Key messages for international community – from Lost in Transition

My book: Lost in Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and mega earthquake, critically dissects the role of the international community during Nepal’s peace process from around 2005 to 2015. In a chapter entitled: “Deception and delusion of the international community” I highlight how many European diplomats, donors and academics as well as senior United Nations officials misjudged the complex Nepali realities based on a rather simplistic narrative portraying Nepal as sharply divided between the forces of progressive change and the status quoist elite.

I argue that in their understandable desire to be on the side of the poor and the marginalized, the international community unwittingly ended up supporting or giving undue benefit of doubt to partisan activists and political forces claiming to be progressive – such as the Maoists and some ethnic and regional liberation movements – but which condoned undemocratic and sometimes even violent methods of agitation. This delayed the conclusion of the peace process, drafting of the new constitution, and the need to shift the nation’s focus from endless political negotiations to post-conflict reconstruction and development.

Here are some key lessons for the international community from my analysis:

  1. Focus on real track record, not just progressive rhetoric:

There are many activists in Nepal who champion progressive causes such as equity, inclusion and social justice. These include progressive moderates who strive for peaceful, democratic, incremental change, on the one hand, and some “radical progressives” who advocate for revolutionary changes.

The latter group includes some journalists, columnists, civil society leaders and advocates of identity-centric politics. They present excellent analysis of the deep-rooted social injustice, inequality, exploitation and marginalization of large segments of Nepal’s population, and claim to speak on behalf of women, Dalits, indigenous and ethnic communities, Madhesis and other oppressed groups. To buttress their arguments, the radical progressives paint the picture that Nepali state is dominated by a monolithic group of hereditary, feudal, upper-caste elites who are congenitally opposed to any progressive change. Many foreigners who consider themselves to be progressive are easily persuaded by this simplistic thesis.

The reality is less dramatic than this highly polarized, black and white portrait of the Nepali society.  Every country in the world has some dark chapters in its history, as does Nepal. But the situation is not static and Nepal has changed quite a lot in the past few decades. While the progress achieved is not good enough or fast enough, it is not true that Nepal has a uniquely formidable force of status quoist elites who resist all efforts at change.

Contrary to the radical progressives’ narrative that all those who disagree with their analysis and prescription are “regressive”, most Nepalis are thoughtful moderates who are receptive to change. In fact, many moderates, including from the historically more privileged backgrounds (the Bahun-Chhetri elites from the mid-hills), have a better track record of practical action to change society and uplift the poor and marginalized communities than the loud-mouthed radical progressive activists.

The international community would do well to judge Nepalis based on their actual track record of progressive action rather than the eloquence of their progressive-sounding rhetoric.

  1. 2. Look beyond people’s surnames, caste and creed:

It is well-known that historically certain communities in Nepali society – the Dalits, some ethnic groups, Madhesis, Tharus, and women as a whole – have been marginalized, exploited and excluded from political and economic power. In the highly stratified Nepali society usually it was possible to recognize who is from historically dominant castes and who belong to the more marginalized groups based on people’s surnames, and even physical features.

However, in recent decades, particularly during the Panchayat period, a new group of privileged elite has grown within the historically marginalized communities as well. There are many well-to-do families among the Madhesi and various ethnic groups with close connections with the ruling families and business elite of Kathmandu. For example, some of the worst exploiters of the poor indigenous communities and Dalits in the Tarai are the privileged, upper-caste Madhesi elites, far more than the Pahadi settlers.

Many families of indigenous ethnic groups in Kathmandu valley as well as in the mid-hills and mountains (the Newars, Thakalis, Gurungs, Rais, Limbus, Sherpas, etc) and the upper-crust of Madhesi elites (the Kayastha, Rajput, Marwari castes, including the Yadav, Jha, Karna, Lal, Mallik, Mishra, Nidhi, Dev, etc.) are comparatively much better off than the majority of Bahuns and Chhetris of far western Nepal.  While Bahun-Chhetris are disproportionately represented in many government jobs, that is not necessarily the case in business and commerce. It is increasingly difficult to generalize people’s economic and educational status simply based on their traditional surnames based on caste and ethnicity.

Interestingly, most militant advocates of ethnic and identity-based politics in Nepal tend to come from highly privileged family backgrounds within the Madhesi and hill ethnic communities. Most of the beneficiaries of various quota and reservations for government jobs and educational scholarships also tend to come from such privileged families, contrary to the intended target groups of the poor and downtrodden.

As in most other countries of the world, there is a need and good justification for well-targeted affirmative action in favour of the truly poor and marginalized communities in Nepal. But there is a real risk of “elite capture” when such action is based on very broad categories of ethnic, caste and regional groups.

It is worth noting that there is now a whole cottage industry of Western-educated militant scholars, who come from rather privileged families within the historically marginalized communities, who specialize in presenting selective statistical analysis intended to justify their advocacy positions.

Foreigners unaware of this complexity of Nepali society ought to be extra careful that they are not misled by sweeping generalizations or selective statistical analyses presented by the nouveau-privileged militant scholars just as much as by the narrative of the dominant traditional elites.

  1. 3. Take a balanced historical perspective:

There is a tendency by many radical progressives and militant scholars to hark back to 250 years of oppressive unitary state since the unification of Nepal by the Kings of Gorkha, and further back to two millennia of the Hindu caste-system as the continuing source of all oppression in Nepali society against women, Dalits, indigenous and ethnic communities, Madhesis and all others who feel deprived of their rights. While the oppressive legacy of our history is undeniable, constantly harking back to it, and denying or overlooking the progress made since the introduction of democracy in the 1950s, and especially since the reintroduction of multi-party democracy in the 1990s is disingenuous.

