Democratization and political parties in Nepal
Lecture presented at the South Asia Seminar, Harvard University,
Introduction: State formation and society
About 250 years have passed since Nepal was transformed into a nation state by the military expansion of the small kingdom of Gorkha (Stiller 1975). The numerous mini states that had prior existed on the territory of the new state had been geographically and economically secluded autonomous agrarian societies. Their respective population had been a number of ethnic groups with divergent social structures along their respective religious, cultural, social, economic and legal necessities.
After the Anglo-Gorkha War (1814-16), which brought the Gorkhali expansion to an end, the Nepali state tried for political, administrative and legal unity. The final result of this endeavour was the muluki ain of 1854, Nepal's first legal code, based on Hindu law and the social and cultural values and structures of former Gorkha. But it also contained a number of compromises towards values and practices of non-Hindu groups. The most important element of the muluki ain was, that the Hindu social order was applied to the whole state. Numerous ethnic groups found themselves only in the lower social strata as castes (A. Höfer 1979). As a consequence, all political, social and economic power exclusively lay in the hands of members of the high Hindu castes, while there was no chance of participation for the other population groups.
The development of civil society was further hindered by the Ranas who usurped all power from 1846 to 1951. With British support they secluded Nepal hermetically from the outside world and exploited the country for the sake of their own pockets and prevented every kind of social development. People from outside the Rana-family had no chance of education and participation. Even high Hindu castes favoured by the muluki ain were degraded to minor figures of the Rana-state. It were especially the latter who went to India in the first half of the 20th century, where they used better chances for education at Indian schools and universities.
Political parties and the introduction of democratic ideas
A side-effect of this education in India has been the growing political consciousness of the exiled Nepalis. They got entrance to western political ideas and many of them actively took part in the Indian independence movement. Quite a number of them were members of the Indian National Congress, while others joined the Communist Party of India. At the time when the Ranas prevented the formation of political and social organizations in Nepal, the emigrant Nepalis were even able to found political parties in India. In January 1947 some minor political and student organizations on the initiative of B. P. Koirala joined under the name of Nepali Rastriya Congress (Nepali National Congress). Other important parties formed in the Indian exile in the late forties were the Nepali Prajatantrik Congress (Nepali Democratic Congress) and the Nepal Communist Party.
When the British left India the Rana government deviated from the principle of political isolation and tried for international recognition by extending diplomatic relations to evade political pressure from India. The independent India regarding the Rana system as outdated and tyrannical showed growing support for oppositional politics in Nepal, especially among the exiled Nepalis living in India. But accruing from this was the danger of Nepali dependency from India and of loosing her identity. This had a very negative impact on the Indo-Nepali relations during the following decades. Leading Indian politicians time and again not only stressed the close historical and cultural foundations of both countries, but even went as far as saying that Nepal had always been a part of India. These declarations were confirmed by exiled Nepali leaders, who being mainly members of high Hindu castes stressed their descent from India. For example during the founding session of the Nepali Rastriya Congress in 1947 the then president of the Indian National Congress, Acharya J. B. Kripalani, declared,
Nepal was always a part of India. Thus, Nepal's economic and political development is dependent upon free India. (Prem R. Uprety 1992:93)
And B. P. Koirala took almost the same stand when he said,
Nepal's political events of 1950/51 have often been praised as a people's revolution (janakranti) (Bhuvanlal Pradhan 1991). This proves problematic because political changes were not brought about by the masses, but they were the result of the cooperation of internal and external forces in a highly effective regional political situation. Independent India was looking for internal stability and external security. In face of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and declared Chinese claims for the Himalayan region, the rotten Rana system and the actions of exiled Nepalis in India constituted an enormous threat to Indian interests. So, India was looking for a system that satisfied Nepal's three political interest groups Ranas, King and the young party politicians and that at the same time gave India direct control over the political affairs in Nepal.
This throws another light upon the events of 1950/51. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship of July 31, 1950, gave the Ranas a last hope for the survival of their political system, but at the same time it guaranteed the continuation of Indian influence and infiltration of Nepal. The toleration and unofficial support of the armed rebellion of the Nepali Congress confirmed the politicians of that party in their positive view of India and kept them dreaming of creating a democratic Nepal with Indian support. King Tribhuvan's flight arranged by India and the so-called Delhi compromise initiated by Nehru in discussions with the Ranas and King Tribhuvan finally led to the restoration of monarchy in combination with special democratic elements (Grisma Bahadur Devkota 1960-83: vol. I:40-1; R. S. Chauhan 1971:33).
