Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude

About the author
Dharma Adhikari teaches journalism and international media systems at Georgia Southern University in the United States.
The breakdown of the Maoist ceasefire has made for a grim start to 2006 in Nepal. But this is only a symptom of a flawed political culture, says Dharma Adhikari, who appeals for a middle way.

As 2006 dawns, Nepal is at a crossroads. A unilateral ceasefire, declared by the Maoist rebels last year, has broken down and the country is torn between unattractive political alternatives.

The split visions of the three protagonists – the king, the political parties and the Maoist rebels – continue to fuel a negative participatory democracy that tends to culminate in high-voltage mass protests and street demonstrations, rather than roundtables or elections.

It is not a process of dialogue. The actors talk to themselves, not to each other. And when they do talk to each other, they do so in absolute terms.

In what appeared to be a major feat of dialogue, the rebels and seven main political parties reached an understanding in November 2005 to “implement the concept of absolute democracy” and bring the autocratic (“absolute”) monarchy to an end.

The Maoists agreed to embrace the rule of law and a multiparty democracy, and to abandon their nine-year armed rebellion against the monarchy, which has resulted in the deaths of up to 12,000 people. The political parties, which had been sidelined by King Gyanendra since his seizure of power in February 2005, promised to work with the rebels, provided that the latter adhere to a peaceful pro-democratic movement.

Their common goal is to restore parliament, form an all-party government with complete authority and hold elections to a constituent assembly which will delineate a new state structure.

Also on Nepal’s political crisis in openDemocracy:

Anuj Mishra, “Nepal’s war without end” (April 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, “Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community’” (May 2005)

Chandra D Bhatta, “Nepal’s civil war: from security to politics” (May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, “Nepal’s political rainy season” (July 2005)

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The king, who reverted to the anachronistic role of an absolute monarch under the pretext of tackling both the steadily bolder Maoist “terrorism” and political corruption, has not officially responded to the new alliance. Nor did he reciprocate the Maoist ceasefire when he had the chance. Instead, the king remains glued to his roadmap: to hold municipal elections in early February 2006, general elections in mid-April 2007, and finally, to restore people’s sovereignty by February 2008.

As things stand, the elections are not likely to resolve the political crises. The seven political parties, which represented more than 90% of the seats in the dissolved parliament, see the elections as a ploy by the king to legitimise his autocratic rule. They have already announced a boycott of the forthcoming elections.

The new understanding between the parties and the Maoists indicates that the ever-widening triangular conflict between the monarchy, the political parties, and the rebels, representing, in that order, two extremes and a moderate middle, has realigned itself into a classic binary duel. It also means that the Himalayan problem has reached a critical juncture.

The consolidation of opposition forces pits a vision of a benign future against the memory of a supposedly tyrannical past. The feudal, monarchical status quo, reminiscent of, say, the ancien régime of Bourbon France up to the late 18th century, is brought into direct collision with what the parties promise will be “a forward-looking” democratic future, where, ideally, subjects would become citizens, the rule of law would replace royal decrees, liberty would reign over subservience, and rational policies, not archaic rituals, would guide governance.

One can easily doubt the parties’ avant-garde consensus, but the agreement among the opposition forces did seem like a step forward. Understandably, given the parties’ history of mutual distrust and bickering, public reactions were suspicious. Some saw it as yet another political manoeuvre by power-hungry politicians, while others hailed it as a significant compromise.

Like many Nepalis around the world, I hoped it was a sincere step toward resolving a prolonged crisis. Whatever the range of ideological propensities in Nepal, the mean is what matters most at this turning-point in our national democratic pursuit. Aristotle called it the golden mean; the Buddha, the middle-path. Extremism never appealed to men or women of reason in history. Plato would rather have a philosopher-king than “mobocracy”. Nonetheless, democracy in our times is the means to a common ground.

Absolutism’s flaw

Democracy connotes different things to different people. Its semantic universe has expanded so much that, according to democracy scholars David Collier & Steven Levitsky, there were as many as 550 subtypes of democracy at the turn of the millennium.

