Nepal: From Contradictions to Compelling Constructive Visions
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 6 Aug 2012
Interview with Federica Riccadonna
Federica Riccadonna is a research associate of the Galtung-Institut for Peace Theory and Peace Practice and currently a visiting researcher at the Asian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Transformation-ASPECT in Kathmandu. She depicts the Nepalese society as one in the throes of a deeply fraught political transition towards a more stable and just future and identifies important contradictions underpinning – and potentially able to undermine – the current constitutional and federal peace-building efforts, going on to suggest plausible progressive ways ahead.
Grant-Hayford: You have been conducting in depth research on the forms and manifestations of peace culture in Nepal. Can you please share some examples of moments of such peace culture – peace being understood as interaction between actors towards equal and mutual benefits.
Riccadonna: The first example that comes to my mind, historically speaking, is the People’s Movement “Jana Andolan” that forced King Birendra (ruled 1972–2001) to accept constitutional reforms and to establish a multi-party parliament that took seat in May 1991 and the Jana Andolon II, in April 2006. The latter is a great example of a massive and peaceful demonstration against an old feudal, top-down, autocratic and exclusionary monarchical regime, in comparison more successful than the civil war in what they obtained.
I will take this occasion to also speak personally on what I have experienced and am currently experiencing here in Nepal regarding “examples of moments of such peace culture”. It is a small story about reconciliation & hope but especially about compelling dreams regarding the future.
The suburbs of Kathmandu are reservoirs of young people, without opportunities, full of frustration, anger, excess free-time, energy… I experienced how easy it is for them to be arrested and kept in jail, by a police surely positively motivated, but not sufficiently-trained regarding human-rights standards, with a glaring lack of resources in the face of all the tasks they have been appointed to.
The idea behind keeping them in jail – under conditions that too often include varying degrees of insults to somatic basic needs – is to drive home “a lesson”, the hope being to “change bad guys’ behaviours”. Violence is seen as the most easy, expedient way to achieve this legitimate goal, but if some alternatives become apparent (apologies, excuses, and the will of the prisoner to invest himself and his energy into work or school) they absolutely prefer to negotiate and build new realities on the grounds of forgiveness. “Who will give forgiveness, is a big person”. I felt the emphasis with which a policeman tried to explain to me how Nepali culture is full of “good practice”. In another and very concrete conflict formation in which I was involved – a clash between gangs – I have observed the same attitude. The young men involved were quite willing to exchange their readiness to engage in violence, against what we call “compelling dreams about the future” (freedom from insecurity, possibility to build a constructive future, enjoy without worries about prevailing and dominating over the other gang). In response to an offence by the other gang, a punitive expedition was being envisaged in my presence. Fortunately, through dialogue, a compelling vision of the future emerged and the dynamics of this conversation moved them from violent (irreversible) measures, to a compromise, namely to ask for apologies in order to ensure dignity & recognition and in order obtain security guarantees about their somatic safety in future.
These are small but in my opinion relevant examples of a widely present peace culture that values apologies over “final-violent-Armageddon” solutions. The entire point in such conflict formations is to ensure that the actors find space for dialogue, exchange and communication, sometimes perhaps with an external stimulus.
G-H: How would you describe the current political and societal situation in Nepal? Is this a difficult or a progressive moment in the transitional process?
R: Regarding the actual situation of Nepal, it is both: difficult and progressive. Difficult, due to a degree of fragmentation so high, that political consensus has been proven hard to achieve after the expiration of the Constitutional Assembly of the 28th of May. Progressive because almost all of the constitution has been written and there are only few contentious issues left. The main bone of contention is federalism (numbers and names of states are still unclear), which is related to recognizing the rights of minorities. The ability to overcome the issues in a creative manner, say by naming federated states in the languages the ethnicities present there identify with, will determine the quality of the outcome. Accommodating the people geographically and ethnically, will determine the future response, violent or not, among the population. We can say that the current process is positively progressive in an ideal manner. Currently there is a window of opportunity which depends very much on the creativity to overcome this main issue.
G-H: As a conflict analyst, what are the underlying contradictions and fundamental “peace issues” within the Nepalese social fabric that you have identified thus far?
R: Let me say this: the underlying contradiction is the conflict between the ruling class, a small elite concentrated especially in the KTM valley and the rest of the population. This “rest” needs representation, at each level economic-political-social-cultural. Their needs are identity, well-being, freedom, survival, which are respectively threatened by alienation, misery, repression and physical insecurity. On the other hand, representation alone cannot achieve anything concrete if there is not a deep effort within the Nepalese civil society to raise awareness in marginalized groups. Here my experience is that not only the contradictions and tensions between ethnic groups but other fault-lines that reflect the marginalization of women and youth within the society must be addressed. These categories in fact have a small voice, a voice that remains unheard due to a patriarchal society.
