The democratic revolution in Nepal ousted a deeply entrenched and centuries-old monarchy, and the country is now engaged in the process of building a republic. This expression by the people of their rights was followed by that of another Southasian country, Pakistan, where a military dictator was compelled to hold an election. These two recent examples might inspire the citizens of other neighbours – Bangladesh, the Maldives, Bhutan – likewise to stage revolts against their respective regimes. In such transformations, however, the people of one country must not trust their own or their neighbours’ regimes to certify their actions. After all, those in power tend instantaneously to develop common interests. In the Nepali context, we have seen how the Indian government was keen on constitutional monarchy or a ‘two pillar’ system until it became patently unviable.
Likewise in the case of Bhutan, with over 100,000 citizens being prevented from voting on the false assertion that they are Nepali, the New Delhi government gave its blessing to a fake election, calling it democratic. Nepal has decided to build a federal democracy, an extremely significant constitutional advance. Sri Lanka and Pakistan have suffered greatly by continually turning away from such a set-up. The former has gone through significant civil strife for the last two decades; while the latter’s territorial integrity sometimes weakens due to its failure to recognise the distinct identities of Pashtunistan, Balochistan and Sindh. The repression by the military regime of Pervez Musharraf has not fully ended, despite the recent enforcement of democracy. There is the urgency to end the ongoing repression in Balochistan, as well as a need to pay due royalties on gas extracted in the province.
Other than Nepal, the entirety of the Subcontinent was at one point governed by British colonialists. But even after Independence, the governments in India and Pakistan have continued the same colonial administrative framework, the same economic policy of industrialisation through the accumulation of capital from the agricultural sector. Large-scale industry was preferred to medium- and small-scale efforts, and agricultural development was neglected in important ways. When this policy led to increasing unemployment, and India experienced a scarcity of food, recourse was taken to intensify irrigation by constructing big dams, uprooting millions, and playing havoc with the natural environment. Extreme and disastrous ideas, such as constructing a network of canals to link the northern and southern rivers of India, are still revived from time to time. The model of development preferred by those who devise these grand canal schemes entails massive consumption of energy, and numerous hydroelectric and thermal power projects.
For some time, Nepal has been included in India’s plans for more hydroelectric power; the country’s new federal, democratic, republican set-up will now need to decide whether to comply with such demands. The people of Nepal will also need to choose their new road to economic development. They can adopt the prescriptions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and ask for the bounty of Western capital as a ‘Least Developed Country’. This certainly seems to be a route dear to the elite sections of any society. However, past experience in the neighbourhood, particularly India, should caution any country’s politicians that following this path breeds sharp inequalities between regions and classes of people. Foreign debt becomes a long-term hindrance in terms of balanced economic development; the environment would suffer irrevocable damage; unemployment could create terrible unrest. Models of sustainable development should clearly be preferred.
Separate and together
India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have retained the colonial huzoor mai-baap tradition, which has led to a dangerous divorce between the rulers and the ruled. In this vein, Rajiv Gandhi once referred to district collectors as “democratic dictators”. While India experimented with devolving economic development and regulation through the Panchayati Raj system, the strength of the entrenched bureaucracy has yet to allow it to succeed. In Pakistan, the bureaucrats and army generals have together imposed martial-law time and again. Likewise, in Bangladesh, martial law prevailed on and off for decades, and the generals continue to call the shots today. Mal-administration is certainly a matter that could upset the envious political gains recently achieved by Nepal, and federalism cannot countenance the concentrations of power seen in other countries.
A country such as Nepal, with diverse cultures and varying levels of economic and social development, must prevent such concentrations in the forthcoming federal units from the very beginning. Language is another crucial consideration. Simply put, elementary education needs to be provided in the respective mother tongues. All countries of the region are wrestling with this issue. In the current context in Nepal, for instance, a view from the top might find it necessary to introduce the Nepali language even at that stage, in order to promote national integration. This could only be a poor decision. Pakistan learned from the bitter experience of Partition that the imposition of a language on unwilling communities is unacceptable. Sri Lanka undertook a process of Sinhalisation from the early 1960s, and the consequences have been similarly disastrous. Each of these instances teaches us that regional, cultural and administrative autonomy is as necessary as is regional autonomy for purposes of economic development. This commonalty of experience among all of the countries of the region demonstrates its essential unity. In this context, every effort needs to be made to preserve and strengthen this sensibility.
~ Surendra Mohan is a veteran socialist leader based in Delhi.