Thus, the events of 1950/51 have not been a turning point for the Nepali civilization. They only brought the replacement of one autocratic government, that of the Ranas, by another one, that of the Shah kings, with a mere touch of democracy. As a result of this unfinished political change the fifties became the stage of power struggle between the traditional feudal forces, represented by the institution of monarchy, and the young but totally inexperienced leaders of the political parties. The more the party politicians demonstrating their own incompetence turned for advice to India the more could the king as "father of the revolution" play to the gallery as unifying bond, symbol of the nation and popular leader. This already started in the early fifties under the ailing King Tribhuvan who played the party leaders off against each other. By several amendments of the initially democratic interim constitution of 1951, Tribhuvan stabilized his political position in the sense of an absolute monarch and successfully foiled elections for a constituent assembly.
Nationalism and the meaning of democracy
This became even clearer under his son Mahendra who ascended the throne in 1955. Mahendra tried to free Nepal from her strong Indian dependency introduced in follow-up of the events of 1950/51. For this reason he transformed Nepali nationalism by referring to stated traditional values. These were identical with those of the early Nepali nation state as reflected by the muluki ain of 1854: the Shah monarchy, the Hindu culture with its social and legal order, and the propagation of Nepali as the official and later national language of the country. Mahendra got in direct touch with the people and presented himself as the leader of the nation who was to the utmost concerned about the welfare of his "subjects". With the separation from India being a fundamental aspect of his new nationalist ideology, Mahendra demonstrated that the party leaders had too close connections to Indian parties and politicians.
At the same time the Nepali parties and their leaders did little to counter this negative impression. Most of the time the parties were struck by inter- and intra-party struggles caused by different leaders striving for power. At the same time they missed any kind of feeling for the real problems of the masses. Most of the party leaders belonged to an elite of high Hindu caste members educated in India and belonging to the urban middle class. Many of them had no knowledge of the hardships of the mainly rural population of the country. The poor masses, on the other hand, lacking education and political consciousness had no access to the democratic institutions of representation and participation offered by the political parties. They were more open to the arguments of King Mahendra who as raja represented a political institution well known in the mountain region for centuries.
In 1959 the people for the first time could decide about the composition of a parliament in common and free elections. But the convincing victory of the Nepali Congress (NC) winning 74 out of 109 seats could not hide the fact that the process of democratization had suffered severe setbacks during the fifties. Not only had the democratic forces represented by the political parties to do without elections for a constituent assembly that had been part of the Delhi compromise of 1951, but they even had to accept a constitution, enacted only one week before the elections, that clearly bore King Mahendra's marks. The king promulgated the constitution
There was no word about the introduction of a democratic system. Instead the preamble spoke about the "establishment of an efficient monarchical form of government". The supremacy of the king was further elucidated by calling the people his "subjects".
All executive power lay in the hands of the monarch and was to be "exercised by him either directly or through ministers or other officers subordinate to him" (article 10). The latter had only the right to convey recommendations. The power distribution in the legislative sphere was similar. There was a parliament,
All bills presented in parliament needed royal assent, and it was in the king's discretion whether to give or to withhold this assent (article 42). Already a sketchy glance at the functions and powers of parliament made clear that the Nepali parliament of 1959 was hardly able to represent public opinion or even to introduce socio-political changes. Rather the king could seize all parliamentary power without violating the constitution (Parmanand 1982:202-3). Within the judicial sphere, the absolute power of the monarch was not directly mentioned, but it could be derived from his right to appoint or remove the judges of the Supreme Court (article 57).
Of special importance were the regulations of articles 55 and 56 which gave the king the right to cancel the constitution or parts of it in cases of emergency. Especially mentioned was the case when the parliamentary system should prove unable to function. These emergency articles were King Mahendra's final means in case he should lose control over the political power. He used them in December 1960 when he dissolved the parliamentary system after only one and a half years and introduced the partyless panchayat system, that was to be in power until 1990.
So, the short parliamentary interlude of 1959/60 must be interpreted less as a victory of democratic forces than as an epilogue of the democratic experiments of the 1950s. The difference compared to former governments was that the Koirala government was not nominated by the king but elected by the people. Even though the NC hat a great majority in parliament the party had no constitutional right to implement decisions; according to the constitution, this right lay in the hands of the king. But Prime Minister B. P. Koirala nevertheless behaved as if he had a democratic legitimation corresponding to western conceptions. This gave the impression to the outside world that democracy had entered Nepal, but at the same time it provoked the intervention of King Mahendra, who obviously had been surprised by the overwhelming victory of the NC.
