Saturday, December 7, 2013

On The Way

The New Mandate
Nepal throughout the ages has been a passageway, a corridor for trade, religion and other social influences across the Himalayan divide. For many, it was a bridge, to cross over to something; not always a place on its own right but a way to escape to realms beyond.

Over 2,700 years ago, when the Kirants appeared in the east and later the Khas in the west, except for a few thousand war-like hunter-gatherer or cow-herding tribes, there were very few people to make these rugged mountains or lowland forests a home.

The favorite sport of many passersby was to swing on this naturally hanging bridge, to remain here to lay a claim on who gets to swing and to fight over it, but hardly to tend to it. After all, a bridge is no place to build a permanent home.

The early domesticated settlements from the 8th and 6th BCE, the Videhas and the Skhakyas in the lowlands, were but isolated clusters of a much bigger galaxy in the south. The budding of Buddhism was homebred but it never penetrated the heartlands. The closest to serious home-making appeared a thousand years later, during the building boom of the Mallas.

Prithvi Nayarayan Shah sought to redefine the Himalayan hangouts as little more than a bridge. On his own haughty terms, he set out to seize whatever solid grounds lay around. He did not live to turn his turf into a home for everyone. His clan and their rivals wasted another two hundred years in petty squabbles, and indulgence.

We know little about people then, people of diverse backgrounds. Early history has often been about rulers who claimed divine right to absolute control on populations, on resources. The ideas of equality, justice, identity for all were considered absurd. Until the waves of freedom began to sweep greater Asia in the early 19th century, exploitation or subservience was the order of the day.

It takes people to make a home. Many left for muglan, and for lahur. Perhaps time was not ripe for mass awakening. A critical mass just wasn’t there. The official headcount of 1911 was 5.6 million people, and the more systematic census of 1952-54 put the figure at 8.2 million. A mere 1 percent were literate.

One Mr M.P. Lad of the Imperial Civil Service during British India estimated the population of India “to be not more than a million souls in the beginning of the Christian era.” Nepal must have been largely an uninhabited region throughout ancient history. It maybe that the 8 million population mark in 1951 had enough “critical mass” to crystalize the first democratic change. Numbers have outcomes.

But the secular, representative democracy was short-lived. The monolithic Hindu nationalism engineered by King Mahendra, instead of helping him to define Nepal as more than just a mountain corridor, ended up suppressing the diversity of thoughts, beliefs and identities. However, by this time, the country found in the critical yet reconciliatory BP Koirala a compelling progressive-democratic antithesis to despotism.

Notably, 1951 unfolded a new socio-political dynamics in the country. It culminated in a full-fledged People’s Movement of 1990, restoring power to the people in principle, and forcing monarchy into a figurehead symbolizing national unity.

In practice, power became the new corridor, a quick way to personal gain and glory. The reforms introduced then did not go far enough for any substantial benefit to the majority of rural population. Progressive parties, communist or democratic, had abandoned their socialist roots, their promise of redistribution (a home, a plot of land, bread and butter), of genuine representation.

At the same time, party-politics transformed people into cadres, fostered contestation and facilitated the outburst of multiple critical masses throughout the country. Literacy (over 40 percent) was increasing, political consciousness was rising, fueled in part by the expanding networks of donor-funded NGOs.

Those on the sidelines in the parliament who could not have their way resented the grip of so-called democrats or progressives and cursed neighbors and foreign powers. The Maoists stirred a rural-based agitation in the name of completely dismantling the old order of the corridor and establishing a new house of people’s democracy, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The middle ground had all but vanished with polarization of leaders and political parties, ranging from conservatives to liberals to radicals, on both the left and the right. The palace massacre in 2001 hastened the final political showdown. Hundreds of thousands left for foreign lands to toil there, to escape endless turmoil and economic hardships.

The war resulted in the loss of over 16,000 lives, immeasurable economic and social cost, and a fractured country. The ensuing crisis of confidence put everyone in a difficult test of overcoming utter despair with hope, any hope at all. Historians say the 20th century was the century of wars and ideological conflicts. The developments in Nepal during its closing years came as its final flutters.

In 2006, in protest to the royal takeover, political parties allied with Maoists, and signed a peace agreement. The war was over. Nepalis were in intense anticipation for yet another passage.

It was the moment of appraisal. Lest their rights and aspirations were left out of the new constitution, many traditionally excluded and marginalized groups, including Madhesis, dalits, janajatis, women and Muslims, rallied or agitated across the country.

The Constituent Assembly elections in 2008 established Maoists as the largest party, chief of the household. It abolished monarchy, declared Nepal a federal democratic republic. But this arguably the most inclusive of any elected institutions remained mired in political obstinacy and stalemate for four years. It debated the path and the many ways, but failed to walk through.

Everybody talked about the need for consensus, but nobody in the family seemed to be listening to anybody. The Maoists saw its key rivals indifferent to issues of inclusion and social justice while the latter felt the former rebels were after capturing everything for themselves and not prepared to abandon their politics of revolt.

The Maoists lacked the temperance to secure a broad support. Worse, in the name of identity-based federalism, they were fermenting ethnic divide. With an internal split, they had burned bridges with their own comrades. Their millionaire lifestyle and indulgence disenchanted many. Some were blaming “external forces” for deadlock. There appeared a road-side hotel, not a house.

In the CA 2 elections, people have favored moderate parties, giving the Maoists as well as conservative forces some room, a message that a united family makes a home worth living in. People’s verdict seems to be against a divided house.

The new CA should be able to resolve contentious issues: the form of government (parliamentary, presidential, or mixed) and the nature of federalism (the number, shape and size of federal states, their basis, ethnic or identity-based or based on geography or economic viability). If they still cannot agree, a referendum is a democratically legitimate way, although this term is anathema to a section of politicians and intellectuals who see it as the ghost of the 1980 Panchayati referendum.

Another important issue about home-building that remains neglected is transitional justice. Although rebel combatants were integrated into the army, progress has been slow in forming a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and adjudicate war-time atrocities.

The legacy of impunity, and of moral decay hovers above us. The challenge before the new CA is to write an inclusive, enduring constitution, one that will not be scrapped, or amended frequently few years down the line. It should ensure freedom, self-determination, dignity, justice, equality, and identity for all. It should be able to meet popular aspirations and address any future grievances.

We have been on the way for too long, it is time we settled permanently. Security, stability and prosperity may then follow.

Published in Republica, Dec 7, 2013