G-H: Who are the relevant actors at the moment, can you briefly tell us about their respective goals? Can you say anything about the cultural values and the structural interests you see at work?
R: Definitely, the main actors now are Political Parties. Nepal is a really politicized country, if you are affiliated to some particular parties, this can determine your work, your future and in fact your entire situation. Culturally this could be related to the high consideration that Nepali (and Asian in general) cultures have for “status”. Structurally, political parties respond to this need, influencing all sectors of society. And also patriarchal structure with a culture in favor of men feeds power of political parties, and their rigid (not open to women and young easily) structure.
The main Actors are:
-UCPN (M)-Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)
-CPN (M)-Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)
These actors want a federalism based on identity, but inside these groups, there are some members who opine against this position. I consider it important to consider them as a somewhat different actor as they have with a different goal.
You then have:
-NC (Nepali Congress)
-CPN (UML)-Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist).
These are mainly against a federalism based on ethnicity, but they also have sectors and elements against this stance within their own ranks. Some leaders of indigenous groups created NEFIN (Nepal Federation of Indigenous People) in order to create a new party pushing for ethnic federalism. Other parties are staunch supporters of the monarchy. Then one should mention the role of the President/PM: The government is now the caretaker. The way in which the president will act could be crucial.
G-H: Looking at the various fault lines within the Nepalese society, which is the most intense challenge facing the current transformative phase?
R: Actually, the most intense challenge is addressing the rights of minorities, ethnic and marginalized groups and involving them in the ongoing decision-making process. Federalism is, as said before, a main issue, and a lot of expectations are connected to it, as it is seen as the solution to all problems.
There are more than 100 ethnic and caste groups in Nepal. Nepal’s indigenous ethnic groups, known as ‘Janjatis’ according to the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN)[i], represent 37.2 percent of the population. “Most Janjatis have been exploited and still remain underprivileged and neglected by the government,” according to Laxman Tharu, the leader of the Joint Tharu Struggle Committee. They have been staging protests and strikes throughout the country since mid-May 2012 for their rights to be included in the Constitution.
The current construct of the caste system was established in 1854 in a national legal code, with hierarchical levels of membership, rooted in the Hindu religious tradition. To each community rights and duties were granted, determining the political and economic position. The Rana regime and Panchayat system (a “party-less” system of decentralization without devolution) worked to preserve the caste system of social stratification, favouring the higher castes, with the slogan of “one country, one religion, one nation,” which led to the suppression of the native languages and cultures. [ii]
Maoists, on their side, used the Self-determination right to fight against the caste system and mobilize people. There is quite some residual anger against higher classes who have ruled the country for a long time, which is a concrete obstacle to consensus.
The most difficult challenge in my opinion is to address this issue (rights of minorities and marginalized groups) in the best manner, managing expectations and remembering that “federalism” is not an encompassing solution. It depends on how concretely the rights of all are included and respected.
Regarding the Constitution, the situation is really uncommon. Politicians and law-makers have to work “out-of-law”, because after expiration of CA, on May 28th, Prime Minister Bhattarai proclaimed new elections for a new CA, but the Interim Constitution did not contemplate new elections, for this reason the Constitution needs to be amended, but for doing this the first step is to find and create a political consensus between all the stakeholders involved. The fragmentation of political parties is increasing, and for many this fragmentation is not only unnecessary but also dangerous for the stability and peace of the country, dividing people and their complaints. So, the issue of political consensus is a huge challenge in this phase.
G-H: How would you estimate the potential for an escalation of the current stalemate into direct violence? Is there a specific region in which you would suspect such developments to be possible? If so, what would be the underlying vectors of such an escalation? What are the main differences between the existing regional conflicts?
R: The example of Ruanda is being put forward in different interviews I have conducted so far. There was a potential for an escalation, violent, if for example, a final Constitution was approved on the 28th of May without considering federalism. Indigenous groups, (as the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities-NEFIN is forming a party demanding federalism) are definitively a potential source of an escalation if they do not feel that their rights are fully included and considered.
Demonstrations, strikes and protests immobilized Nepal before the 28th of May, with the so called “Banda”. Watching them, it is easy to say that the Far-Western Development Region is a possible region of escalation, with over 20 days of Banda in which demands that this region not be divided in the name of ethnic federalism are being put forward. We have a similar situation in the eastern part of the country because of groups demanding a Limbuwan state (Limbu are ethnic groups prominent in the eastern hills).
Another area not to forget regarding risk of escalation are suburban areas, full of frustrated, unemployed, marginalized people, asking for their rights.
