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Reconstituting Nepal

By Martin Searle | September 29, 2010

CREDIT: Ingmar Zahorksy (CC).

In Thamel, the tourist centre of Kathmandu, haggling is a production on par with the imitation Bollywood climaxes of Nepal's stunted film industry. It pays to show some local knowledge while negotiating for a yak-bone statuette, or an authentic pashmina woven from the hair of the changthangi. Right now the street hawkers are mostly interested in pouring scorn on politicians as they fail again and again to elect a new prime minister.

Nepal's three major parties can agree on very little, but the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) accord on at least one issue: keeping the Maoists away from power. As parties with core constituencies among the social and economic elite, Congress and the UML fret over the Maoist plan to redistribute land. Somewhat paradoxically, the Maoists intend the redistribution to transform Nepal's feudal economy into a capitalist one—it is only after a prolonged period of capitalism that they will progress down Marx's historical continuum to their "communist utopia." Furthermore, Congress and the UML are worried about the continued existence of the Maoist People's Liberation Army—a legacy from the recent civil war.

According to the stipulations of Nepal's interim constitution, Congress and the UML have the ability to block the Maoists from forming a government; alone, however, they remain unable to form a workable administration capable of achieving the task for which the public elected them: drafting a new constitution. This can only happen with Maoist support as it is the largest party in the Constituent Assembly, Nepal's interim parliament.

Similarly the Maoists need the support of the other parties to make progress writing the constitution; yet they continue to alienate Congress and the UML by denouncing their opponents' "feudal tendencies," and by proposing unworkable rights, such as a right to basic health care when Nepal has only 1,300 doctors in the public system. Seven attempts have been made to elect a new prime minister in the last three months. The people grow ever more frustrated.

Nepal has had six constitutions over the last six decades. Its latest attempt to reconstitute itself follows a civil war that lasted from 1996 to 2006 between the Maoists and the state. During this time, the Maoists took over effective control of vast swaths of the country, expelling the state and administering government themselves. Despite the end of hostilities and entry of the Maoists into mainstream politics in the 2008 election (in which they gained an overwhelming majority), the ineffectiveness of the state is still manifested in many areas.

The UN's chosen proxy for state reach—the presence of Village Development Committee (VDC) secretaries—shows that as of December 2009 only 42 percent of VDCs have a full-time VDC secretary present in the duty station, and 39 percent of VDC secretaries are either partially present or providing services from district headquarters. As such, the state is inadequately represented, or completely unrepresented, in over half of the country.

Furthermore, even where there are normal functioning VDCs—the lowest level of the state edifice—they remain irrelevant to the daily life of most Nepalese people. Village government generally consists of informal groups organised by villagers themselves, often along caste or gender lines. In Mattikhan Village, just outside Nepal's economic second city of Pokhara, Brahmin and Dalit women's groups take turns tidying the village; men's groups have implemented savings cooperatives to provide some social security; a school is being built, and teachers recruited, with no state involvement; families all organize employment for their sons abroad. In short, people routinely have very little interaction with the state.

This situation is familiar for Nepal. The Nepalese state has probably never wielded the exclusive sovereignty and authority that Max Weber required of modern states: it has never successfully "nationalized" the use of violence or political administration. For most of its history, what we now call Nepal was a network of kingdoms, fiefdoms, and city-states inhabited by peoples of a variety of cultures, and often with quite different histories and religions. Due to the mountainous terrain, even groups that lived in close proximity often had comparatively little contact with one another and evolved remarkably independently over expansive periods of time.

From 1744–1769, these distinct entities were conquered one by one by Prithvi Narayan Shah, the Hindu King of Gorkha, and united into a single state. For approximately 100 bloody years the kingship was earned through intrigue and ruthless murder within the royal family, rather than inherited through direct lineage. Ultimately, the office of king was usurped by that of prime minister when Jung Bahadur Rana seized the latter position, declared it hereditary, and took de facto power. In this way, the monarchy was made purely ceremonial, ending the Shah reign and ushering in the Rana dynasty. But crucially, perhaps in acknowledgment of the huge cultural diversity that was carried over into the young state (or because its central concern was simple allegiance rather than governance), the Rana regime happily continued the subcontracting of critical state functions such as levying taxes or administering justice to local agents.

