Inconvenient truths: Provocative new book is for pluralism and against populism

Inconvenient truths: Provocative new book is for pluralism and against populism


In his new book Peace Politics in Nepal, Kanak Mani Dixit captures much of what his earlier Nepali book, Dekheko Muluk, contains, but adds some new chapters and updates developments of the past year for the benefit of English speaking readers, particularly for our friends from the international community who take much interest in Nepal.

Dixit is not a diplomat. His language is blunt and straight-forward. He dares, and even relishes, to speak truth to power and populism. For some of us–scholars, intellectuals and diplomats included–who are trained to be politically correct, sit on the fence and play it safe, his new book, Peace Politics of Nepal, makes uncomfortable reading. This book may as well have been titled Inconvenient Truths of Current Nepali Politics.

Dixit is often portrayed as a part of the Kathmandu elite, an upper-class, upper-caste Bahun, strongly anti-Maoist, perhaps a little right-wing and a status quoist. What you see often depends on where you stand. That caricature of Dixit may be accurate if you see Nepal in simple, black and white terms: as being sharply divided between feudal, conservative, counter-revolutionary stooges of imperialist, capitalist, foreign-agents dominated by the upper-class Bahun-Chhetris who purposely and deliberately dominate, oppress and conspire to perpetuate a deeply unjust, unfair, discriminatory and oppressive system against the poor, the marginalised, the deprived and you feel that you can only change it through revolutionary violence and radical restructuring of the state.

A logical corollary therefore would be, as King Mahendra said in justifying the Panchayat regime, that Western-style liberal democracy is unsuitable to solve Nepal’s problems. Dixit, however, argues that it was precisely the open society, political freedoms, respect for pluralism of views that multi-party democracy of the 1990s allowed and encouraged that enabled us to bring to prominence the issues of the deeply entrenched disparities and discrimination, inequalities and injustices. It even allowed the freedom for a radical Maoist movement to rise in Nepal, at a time when Communism was collapsing all over the world. Democracy takes time to evolve and correct its own shortcomings. Dixit argues that the infant and imperfect democracy of the 1990s was not given enough time.

The populist thesis in vogue in Nepal right now, and one that seems to be subscribed even by some diplomats and donors of Western democracies, is that the 1990s Nepal experience in democracy was an utter failure. Dixit asks us to look at some of the successes of the 1990s before the Maoist insurgency derailed them.

Knowing Dixit has a reputation for being a little partisan, I read the manuscript carefully to detect how his partisanship manifests itself. And yes, I can confirm to you that indeed Dixit is very partisan. He is unapologetic and biased in favour of non-violence, liberal democracy and pluralism, which many of us would not find as big sins. He has a gripe against many members of the international community who do not have a deep enough understanding of Nepal’s complex history and subscribe too easily to the populist characterisation of Nepal as so deeply divided by entrenched caste, class and ethnic divisions that to solve such problems, Nepalis should be prepared to accept, at least temporarily, some radical, less than fully non-violent and undemocratic solutions which they would not accept in their own countries.

He sees diplomats, donors and consultants of many Western countries, even some UN officials as having a rather romantic view of the Maoist agenda for social change. He faults the analysis contained in reports of organisations like the International Crisis Group (ICG) as showing a subtle bias that castigates the NC and UML as status quoist, and the Maoists as the true agents of progressive change.

I must say, when I was myself at the UN, I used to rely heavily on reports of ICG, the Carter Center and the UN to better understand what was happening in Nepal. These are all institutions that I respect deeply. On the whole, I continue to find their analysis solid and serious. So let me suggest this – for those who rely heavily on their reports, it would be beneficial to have Peace Politics of Nepal handy to consult as a counter-check and to provide some context. Every chapter of this book is interesting and insightful, and easy to read. I recommend that you read it with an open mind.

I want to say a few words on three chapters: one that made me really sad, one that I found very courageous and revealing, and one on which no matter where we stand on the ideological spectrum, we would all agree if we think of ourselves as just human beings with human empathy.

The chapter that made me really sad was the one dealing with the UN Mission to Nepal (UNMIN), which Dixit rather unkindly titles “Uncivil Mission”. As someone with a long association with the UN, my natural instinct was to disagree with Dixit’s harsh judgment of UNMIN. But, it must be said, UNMIN was not as conducive to pressuring the Maoists to give up violence and intimidation, to convince the other parties that it could be counted on to firmly stand on the side of democracy, and that its reporting would provide the most objective basis for the Secretary-General and Security Council to understand Nepal.

