Nepal: State of Despair

By Shashi P.B.B. Malla & Chandra Bahadur Parbate

The state of the nation was summed up ‘brilliantly’, unwittingly, but paradoxically by the state organ “The Rising Nepal” last Sunday: ” Terai life remains tense amidst gradually returning normalcy”! There is definitely a clear dichotomy between the government’s perceptions and expectations and the naked reality all over the country, and not only in the south.

The government is upbeat about the coming ‘dialogue’ and negotiations with the Terai groups, but there seem to be insurmountable hurdles. Thus, the “Madhesi People’s Rights Forum” (MPRF) – through its chairman, Upendra Yadav – has demanded the fulfilment of three pre-conditions before talks can start. First, this outfit wants the immediate resignation of home minister, Krishna Prasad Sitaula. He has bungled the whole affair and in a functioning democracy, he should have owned up to his moral and political responsibility and stepped down or have been dismissed otherwise. He is also answerable for the arrest of alleged ‘royalists’ without due process of law.

Second, this organization stipulates that the government take stern action against the perpetrators of the Lahan (on the East-West Highway) shooting incident. While this demand could be met, the question remains whether the government is willing and able to deliver. From a political perspective, Maoist activists were involved in this incident. In this context, it is not so much a question what the government might be willing to do, but more what it can get away with, without upsetting the Maoists.

The third pre-condition could also a stumbling block since the organization also demands an end to ‘police suppression’ in the Terai. Yadav said that the government encouraged “state-sponsored clashes”. Now, the question is to what extent the state and the government can tolerate violent protests and the breakdown of law and order. In any civilized society, the state can and should accept peaceful demonstrations and protests. But when armed groups threaten private and public property, and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are aggressively under attack, then it is clearly the duty of the government to step in. This is the normal practice in all democratic states. However, the government should not give in to the misconception that basic human rights can be marginalized in order to prevent terror and crime. A line between these two principles is not drawn easily.

With judicious give and take on both sides these three pre-conditions would not per se be unsurmountable. The extent to which extremist positions can be accommodated by a democratic system is limited. It should, therefore, be in the interests of all Nepalese that talks are not spoiled or dominated by the extremist elements of both sides. Besides the above mentioned demands, the various Madhesi groups have also placed maximum, far reaching stipulations that are quite serious. These are the crux of the problem.

It is highly doubtful that the question of a federal republic and proportional representation, for instance, can be resolved by the present interim government. The question whether a republic is centrally or federally structured is one of its key properties.

Hence, rather than having the state structure pre-empted by the interim bodies of an interim government, this question should be put forward in the constituent assembly elections. The present government has enjoyed the benefit of doubt with regard to the drafting and implementation of the “interim constitution” and “interim parliament”. The purpose of these bodies should have been to see the country through the transitional period and the constitutional assembly elections. As it invested to itself the competence to determine what its competencies should be, it tried to resolve a number of issues with finality ( such as the role of the monarchy, the citizenship bill or the mentioned state structure of a future Nepal ) that should have been left to a post-constituent assembly election government to resolve.

In this context, the southern Terai has become a violent background, and there is acute danger that militant extremists are gaining a foothold in the political vacuum. The possibility of Nepal becoming a ‘failed state’ has become less remote. Therefore, an objective assessment needs to be made whether the benefit of doubt extended towards the current government and the interim constitution is still sustainable. This could be achieved by a full bench of the Supreme Court – the judicative being the only arm of the government in running order. Should it rule that a system of political checks and balances is absent or that the system itself is undemocratic, then it should remove the competence – competence that the government has awarded to itself. As a result, the government should be cut back to the role of a transitional caretaker government tasked with the preparation of the constituent assembly elections.

This government should further be restructured to include all communities and political parties committed to resolve political and constitutional problems through peaceful means. ( Maoists can be included when the question of arms management has permanently been resolved). The Chief Justice should initiate consultations with all involved political parties to generate a prime minister ad interim, who in turn will form a national government, not only of party apparatchiks, but including members of civil society and technocrats. This would resolve the issue of a functioning head of state being absent.

This approach might be a viable alternative to the absolute rule of the seven party alliance and the Maoists. In the national interest, PM Koirala must be persuaded to step down. He must be made to realize that he is not indispensible, that his usefulness to the Nepalese people has come to an end, and his remaining in office is a national liability. In modern history, many politicians and statesmen – whose contributions to their own countries were far greater than that of Koirala – either went gracefully of their own accord, or were gently eased out of their seats of power. This was the case with Dr. Konrad Adenauer (gave Germany a stable constitutional government and a place in the Western alliance) and Dr. Ludwig Erhard (father of the German ‘economic miracle’), both chancellors of the West German Federal Republic.

The writers can be reached at: [email protected]

[ The first writer would also like to take this opportunity to thank all those who reacted to his contributions in the last few weeks, both supporters and critics. It is very heartening to learn that Nepalese in many parts of the world are taking such a keen interest in developments in our country. Very many thanks for your support ! ]

Shashi P.B.B. Malla writes incisive political opinion about the politics and politicians of Nepal. He sometimes writes with fellow contributor, Chandra Bahadur Parbate.

Educated in Darjeeling, India, with a certificate from Cambridge University, he went to College and university in Calcutta: I. Sc./St. Xavier’s, B.A. (Hons.)/ Presidency, M.A. (International Relations)/Jadavpur, India. He was Assistant Editor: The Rising Nepal, Kathmandu.

He is or was the Country Representative, DAV Summit Club, Munich (Germany’s leading adventure tour operators in mountaineering and trekking)

He is a Senior Lecturer, Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, Tribhuwan University, Kathmandu