The Maoists would like us to believe that nothing good happened in Nepal until they foisted their “people’s war”, and many militant ethnic and regional activists would like us to believe that nothing good is likely to happen in Nepal until the unitary state is replaced by identity-based federalism.

This sweeping black and white analysis ignores the fact that much really meaningful economic and social progress was beginning to happen in Nepal, especially since the establishment of multi-party democracy in the 1990s. It is largely due to the open society under a pluralistic, democratic framework introduced in the 1990s that allowed people – including the Maoists, the Madhesis and other groups that felt disempowered – to speak up and demand greater social justice, political representation and economic empowerment.

Granted, the progress being made was inadequate compared to people’s rising expectations.  There were also many teething troubles of an infant democracy. But it was wrong to jump from this inadequacy to the conclusion that what Nepal needed was a Maoist regime or identity-centric federalism as the solution to all of Nepal’s ills.

The history of the world tells us that certain principles of democracy, economic management and human rights are essential for sustainable peace and prosperity of all nations. Nepal is not so unique that it needs to experiment with systems that have been tried and have generally failed elsewhere.

The international community ought to encourage Nepal to follow broadly agreed international norms of democracy, human rights, and pragmatic economic management. It ought to refrain from taking sides or expressing preferences on the choices Nepalis make on political systems and the restructuring of the state so long as they are broadly consistent with global norms of democracy and human rights.

  1. 4. Noble ends require noble means:

Many radical progressive groups in Nepal want revolutionary changes and resort to all kinds of pressure tactics to achieve them. They resort to forcible strikes, blockades, demonstrations, disruption of basic services to achieve their objectives. While peaceful protests, collective bargaining, and even civil disobedience are acceptable features of democracy, these must be voluntary, non-coercive and well-targeted. These must not deprive ordinary citizens from enjoying their human rights and access to basic services.

Even gains made through revolutionary actions and negotiations need to be reaffirmed, and can be rejected through referendums and peoples votes. The essence of democracy is that citizens are sovereign and their votes in free and fair elections through secret ballots carry more weight than gains made through revolutionary actions and agitation.

There are peaceful and democratic ways in which the views of the minorities are heard, and their rights and aspirations are respected and honoured. But the international community must refrain form recommending or requiring decision by “consensus” which inadvertently gives minor political parties and militant rebel movements an obstructive veto power over the universally respected democratic process of decision-making by the majority or even super-majority of elected people’s representatives.

  1. 5. Support universal norms, not political preferences

There are many ways to organize the structure of a state or the forms of government within global norms of democracy. It is a matter of political choice for countries to decide whether they want a parliamentary or presidential system; whether they want a unitary or federal system; whether they want a first-past-the post or proportional representation system. It is best for the international community not to express its preference for one or the other system in Nepal, so long as Nepalis make their choice in a peaceful and democratic manner.

It is perfectly appropriate for the international community to urge Nepalis to respect universal norms of human rights, peaceful resolution of conflicts, for good governance and rule of law, and to speak against impunity. But it is unwise and unacceptable for donors and other friends of Nepal to side with the political choice and preferences of one or the other group of Nepalis.

  1. 6. Don’t recommend for Nepal what you would not recommend for your own country:

During Nepal’s peace process and constitutional debates, many Western donors and diplomats, including UN officials, were known to support or favour certain seemingly progressive actions in Nepal that they would not accept in their own countries. Support for adopting the constitution through “consensus” rather than through voting by a 2/3rd or even higher majority in the Constituent Assembly was one prime example. Subtle support for the advocates of identity-based federalism – as if it was a universal norm – was another case in point.

It is one thing to support inclusive and non-discriminatory policy in employment and elections, including through affirmative action. But very few countries in the world have constitutional guarantee of proportional representation in all government jobs. It is hypocritical for donors and diplomats to subtly support such demands in Nepal that they would not do in their own countries.

There is a group of academics and ethnic activists in Nepal who invoke ILO Convention 169 to claim all kinds of special rights, including the right to self-determination. With backing from some like-minded international activists, they interpret ILO-169 to suit their parochial demands, including obstructing major development projects. It is ironic that some diplomats whose own countries have not ratified ILO-169 subtly press Nepal to implement its provisions as interpreted by the Nepali activists.

When the Maoists declared an “indefinite” general strike in May 2010 and tried to bring Kathmandu to a standstill, demanding the then Prime Minister’s resignation, instead of putting pressure on the Maoists to end their strike that caused great inconvenience to ordinary people, many Western diplomats put not-so-subtle pressure on the PM to resign. During 2015-16 when all of Nepal suffered a huge humanitarian crisis because of the blockade of the Nepal-India border, hardly any Western donors spoke up against the Madhesi parties or India that imposed the blockade.

Vandalism, forceful closure of public transport and other basic services with the threat of violence against those who defy the protestors’ dictat are not considered “peaceful” protest or civil disobedience in most democratic countries. But many Western diplomats and donors in Nepal tend to automatically give the benefit of doubt to protestors supposedly representing the marginalized communities if their slogans invoke injustice, inequality, exclusion and discrimination.

Whether it is agitation by activists who claim to represent the interest of the poor and marginalized or action by governments to maintain law and order, donors ought to give a consistent message that all noble ends must be pursued using noble means. Any movement that compels citizens to involuntarily obey the protestors’ demands – no matter how justified – or disrupts ordinary people’s human right to avail of basic services, or disproportionately impacts on the lives of many for the benefit of a few, cannot be considered “peaceful”.

Any practice involving great inconvenience to a large number of innocent people that would be considered unacceptable in rich countries, must not be considered acceptable in Nepal simply because it is a poor country with weak institutions and a legacy of the remnants of feudalism. Diplomats and donors ought to be careful not to inadvertently practice or condone such “double standards”.