In the two years since the sidelining of Nepal’s monarchy in April 2006, and the restoration of a democracy that promised a more inclusive polity, the country has been characterised by a surge of ethno-nationalism. Communities that felt historically left out began to demand their own territorial space “in which they would be the masters, dominating politics, staffing the civil service, and controlling commerce”, as historian Jerry Z Muller put it recently. Although the implicit understanding in the aftermath of the People’s Movement of April 2006 was that the contours of both the Nepali state and the polity would be deliberated upon and decided by a Constituent Assembly (due to be elected on 10 April, after having been twice postponed), there were simply too many groups unwilling to accept assurances from the current political leaders of a more just social and political order in the future. The reason for this mistrust is not hard to find.
Despite promises of a fresh start following their ignominious performance during the 1990s, Nepal’s political parties have done precious little to alter the character of the state. Given that the major parties, as well as the state apparatus, are under the control of the same two dominant minority groups – Bahuns (hill Brahmins) and Chhetris – that together comprise around 30 percent of the population, the concentration of power in their hands, and what benefits accrue from this power, was certain to be challenged as Nepal’s political flux continued.
For a country that had just come out of a decade-long Maoist insurgency, it had seemed that bringing the Maoists into the political mainstream would begin the process of political and social reconciliation. But far from that, for more than a year Nepal was wracked by sometimes violent ethnic unrest, which effectively brought the country to a standstill for days on end. As Himal goes to press, an uneasy truce holds in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly elections, but there is no saying what form Nepal’s politics of ethno-nationalism will take in the future.
Rise of the laggards
It is not surprising that ethnicity should suddenly appear as the most defining feature in contemporary politics, even though Nepal is neither a newly created country nor a product of decolonisation – both of which conditions are considered ripe for ethno-nationalist conflict. Nepal is one of the world’s oldest states, having existed in more or less today’s form since the mid-1700s. But having followed the empire model during its consolidation of territory and thereafter, ethnic markers remained notably vibrant. Ultimately, that Nepal stayed relatively stable for more than two centuries owes more to the state of underdevelopment ensured by the rulers than anything else.
Modernity, that precursor to ethnic mobilisation, is quite new to Nepal. Its advent, during the 1950s, also saw a not-particularly-successful attempt to foist a single national identity on the scores of ethnic and caste groups that make up the Nepali population. That experiment failed, for a number of reasons, but mainly because many of the groups were denied citizenship rights in the fullest sense, even as they were made to conform to a nationality that was alien to most. As such, when modernisation arrived in its fullest force, during the 1980s and 1990s, it was inevitable that ethnicity should emerge as the most prominent way to define and express one’s identity.
In his exposition on the power of ethnic nationalism, Muller explains this urge to emphasise ethnicity at the expense of all other factors – social, economic or political – in the struggle for control of the state. This struggle is, in part, sparked by modernity, for, as Muller writes,
Modern societies are premised on the egalitarian notion that in theory, at least, anyone can aspire to any economic position. But in practice, everyone does not have an equal likelihood of upward economic mobility, and not simply because individuals have different innate capabilities. For such advances depend in part on what economists call ‘cultural capital’, the skills and behavioral patterns that help individuals and groups succeed. Groups with traditions of literacy and engagement in commerce tend to excel, for example, whereas those without such traditions tend to lag behind.
As it so happens, the laggards do rise up sooner or later. When they subsequently begin to claim their rightful place in the functioning of the state, these groups understandably feel the full emotions of being cheated. After all, the state is generally controlled by those groups that have what Muller refers to as ‘cultural capital’. This was certainly the situation in Nepal, and it resulted in the upsurge of ethno-nationalism that Nepal has experienced over the past two years.
The commitment made by the political players to a federal state structure in the upcoming constitution has made ethnicity all the more salient, since each of the three major parties – the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – has accepted ethnic identity as one of the most important factors in determining the form of the constituent federal units. While this is partly an attempt drum up electoral support, it is also a recognition of the forces that have been unleashed by the Maoist movement. The Maoists themselves, after all, used the vocabulary of economic justice, as well as the issue of the ‘nationality question’ – which, in their own words, seeks to change the conditions whereby “dominated Mongoloid (or Tibeto-Burman) and Austric racial groups were suppressed under the unified state power and were left behind in the evolutionary process” – to create a powerful combination that sustained it throughout the years of fighting.
The rise of ethno-nationalism was partly due to the failure of the Maoists themselves to adequately factor in the aspirations of Nepal’s various ‘nationalities’ in their various agreements with the mainstream political parties – including in the first one, in November 2005, which paved the way for the Maoists’ entry into the political arena. This happened despite the fact that the rebels had championed the same for years. The lapse is equally glaring on the part of the other parties, even though they were late converts to the ‘nationality question’. For they failed to realise that, unlike the issue of fair redistribution of resources, ethno-nationalism appeals to and has the potential to mobilise everyone. As sociologist Anthony D Smith has observed: “Modern ethnic nationalisms … make use of universal notions of ‘liberty’, ‘spirit’, ‘nature’ and ‘history’, which are applicable to many ethnic communities and to different strata of the population. Hence, the ‘multi-class’, popular appeal of ethnic nationalism, as each class and each stratum has moulded its general precepts to fit their needs and ideals.”
While a ‘New Nepal’ is in the making, to be defined according to the public rhetoric along the lines of an ‘inclusive democracy’, it would be pertinent at this point to take note of the precarious situation of democracies the world over. Political scientist Larry Diamond, in his analysis of ‘predatory states’ (in contrast to democratic ones), describes how, despite the nearly 100 countries that have begun making the transition to democracy since the so-called ‘third wave of democratisation’ that began during the mid-1970s, there has been a gradual “democratic recession” in recent years.
Diamond argues that many of those countries currently seeing a retreat of democracy have problems of governance, as well as general disenchantment with constitutionalism. Together, these characteristics make such countries particularly susceptible to rule by strongmen. These ‘at-risk’ democracies are also usually plagued by a predatory state, in which the elites monopolise power for personal benefit. Diamond writes:
In such states, the behaviour of elites is cynical and opportunistic … Ordinary people are not truly citizens but clients of powerful local bosses, who are themselves the clients of still more powerful clients. Stark inequalities in power and status create vertical chains of dependency, secured by patronage, coercion, and demagogic electoral appeals to ethnic pride and prejudice. Public policies and programs do not really matter, since rulers have few intentions of delivering on them anyway. Officials feed on the state, and the powerful prey on the weak. The purpose of government … is to produce private goods for officials, their families, and their cronies.
This analysis should sound very familiar to Southasians, and could also read true to the ‘New Nepal’ that is on the drawing board. The Constituent Assembly is likely to see some tough wrangling, as the ethnic nationalists find ways to accommodate each other, as well as fight the elite groups. But it would take a diehard optimist to believe that Nepal’s overall pattern of governance is going to change much, either at the centre or in the federal units. Each will most likely be predatory in its own right, with the only difference being that the “masters” referred to in the quote at the beginning will be distributed among many more ethnicities. Class will resurface as a variable in the political sphere only after this stage has been reached. After all, Nepal’s economic condition, with all of the inequities that provided the Maoists with the justification to launch the ‘people’s war’ in the first place, has remained more or less unchanged since the day the fighting began.