Sunday, May 27, 2012

An Honorable Albeit Hopeless Quest

It should sting every Nepali deep that the nation ended up squandering four precious years on a quest that was so honorable – and yet so hopeless.
The promise of a constitution written by elected representatives of a free and sovereign people was an integral part of Nepal’s first democratic dawn in 1951. Internal political machinations and external double-dealing delayed and then killed that hope when no less a personage than B.P. Koirala abandoned the constituent assembly for direct elections to parliament in 1959.
Instead of continued bickering with the palace and other political parties over the constituent assembly, B.P. considered elections as a more viable instrument of consolidating democracy.
Political maneuverings deepened despite the Nepali Congress’ two-thirds parliamentary majority, as rival parties refused to cede the political space they had held before the first gauge of popular preference. The monarchy, for its part, set out to articulate its expectations of a distinct political role in keeping with Nepali realities.
Amid the escalating Cold War between the East and West, intensified by the Sino-Indian rivalry, external dynamics favored the rise of an assertive monarchy. Yet the narrative of Nepal’s democratic deterioration focused almost exclusively on the lack of a popularly drafted constitution.
While the Nepali Congress and the assortment of communist factions accused the monarchy of harboring unappeasable anti-democratic proclivities, votaries of democracy understood the specific realities of the country. Even after the People’s Movement of 1990, after all, the Nepali Congress refused to go down the constituent assembly road, insisting it would detract from the more important tasks on hand. A compromise document between the three principal forces was widely hailed as the world’s best constitution.
By the time of the second People’s Movement 16 years later, the constituent assembly became the dominant demand of the times. The Maoists had successfully portrayed such an assembly as the ultimate assertion of the supremacy of popular sovereignty. The Nepali Congress, anxious to deflect attention from its own role in the decline of democracy twice, went along with the Maoists. Ever the fence sitter, the CPN-UML had an easier time acceding to the new agenda.
It was clear, however, that the constituent assembly alone could not guarantee the democratic stability that had long eluded Nepal. At best, the history of the process internationally was mixed. The Nepali Congress, in particular, could not explain how it would deal with the opening of Pandora’s Box – its preferred metaphor while it consistently rejected the Maoist demand during much of the People’s War. The Nepali Congress’ acceptance of the constituent assembly was merely another way of spiting the palace.
Still, not all hope was lost. But the process began to falter amid the mutual distrust and recriminations among the signatories to the 12-Point Agreement. By abandoning its ideological commitment to constitutional monarchy, the Nepali Congress deprived itself of one half of its relevance. At a philosophical level, too, the party botched things. It never explained how issues that were never part of the April Uprising ended up assuming national urgency.
In allowing the Maoists to drive the process before the constituent assembly elections, the Nepali Congress eroded its ability to oppose the former rebels’ policies and practices after their impressive electoral performance. Acceding to ceaseless demands through endless amendments to the interim constitution, often outside the ambit of democratic discourse, the Nepali Congress sunk to the depths of depravity. Unfortunately, it no longer had the monarchy to kick around. That the Maoists and the UML seemed more wedded to the logical conclusion of the ensuing process was striking but irrelevant, given the doubts hanging over their commitment to reaching any destination.
Any political change is bound to raise popular expectations. It is the job of political parties to temper them in keeping with reason and reality. Granted, the exaggeration of ethnic, geographical, religious and other grievances was a useful tool against the monarchy. A proliferation of microstates in a sliver of territory between two regional giants could never make geo-strategic sense.
The Maoists’ behavior demonstrated that they had merely joined the political mainstream to perpetuate their revolutionary agenda to some unformulated end. The UML never extricated itself from its deep-seated institutional ambivalence. The onus naturally fell on the Nepali Congress, but its fall to irrelevance was too precipitous for even the faction-ridden party leadership to comprehend.
External machinations were no doubt instrumental in breeding chaos over the last six years. While the political establishment lost the moral ground to blame foreigners, the voice of the ancien regime was deliberately discredited to point of limiting its ability to explain the thin line dividing foreign goodwill and interference.