Kanak makes some sweeping remarks about UNMIN’s bias, but does not quite document it. I would commend to you a Note Verbale that the Permanent Representative of Nepal circulated to members of the Security Council last year documenting point by point how the report of the SG and the statement introducing it by the SRSG was biased and inaccurate. Coming from a very seasoned professional diplomat, it was an unusually blunt and bad indictment of the SRSG’s analysis. Dixit also alleges that the UN’s Department of Political Affairs was very dismissive of all views that were critical of it and of UNMIN. I saw this in a very curt letter that was written on behalf of the Secretary-General in response to a joint letter by four former Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Nepal. Knowing the Secretary-General personally, as I do, I can tell you the S-G would have shown greater respect for those Foreign Ministers if he were asked to personally clear such a letter on his behalf. So sadly, even if I like to disagree with Dixit, and I do so in some of the choice of his words, I do agree with the substance of his critique of UNMIN.

In the chapter on federalism Dixit dares to address an issue which most sophisticated Bahun-Chhetri intellectuals consider taboo for fear that it will draw the wrath of the advocates of ethnicity-based federalism. As we know, of all the subjects on the drafting of the new Constitution, none is more emotionally charged than the issue of federalism. While fully supportive of economically viable federal structure that ensures greater inclusiveness and better representation of marginalised groups, Dixit questions the rationale for ethnic Bantustans.

There is a lot of hypocrisy on the discourse on federalism in Nepal. Many leaders – including some Maoists, and not just Bahun-Chhetris but many thoughtful Madheshis and Janajatis, privately tell you that they do not consider ethnic federations or Ek-Madhesh-Ek Pradesh as a sensible idea, but they keep mum in public. Dixit is to be thanked for opening up this subject for a thoughtful, dispassionate debate which is what we need, on all subjects, in drafting a national constitution.

The book argues that Nepal’s peace process cannot be considered complete so long as the thousands of victims of conflict do not get justice. There is a real fear, Dixit argues, that both the Maoists and the Nepal Army would rather that we “forgive and forget” the terrible atrocities committed during the conflict.

This is an issue we must look at from the victims’ perspective, not that of their victimisers who will find many reasons to justify their actions. Instead of “forgive and forget”, Dixit argues, “forgive perhaps, but investigate, prosecute, and never forget” should be our message to both Maoists and our national security services. Beyond “Truth and Reconciliation” , we must go on to genuine help for the rehabilitation of the victims of violence, and a massive post-conflict reconstruction and development that will help Nepal recover from 15 years of economic stagnation. That has been the real curse of the “People’s War” and response to it, of which all of us Nepalis have been victims.

In the last chapters of the book Dixit concludes on an optimistic note that in the end the Nepalese genius for finding sensible solutions will prevail, and we will have a progressive, democratic constitution. But he worries about some continuing, undemocratic revolutionary romanticism. And he insists that the new constitution must be an advance from the 1990 constitution, and not a further regression. He worries about some continuing, undemocratic revolutionary romanticism. He insists that the new constitution must be an advance from the 1990 Constitution, and not a further regression.

When reading that, I said, “Come on, Kanak, is there a real fear that we could have a less democratic Constitution than that of 1990, after the great people’s movement and revolution we have gone through? You must be kidding!” Then I re-read the 1990 Constitution, juxtaposing it with this draft “Constitution of Peoples Federal Republic of Nepal – 2067″ that was presented by the UCPN (Maoist) as containing the most progressive ideas for a 21st century “Peoples” constitution. And yes, I can see that, God forbid, it is possible for us to go backwards even as we recite progressive slogans.

Then, just for comparisons sake, I went on the internet and read the 1998 Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which I found very revealing. Let me quote a couple of articles from that Constitution:

– Article 66 says: “All citizens who have reached the age of 17 have the right to elect and to be elected irrespective of sex, race, occupation, length of residence, property status, party affiliation, political views or religion”.

Wow, although I have been to North Korea many times, somehow I had missed that it allowed different party affiliations and political views ….

– And I quote article 67 that says, “Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and association. The State shall guarantee conditions for the free activity of democratic political parties and social organizations”.

Please note, North Korea too apparently allows multi-party system, provided they are “democratic”, as determined by the ruling vanguard Party, of course. This is the danger I see in a multi-party system suggested in the UCPN(M) draft, without the acceptance of pluralism. We cannot really address issues of social justice, equity, inclusion and all the other advances we seek in our new Constitution, in a sustainable manner, if we do not accept pluralism.

I hope this book will inspire us to strive for and insist on, a model of New Nepal that seeks both socio-economic justice and political freedoms, in a non-North Korean style and substance.

Kul Chandra Gautam is a former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations and this review is adapted from his presentation at the launch of the book, Peace Politics in Nepal, on 19 April.

Published on Nepali Times, 22 APRIL 2011 – 28 APRIL 2011