Feb 28, 2016- Nepal, in its nascent quest to institutionalise democracy, must confront a set of realities that plague its existing polity. Although it turned into a democratic republic on paper after the passing of its first truly democratic Constitution last September, there exist several shortcomings in its experience of true democracy. Over the years, Nepal’s polity has been plagued by an institutionalisation of elitism and power concentration. The Rana rule followed by an authoritarian monarchy has rendered the percolation of democratic norms and values ineffective although there has been some remarkable democratic struggles in its history.
A mixture of institutionalisation of resource ownership in a relatively few hands, condensation of power relationships and relative apathy towards democratic engagement by the larger populace has left gaping holes in the realisation of truly democratic ideals. However, we should not forget that the battle is far from over, and continuous reminders are served to us by the efforts of civil society groups, women activists and regional parties who provocatively bend the proverbial arc of history through civil resistance.
The Madhesi unrest
Nepal went through a cycle of violence during the Maoist insurgency which, despite being instrumental in establishing a republic and ending monarchical rule, was not the best hope for the proponents of a nonviolent change in the traditional power dynamics. The importance of civil resistance, however, is highlighted in the recent churning that the country has been experiencing with the Madhesi unrest for greater devolution of power to the local level alongside larger representation of the traditionally under-represented Tharus, Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits and women. Setting aside the adverse impact of the unwise tactic of blockading the border, the resistance has brought to light discrepancies that exist in the Constitution including the need for devolution of power to the local level.
Lessons of peace building
One might be inclined to think that nonviolent resistance, which involves escalating conflict nonviolently, and peace building, which involves de-escalating conflict, might be at odds with each other. But a few examples from history and contemporary struggles for democracy can shed light on how the combined energies dedicated to breaking away from the status quo of unequal power structures lead to brightened prospects for democratic change. As Martin Luther King, Jr has said, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”
In Poland, the Gdansk shipyard strike by the Solidarity labour movement was instrumental in bringing down the Wojciech Jaruzelski regime and installing Lech Walesa as a new democratic president. The movement masterfully combined nonviolent mass action with negotiations. Similarly, it is hard to imagine the apartheid regime in South Africa agreeing to negotiate with the African National Congress led by Nelson Mandela in 1990 if it was not for the powerful boycott campaign led by the United Democratic Front and civic groups. In the nonviolent resistance campaign led by the Serbian youth movement, Otpor, in 2000, the students’ negotiations with security forces were critical in prompting defections and forcing Slobodan Milosevic to step down.
Concerted and united effort
Even more recently, Tunisia demonstrated the vibrancy and effectiveness of united and organised civic action. After fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, spontaneous youth-led street protests quickly found organised channels through labour and trade unions, which mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers to engage in boycotts, demonstrations and work stoppages. A civic coalition orchestrated a national dialogue in 2013 and mediated a democratic “road map” after the Jasmine Revolution ousted then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
These important lessons from both the distant and recent past highlight the value of an organised and united civil resistance by citizens. Though the context in Nepal is a little different from these countries where there were few cleavages within civil society and the demands were largely universal, the methods adopted by them shed light on how a truly democratic peace that addresses structural injustices can be achieved. The historically marginalised communities in Nepal need to find a common voice and platform to express their demands. This does not mean that blockading the border is an appropriate tactic. The point is not to make the entire population suffer the consequences of organised civil action. It is to target those structures and agents that are instrumental in preserving the existing power relations.
This means that there needs to be a concerted and coordinated effort on the part of professional bodies, citizen groups and other stakeholders to unite in order to target these embedded power structures. This will create conditions that are favourable to dialogue and negotiation. It will compel establishment politicians to engage and address the yet unmet demands of the movement of the marginalised communities to achieve their democratic rights. The method of nonviolent civil resistance is not only essential to create a lasting democratic peace but also to fight for true freedom that guarantees unconditional respect for human dignity.
Kaushik is a research associate at the Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs, Kathmandu (This article is a reproduction of an op-ed published in The Kathmanduu Post dated 28/02/2016)