Foreign powers, for their part, became bolder in claiming their stake in our future. In the end, the normally reticent Chinese, too, acknowledged that they were meddling in Nepali affairs. (Professor Hu Shisheng, the director of the South Asia department at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) implied in an interview with the BBC Nepal Service the other day that, while others countries were interfering to split the Terai from Nepal, Beijing was meddling to keep the country intact. The sentiment acquires added seriousness considering that the CICIR is affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security and overseen by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.)
In this CYA moment, the blame game is bound to continue, especially over Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s decision to call elections to a new constituent assembly. When the dust settles, the political actors will find themselves focusing on their individual political interests before being able to exhort a message of common purpose with any credibility.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

You, Too, Are Part Of The Problem

Madhav Kumar Nepal, senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), blamed the Maoists the other day for the growing communal discord raging in the country.
His assertion coincided with lamentations by a group of senior Nepali Congress leaders that their once-dominant organization had been reduced to playing second fiddle to the Maoists.
It is easy to feel some sympathy for these men, Maila Baje acknowledges, whose parties still proudly proclaim how successfully they brought the Maoists from the jungles to the mainstream. But the CPN-UML and Nepali Congress must be called out for their complicity in the mayhem the Maoists have wrought on the country.
The physical destruction wreaked by the Maoists during the decade-long People’s War remains miniscule compared to the long-term divisiveness they have wrought in the name of creating a new Nepal.
In a country filled with minority communities, sharing their own experience of advantage and disadvantage, the Maoists invoked traditional notions of dominance and disempowerment for purely tactical purposes. If all Bahuns and Chettris had traditionally been the sole beneficiaries of the state, how could all the principal parties aimed at redressing that injustice end up being led by members of these privileged groups?
The people of the southern plains who complained of second-class citizenship of hills-based communities could deflect attention from the other internal reasons for the prevailing hierarchy of exploitation, thereby perpetuating injustices.
Members of the so-called martial classes were the prime candidates for foreign employment in military and civilian-security duties. The fact that some groups of Nepalis became more valued than others for their ‘honesty’ and ‘valor’ represented a form of discrimination that has always evaded serious inquiry. The beneficiaries of such perceptions acquired broader benefits in terms of outlook and enlightenment.
Distorted narratives on discrimination and disadvantage thrived on disproportionate foreign political, financial and academic patronage to the point where it has produced that ultimate anomaly. Bahuns and Chettris now have to be listed as Khas-Arya in the list of indigenous people in a last-ditch effort to preserve societal harmony.
When years of irreconcilable posturing are now claiming its costs, Madhav Nepal and his ilk cannot escape their share of the blame. The Maoist agenda of exaggerating Nepal’s ethnic and regional fault lines had a purpose politicians like Madhav Nepal could clearly have dissociated himself from.
It is hard not to be hurt and humiliated when your king puts you behind bars for your political beliefs. Not everyone can have the vision, experience, outlook and statesmanship to separate personal travails from the national imperative like B.P. Koirala did in his times.
Still it is incomprehensible that an entire party could hitch behind the Maoist wagon to spite the king and then refuse to accept responsibility for the distortions. After all, the Maoists would not have been able to inflict today’s communal discord without the CPN-UML abetting them every step of the way before and after the February 2005 royal takeover.
The same is true of the Nepali Congress. Instead of acknowledging its own role in the repression and misgovernance that fanned the flame of the Maoist insurgency, the party spent all its time blaming the palace for propping up the rebellion. Of course, the palace would be sympathetic to some of the demands raised by the rebels. The Panchayat machinery had checked those movements through security and administrative measures. The democratic system was supposed to address them without bullets and boots. As issues of national sovereignty and welfare became subjects of partisan political bickering, it was not unreasonable to see the palace and the Maoists on the same side on key issues. Instead of presenting a unified response to the rebellion, the mainstream parties indulged in their own petty political machinations.
