Many years ago, in a seminar paper, a Nepali author wrote: "The challenge to the leadership in Nepal is to make the inevitable process of change peaceful, democratic and progressive." Commenting on it, a foreign scholar warned "Nepal is the next Rwanda". In 1994, in Rwanda, a nation in West Africa, also known as Tropical Switzerland, 800,000 people were killed in violence between two ethnic communities - Tutsis and Hutus - within 100 days.
The paper writer tried to explain that Nepal’s conflict was different. To recollect, the Maoists were waging their people’s war and the monarchists were saying, "Support us or the Maoists will take over." The political leaders had shot themselves in the foot. The civil society was crying in exasperation: ‘Who wants peace here?’; conflict experts were preparing for the long haul. Meanwhile, Nepalese were killing each other.
Back from the brink
Then, an idea, a peaceful national democratic progressive political centre, isolating extremists of all sides, became the rallying point against violence and autocracy. Many have forgotten those days while others are busy claiming credit or assigning blame for the peace process that has brought us from there to here. In fact a combination of intellectual audacity, political will and deft diplomacy helped create the national/international convergence in favour of peace and democracy.
The 12-point understanding, successful People’s Movement, reinstatement of the House of Representatives, interim government, Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) and the Constituent Assembly (CA) are all results of this creative convergence. The CA made Nepal a republic, the inheritor of a long history left his palace bidding adieu at a press conference, a citizen’s son became the president and the rebel leader the executive prime minister. So, the politics of consensus produced some miracles. The Nepalis felt proud for having brought Nepal back from the brink, and Nepal’s friends cheered.
Since then a few new individuals got to positions of power and privilege, but sadly the people are only experiencing the agonies of a never-ending transition. More seriously, rather than healing the wounds and wiping the tears of the victims of past injustices and recent violence, Nepal’s politics shows signs of degeneration into ethnic and regional conflicts. The dilemma between the politics of identity, which is often divisive, disintegrative and chaotic, and a better livelihood which needs peace, cooperation and order, is reconciled by balancing power, the instrument, with justice, the goal of politics. Obsession with "power at any price, for any purpose" has distorted the genuine demands for better recognition and livelihood, turning consensus to confusion and crisis again.
Complicating domestic politics, the present generation of Nepali elites has surpassed all their predecessors in entangling their lust for power and privilege with the complexities of international power politics. So, society is "over-exposed", the elite divided and politics so polarised that the nation-state as the central institution responsible for domestic politics, economic policy, national security and foreign relations is lost. Danger signs are everywhere - from the street to the state.
Political divisions - communists versus democrats, communists against communists, democrats against democrats, discord within each party, advocates of Hinduism against secular, unitary against federal state, and monarchists against republicans have disfigured the Nepali social tapestry of unity in diversity of caste, ethnicity, language, region and religion. Inclusive democracy and restructuring the state must be the founding principles of the new constitution. But doing so by marginalising the majority communities to the point that they feel forced to react is not only bad politics but also counterproductive to progressive social transformation.
Tension between the judiciary and the executive/legislature sometime ago, controversy over the Nepal Army lately and the open call for retaliation against various groups are worrisome. Together these are signs of the classic Hobbesian war of all against all scenario.
Perplexing as it seems, despite the poverty, illiteracy, injustice of the past and chaos today, the culture of co-existence and tradition of tolerance is keeping Nepal together. Infect the ethnic, linguistic, religious and regional diversities with extremism of ideologies, fundamentalism of religions, psyche of intolerance and tools of violence, add people’s hunger/anger, multiply them with egos, ignorance, arrogance, greed for power and conflicts of interests and mix them with regional/global complexities, how long will it take for Nepal to tear itself apart?
Everyone invokes "the people" to justify individual, communal, ethnic, regional and party agendas. But what is being done may have little to do with the people who want to enjoy the fruits of their hard work in peace. People have always supported the political parties/leaders promising change to a democratic, peaceful and prosperous Nepal for all Nepalis. Is such a Nepal in the making?
The first step in the arduous journey towards such a society is the realisation that the real cause of conflict in Nepal today is not ideology, class, caste, ethnicity, region or religion on which politics is focused but political culture of what comes first - personal, communal/ethnic/regional/party or national interest. In this debate, the real choice is between right and wrong, justice and injustice, peace and violence, selfish power grabs and honesty, compromise and sacrifice. In the confusion, the main national agenda - meaningful completion of the peace process, promulgation of the new constitution, free and fair election and good governance with a fresh mandate of the people - is delayed and getting lost.
The Way Forward
Despite all odds, the Nepalese ended their decade-long painful conflict, and they are now trying to resolve many challenges peacefully. In this difficult transition, the 5-point Agreement, seriousness shown by the leaders lately to forge consensus on the remaining issues in the new constitution, successful regrouping and voluntary exit of the large majority of the Maoist Army combatants, handover of their weapons and cantonments to the state have shown a new light at the end of the tunnel. As May 28 approaches, all sides will raise their demands. They must be dealt with sensitivity but not allow to sidetrack the way forward.
Ultimately, politics is about values. Exercising state power by ignoring right and wrong makes society unjust, compromise on vital national interests weakens the nation-state. Effective governance can smoothen the twists and turns of transition arresting violence and crime, improving justice and order. A dysfunctional state exacerbates political division, economic stagnation, social decay and national decline. When people see this, they begin to lose faith in the system and those running it. Any wonder that our leaders on whom people reposed so much faith and received massive international support are losing credibility.
At this testing time, a government of national unity at home and goodwill of friends, especially our powerful immediate neighbours committed to peace and stability in Nepal, are vital. At any cost, Nepalese and their well wishers must prevent the Maoists’ people’s war from turning into the classic Hobbesian war of all against all. If that happens, Nepal could make Rwanda look like a side show, a tragedy for Nepal no doubt but not good for its neighbours also.