If Mahendra wanted to finish the restoration of absolute royal power, then he had to put an end to the politics of B. P. Koirala and his party. He had to introduce a system based on Nepali traditions of state and politics but containing elements that satisfied the younger generation which had come under western influences. So King Mahendra praised the new panchayat system as an indigenous one:
In this context Mahendra spoke about a process of national reconstruction. Nepal's history verifies that at least till 1951 the people had only been exploited, and this abuse had little changed during the experimental phase of the 1950s. With the introduction of a parliamentary system in 1959 only a precondition for broader participation of the masses had been fulfilled. So, if there had been something to reconstruct after the forceful dissolution of this hopeful political system, then it must have been institutions which had existed before 1959 and which had been endangered by parliamentary democracy, and that were the monarchy, the Brahmans and the old feudal elites. Together with western democratic conceptions, liberal ideas and western socio-cultural values had entered the country. With the cancellation of these influences and the dismissal of a parliamentary democracy of western style King Mahendra had the ulterior motive of reconstructing absolute royal power. He could count on the support of all those forces that had benefited from the conservative traditional system, and these were the upholders of the Hindu social order, i. e. the Bahuns, and those members of high Hindu castes upon whom after the unification of the country in the 18th/19th century in some parts of western Nepal even earlier the Shah kings had transferred land previously belonging to ethnic groups.
Calling the panchayat system a traditional Nepali system, Mahendra could fall back upon the new national consciousness he had forced to be built up during the late 1950s. Especially the educated elites recognized, that Nepal had to safeguard her own cultural and political identity, if it did not want to be absorbed by India. Many Nepalis thought that this danger was greatest under a western democratic system with political parties founded on Indian soil and having very close relations to Indian parties and politicians. So, Mahendra also had the support of the new intelligentsia, a fact that might explain why so many young members of the banned political parties joined the new system in its early days. Right from the beginning, the king co-operated with these young men of the second generation of party politicians, most of them from the NC.
The constitution of 1962 for the first time officially identified Nepal as a Hindu kingdom. Since Nepal was a multiethnic state even though it was not called so at that time monarchy was described as the unifying factor of the nation. According to Hindu philosophy it was assumed in an ethnocentric manner that also the numerous non-Hindu people of the country accepted and respected the Hindu king in the same way. This "self-identification" of the Nepali people was taken for granted in article 2 of the panchayat constitution.
King Mahendras brutal actions against the banned political parties and their western democratic ideology nipped every kind of resistance in the bud. For many years the party leaders, as far as they had not been imprisoned, could only be active in Indian exile, a situation well-known from Rana times. It took until the seventies that parties again intensified underground activities in Nepal as well. They began with militant communist riots in Eastern Nepal; later also the NC adopted such tactics. Student unrest in spring 1979 finally caused King Birendra, who succeeded his father in 1972, to hold a referendum on the future of the political system.
Even though the party politicians received no governmental support, they, for the first time since 1960, could openly talk about their political opinions. As in the 1950s, irreconcilable differences between parties or politicians prevented the close cooperation of the political parties, which was especially rejected by B. P. Koirala and his Nepali Congress. The consequence was the defeat of the party political side in the national referendum of May 1980 (G. Acharya 1985; L. R. Baral 1983). But the other option had been an amendment of the constitution, and this brought the opening of the system and gave the political parties an opportunity for infiltration. Again, it were communist splinter groups which first made use of this chance, having members of their parties been elected into functions of the panchayat system. After 1986 the NC cautiously did the same.
At the end of this development stood the people's movement of spring 1990 with its far reaching consequences: abolition of the panchayat system, transformation of the absolute monarchy into a constitutional one and introduction of multiparty democracy. This development was possible, since NC and Communists worked together for the first time. But the success of the movement came so quickly, because of great mass participation, which was not confined to urban areas. Different from 1950/51 it was not the movement of a small elite of mainly high caste Hindus, but members of all strata of society took part. Remarkable was the forefront participation of groups that had especially been discriminated under the Hindu state in modern Nepal: organizations of ethnic groups, low Hindu castes and women in general. Similar to the political parties these groups had used the liberalised panchayat system of the eighties to organize themselves.
Institutionalization of democracy
Correspondingly high were the expectations upon the "new" Nepal in 1990. Nine years have passed since then and the initial euphoria has been replaced by disillusionment and frustration. The reasons are different. On the one hand had the expectations been too high in 1990; also a democratic government could not do wonders in one of the poorest countries of the world. On the other hand showed the newly responsible persons rather soon the same kind of misbehaviour that previously had been criticized as typical for the panchayat system. This caused popular slogans like "nothing has changed, only persons have been exchanged" or "previously corruption happened in a hidden way, now we have democracy and so it is done in public".
The constitution of 1990 is the legal basis of the current political system of Nepal. It has been drafted within a few months by representatives of the NC and the left parties that had jointly organized the movement. These people tried to lay the foundations for a democratic system, but at the same time they avoided radical changes. This resulted in numerous compromises with the conservative feudal forces. The most serious change was that one from a partyless to a multiparty system. Another important change concerned the monarchy. King Birendra became a constitutional monarch who in almost all actions depends upon the prior recommendations of the democratically elected government. This means that the original aim of the 1950 revolutionaries of the NC, which had been foiled by the Delhi compromise had been achieved 40 years later.
