Interview with Johan Galtung on Nepal
ASIA--PACIFIC, 4 Mar 2013
Nepal is turning into a technocracy.
Feb 17, 2013 – Prof Johan Galtung, affectionately called the father of peace and conflict studies for his contribution in establishing the discipline, has worked as peace mediator all over the world. Born in 1930, Galtung experienced the German occupation of his homeland, Norway, during World War II. A mathematician and sociologist, Prof Galtung is renowned for his distinction between negative and positive peace, structural violence and theories of conflict resolution. During his recent visit to Kathmandu, the Post’s Gyanu Adhikari spoke with Galtung about his analysis of peace and democracy in Nepal.
What brings you to Nepal?
I was here in 1968 and 1986. I was also here mediating in 2003, during the war, and again in 2006. This is my third visit in terms of having dialogue with people. During my talks, we identified 11 conflicts in Nepal, one of them being against women. It seems to me that Nepal hasn’t been able to make use of the revolts of the past. For example, after the Chinese Cultural Revolution, that country opened up. Everybody denounced the Cultural Revolution. But there were women and young people all over the party. China was able to make use of the revolt they had, Nepal wasn’t. You got stuck. So the 11 conflicts are still there, except two—there is no longer any war and the king abdicated. The name of the country is Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, but it is neither federal nor democratic.
Why do you say that Nepal is not democratic?
In a democracy, the people have the last word. But you don’t have local elections. You don’t have a referendum. We all know that when there is a real critical problem, you have to ask the people. What do they think? Nothing of that sort is in the Interim Constitution, nor is it proposed for the new constitution. Another aspect is that the system you have doesn’t even serve the people. Democracy is all by and for people, according to Abraham Lincoln. It is by the people here in the sense that there is a popular election. But it doesn’t serve the people. The system you have is not a democracy but a party-o-cracy, where you have a number of parties making deals among themselves. There are only political games. It has now turned into a technocracy with the appointment of the chief technocrat of the country, the chief justice, as the head of the government.
What went wrong? We had a country-wide popular movement in 2006 for democracy that gave Nepalis a lot of hope.
You should have acted immediately in 2006. You should have said: this was a violent conflict, we’ve come to the end of the violence, therefore now let’s look at the conflict. And the conflict has to do with a number of things, especially the miserable communities in Nepal—the Dalits, the non-Nepali-speaking people, and the all the outsiders in the removed places. You find this in the Maoist’s 40-point demand. That was not a bad guide. It had legitimate goals but used illegitimate means. In 2006, after the ceasefire, they should’ve put the 40 points on the table, and put other points, from others—and you should’ve said, I’ll accept two of your demands and you accept one of mine. This is actually how politics works. Instead, you started with formalities. And the parties started their games.
Would it be true to say we became a democracy in form but not in substance?
Precisely. Down in the districts, you have the Chief District Officer ruling as a Rana, just as before. He has enormous powers—I say he because it’s usually a he—and there is no local elected body. This comes from the perspective of democratic theory. But from the peace theory point of view, you have to ask: what is the root cause of violence? I would say it is inequality.
Where do you see the biggest inequalities?
Nepal is a centralised country with power centred in Kathmandu. At the same time, the majority of population is caste-oriented. I would actually measure inequality in terms of life expectancy. It’s also about how healthy the communities are—so it’s also about morbidity, in addition to mortality. These criteria define the most miserable communities.
What features of Nepali democracy do you think need to be refined?
There is an economic aspect and a political aspect. The parties, even if elected, aren’t concerned about the people. And I don’t think we should underestimate the power of the banks. So that gives you, party-o-cracy, technocracy (which is coming now with the chief justice), bank-o-cracy, and behind that I sense India-o-cracy.
Today is a big day for the Post, and Kantipur Publications at large. We celebrate our 20th anniversary. How do you see the links between a democracy and the press?
The newspapers are technically good and the journalists are superb. But I’d like to see many more articles from the bottom-up perspective. You are essentially reporting the games at the top. Today it’s this party and tomorrow it’s that alliance. I think you are over-reporting it and you’re under-reporting the people’s situation.
Where is this stagnation going to lead us?
As a specialist in violence and peace, I can tell you one thing. If you want to have violence, increase the inequality. This doesn’t mean that you always get violence from the bottom. You can also get it from the top, where they’re afraid of the violence from the bottom. In other words, you can get a military coup to prevent violence. And they would say it’s for law and order. So it doesn’t look very good. That’s why I’ve been saying repeatedly—identify the most miserable community and concentrate the resources there to lift it up. When you’ve done that, take the second most miserable community and lift it up.
On a different topic, we keep hearing in Nepal that we don’t have a national narrative to unite us. Is that what is missing?
If I were a Nepali politician, historian or intellectual, I would say this is correct. But there is one fantastic thing: you have managed to preserve your independence. It is not that big powers don’t interfere and ‘manage’ things. But your formal independence as a sovereign state has been preserved. I’d put that high in the national narrative. In spite of the Ango-Nepali and Sino-Nepali war and the humiliating treaties, independence has been preserved. This fact is not known widely, when people talk about the countries that escaped colonialism, they only talk about Thailand and Japan. They forget Nepal. As a social scientist, I’d say that there must be something solid somewhere that keeps the country together. That has to be identified.
The concern over national unity is especially pronounced when it comes to federalism. There seem to be two narratives: one says we need to get out of Kathmandu-centrism and decentralise power, another says we need to stay centralised to stay strong.
There’s a third position. There is fear about parts of Nepal that have been treated badly. The currently powerful groups are afraid that they will be treated badly in the new setup. The way to avoid that is to treat them well. Now, if some of Nepal’s many languages were reflected in the parliament, official documents, street names and textbooks it would make the left out groups feel at home.
Fundamentally, why is there so much resistance to accepting other groups’ languages and identities?
I’ve been doing mediation in 150 countries. What I hear in all places is this: we’re afraid that if they come up, they’ll treat us the way we treated them. That fear is then protected by prejudice—they’re inferior, they don’t have the culture etc.
Have you noticed anything about the kinds of cultures Nepalis look up to?
There was a tradition among the kings of Nepal to admire the English and the English-speaking world. The Gurkhas became famous and were admired for serving British colonial interests. You have this kind of attitude of admiration for cultures, but it doesn’t include, for example, the Limbu-speaking people, or the Madhesis. It’s important to change these attitudes.
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