As the rebellion spread, the king, citing his constitutionally mandated role, intervened. But the parties then ganged up and sought to blame him as being part of the problem. Prudently, he did not give them that opportunity for long.
Throughout its existence, the Nepali Congress had stuck with its principle of constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy through thick and thin. Although the Nepali Congress attempted to assassinate two monarchs, it still could maintain its fealty to the institution with great ideological credibility.
B.P. Koirala had understood that the monarchy was intrinsic to the Nepali Congress’ identity and politics. But his successors believed that in enunciating such fealty they had merely granted a favor to the palace all those years. Under Maoist pressure, but more in vindictiveness the king, the Nepali Congress ended its support for the monarchy.
There were mumblings against this wholesale abandonment of ideology, but they were just that, mumbles. Those lamenting the Nepali Congress’ decline today could have done something when it mattered.
In the end, according to the Maoist narrative, the rebellion brought down the monarchy and charted the road to a new Nepal. The other parties could not claim any credit because they arrived so late in the game. They have been there long enough, though, to become culpable for everything that has gone wrong.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Plea To A Nation United in Helplessness

Just as we are struggling to devise a polity that would enrich and empower the diversity of the languages and peoples that collectively form Nepal comes stark reminder of how perilously close Kusunda is to extinction.
It turns out that Gyani Maiya Sen, a native of western Nepal, is the last person alive on the planet who can speak the language. And she’s 75 years old. So when nature takes it course – as it inevitably will – the Kusunda language, too, will perish.
Long considered a relic tribe of South Asia, the Kusunda people of central Nepal were known as seminomadic hunter-gatherers, living in jungles and forests. Often described as shorter and darker than neighboring tribes, the Kusunda’s language shows no similarities to surrounding tongues, something that has baffled experts and observers alike.
The Kusunda first appeared in the literature in 1848, when British naturalist and ethnologist Brian Houghton Hodgson described them thus: “Amid the dense forests of the central region of Nepal, to the westward of the great valley, dwell, in scanty numbers and nearly in a state of nature, two broken tribes having no apparent affinity with the civilized races of that country, and seeming like the fragments of an earlier population.”
The Kusunda, according to Hodgson, who had just concluded a turbulent tenure as British Resident in Nepal, were one of these ‘broken tribes’, while the Chepang were the other. In an article in the Journal of the Asiatic Society, Hodgson described the Chepang, on linguistic grounds, as closely related to the Lhopa of Bhutan. They were presumed to have split off from this group and moved west.
It took Hodgson nine more years to publish the first linguistic data on Kusunda and other Nepalese languages. While he did not specifically discuss Kusunda in detail, his data showed that Kusunda bore no resemblance to any of the other languages he studied. While some additional data on the Kusunda people and tongue began appearing over a century after Hodgson’s findings, more recent research places Kusunda in the Indo-Pacific family.
This is a startling revelation considering that the Indo-Pacific family is located on New Guinea and surrounding islands. The possibility that Kusunda may be a remnant of the migration that led to the initial inhabitation of New Guinea and Australia has raised enthusiastic calls for additional investigation.
By some estimates, over a dozen languages indigenous to Nepal are now endangered because of their tininess of the concerned populations. Those claiming that Nepal’s indigenous languages have suffered sustained discrimination and domination from the state as well as from other dominant language communities are leading the march towards national renewal.
The provision of the right to education in one’s own mother tongue and the granting of equal legal rights to the practice of all national languages are no doubt significant developments. Yet in the basket of real and manufactured grievances that confront the architects of change, what value can one language – even one as unusual as Kusunda – really hold. And, as the debate raging globally around the world underscores, are dying languages even worth saving?
In one sense, Kusunda has proved resilient. In his early work, Hodgson had predicted that the Kusunda people and their language would die off in a few generations. Today, there still are about a 100 people from the community living in Nepal. Yet that is small comfort, which becomes apparent from Gyani Maiya Sen’s comments to BBC reporter Bimal Gautam.