One of the striking features of the preamble of the new constitution is the special emphasis of public will. The sovereignty lies in the hands of the people, and the constitution has been drafted with the greatest possible participation of the masses. Adult franchise, the parliamentary system of government, constitutional monarchy and the system of multiparty democracy are emphasized as cornerstones of the constitution. The rule of law shall be a living reality on the basis of freedom and equality for all Nepali citizens, and it shall be guaranteed by an independent and competent system of justice.
The constitutional feature most restricting for social development is the concession towards conservative forces in the definition of the kingdom (adhirajya):
New are the terms multiethnic, multilingual and democratic, aspects that had been stressed during the movement and at the time of constitution drafting. But the makers of the constitution rejected the idea of a secular state which had so vehemently been demanded by the left parties and by the many non-Hindu groups. This concession to the economically, socially and politically dominating high caste Hindu population is mentioned in the preliminary part of the constitution above all other fundamental rights. What does it mean for example that article 11 guarantees the equality of all citizens, if the state has before been declared as a Hindu state? This means that not only the religion, but also Hindu social order, Hindu values, Hindu ways of thinking and living, and Hindu politics with all their effects are binding for state and society.
Article 6 of the constitution can be seen in a similar way. It defines Nepali, the mother tongue of the centrally dominating Hindu society, as language of the nation and official language (rastra bhasa and sarkari kamkajko bhasa). All other mother tongues of the country are named "national languages" (rastriya bhasa). They shall be preserved and promoted by the government (article 26), even though little has been done so far. This language policy gives the speakers of national languages hardly any chance in competition with those, who have Nepali as their mother tongue, and discriminates them in politics, administration and society.
The current executive and legislative system is very similar to that of western democracies. The king is only formally sharing power. The legislative consists of a bicameral parliament, the house of representatives (pratinidhi sabha) with 205 members directly elected by the people and the national assembly (rastriya sabha) with 60 members. The king is required to appoint the leader of the strongest party in the house of representatives as Prime Minister. The other ministers are to be appointed by the king on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. The thus constituted council of ministers is responsible not to the king but to the house of representatives.
Part 17 of the constitution (articles 112-114) sets fundamental rules for the formation and recognition of political parties that had been banned for so many years. The parties are required to organize themselves along democratic rules, to have their office bearers elected at least once every five years and to have at least five percent female candidates for elections to the house of representatives. Article 113 (3) gives the election commission the right to bar parties from elections, which are formed on the basis of religion, community, caste, tribe or region:
The Nepali state has used this very interpretative article several times to control non-Hindu parties and organizations. In 1991 the Election Commission withheld the recognition of three parties representing ethnic or other social groups that were discriminated against by the Hindu state. For the mid-term elections of November 1994 this number grew to six (Gorkhapatra 06.08.1994). Critics say that this article 113 is nonsense, since the state is declared to be a Hindu state and so it is communal itself. In any case, the Election Commission only rejects those parties that confront the state communalism with ethnic communalism.
But irrespective of such shortcomings has the system change of 1990 provided the conditions required for the development of civil society in Nepal. The political power has been transferred from the hands of the king to those of elected representatives of the people. Today the elected politicians and their political parties are responsible for the implementation of democracy and social changes. Within the first two years after the movement of 1990 three parties came to the limelight, while the other parties more and more lost importance and influence. Those three leading parties were the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which had been formed in early 1991 by the unification of two splinter groups of the former Nepal Communist Party, and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party or National Democratic Party (NDP), the party of the erstwhile panchas, the politicians of the partyless panchayat system.
Election behaviour of the people
The constitution of 1990 has laid sovereignty into the hands of the people. The people have the chance to take influence upon the political, economic and social state formation and development by general and free elections, and they can control the elected representatives of the parties. Since 1990 the people could make use of this right twice each in parliamentary and local elections. The participation in the elections of over 60 % may be proof enough that the people are willing to play their political part. With the exception of the local elections of 1997 all elections can be called peaceful. Disturbances did not arise from the people but mainly from representatives of the political parties, and no party can acquit itself of guilt.
But even more impressive is the way the people have voted. Let us first have a look at the parliamentary elections. In 1991 the people clearly voted in favour of the old traditional party of the Nepali Congress. It seems that the reason for this was not only the important role the party had played during the democracy movement of 1990 but also the memory of the glorious past of the NC: The people gave their vote for the same party that had been expelled from power by King Mahendra's coup détat in 1960. In this context, it may be characteristic that irrespective of the many undemocratic features of the constitution of 1959 the NC of the 1990s always spoke of the restoration of democracy and not of its introduction. So in the eyes of many people the restoration of democracy was identical with the restoration of the political power of the Nepali Congress.
But the elections of 1991 had also some other aspects of fundamental importance. The developments of 1990 had produced great a number of parties, 20 of which took part in the first parliamentary elections. Contrary to expectations, the people with their clear vote avoided a stalemate in parliament. With the exception of very few parties, all the minor ones were totally ignored. This trend continued in 1994, when only five parties were able to win seats in parliament.
