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    South Asia
     Apr 30, 2005
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Himalayan dilemma
Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Institutions for a Multicultural Society
by Mahendra Lawoti

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Nepal fell from the crumbling edge into the abyss in early February when King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and took over the reins of power from politicians. The palace justified the coup by reading out articles from the 1990 constitution. It was the last nail in the coffin for a document that had failed the test of genuine democratic transformation despite 15 years in existence. Scrapping the 1990 constitution is one of the main recommendations of this laboriously researched book by Professor Mahendra Lawoti. It puts Nepali society and politics under the microscope and offers a liberal-democratic alternative to extreme rightist monarchism and leftist Maoism.

Pervasive ethnic, caste and gender discrimination in Nepal portend far more dangerous problems than the Maoist insurgency. The weak state cannot withstand the combined onslaught of the Maoists and that of different systematically marginalized socio-cultural groups. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the exclusion of indigenous nationalities, dalits (untouchables), Madhesi (plain dwellers), religious minorities and women increased to tyrannical levels. The institutions adopted by the 1990 constitution facilitated expropriation of the weak by the dominant Caste Hill Hindu Elite Males (CHHEM) and set up a tinderbox.

The Maoist insurgency was a consequence of political exclusion. The CPN-UML (Communist Party of Nepal- United Marxist Leninist), wedded to violent class warfare in the 1970s, was wheedled into involvement in governance by the 1990s. But the Maoists were pushed into all-out insurgency by their "non-presence in the decision-making process" (p 50). They were excluded from drafting the 1990 constitution and CHHEM politicos overlooked their issues. Had they been given an opportunity to work with the rulers, Maoists would have developed some sense of belonging to the democratic system. Their alienation worsened with harassment and repression by successive CHHEM governments. Within the communist movement itself, Maoists were treated as black sheep and sidelined. Their leaders were forced to adopt radical methods to continue being relevant in an environment turned against them.

An explosion of identity movements propelled exploited socio-cultural groups into the Maoist camp. Since identity-oriented political parties had limited influence in the repressive post-1990 order, the Maoists reaped the harvest of rising disenchantment among dalits, indigenes and women. If Maoists do not fulfill promises made to the socio-cultural groups or if they strike a power-sharing deal with the king without any purchase for the groups, violent ethnic insurgencies like that of the Khambuwan National Front will break out and destabilize Nepal entirely. Lawoti refutes claims that the Maoists subsumed potential ethnic insurgencies. They accommodated them for the time being.

Several social cleavages are rending Nepal apart, viz caste conflict (Bahun-Chetris vs lower castes), linguistic conflict (Khas-Nepali vs native-language speakers), racial conflict (aboriginals and Madhesi vs Indo-Aryans), religious conflict (Hinduism vs minority faiths), regional conflict (far-western and Himalayan vs central and eastern parts) etc. Overlapping identities complicate the discords. For instance, Madhesi dalits face double discrimination - first as Madhesi and second as untouchables. Exclusion of 85% of the population is occurring even in such supposedly progressive realms as education, media and human-rights circles. Nepal's political institutions are at present unable to accommodate the country's multicultural reality. Lawoti says that discriminatory state policies might hasten a unified insurgency encompassing religious, linguistic and regional groups. Secessionism, riots and civil war are likely if inclusive institutions are not brought in.

The 1990 constitution endorses majoritarian hegemony. It consecrates a unitary state and "first past the post" electoral dynamics. Group rights of minorities have no recognition even as undue group rights of the CHHEM are furthered. Declarations of formal individual equality are meaningless since "identical treatment sometimes suppresses differential needs" (p 161). The few positive articles of the constitution are nullified by a host of discriminatory provisions. Sexist and racist principles are "tucked behind a charade of rights and freedoms" (p 122). They restrict citizenship rights and rights to association, expression and cultural development. Public policies derived from them reinforce exclusion at the level directly affecting people. Selective implementation of progressive directives has been another dampener.