This conceptual extension clearly provokes more questions than answers. But there is little doubt what absolutism means. No sharing of power, political history teaches us, is absolutism. No alternative truths, philosophy admonishes us, is absolutism. Absolutism manifests when one clings to one’s preferred position and denies outright the existence of other realities. Absolutism, in all its forms – monarchical, communist, socialist or democratic, and even familial or patriarchic – is essentially undemocratic.

History is replete with examples. Wilhelm II, the adventurist emperor of the one-time mighty Prussia, displayed such tendencies in excess militarism, which brought about his end in 1918. Russia’s Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik revolutionaries, dismissed a freely elected constituent assembly and seized full state powers. Germany’s people-centric Social Democratic Party eventually gave way to a worse form of despotic, representative government under Hitler. Democratic absolutism was displayed fully by the Jacobins of the French revolution – who ushered in a rein of slaughter and terror in the name of democracy and republicanism. More recently, democratic absolutism is evident in the tyranny of the majority in the Russian or the American oligarchies, or in Indian demagogy.

Absolutism is not unfamiliar in Nepal either. It was apparent until 1951 in the Rana’s hereditary autocracy; in the guided democracy of the monarchical Panchayat regime from 1961-90; more recently, in the hegemonic party autocracy of Girija Prasad Koirala and Madhav Nepal; in the emergence of Maoist totalitarianism in the countryside; not to mention in King Gyandendra’s emerging model of “assertive monarchy.”

This political culture is merely an extension of the social and economic culture of the country. The cultural air the majority of Nepalis breathe is laden with highly structured, unequal and illusive power-relations based on hierarchies of caste, ethnicity, wealth and power. You are supposed to follow the traditions, without civic knowledge of what those traditions entail. The patriarchic social structure, the cultural foundation of the nation’s polity, is absolutist and largely dismissive of the inalienable individual rights that dominate western discourse on democracy and liberty.

Since the royal coup in February 2005, commentators in tune with western concepts have called for a radical version of democracy – often referred to as “complete” or “absolute,” in which the multiparty system will be restored and the monarchy will be reduced to a strictly ceremonial role or abolished altogether. There is a noticeable effort in the public realm, particularly in the news media, to rephrase democracy as a people-centred concept (lokatantra) instead of the traditional binary relationship between king and subjects (prajatrantra). Calls for republicanism have become louder. These developments are radical indeed in Nepal, although they may not seem so to outsiders.

But human nature and history demonstrate that absolute democracy, as understood today, is not the answer to the Nepali problem. The country saw many excesses of unlimited majority rule during the past decade. In fact, by neglecting minorities and the underprivileged, it also helped breed the Maoist insurgency. The ideal version of democracy is different from the practical version. A real absolute democracy cannot be realised until and unless the rule of law prevails and citizens’ participation in politics is universal. More importantly, in a complete democracy every adult could vote as well as contest elections. Democracy has not evolved to the extent of universal contestation. Given Nepal’s leadership crises, absolute electoral democracy is tempting, but at this moment in human history that is radical even for the whole world.

Democracy’s answer

Constitutionally limited democracy should be the answer to Nepal’s problem. Without people’s ultimate sovereignty there cannot be a meaningful democracy. Procedures, such as majority rule with minority rights, constitutional limitations on the powers of the government, checks and balances, rule of law, regular elections, civil liberties, openness, justice and equalities are important in limiting excesses of power. More important in Nepal’s case is the need for civic education and more meaningful public participation in the democratic process. We need to develop a culture of roundtables, non-violent rallies and demonstrations. We need to cultivate a culture of constructive criticism, not a mindless deprecation of opponents.

The November 2005 accord between the feuding parties is a movement toward such a polity. However, even without the Maoists’ breaking of their ceasefire this coalition of convenience was always likely to crumble at any moment given the parties’ history of discord and persisting ambiguities about the future of the monarchy and the motives of the Maoists.

