juncture, they follow one of two distinct narratives about their nation.
The first is the narrative of liberation, which starts with the awakening of political consciousness following World War II, and moves on to the 1950 and 1990 and 2006 democracy movements, and analyses current events as new chapters in the story of a revolution that has yet to be completed. This narrative is full of heroic struggles, rights movements and a yearning for justice, equality and a better day via democracy. Those attuned to the injustice prevalent in Nepali society tend to follow this narrative.
The second narrative is more alarmist, and it envisions the end of Nepal — at the hands of the Maoists, or of imperial India, or of Western aid organisations funding work on rights-based development and social inclusion, and as a consequence destroying social harmony. Those attuned to the concerns of the nation’s high-caste elite tend to follow this narrative.
Nepal in Transition: From People’s War to Fragile Peace will be educative to the latter, and educative as well as inspiring to the former.
Edited by Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M Malone and Suman Pradhan, this dense collection of essays is full of information thus far understood fully by only a handful of specialists. For this alone it is essential reading.
Deepak Thapa’s chapter offers a helpful overview of the causes — historical, ideological and opportunistic — behind Nepal’s Maoist insurgency, while Rhoderick Chalmers focuses specifically on the security sector at war and in peacetime, with an examination of the Royal Nepal Army and the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army. A very good follow-up to these two chapters comes later in the collection from Aditya Adhikari, who lays out, with thoroughness and precision, how the Maoists have used the peace process to enter, and master, Nepal’s democratic polity.
This is, of course, the central dilemma of Nepal’s democrats: though the democratic parties such as the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) have repeatedly — and valiantly — struggled to establish a liberal polity in Nepal, they have failed to embrace liberal social values. The Maoists, who can be ambivalent about the need for liberal polity, have earned mass appeal by embracing liberal social values such as federalism and inclusion. Instead of reclaiming federalism and inclusion as a democratic agenda, supporters of the NC and CPN (UML) have adopted uninspired negative strategies: vilifying the Maoists and, increasingly shrilly, blaming foreigners for the Maoists’ popularity.
In light of this dynamic, the chapters by Jörg Frieden and Teresa Whitfield, about the larger international community’s involvement through the war and the peace process, are of particular value. Demystifying what can be a very opaque industry, Frieden explains how aid organisations operated during the war. He also identifies an important split between aid agencies that backed a narrow agenda of economic liberalisation and those that backed a more comprehensive rights-based approach to economic development. Whitfield’s chapter similarly sheds light on the incredibly dense, and often garbled, international involvement in the peace process.
While many Nepali readers will be interested in this, many more will be interested in India’s extensive, and dismally untransparent, involvement in Nepal. They will find much to mull over in the chapters by S.D. Muni and Prashant Jha. Both trace the many, and sometimes sharply contradictory, policies that India has pursued in its role as a “big brother”. Interestingly, what the Maoists now want for Nepal — federalism, inclusion — is not so different from what India achieved in its own nation-building phase following its independence. Yet India throws its considerable weight behind those who oppose federalism and inclusion for Nepal.
Sometimes supporting one side and sometimes another, India appears to try, above all, to remain in charge. It does not always succeed. Indeed, what is so compelling about Nepal is that its struggle — over the soul of democracy — is deeply homegrown.
Mahendra Lawoti’s chapter shows the extent to which this is so. The “Caste hill Hindu elite”, as he calls the Brahmins and Chhetris, comprise 30 per cent of the population: yet they monopolise the state and many non-state institutions such as the political parties and the media. In their attempt to preserve their privileges, they have labeled the demand for federalism and inclusion a Maoist agenda, when it is in fact a reasonable, and even moderate, demand that Nepal be for all Nepalis, and not just for high-caste Hindus.
What is holding Nepal back, it would seem, is its leadership, which cares for the form, but not the content, of democracy. Fred Rawski and Mandira Sharma show the gains human rights organisations made during the war, and how these gains were overridden in peacetime. Bhojraj Pokharel, who headed the Election Commission during the 2008 elections for the Constituent Assembly, also blames the country’s “political culture” for resisting and later undoing many of the gains of this historical election. (The leadership has now got rid of the Assembly altogether.)
The book’s remaining chapters have merit, but as a whole the collection suffers from repetition, as each author offers a potted history of Nepal. In addition, a painful flaw is the absence of discussion of the women’s rights movement. It is hard enough for this very important movement to be taken seriously. It is a pity that a book such as this — which tells stories of liberation — should bolster the masculinisation of public discourse in Nepal.
The Indian Express, 3 July 2012
Reviewer: Manjushree Thapa