Another important feature of the 1991 elections was the crushing defeat of those forces that had "represented" the people under the panchayat system. This defeat of the then two Rastriya Prajatantra Parties, which together only won four out of 205 seats, led to their unification in the aftermath of the elections. In 1994 this conservative party obviously had recovered winning 20 seats and becoming the third party-political force. This improvement of the RPP was not only caused by its new unity but also by the peoples dissatisfaction with three and a half years of NC government.
And finally we have to mention the election of the CPN-UML as main opposition party in 1991 and then as strongest party in 1994. Abroad, there has been lack of understanding for this election behaviour of the people at a time of world-wide decline of communist systems. Parts of the western press even wrote about political immaturity of the Nepali people. But there have been several reasons why the people thought it necessary to vote for this party. First, the CPN-UML has deviated from the traditional ideology of communist parties since its foundation. The party declares its support to constitutional monarchy, the multiparty system, parliamentarianism and even a free market economy on the basis of the constitution of 1990. Compared to other parties world-wide, the CPN-UML is more a social-democratic than a communist party, but it sticks to its name because of its historical development. Thus the party fulfils a function, which at the times of B. P. Koirala had been that of the NC, while the NC of the 1990s in many aspects has become a party even right of the centre.
Role of political parties in democratic Nepal
In a society characterized by poverty and socio-religious inequalities the people are looking for a kind of political representation that opens up perspectives and hopes changing their fate. The masses in general had been deeply disappointed by the NC, and so they elected the party out of government in 1994. The NC is not only suffering from a distinct turn to the right, but it is also shaken by deep rooted interior problems. The few remaining personalities of the first hour Girija Prasad Koirala, Krishna Prasad Bhattarai and Ganesh Man Singh who died in 1997 have been fighting each other publicly punching below the belt since the elections of 1991, when the then interim Prime Minister Bhattarai was not elected and had to give way for Koirala. Singh finally even left the party, Bhattarai handed over the NC presidency to Koirala and the latter facing a possible split of the party laid the leading role in parliament into the hands of a younger generation. But also the experiment to make Sher Bahadur Deuba the party leader for the years to come poorly failed. The one and a half years of his coalition government based on a majority of only one vote, overshadowed by corruption, nepotism and abuse of authority, led to the absolute low for the young Nepali democracy.
All political parties are facing problems with implementing intra-party democracy. Confining our view to the three leading parties we see that NC and RPP elect their presidents in a democratic manor, but then endow them with enormous power. The persons responsible for the ideological line of the party, like the members of the central working committees, are not elected but nominated by the party president on his own decision. Bhattarai even delayed these nominations for many months at a time of greatest conflict within the party. Only within the CPN-UML the central committee is directly elected by the national congress, towards which it is responsible. The undemocratic structure of the leading parties makes the introduction of a broad based and equal participation of all strata of society even more difficult. Only the established party elites, which in all parties belong to the Brahmans and Chetris, decide, if other groups of society are allowed to participate or not, for example when election candidates have to be nominated. This is for the disadvantage of those groups that already had been disadvantaged before the advent of democracy: the ethnic groups, the so-called untouchables, the women and the Tarai population.
With greater parts of the people still having no positive perspectives, the leading parties steadily lose control. One of the best symbols is the fate of the NC. Being the strongest party in Parliament in 1991 with an absolute majority of seats and winning the local elections of 1992 with about 60 % of the votes, the party has been falling into an abyss. In November 1994 the NC lost its majority in parliament and in May 1997 it was swept out of the local bodies securing only 30 % of the votes. An end is not to be seen. The split of the CPN-UML in March 1998 again has made the NC the strongest party in parliament. Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister for a second time, first as head of a NC minority government, then as leader of a coalition with the CPN-ML, the splinter group of the CPN-UML, and finally as prime minister of a coalition of NC, CPN-UML and Nepal Sadbhavana Party (NSP). As the 1999 general elections approach, Koirala has even presented his party rival Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, who so far has lost three elections, as the coming prime minister of Nepal. One will have to see if this brings more unity into the Nepali Congress. Younger leaders have already shown signs of disappointment.
The conservative forces represented by the RPP have been in an upward trend since the local elections of 1992, irrespective of its participation in the Deuba government, for whose failure the RPP had been especially responsible. But like the NC, the RPP, too, is split into two camps headed by Lokendra Bahadur Chand and Surya Bahadur Thapa respectively. Both of them led coalition governments in 1997/98. First Chand was prime minister of the absurd coalition government of RPP and CPN-UML forced by the NCP-UML rebel Bam Dev Gautam. After half a year, this coalition was brought down on the intention of Chands party colleague and president, Surya Bahadur Thapa, who then headed a coalition government of RPP, NC and NSP. This government was again brought down, when Chand split his party forming the New RPP in early 1998.