One prominent vector is the media. They played a fundamental role in shifting public attention from an issue to another. During Banda they have also been a target of angry demonstrators. What could this mean? Media are perceived as a main vector to reach higher levels in the decision-making mechanism.
Regarding the question about existing regional conflicts, one similarity could be with the Maoist struggles in many Indian States, as Darjeeling, district of the West Bengal State of India, with a majority speaking Nepali and with a widespread Nepali culture. They ask for a separate State in the Indian Federation. But such isomorphisms have to be explored deeper.
G-H: Are there any actors in the Nepalese context with unresolved and lingering issues of unrecognized identity, economic needs, past grievances or future fears of alienation?
R: As above, mainly indigenous groups as Tharus, Tamang, Janajati, the marginalized and under-represented at all levels come to mind. But we cannot forget youth, women, ex-combatants and rural, peripheral people coming to Kathmandu for a better economic outlook. With the loss of community-village support, not only regarding their economic situation but particularly with regards to their identity.
In all cases, promises have been betrayed and the feeling of revenge and frustration among them is fostering the potential for violence. Violence is seen as the most efficacious way to claim their rights. We cannot say that violence is accepted, but is considered a pragmatic means, in all Nepali society, not so much as a practice conveyed from the past, but formed and consolidated during and after the Maoist struggle: For claiming one’s right, you have to fight! This is a widely spread feeling in all sectors of society, which is perhaps the worst legacy of the past contradictions, more so than the physical damages.
G-H: What is your assessment of the state of vertical structural violence – understood both as economic exploitation and political oppression – within Nepal at this point in time? If salient, who is particularly affected and who has been benefiting most from it?
R: I can say that the state of structural violence in Nepal is multi-faceted and it is possible to observe it from different points of views. People coming from the rural area, illiterate, unskilled or semi-skilled for the present labour system in the urban area (which is not their original field) coming to Kathmandu where they end up being exploited economically. On the other side, young people, women are oppressed, with no ways to express themselves, for the benefit of a ruling class, which is mostly characterized by the following triangle of attributes: men-old-higher classes.
G-H: How about the horizontal forms of structural violence, where the issue is less the hierarchical exploitation and domination to which large parts of the population may be exposed, but where it is more the lack of existential space to pursue independent aspirations that is causing grievances and insults to the basic needs of identity and freedom? Have you observed any such patterns of social interaction?
R: Yes, thank you for this question. I am more sensitive to these aspects of violence indeed.
In fact, I experience this kind of horizontal structural violence on a daily basis. It is the opinion of many, that horizontal relations are less important than vertical ones. In my opinion however, working only on one of these lines is limiting, especially if you forget the fundamental contributive roles that horizontal relations can have in transforming structural violence.
For example, consider the issue of the empowerment of women. They are strictly working in their families and struggling in their daily life against a patriarchal system. In Western Countries, women have been able to transform themselves into a massive movement claiming (and obtaining) their rights during the ’60s. Every such process of emancipation starts from feeling precisely that: A “lack of existential space to pursue independent aspirations”. The step to undertake for a struggle in this direction is small even if difficult and full of risks. Women and their movements are an example of the fight against horizontal forms of structural violence, in families, societies or the labour market.
Regarding Nepal, horizontal forms of structural violence are, again, against women, young people, marginalized groups. In the society they lack “a voice”, they long for understanding, dignity, identity, well-being, security. In some cases, especially for women the issue is that of submission to father, family, husband… In other cases of say, young people, this leads to anger, and consequently to violent trends. The widely spread idea and reputation that they are “bad guys” makes them the preferred target of police, which paradoxically reinforces a distance and lack of trust in any and all “institutions” such as the police, school, and administration in general. But the idea of “bad guys” has to be seen in association with rampant “basic needs infringements” (security and survival vs. death and killing, wellbeing vs. disease, misery and morbidity; freedom vs. oppression; identity vs. alienation; or to put it in Buddhist/Hindu terms: sukka vs. dukkha).
G-H: Is Nepal subject to any form of economic exploitation and or political manipulation from any exogenous forces? And if so how does this manifest itself?
R: Yes, of course there are exogenous forces, this would also include benevolent donors (European and others), as well as regions like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation–SAARC. Surely, Nepal has never been colonized, but 1/3rd of its land was lost during the 1814-1816 confrontation against British-India. The Rana regime, came in 1847, they were pro-British and assisted Albion in different ways. At that time, the situation was such that Nepal was seen by British India as a protectorate. Also India’s role in ending the Rana regime in 1951 and bringing democracy was crucial. So, right from the beginning India has been influencing Nepal…right to this very day. China’s role is more hidden, linked to the Chinese’ foreign policy style, to have a silent diplomacy, but concretely working in Nepal for example through the construction of infrastructure. Regarding USA, after 9/11, they considered the Maoist terrorists, and a threat to their national security. So they supported the past monarchy, and indirectly contributed somehow in passing laws to the detriment of citizens in that period. These laws are known as Terrorist and Destructive Activities Control and Punishment Act (TADA), which allowed security forces to “arrest, search, detain, and use the “necessary force” to accomplish the objectives of the act, extend powers to military, and ironically increase insecurity because of the higher potential of coercion and abuse of power by the military. Particularly in areas affected with violent forms of conflict.