The constitution invests excessive power in the hands of the executive (cabinet) and keeps parliament weak. Opposition parties have no say whatsoever in the polity. The judiciary, the election commission and the anti-corruption agency are dependent on the cabinet for budget and personnel. Local governments are toothless to address citizens' needs, creating fertile ground for Maoist capture of rural areas.

Though united geographically, Nepal "lacks emotional unity" (p 158) and could disintegrate if exclusionary politics persist and democracy is surface-deep. Reform is a desideratum as the polity is deteriorating rapidly. Proposals for minimal "administrative devolution" are inadequate for empowering the people and do not fit the widening cultural chasms. Drastic reform is essential in these abnormal circumstances. Amending the 1990 constitution is another half-measure, since it will be manipulated by the CHHEM as in the past, and will be rejected by the Maoists.

A popularly elected constituent assembly drafting a new constitution would be ideal for the socio-cultural groups, which would stand chances of better representation in such a dispensation if they forged inter-group coalitions. To overcome CHHEM blockading of cultural issues, the assembly would need to give members the right to tender any agenda for deliberation. Groups of concerned citizens could complement minorities by proposing broad-minded agendas for discussion. A round-table conference could accommodate voices of non-party political actors that are otherwise inaudible in constitution-making processes. An interim all-party government should run day-to-day affairs of the state during the tenure of the assembly.

Lawoti prefers "ethnic federalism" to regional federalism in the new constitution for delegating autonomy to cultural groups to safeguard their respective languages, traditions and religions. The Limbus, for example, should be able to formulate public policies preserving their culture in the Limbuwan region. Groups that cannot form majorities such as the Rais "will have a greater proportionate influence in Limbuwan than in the countrywide context" (p 233). Federalism will contain violent rebellions by engendering more access points for the public to interact with the state. In the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Ethiopia and Spain, federalism mellowed militant tides. In India, it confined violent uprisings to specific sites and generated healthy inter-regional competition for economic development.

A directly elected House of Nationalities could ensure that regions had a role in central decision-making. The army, argues Lawoti, should be brought under its jurisdiction to minimize power abuse. Less populated regions should have over-representation in the House because of their scarcity in the parliament's lower house. Lawoti sees no threat in allowing the right to form a new region to address the progressive needs of communities (highly successful in India). Special entitlements are needed for sub-group advancement, especially dalits and women who would get left behind even after ethnic federalism were instituted.

To reify the notion of fairness, Lawoti recommends a proportional electoral system, which has a better track record at ethnic-conflict management than the non-representative first-past-the-post system. Distribution of resources must also be proportional among Nepal's varied socio-cultural groups. Funding of schools and cultural practices by respective national councils of the groups and granting land rights to indigenous people are necessary. To offset racism and prejudice, affirmative-action and quota-reservation policies have to be explicitly written into the new constitution. They will help reflect "societal composition in important service delivery agencies" (p 282).

Lawoti's broad comparative political exegesis points out that Nepal can learn from inclusive policies that benefited the masses in India. Minority rights must be constitutionally protected to render tampering with them difficult. A reasonable time frame has to be specified for implementation of minority-related provisions to prevent CHHEM dilation. Another layer of justice could be achieved by awarding any minority group the right to veto majoritarian proposals pertaining to its way of life. A centralized constitutional court vested with the power to review laws passed by parliament could also be a buffer for minority groups.

Lawoti perorates his erudite prescription box with a plea for "congruence between state and society" that transfers real power to citizens, beyond rhetorical "sovereignty". Contrary to CHHEM disinformation campaigns, extending more rights to more Nepalese will elevate the "strength, capability and legitimacy of the state" (p 316). The ensuing stability is actually beneficial to the dominant Bahun-Chetri elites. Only time can tell whether this balancing-act book will inspire remedial actions or become another "I told you so" prophetic preview of Nepal's doom.

Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Institutions for a Multicultural Society by Mahendra Lawoti. SAGE Publications, New Delhi, 2005. ISBN: 0-7619-3319-0. Price: US$9.25; 345 pages.

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