The main beneficiary of the negative trend of the NC has been the CPN-UML. Several reasons can be mentioned in this context. Nepal's masses are living in great poverty. It was under the first government of Girija Prasad Koirala that the people recognised, that the NC is no longer a party representing the interests of the poverty stricken and backward strata of society. This position became more and more filled by the CPN-UML whose ideology is concentrated on the hardships of the poor. This has already been decisive for the party's success in the parliamentary elections of 1994. The minority government of Man Mohan Adhikari, which lasted for only nine months, initiated such great a number of populist measures in advantage of the rural masses, that the NC saw no other chance but to overthrow the government, if it did not want to loose possible mid-term elections. Even the later irrational coalition of the CPN-UML with the rightist RPP did not bring any harm to the party in the eyes of the people, as the great success in the local elections of 1997 has shown.
But the politics of the CPN-UML, too, became more and more guided by power ambitions. One prove may have been the coalition with the RPP accepting a former pancha as Prime Minister. Another evidence is the intra-party struggle and later split of the party initiated by Bam Dev Gautam. For sure, the party still has internal problems with the integration of radical communist forces into a more and more social-democratic party conception. So, similar to the NC and the RPP the CPN-UML is suffering from internal tensions, conflicts and power struggles. Such insufficiencies of the leading parties are increasingly provoking activities of radical extra-parliamentary forces. The best example may be the so-called people's war (jana yuddha) of the Maoists with its growing effectiveness in recent times.
For about three years, the hill-area of middle and later also of eastern Nepal is hit by some kind of revolution that is shaking the foundations of state and society. This war is organized by extremist communist forces calling themselves NCP (Maoist). After the democracy movement of 1990, some extremist splinter groups of the erstwhile NCP joined under the name NCP (Unity Centre). They formed the Samyukta Jana Morcha Nepal (United Peoples Front Nepal) as their political wing, which participated in the 1991 elections winning nine seats and becoming the third strongest party in parliament. The split of the Unity Centre in 1993 was also the end of the SJMN as a parliamentarian force. One of the splinter groups was that of Kamal Pushpa Dahal, better known as Comrade Prachand. It called itself NCP (Maoist).
Its highly talented ideologist, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, calls his partys activities a people's war, with the aims of fundamentally changing the economic and social structure of the country and introducing a new kind of democracy. The Nepali state represented by the political parties, on the other hand, is speaking about terrorist activities, which have to be opposed forcefully by the state.
The SJMN had already called the people's movement of 1990 an unfinished revolution. In order to bring this revolution to an end, the SJMN had tried to use the parliament as an operation level under the disrespected constitution of 1990. Its then convenor, Baburam Bhattarai, saw no sense for the extension of this kind of politics after the collapse of the Koirala government. In his eyes there was not much ideological and structural difference between the established parliamentary parties. After the split of the SJMN, Bhattarai tried hard for a common line of the Maoist forces. At least after the downfall of the Adhikari government in autumn 1995 and the installation of the coalition government of the NC with the conservative RPP, these extreme left forces found the time ripe for revolution. So in February 1996 the Maoists started their people's war in some districts of mid-western Nepal, especially in Rolpa, Rukum, Jajarkot, and Salyan, partly also in Gorkha.
Baburam Bhattarai calls the people's war an epoch-making event in Nepali history. For the first time, the Nepali people had woken up from a deep slumber of semi-colonial and semi-feudal oppression and exploitation. Even individuals with little political consciousness would see the current deep political crisis of the state. As reason Bhattarai mentions Nepal's semi-colonial integration into British India by the treaty of Sugauli (1816) and the continuation of this status by the Indo-Nepali Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950. The slavish acquiescences of the feudal ruling classes to foreign powers would have distorted the independent socio-economic and political development process. A small coterie of feudal comprador and bureaucratic capitalist classes comprising about 5% of the population would have been monopolizing power and resources and exercising hegemony over 95% of the people. This had given rise to intense class, national and regional contradictions. As a result the country would now have slumped to the ignominious status of being the second poorest country in the world. So, Bhattarai thinks that it is necessary to overthrow the state with its rotten socio-economic structure and to make a revolutionary transformation on a new democratic basis. (Spotlight, March 21 1997, p. 22)
The Maoists first started their actions according to classical revolutionary methods: identification of the above mentioned so-called negative state forces and deliberate attacks upon the life and property of these persons. As a result, the law and order situation in the affected areas deteriorated seriously. In spring 1997 the Maoists used the local elections to intensify their actions. In some parts of the country elections could not be held at all, in others they were hindered considerably. The revolutionary forces demonstrated impressively, that their activities were no longer a passing fancy of crazy left revolutionaries, but a socio-political process that needed to be taken seriously.