G-H: What is the future you would like to see for Nepal, a country you have fallen in love with? Given you had the power to change the situation, what would you do? How compatible are your views and hopes for the country with the aspirations of the Nepalese people themselves? What is hindering an improvement of the situation in your opinion? What is hindering an improvement in their opinion?
R: I would like to see for Nepal a future free from a patriarchal, feudalistic, autocratic, monarchical mentality, which leads to a society strongly conditioned from above, which avoids and evades necessary existential and emancipatory “discussions” with the “higher levels” and authority.
I would like to act in a way that helps to raise awareness about this and together with this also act against dangerous drifts of tradition and superstition that continue to reinforce insults to human basic needs. Nepal should in my opinion act more and with more dedication in funding and promoting research programs, ideas and events which promote and spread their culture & their values of peace, not in an aggressive or arrogant manner — that can reinforce “bad practice” as a way to react to external interventions — but through a progressive focus on increasing knowledge and furthering exchange on “good practice” in all matters concerning the participation of women, younger generations and lower castes.
The most urgent step is to initiate a Truth and Reconciliation process, by creating of a Commission. Furthermore, it is important to raise awareness in the population; because without reconciliation and a process to explore the latent attitudes towards the past traumas, trust will be never built and any effort to create a consensus will be vain and may erode.
A compelling dream for the future, in my opinion, as a fan of mountains, could be to promote the Himalayas as mountains of Peace, with a regional and trans-border status. Paradoxically, this mountainous chain, shared by different countries, represents a permeable frontier, because of the difficult terrain and environment. Finding links between mountainous communities and their values of resilience, perseverance and determination should be a rather rewarding anthropological exercise. Study their approach to conflict and understand their life-style and wisdom regarding conflict resolution. Furthermore, why not focus more on transforming Nepal as a whole into a Peace Zone, where events, conferences and studies can be conducted for all of Central Asia in particular and the world in general. Such a zone of dialogue and discussion could be ideal to work on current problems like the future of Tibet or that of Afghanistan…
At the end of the day, building awareness in civil society through education – with particular attention to young people, women and more marginalized ethnic groups, considering the role of media, international donors and the influence of neighbouring countries – would be the most concrete, active and effective thing to do. This implies:
1-involving young people in activities such as cultural events like concerts and the like would create forums where their voices would be heeded and their dreams – all too often unheard due to the structural and cultural construction of Nepal – could be acknowledged.
2-promoting empowerment programs with women, and also working with men, for a mutual shift from a patriarchal mentality to a more open and parity-sensitive one.
3-recognizing the role of all ethnic groups as a part of the wealth of Nepal by emphasizing mother tongue education, the encompassing protection of cultural heritage and the equality of the indigenous Peoples of Nepal as pillars of a healthy multicultural society.
I feel that these views are in tune with the Nepali perceptions, but there are two points that are quite difficult to accommodate from my point of view. There is a feeling among young Nepali people, that going abroad is the solution to all problems. I however feel that migration is incompatible with the vision elaborated above, if done on a huge scale. Another thing is the regulation of tourism. Clearly, tourism is quite a valuable asset for Nepal but it can also become dangerous for a society not prepared to manage all the “contradictions” that “western” culture brings along. I do not feel that these counter-intuitive thoughts are considered relevant by Nepali people.
Regarding what is hindering the improvement of the situation as a whole; I am totally in agreement with the majority of Nepali: Change the generation of current leaders and the prevailing political culture and most of the problems will be better amenable to constructive and sustainable solutions.
[i] a non-profit organization formed by the Janjatis
Federica Riccadonna is currently a Research Associate of the Galtung-Institut for Peace Theory and Peace Practice in Nepal. She is conducting a Solution Oriented Conflict Analysis based on the TRANSCEND method. Her main concern is to research how Nepalese view their future in the current climate of national peacebuilding and how that effects ongoing policy-making.
Naakow Grant-Hayford is a member of the TRANSCEND International Working Group in charge of the research program of the Galtung-Institut for Peace Theory and Peace Practice in Germany.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Aug 2012.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Nepal: From Contradictions to Compelling Constructive Visions, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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