icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Nepal’s Political Rites of Passage
Nepal’s Political Rites of Passage
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 194 / Asia

Nepal’s Political Rites of Passage

Nepal is experiencing neither revolution, nor anarchy, nor chaos. It is in the midst of a complex rite of passage.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Nepal’s transition from war to peace appears chaotic. Many commentators warn of coming anarchy; the establishment fears a collapse of the social order and the fragmentation of the nation. But such fears are misguided. Nepal is not in chaos; its transitions may be messy and confusing but they are not anarchic. There is an order within the political change, albeit one that can be mysterious and unappealing to outsiders; the resilience of Nepal’s political processes acts against fundamental transformations.

This report attempts to understand the country’s political processes and cultures and reassess the state of the peace process by examining three major questions.

Has Nepal put its civil war with the Maoists behind it? The shift from war to peace was rapid and remains incomplete. But the peace process is much stronger than it often seems. There have been significant structural transformations of the Maoist movement since the 2006 ceasefire. For example, the shift to “quantity rather than quality” for electoral politics broadened the movement but diluted its revolutionary core. Still, the Maoists remain highly organised and disciplined – and the most effective political force in Nepal.

The political atmosphere is more polarised than ever. Factions within the major parties as well as fringe groups openly call for a revision of the peace process. Neither side is likely to go back to war easily but there are also limits to how hard they can be pushed. The Maoists are by now better prepared for open politics than for war. But they will not accept sidelining indefinitely. The army has some elite support for renewed conflict. But it is unlikely to act without Delhi’s nod, which is itself improbable unless there is unexpected Maoist domination of the state.

Do the multiple, complex new forms of political violence and contestation add up to serious new conflict risks? There has been a mushrooming of political parties and groups pressing ethnic and regional agendas. There has also been a perceived increase in organised crime and political violence. Many see this as a direct consequence of the Maoist insurgency and fear the prospect of anarchy or national disintegration.

The picture, however, is not so simple. None of the new groups challenges the state in the way the Maoists did. They offer no existential threat to the political system but largely work within it; their cadres have often joined under low risk conditions for immediate benefits and lack the dedication of hard-core Maoists. Opportunism is the name of the game, and groups are making the most of the weak law and order situation during the transition.

The ways violence is used are ordered and bounded by political and economic structures. The involvement of mainstream parties, police and administration officials in profiting from violence and offering protection is becoming institutionalised. Political culture as a whole has not been transformed but has become more tolerant of overt use of force; the patterns that are being consolidated will be hard to uproot.

The only real risk of serious unrest stems from the gathering backlash against federalism and programs for political inclusion, such as quotas and reservations. Powerful elites are not keen on dismantling the unitary state and are even less happy to relinquish their privileged access to jobs, money and political power. The transition to federalism will present the most serious challenge, and conflict risk, of the near future.

What is the new role and nature of the state, as embodied by the security forces, political institutions and the civil service? How the state behaves is of critical importance in reducing conflict risks. In the most immediate terms, the state’s response to instability can be seen in policing and public security efforts. These have been undermined by a lack of strategic clarity, the politicisation of policing and internal rivalries within the security sector. In any case, security challenges cannot be dealt with solely by this sector. The roots of instability lie in entrenched political cultures that good policing alone cannot address – and that the army is particularly incapable of tackling. Defusing conflict risks in the long term will require constructive reform.

Development experts assume that the state is there to provide services and that if it fails to do so it will face a crisis of legitimacy. Nepal features high on the lists of fragile or failing states. But the state is more flexible than fragile. It endures – and has survived the conflict surprisingly unscathed, and unreformed. This is partly because its own raison d’être is not serving citizens so much as servicing the needs of patronage networks and keeping budgets flowing and corruption going. The state is dysfunctional by demand. It is slow to reform because elite incentives are invested in the status quo and public pressure is rarely acute.

Nepal’s revolution is proceeding in accordance with longstanding political rites. Party behaviour – even revolutionary behaviour – is highly constrained by a set of sophisticated unwritten rules. The Maoists are not the outsiders they sometimes appear: they share a surprising amount of political values with the other parties. But their reincorporation into the political world is still incomplete, as is their revolution.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 29 September 2010

Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.