The governments since then have not shown much interest in the political arguments of the Maoists. According to government declarations they are terrorists that must be met by nothing else but repression. So the Deuba government concentrated police forces in the affected districts. Operating in the same way as in panchayat times they killed great a number of people by shooting. Time and again, the people have heavily complained about the arbitrary measures of the police. In fact, many more people have been killed or hurt by the police than by the Maoist actions. Torture and other human rights violations in police custom as well as arbitrary killing are often reported events.
Baburam Bhattarai denies to be a terrorist. The capitalist and imperialist nations idolizing the USA would only regard themselves as democratic. All people opposed to their world order would be called terrorists. So Bhattarai calls the Maoist people's war a counter-terrorism against the imperialist global terrorism. (Spotlight March 21, 1997, p. 23)
The Nepali state has problems offering a political dialogue. Even after three years of Maoist activities, the government explains not to know the reasons for the people's war, because it cannot admit that many of Baburam Bhattarai's arguments are true. Official statistics as well as anthropological and historical research verify Bhattarai's statements concerning the distribution of wealth and power in the kingdom. And a glance at the ethnicity of ministers, party politicians, parliamentarians, leading government officials and entrepreneurs makes clear that the movement of 1990 has not been a revolution by its name. Only persons have been exchanged, and even this has often been revised today. Those forces that guaranteed the feudal conservative system of society until 1990 have been sitting at the cabinet table several times since autumn 1995, and for short, they even held the office of Prime Minister. Corruption, nepotism and abuse of authority, once called the fundamental evils of the panchayat system, are practised today in public by members of the same elite circles that have feathered their nest at the expense of the masses for the past 200 years.
For the latter, the democratization has not brought any improvement, neither economically nor in respect of socio-political participation. If the leaders of the main political parties, who are now responsible for the fate of the country, really wanted to change this situation, they would have to rob themselves of their own privileges. While changing the government they can woo needed coalition partners by powerful positions laden with chances for corrupt practices. But how shall the same politicians negotiate with people who have nothing to offer but their poverty and their exploited and underprivileged status? How shall they explain to these people the whereabouts of millions of international money that every year disappear in dubious channels? How to make the masses understand that they have to be deprived of fundamental education, because else their growing political awareness would endanger the privileges of the ruling elite? A dialogue with the rebellious left forces has not been possible so far, because the party politicians are neither able nor willing to answer such questions.
But besides such objections against the government one also has to ask, if the Maoists offer some kind of alternative to the current system. Their leader, Baburam Bhattarai, may side with the poor masses, but accidentally or not, he and the other Maoist leaders, too, belong to the privileged elite of the Bahuns. Bhattarai mentions three main causes for the social, economic and political inequalities: Nepal's inclusion into the sphere of British colonialism, the extension of this dependency in form of modern India, and the submissive cooperation of Nepal's ruling feudal elite with these foreign powers. But Bhattarai does not mention that the real causes for the above cited inequalities are much older. They go back to the time of Nepali unification (1743-1816), when the Gorkha rulers applied their Hindu-political and social ideals upon the conquered territories. The legal formation and fixation of this order was a domestic process with no influence by British colonialism.
The impoverishment of the greater parts of the population have been caused by this application of Hindu-political principles. Affected were all those persons, who, according to the thinking of the high caste elite, were inferior creatures, because they belonged to ethnic groups or were so-called untouchables. Strikingly, Baburam Bhattarai does not mention these fundamental causes of inequality. He is talking about colonialism and imperialism of leading western nations like the USA, but he is silent about the colonialism and imperialism of communist or former communist states, like China and the Soviet Union, against the numerous national minorities within their own countries. Both communism and democracy are western ideologies developed to fight class differences. Religious, cultural and ethnic inequalities had only minor importance in 19th and early 20th century Europe. But in Nepal they are decisive. So it remains doubtful if the Maoist ideology provides a way for social changes. But one thing is sure: For the present they offer the poor masses hopes the government and the established parties are not able or willing to provide.
Monarchy, Hindu fundamentalism, and ethnicity
The introduction of democracy and the process of its development has also influenced a number of extra-party groups. First to mention are the conservative forces with the monarch as their personified symbol. In the course of the 1990 movement and its aftermath, King Birendra had to give up his absolute rights step by step. The political parties involved in drafting the new constitution treated the king with respect and so made it easier for him to renounce his former absolute rights, even though the palace on several occasions tried to keep as much power as possible. The greatest concession of the party politicians was the definition of the state as a constitutional monarchical Hindu state. This was a guarantee for the continuation of the Shah dynasty and it elevated its socio-political foundation, the Hindu religion, culture and society, against the other numerous cultures and societies of the multiethnic state Nepal.
