Shape and sensibility

From The Kathmandu Post (10 April, 2015)

Our peopling and polity are such that we can leapfrog, even if two-and-half centuries late

Everything will not get resolved with the writing of a new constitution but at least, the societal suspension of the past two decades will be over and we the people can concentrate on uplifting ourselves from a ‘least developed’ to ‘developing’ country. It would have happened by now, had a 10-year conflict and an equally long ‘transition’ not dragged us down and kept us there. Make no mistake, the country would have been further ahead on not only economic but also political, social, environmental, and all kinds of quality-of-life indicators.

For now, the entire country is waiting for the other shoe to drop. One way or another, everyone’s waking moments are given over to consternation about the syndicate that runs all matters from politics to public transport, the inability to hold local government elections which hits high and low, the attempts at dividing communities, and (most recently) two former prime ministers calling a three-day strike and chickening out on the first day.

There are so many things everyone would rather be doing—creative pursuits from the individuals to the governmental and communitarian. The constant turbulence has sadly dampened the creative spirit—in literature, art, theatre, and cinema—and the public discourse has become aggressive and pre-judgemental. If only we could have this constitution written and revert to the mundane challenges, such as like other societies.

Size and sovereignty

If we can only get to that point of relative political stability, Nepal can succeed beyond belief because it is blessed with size, shape, sensibility, and sovereignty in a way that few others are in the Subcontinental neighbourhood. We can make the nation-state format work, even as our neighbours struggle under its weight.

Under ‘size’, one includes shape and geographical texture—Nepal is large enough in geographical spread and population to have economy of scale, and the bio- and terrain-diversity provides a rich endowment of natural resources. By ‘sensibility’, I mean mainly that there is openness here for being a country of minorities, with the largest community no more than 16 percent of the population. While not for a moment discounting the historical marginalisation of whole communities by Kathmandu, this unique heterogeneity is one reason that wholesale communal distancing will be difficult to trigger here, though it can certainly happen.

Also under sensibility, the non-colonisation of Nepal ensured that there is no English-to-vernacular societal divide. While the indigenous languages have sadly been weakened, the fact that the mainstream political discourse is conducted exclusively in a vernacular tongue definitely energises the society politically. That Nepal was born two-and-half centuries ago, around the time of the Westphalian nation-state, also must contribute to the evident resilience of society, the way it has been able to overcome the internal and external pummelling.

‘Sovereignty’ is not used here in its nationalistic connotation but simply to refer to the autonomy-of-action that allows a country the leeway to make its own mistakes and learn from them. From Sindh to Assam to Tamil Nadu, the states and provinces of India and Pakistan have populations approximate to that of Nepal and much longer exposure to the outside world, but it is its sovereign status that allows Nepal a quicker means to achieve transformation.


Given that Nepal has the wherewithal to succeed in the world, what is it that has been missing? The gap has been in the absence of democracy and political stability. When these come together, even in limited measure, as happened right after 1990, the country takes off. Even without these, society has still shown its never-say-die spirit, which makes one wonder at where we would be had 1996 not happened.

In Nepal, if you have a good idea, have the logic to back it, added the staying power to take on challenges as they say, ‘hundur’ as they come, plus that pinch of daring as required, one can see through innovations like in few other places of the Subcontinent. One may study the success of Dr Govinda KC’s fast in challenging an unaccountable government bent on monetising public health and commercialising medical education.

Dr KC is not a one-time wonder. He had fought the hydra-headed corruption in medical education and public health for years and over four earlier hunger strikes. Having been assured and ignored repeatedly, he came forward one more time with a thought-through 10-point demand. After ignoring the good doctor for more than a week, as public support grew, the Sushil Koirala-government was forced to relinquish to his demands. If a diligent civil society can ensure follow-through, Nepal may well be on its way to having an exemplary public health system in South Asia.

There are many other examples to prove the point—that you can succeed with an idea here if you start with unassailable reasoning, can sustain yourself through the inevitable pitfalls, and have the courage to expend as and when required. This is how FM radio became the success it is in Nepal, while our neighbours are still foundering on whether to trust the public with frequency modulation. While India has been struggling for decades to make what they call ‘panchayati raj’ work, the local government experiment in Nepal was off and running within its first five-year term (then the insurgency killed it, and it has yet to be revived).

Leapfrog we can

We tend not to savour our own achievements, a result of lack of comparative knowledge, which is one reason the intelligentsia wallows in despondency. Fatalistic pronouncements, such as the gloomy suggestion, ‘Yo ta sati le sarapeko desh’, are first and foremost expressions of inactive minds that fail to understand that Nepal has the possibilities of leap-frogging, despite all that appears on the surface.

Few people know that Nepal is the standard-bearer in South Asia when it comes to human rights jurisprudence and the Supreme Court has once again done us proud. The Maoist and stateside victims of the conflict had remained marginalised and alone in their quest for accountability for the torture, rape, killing, and disappearances of the conflict years. Blackmailed by the Maoists, with their ever-present threat to walk out of constitution-writing, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML had succumbed without a fight. They looked the other way as the fasting Nanda Prasad Adhikari died, and they went on to introduce a Truth and Reconciliation Commission law that mocked the victims through its provisions. The well-known civil society stalwarts also abandoned the victims, as did the diplomatic missions, which earlier used to care for human rights.

It was against this hostile backdrop that a Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Kalyan Shrestha handed down a judgement that stands tall, and on behalf of the victims of conflict seeking justice on atrocities. The judgement blocked the transfer of conflict-era cases from the courts to the TRC and insisted that grave instances of human rights abuse (to get past the euphemism—rape, abduction, murder, torture, disappearance) cannot be amnestied or pardoned.

In one stroke, the Supreme Court decision has blocked years of conspiracies and connivance by the political parties. The bench even set a precedent in international humanitarian law—that the courts cannot be subordinated to transitional justice mechanisms. This decision also represents a significant point spurt in Nepal’s return to a state of rule of law, which in the end will benefit all sectors, from those contemplating foreign direct investment to social and communitarian relationships.

Shrestha and KC

Dr Govinda KC has shown how a well-prepared citizen can take on the normally unfeeling powers-that-be, to successfully demand accountability and due process in state institutions. Justice Kalyan Shrestha has proven that state institutions, when they remain committed to people and principle, can have an electrifying effect on society and motivate the citizenry to ever-higher achievements. The message of Dr KC and Shrestha is that we must protect, challenge, and refine institutions and institutional processes, so that the existing courts, the executive, and the legislature will deliver on their promise to the people.

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