 “Fortunately I can also speak Nepali,” she says. “But I feel very sad for not being able to speak my own language with people from my own community.” Sen adds: “Although there are still other people from the Kusunda tribe still alive, they neither understand nor speak the language. Other Kusunda people... can only speak a few Kusunda words, but can't communicate [fully] in the language.”
Then comes the ultimate lament. “The Kusunda language will die with me.” Her plea reverberates across a nation fiercely proud of its heritage but also united in its helplessness.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Isn’t It A Little Late To Be Outraged?

The presence of Indian Ambassador Jayant Prasad and a top Indian intelligence operative at the meeting of Nepali parties that led to the agreement to create the ‘national’ government has prompted a predictable outcry.
Criticism of what is undoubtedly a flagrant breach of political and diplomatic propriety has come from two quarters. The first groups those who supported the post-April 2006 political momentum, only to regret our inexorable slide in foreign machinations. Those in the second group, in fairness, were by conviction opposed to this political experiment from the outset but had chosen to remain quiet.
Maila Baje feels it is difficult to draw a moral equivalence between these two sets of people, but the reality remains that both are late in their professions of outrage.
This is perhaps the last chance for the external drivers of the 12-Point Agreement who saw the alliance of the mainstream parties and the Maoist rebels as the best substitute for the monarchy they had deemed beyond irksome. The agenda crafted in New Delhi was fraught with danger, but considered well worth pursuing. From the Indians’ perspective, they had restored to the monarchy in 1951 the political powers that had been usurped a century earlier. Instead of demonstrating eternal gratitude, successive monarchs were perceived as having been consumed by nothing short of anti-Indianism.
During the winter and spring of 2005-2006, not all Indian constituencies were persuaded by this line of thinking. But they adhered to the 12-Point framework in view of the prevailing wider geo-strategic environment.
Over time, the most enthusiastic Indian drivers of the ongoing experiment have been frustrated by the foolhardiness of their projections. The Maoists did not become a mere adjunct to the main political parties after competitive elections. The mainstream political parties could not recover from their legacy of internal fragmentation amid an endless blame game. In the end, the political process could not stabilize in the way that could advance India’s interests.
In their quest to counter Chinese influence, little did the Indians appreciate the coldness of Beijing’s pragmatism in responding to political developments. Nor could they appreciate generally the Cold War-era lesson that the interests of extra-regional forces that supported democracy and openness in Nepal could still clash so conspicuously with those of India.
Whether the more hardened critics of India’s deepening involvement in Nepali affairs fully grasped the long-term implications of the 12-Point experiment remains unclear. Still, this becomes immaterial because they simply failed to articulate their genuine concerns then. Admittedly, it would have been hard for these men and women to go against the prevailing tide and defend the royal takeover of February 1, 2005. Still, the circumstances leading up to the event were clear to all.
Ordinarily sane minds were silenced by their own lack of courage to point out that Nepal’s second experiment with democracy had imploded not because of some congenital authoritarian streak in a new monarch but because of the collective failure of the principal stakeholders. Their inability to articulate in time that the much-vaunted People’s Movement II was merely aimed against autocratic monarchy and at restoring popular representative government was bound to extract a price sooner or later.
So today, as the 12-Point experiment stands on the brink, it is but natural that the Indians have stepped in dramatically to defend the validity of that course of action. If a constitution of some kind is not promulgated by May 27, many Nepalis will point their fingers at the hopelessness of the 12-Point Agreement itself. If, on the other hand, a constitution is promulgated but cannot go on to win requisite approval at the popular level, the smudginess of Indian fingerprints – rather than the impossibility of anyone really being able to fulfill all these genuine and manufactured grievances – will be blamed.
Hoping against hope, if the experiment works, well, the Indians know they will be the last ones to get any kind of credit. So, at this point, why should they care about diplomatic propriety?