In 1990 the constitution drafting commission had asked the people to submit suggestions for the new constitution. According to Vishvanath Upadhyaya, the chairman of the commission, 95% of these suggestions concerned religion, language and culture. Upadhyaya, who later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and who himself was a Bahun like most of the members of the drafting commission, called these things totally unimportant for the formulation of a democratic constitution. Representatives of the Nepali Congress in the commission insisted upon the continuation of the Hindu state, as it had been demanded by the traditional feudal elites, the palace, the former panchas and the leading Bahuns. The commission rejected the idea of a secular state, which the left parties and the organizations of ethnic groups, low Hindu casts and women had been fighting for.
The corresponding heated discussion in the political parties subsided soon after the promulgation of the constitution. The king has put up with his new constitutional monarchical role, and the leading parties soon forgot their public commitment to equality and participation of all citizens. At least at the national level, the parties are still dominated by members of high Hindu castes; members of ethnic groups have only chances in their main living areas. All political parties have problems with the constitutional regulation, that at least 5% of the election candidates must be women. And very often, these female candidates are set-up in constituencies where they hardly have any chance to win. As a consequence, only seven of the 205 members of the House of Representatives (3.4%) are women. All this must be seen in context with the socio-political conceptions of the Hindu state.
The continuation of the Hindu state has been the highest maxim of both the conservative forces and the leading party politicians of democratic Nepal, because this alone guarantees their elite privileges. Secularism has always been identified with the lifting of the ban of missionary practices. There are talks of the decline of Hinduism, its eradication by Christian missionaries and finally the expulsion of Hindus from Nepal. Taking the mean practices of some of the numerous Christian aid organizations working in the Country for common, there are never ending talks of thousands of conversions to Christianity day by day.
But the discussion of dangerous Christian missionary distracts from the negative attitudes of the Hindu state for the many indigenous cultures. In support of the Hindu state-religion the king and the politicians are courting Hindu dignitaries and sponsoring Hindu organizations and events. One never hears any word about the danger of Christian missionary for the ethnic cultures, the Buddhists and the Muslims, not to talk about the danger of state Hinduism for these religions and cultures.
Summary: Democracy and civil society
The one-sided cultural and religious politics of the Nepali state has led to the neglect of great parts of the population. According to the national census of 1991, 42% of the population belong to ethnic groups, some of which have become superficially Hinduized. Another 22% are Hindus belonging to so-called untouchable castes. Both groups take no advantages from the socio-political order and distribution of power in a Hindu state. If we also include the 3-4% Muslims mentioned by the census into this number game, the number of beneficiaries of the Hindu state, i.e. the high Hindu castes, is reduced to little more than 30% of the population. This number has to be halved again, since the women, according to Hindu laws, have no economic rights and so can only participate in state and society with the allowance of their fathers or husbands.
So Nepal currently is in a dilemma. On the one hand has democracy entered the country at the beginning of the 1990s, and the parties have played a decisive part in this development; on the other hand is this democratization unfinished. Of course, democracy cannot come over night, but Nepal's special problem is, that there has been no socio-political change and no political will to participate the population as a whole. The people have the right and liberty to elect their representatives for the different state levels and, by this way, to influence the political development of the country. But the selection of who is eligible, is still in the hands of members of the same elites, which had once been sharing power in the feudal royal state and which are now dominating the political parties. The poor masses remain excluded and have hardly any chance to save their interests through the current parliamentary system. This provides a fertile soil for extra-parliamentary forces calling for the boycott of elections and instigating a revolution.
A compromise is offered by some organizations of disadvantaged groups like those of ethnic groups, low Hindu castes and women. These organizations today have partly joined to federations in order to have a stronger voice in the discussions with the state. With growing intensity, they are trying to inform their respective population groups about their civil rights, and they provide them with what officially should be the task of state and politicians: political consciousness, self-esteem and legal advise in their struggle for political and economic rights.
Like executive and legislative, the judiciary as well is dominated by the traditional elite. During the past years the justices of the Supreme Court had to decide a number of complaints about infringement of the constitution charged by members of disadvantaged groups. They rarely took the heart to force the lawgiver to legal amendments shaking the foundations of the traditional system. Parties representing non-Hindu communities, for example, found no recognition as political parties, while the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, representing the India based Hindu population of the Tarai, had no such problems. Other examples are the numerous suits of women against their legal discrimination. So far, the Supreme Court has not ordered parliament to implement the constitutional principle of legal equality irrespective of race, caste, gender, etc.
It is a common feature, that such measures aiming at fundamental social changes are not initiated by political parties. The latter have prepared the way for democracy, but they withdraw from its implementation and instead turn to corruption and internal power struggle. In interest of Nepal's future one can only hope for new democratic leaders, who are willing to enforce the socio-political, participatory and economic changes necessary for the development of civil society, before radical and anarchic forces are able to take the lead.
Copyright © 1999, Karl-Heinz Krämer