23 May, 2016

The Constitution is Not a Magic Elixir

This is a followup to my previous article titled “Was the Human Rights Watch biased?” I’d like to thank Mr. Rob Penner for factchecking that article. And indeed there are factual errors: After watching Youtube videos and reading up on past articles, it appears the Andolan was in full force in August, most of the killings (47 killed according to commentators) occurred from August 10th onwards and was over by September, the Constitution was promulgated on September 20, and the blockade started September 23. So there were factual errors in my article, for which I take full responsibility. In my defense, I’d like to say I haven’t had access to a TV or even newspapers since April 25, 2015, and that I’ve been in and out of hospitals from multiple operations from a fractured foot and arm caused by the earthquake, and that my access to information is not as linear as it should be. I was wrong and I apologize for the confusion. 

However, the major points of my previous article still stands: the HRW report was biased in its language and perspective. It did not adequately reflect all the historical complexities of the conflict between the two sides. Most notably, it has erased the concerns of those who object to federalism with ethnic states, and it also fails to note that such a concern is valid, looking at it from the historical perspective in which Pahadis were asked to leave, through threats and intimidation, during the 2007 Madhesh Andolan. The Madhesh had already implemented a period of “ethnic cleansing” on the Pahahis. So it would make sense for those of Pahadi origins not to support an ethnic state dominated by Madeshi identity. Yet the HRW report pushes this idea favorably, selectively making it appear those who oppose this and propose a more integrated state are slaveholders, as evidenced in its paragraph saying Akhanda supporters are landlords holding bonded laborers.

In addition, it also uses biased language to describe the reactions of the two sides, potentially laying the ground for more conflict. Its graphic descriptions of what the police said to the protesters doesn’t give context that the police in Nepal have been documented to use verbal violence in the past, and continue to do so on all people, not just the Madhesis. After watching videos, I am not sure the protesters were not themselves using verbal violence on the police as well—the body language of the protesters is threatening, and there’s enough invective going around against the hill people (especially on social media, which Ms. Thapa fails to note) that the verbal violence probably went both ways. Policemen are often under resourced and at the forefront of violence: and there’s been enough mass attacks against the police in Nepal from 1996-2006, and now in 2015, for policemen to know their lives could be in danger at any instance. Youtube videos show chaotic crowds throwing stones at the police, who appear at times to be overwhelmed by the crowds of protesters. In other documentation, the police killings appear to be extrajudicial, with fleeing people shot in the back and one man shot while he was on the ground.  One is the need to ensure police don’t use violent force on demonstrators. But the other side of that is peaceful protest—protesters too should not attack policemen. Hundreds of young men throwing stones, and although I didn’t see this on video, there are some Tweets to suggest they were carrying burning sticks--is a time honored tradition of protest in Nepal, but perhaps in the era of peaceful protest the Nepal Government (and organizations like HRW) need to lay down terms for what “peaceful” actually means.

My main thesis still stands—I believe a report of this nature, brought out by an important international organization, can and most probably created more conflict by giving the protesters the moral legitimacy to continue on a violent course of action that severely impacted the humanitarian situation of the entire country for around six or seven months. An article about the earthquake in The Atlantic quotes one commentator who says 16 people of his village died of the cold in the winter of 2015, and it also notes that because of the blockade, building materials were in short supply. The link is pretty clear, and if this is the death toll of one village, added up the death toll due to the blockade must be in the hundreds across all the earthquake hit hill districts. I deliberately say seven months because even after India lifted the blockade, goods, including petrol and cooking gas, could not be found in Kathmandu, and no doubt the shortages persisted in the hills as well. In addition, it has also help close the door for any further discussion on ethnic-based states, making it appear that that’s the only officially sanctioned option.

The Oli Government has been clear on its stance on ethnic states. In an interview with the BBC, Oli himself says Nepal has 123 ethnicities, and its not possible to make a state for each one. The Madheshi activists, who are currently in Kathmandu, refuse whatever the Oli Government is offering, and the government keeps inviting them for talks, which do not occur, since both sides seem to refuse the other’s offer. The stalemate has been ongoing for a while, and doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Since federalism is a demand so closely tied to the new Constitution, this is not something both sides seem willing to give up on. Neither, however, do they seem to be able to come up with a mutually satisfactory solution. Nepali politics is adept at stonewalling, and this is something that could potentially continue for the next half century, in the manner of Burma, which is dealing with the exact same promise made of federalism to ethnic minorities, but which never came to fruition. It did, however, lay fertile ground for conflict for the next half century. The ethnic state federalism was dreamt up and promised by Maoists, who are currently not in power—Mr. Oli is from the UML party, and he seems happy enough to rise on the unexpected good fortune brought by both the earthquake and the blockade, which has allowed him to negotiate with China and open that border into Nepal for the first time. Mr. Oli also seems to have cooled towards India, and is engaging in major diplomacy with China, dreaming of big energy, infrastructure and trade exchanges with it. With China’s potential investment in the wings, India has been pushed out of the picture, which means the Madhesh and its politics have also slid into the background, for now.

With conflict exacerbating organizations like International Crisis Group insisting donors should not support local elections in Nepal, there’s now been a void in local administration and politics for almost 14 years. Prashant Jha, famous writer, is another advocate of nixing local elections, vocally insisting it should not happen. It seems to be, however, that a solution—and definitely more engaged community sense of ownership over government-- may arise if there is democractic elections and representation at the grassroots level, which at present doesn’t exist.

It is clear the opening up of democratic norms and values, but most notably migration to Gulf states, has really changed the socio-economic conditions of poor people in the Terai. Caste, gender and ethnic relations are all changing. There is no doubt there will be more vocal political engagement from young people at all levels. The Madhesh continues to be mired in old forms of social exploitations, however, including severe violations against women. There’s a resistance by Madhesi activists to look at how their own internal systems of discrimination and oppression might be holding them down, alongside Pahadi state domination. I do not necessarily think—I’m being hypothetical here—removing all the Pahadis from regional government and replacing them with Madhesis would solve all of the Terai’s issues (not advisable in a multi-ethnic community anyways). In fact, it might even make it worse for those of lower castes and for women, as the example of adjoining Bihar, whose ethnic composition the Madhesi community in Nepal mirrors closely, and where poverty and crime is at an all time high, shows.

I remember going to a lecture organized by Saubhagya Shah, a wonderful scholar and teacher who passed away a few years ago. Saubhagya had invited me to teach at the program on conflict, peace and development which he had started at Tribhuwan University. The speaker in question had come from a Northern European country—he was a famous peace advocate (if someone can remind me of his name again, I’d be most delighted). What I remember most clearly about that lecture is how the soft-spoken white haired gentleman warned the people in the audience not to put all their hopes and faith on the Constitution itself, as if it’s a magic elixir that cures all problems. The Constitution is just one single document, which democracy is bigger, a wide set of practices, institutions and behaviors that cannot be delivered through a single document. I remember this lecture very clearly, not only because it has proved prophetic over the years, but also because I think it remains relevant to this day. 

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