A popular movement ended the Rana dynasty in 1951 and installed a short-lived democratic system. The democracy's failure to function adequately moved the people to accept the old monarchy's return to power in 1960. This heralded the beginning of a one-party system known as the Panchayat regime, which thoroughly subscribed to modernization theory and sought to shape Nepal accordingly. In its quest for development, the Panchayat regime proceeded to deny Nepal's cultural diversity by suppressing what came to be constructed as the "indigenous peoples." They did this by imposing a unitary "Nepali" identity modeled on the identity of the high-caste Hindu elite, labeling other value systems and other ways of life as backward. Thus the high-caste Hindus were advantaged considerably, and this legacy persists today.

While it is certainly true that many economic indicators improved somewhat during this period, the extension and centralization of the state remained incomplete. For example, while a nationwide courts system was introduced, justice often remained within the purview of local communities and was realized in line with customary norms and practices. Once again the state did not wield extensive sovereignty. Indeed, with the official suppression of cultural difference, the propensity to enforce local values was arguably enhanced and even performed as a demonstration of resistance. The popularity of the Maoist insurgency, which grew despite the return of democracy to Nepal in 1991, and which was compounded by King Gyanendra's seizure of absolute power in 2002, was due in large part to this suppression and elite dominance.

Given these historical and contemporary vacuums of state power, the Nepalese people have become accustomed to functioning with insufficient or absent state government, and imperfect but effective non-state methods of government have become entrenched. Some villages largely govern themselves, and the state's inability to provide regular policing and security in parts of the country has prompted other organizations, predominantly political parties, to fill the gap. The Young Communist League (YCL), the youth wing of the Maoist party, more or less is the police force in Maoist strongholds. In such jurisdictions the public largely ignores the regular police and instead approaches the YCL directly to report crimes. For example, the YCL violently punished a number of Kirat Janabadi Workers Party agents for extorting local businessmen in Bhojpur. The UML has now created its own "Youth Front" for a similar "policing" purpose, and Congress is seemingly on the verge of doing the same.

These observations are crucial, as they provide a context to which the future state institutions must be sensitive. If and when Nepal does finally promulgate its constitution, the newly constructed institutions could potentially be in competition with these non-state service providers. The state is at a sizable disadvantage in this contest. First, it has been irrelevant to the lives of many people and these alternative governance mechanisms appear well entrenched. Second, where the state's presence has been felt, it remains tainted by the legacy of the homogeneous identity it imposed, and by atrocities it committed during the decade-long civil war. Consequently, communities continue to be alienated from it. Third, if the Nepalese state seeks to monopolize the provision of security, in the short term it will risk undermining the effectiveness currently provided by non-state groups. If this happens, the state will be held responsible by the public for undermining service provision. As such, it will likely lose legitimacy while seeking to overcome these parallel state structures.

As such, any attempt to extend the state runs the risk of provoking fierce resistance. This needs to be kept in mind as the drafters of Nepal's constitution, and any development experts guiding them, shape the new state. While the existence of parallel state structures might be considered destabilizing (and provoke alarm given the potential of Maoist ideology to produce totalitarian regimes), there may be little alternative, at least in the short term.

Thus Nepal's experience leads us to challenge the straightforward transplant approach to state reconstruction: The dynamics of legitimacy prevent a simple recreation of a Western state structure in a recipient country from scratch. This is a common lesson from the globalization of ideas: Context is important. But in Nepal, contextual sensitivity is forcing us to countenance a further concern. Successful state-building in Nepal—an ethical demand in itself—may require the state to coexist in the short term (and possibly beyond) with morally arbitrary (or even clearly immoral) non-state service-providers. This poses an ethical dilemma that demands a political solution.

Yet Nepal's politicians continue to take their cue from the country's street traders and haggle unreasonably over the position of prime minister. If progress is not made soon, these concerns over state structuring, and others like them, may be decided through more violent means.


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Read More: Democracy, Globalization, Governance, Human Rights, Nepal, Asia

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