|Image: CVT, Nepal|
For outside observers, the picture currently emerging from Nepal seems rather depressing: the continuing ill-health of 85-year-old Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala; the reluctance of the Nepali Congress and the Nepali Congress (Democratic) to unite; the ‘ethnic’ demands being raised by the Madhesis, janajatis and other communities; the mistrust about the real intentions of the Maoists – inspired partly by the US lobby, partly by the behaviour of the Maoist cadres themselves, and partly by the general deterioration of law and order in Kathmandu and the rest of the country. Indeed, the Nepali state today is experiencing crises from all sides.
Similar growing pains have been felt elsewhere in Southasia during the process of nation-building. India and Pakistan started their independent journey with the mighty troubles of settling hundreds of thousands of refugees, dousing the fires of communal frenzy and building up their economies and societies. Burma was simultaneously facing similar challenges. With the advent of freedom in these countries and the surfacing of new crises, one scholar memorably noted that, after the tide of nationalism had ebbed, all the rocks that had been hidden within it were emerging into view.
Indeed, before long the Indian state was dealing with several other problems. Separatist demands were made by the Tamil, Sikh, Naga communities and others. Rulers of the princely states of Hyderabad, Junagarh, Jodhpur and Gwalior initially refused to accede to the Union, until confronted by the firm hands of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Meanwhile, the Jammu & Kashmir problem remains, even after India and Pakistan have fought three wars and the limited conflict in Kargil.
The ongoing case of Nepal is no different, and the current dynamics must be understood against the experiences of the country’s neighbours. Refusal to be overwhelmed by a succession of crises, along with a determination to resolve them with fortitude and insight – these are the hallmarks of statesmanship, which leaders in India displayed in those early years. Leaders in Pakistan and, later, Bangladesh, were unable to do so, and as a result, the people subsequently had to undergo long periods of authoritarian rule.
Nepal’s leadership has conducted itself remarkably during the last two years of tumultuous changes. In April 2006, peaceful popular revolt brought the surrender of the monarch’s absolute authority. Democratic political parties came to an agreement under the guidance of the country’s tallest leader, Prime Minister Koirala. The Maoists, who had waged a decade-long armed insurgency, were brought into a continuous dialogue, leading to their eventual agreement to give up arms and renounce violence. The challenge posed by the Madhesi movement was met by the government’s agreement to restructure the polity along federal lines. If a general consensus can now be achieved to redraw the map into linguistic-cultural regional entities, the aspirations of several other groups will also be met. This is the process that has taken place in India, and could offer crucial resolution to Pakistan as well.
The Nepali leadership, which has grappled with such enormous challenges, will not be fazed or overawed by the crises that the country currently faces. The two important tasks at hand now are the adoption of the constitution through the Constituent Assembly, and, prior to that, the redrawing of electoral districts. Now that the process of the surrendering of arms by the Maoists is coming to an end, the induction of the former rebels into the Council of Ministers is the first charge. But as it moves in that direction, the government will have to deal wisely and firmly with the sectional violence in the Tarai, which could also lead dangerously to counter-violence in the Kathmandu Valley and elsewhere in the hills. Committed cadres of the various communist parties could certainly play a positive role in spreading the message of pluralism and territorial fellowship. But the main test is for the democratic parties – particularly the two groups of the Nepali Congress, which have been trained in the ideals of democratic socialism – to take the lead.
It is a common experience of all democracies that, when power is finally attained, those who have struggled and sacrificed for it want to find places for themselves in the new space. Old values inevitably recede into the background. The peculiar problem currently faced by Nepal’s Maoist leaders, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’) and Baburam Bhattarai, is the economic rehabilitation of their cadres, who – except for those to be absorbed into the armed forces – have no ostensible means of livelihood. The leaders of the democratic parties also have to ensure the economic security of their workers.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spelled out a vision for such situations, even though the party he led for a quarter-century eventually rejected it. It may serve Nepal’s political class to study Gandhi’s vision as a means of tiding over immediate challenges, even while accepting the efficacy of that vision for the long-term construction of what is widely being termed a ‘New Nepal’. Gandhi called for the rebuilding of society and economy through service, in implementing a programme of spreading education; helping rural communities to organise co-operatives and small industrial units for processing agricultural and forest produce; reconstructing small-scale watershed-develop-ment projects; installing small electricity-generation units. The main priority in all of these was to create employment opportunities, in particular for the rural youth.
A long time ago, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) decided to undertake such a programme of constructive work and social reform. Unfortunately, today no one can say what has happened to it. In 1949, the eminent socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia, on behalf of the National Executive of the Socialist Party, placed before the party’s national conference a programme for national reconstruction, based mainly on the above precepts. Although party workers enthusiastically implemented the rural-develop-ment programme for more than a year, that spirit was subsequently quashed – due, in part, to the preparations for the 1952 general election, followed by depressing election results and the subsequent quarrels among leaders that led to a split in the party.
That, however, was a specific case. The people of Southasia need intelligent discussion on a broad range of issues, including family planning, dowry, divorce, women’s rights, untouch- ability, caste- and gender-based prejudices, health and nutrition, sanitation and exercise. The most important issues, however, remain democratic practice, egalitarianism, and mutual tolerance and respect.
One immediate possibility for Nepal’s leaders would be to hold joint study camps comprising workers from all the eight political parties. Intellectuals, academics, civil-society leaders, journalists and other professionals may also contribute to these study camps. This could make possible the collective discussion of the above issues and programmes, and allow for a new spirit of joint work in nation-building to gather steam. Perhaps the simple act of men and women from different backgrounds working side by side could itself help to reduce the current distances and tensions in Nepal.
~ Surendra Mohan is a long-time socialist leader from New Delhi.