Indeed, the twelve-point understanding remained vague about the future of the monarchy, although it decried the institution as “absolute” or “autocratic”. Constitutional monarchy, one of the uncompromising tenets of the Nepali Congress (NC) for almost sixty years, is conspicuously absent in recent political discourse. In fact, in September 2005, the NC dropped its traditional support for constitutional monarchy.

Do the protagonists of a popular rule disavow monarchies of all types or only the one that is absolute and despotic? Is theirs a truly revolutionary motion to do away with a 250-year-old institution or merely a tactic to subdue a regressive king? The parties may explain that they may accept a ceremonial monarchy, but the Maoists insist on nothing less than a republic.

The king, who commands a 78,000-strong, loyal army, would not budge, either. He has shown no interest in talks with his adversaries, which gives credence to the fear that he may not be interested in a peaceful settlement. Louise Arbour, the United Nations commissioner for human rights, warned in December 2005 of the “very real possibility that full-scale armed conflict could resume.”

Freedom’s retreat

Almost a year has passed since King Gyanendra seized absolute power, but to the chagrin of the monarch, even those who initially gave him the benefit of the doubt have begun to question his motives.

The king’s clampdown on non-governmental organisations, and his repression of democratic media – whose flowering was one of the finest achievements of the democratic era – has become even more insidious. As a journalist, I find that particularly troubling.

In November the king introduced a draconian ordinance that banned press criticism of the royal house and the army. He continues to arrest dissidents and journalists as well as to seize equipment from defiant radio stations. Several hundred journalists have lost their jobs since he banned news on FM stations. Media-monitoring groups report that hundreds of journalists were arrested by security forces and hundreds of others forced into hiding. The king’s iron fist extends across the internet, too; more than a dozen informative websites, including my own Newslook, remain banned.

Journalists’ lives are at grave risk. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists reported that seven journalists were murdered by security forces and Maoists during the first state of emergency in 2001-02. Human-rights groups confirm that both sides were involved in widespread human-rights violations, extrajudicial killings, kidnappings and disappearances. One can only speculate how many more civilians and journalists have been attacked or killed since the royal coup last year.

The omens are not good for Nepal’s 27 million people. It seems the country is headed toward more altercation, with both sides taking hardline approaches. The royal government has repeatedly rebuffed proposals for talks with the parties or the Maoists, arguing they are not sincere in their proposals. In late November 2005, it was reported that China had delivered eighteen truckloads of arms to the royal army. Beijing’s rulers regard the Maoists with anathema, and refer to them merely as “anti-government guerrillas.”

The Chinese gesture came two weeks after the United States president had signed a bill that makes it almost impossible for the royal regime to receive lethal military aid. The stringent conditions outlined in the bill – proposed by the Democratic senator, Patrick Leahy, include restoring civil liberties, human rights, and media freedoms. The United Kingdom, India and some Scandinavian countries had already suspended their military support.

Despite the Maoist violence and a democratic reversal, the United States has not been proactive in the Nepal crisis. Rather than deal directly with Nepali leaders, it has deputed India to manage Nepal’s political crisis. But America is increasingly waking up to a problem that almost echoes the Cambodia of the mid-1970s. Also in November 2005, James F Moriarty, American ambassador in Kathmandu, expressed his dissatisfaction with the emerging alliance between the Maoists and the political parties, and the following month George W Bush directly urged the king to “start a democratic process.” America’s national interests may often undercut its humanitarian interests; but many Nepalis hope that the American government will continue to push for a peaceful dialogue for the sake of regional peace and security.

Nepal’s is not a conflict caused by a foreign oppressor; it is a domestic dispute over the sharing of power and benefits. The ultimate consensus must be homegrown. In any case, if history is any indication, a decisive international mediation or intervention in a national conflict is slow to come. It took 200,000 lives in Bosnia and 300,000 lives in Somalia for the world to intervene in the respective humanitarian crises.

There is no military solution to a problem entrenched in a culture of inequality and oppression, nor is a resolution to be had in a Maoist takeover. The choice is not between absolutes, but between the mean of the absolutes: a compromise.