Constitution is a Tool, not an End Result

-   |  Mallika Shakya, Assistant Professor at South Asian University

As a sociologist/anthropologist who is closely following the political developments in Nepal, what is your take on new constitution of Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal?

Nepal has spent almost a decade to write this new constitution and this is our sixth constitution. Earlier constitutions could not address the economic, political, social and cultural aspirations of its people which is why demands for a Constituent Assembly emerged. In that sense, this new constitution is not only about producing a documentbut about sharing of power. It is actually about our national imagination, of what Nepal is and should be, for the people of various classes and castes, ethnicities and regionalities, and its men and women. In that sense, the process itself has its merit.

We should also acknowledge that promulgation of the constitution serves a marker in the history of Nepal. One phase of national transition is over and we have stepped into a new transition. Everyone should take note of this paradigm shift.

It is true that this constitution is not ideal. No constitution is. It is especially unfortunate that the Madheshis and Tharus were left out and a large group of women felt their existential demands on citizenship were left unaddressed. For them, the question now is, how to go about exerting pressure on the state to ensure their voices are heard. Some have taken drastic measures as we see in the eruption of violence in the far west and the ongoing border blockade. Others, especially the Janajatis and women, have reconciled for now. The state should recognize that grievances of even the silent protesters have only been parked, not abandoned. There should be goodwill to address their concerns as the country becomes more stable.

It is also important to acknowledge that constitution is just a tool, not an end result. Once the document is in place, the state should translate those into concrete laws and administrative systems. Further on, all these should materialize into material progress and well-being of the people. Prosperity and democracy should be the end result of all political movements and transitions

You are one of the few academicians who chose to make a statement the blockade on Nepal by India. Given your sympathies for the Madhesi and ethnic causes, how can you justify your position since Indian government is explicitly arguing for more rights for these communities in the new constitution through amendment in the constitution?

I think there are several other intellectuals who have spoken on the blockade. For example, we just launched a new forum of diaspora Nepali academics, called Global Policy Forum for Nepal (GPFN), where a keynote paper was presented on this topic and which encouraged the government of Nepal to seek legal solutions for this crisis in international courts. In general, there is a critical mass of intellectuals and activists who disagree with border blockade being used a tool for local protests. In fact, two strong public statements have been issued from the Indian side – one from the Indian film-makers and the other from the India-based intellectuals – condemning Indian government’s support for blockading the border. So, I am certainly not the only one speaking on border. It is true that being based in Delhi, I am more aware of the differing viewpoints presented on this than can be read in Kathmandu or Birgunj.

Regarding the second part of your question, I agree with you that there is paradox here and not everyone is on the same page. My own position is as follows: First, Madheshi people’s disagreement is with the state and not the general Nepali population. It is true that awareness has to be raised on the Madheshi causes and support of the broader mass including of the non-Madheshi population has to be achieved. Towards that end, a ‘pinch’ on Kathmandu might be justified to a certain extent. I am supportive of the #KathmanduWithMadhesh rallies and I am also optimistic about the alliances between hill- and Tarai-based powers within and between political parties as well as the civil society fora. But I think it is counter-productive to try to bring the so-called Pahadi people to their knees for the past misgivings might have taken against the Madheshis. This kind of polarization is counterproductive and especially worrying when the MadheshiMorcha shows how blatantly insensitive they are towards humanitarian implications of the border blockade, ranging from shortage of essential medicines in hospitals, closure of or disruptions in schools and colleges, and this acute shortage of cooking gas and petrol.

I am also skeptical of the merits of seeking external support for internal causes, and from a regime that has been criticized by its own people for intolerance for its own minorities. Let me substantiate on both those. It might be true that India supported Nepal’s democratic movement through the 1989 blockade. I was young then but I am aware of the provocative statement Chandra Sekhar made from Ganesh ManJi’s residence in Chaksibari which some political parties supported and others opposed. It is one thing to support a political leader’s statement and it is another thing to call on a foreign state to act on your behalf.

We also have to understand our current situation in a regional and global context. Neoliberalism is globally more entrenched now than ever before and Modi’s rise in India is seen as a testament to that in South Asia. Delhi is currently gripped in anti-Modi protests from its own poets, film-makers, students and intellectuals. What kind of support are Nepali parties seeking from such a regime?  That is one; the second is the global context. It is true that India supported, even facilitated, the tri-party agreement against the Rana regime in 1951. We have to remember that it happened in the postcolonial moment: Nepal had supported India in its anti-colonial struggle against the British and hence its support for anti-Rana movement was logical. The world has come a long way since then. The 1950s argument is now obsolete.

I am of the opinion that the protesting parties should have searched for strategies that, first, did not allow external powers to seek roles within the country, and second, did not cause a humanitarian havoc to pursue regional interests.

The leaders who are leading the movement actually in Terai– aren’t they themselves elites who have shared a lot with Kathmandu elites in terms of sharing power and resources of the country?

Elitism is a very deep issue and is multi-faceted. Elitism is not only about material power obviously. There are cultural capital and social capital involved as Pierre Bourdieu would say. It is true that some of the Madheshi leaders are as rich as the state elites who live in Kathmandu. But that does not mean that they have the same status in state politics and in social politics let alone cultural. If they had the same status, all political movements should have been about class. Even the Maoist People’s War acknowledged that class is not the only form of alienation.

Having said that, I would be cautious about the mass movement and its agendas being captured by the elite few. Looking at the past 100 or so days of Madhesh protest, I believe the Madhesh movement is a mass movement. I don’t think it was staged by the elites, and certainly not staged by India as some believers of conspiracy theory claim. I am not at all critical of Madhesh movement.The question is about where it is heading. Will the Morcha stay intact? And if some of the forces from within the current Morcha choose to part ways, then the concern becomes even more pressing as to what new direction will Madhesh follow. There are those who may call for more extreme agendas that may coerce the general Madheshi public into marching for slogans that are against their own interests.

I am also critical of the current Madheshi leaders’ indifference to the class- and gender-related concerns of their own constituencies. Only recently, a leading Morcha leader said in Delhi that MadheshiMorcha has never asked for equality of citizenship rights for women; that is a major disappointment for those of us who considered Madheshis an ally to fight against state patriarchy. I don’t know how class activists feel about the Morcha’s commitment on issues of stark economic inequality and cultural violence within Madhesh. These need to be clarified upfront, otherwise it will lead to the politics of use-and-abuse.

How can Nepal come out of the present political and constitutional deadlock?

I don’t have answer to that at all other than to say broadly that there has to be certain degree of compromise from all parties. But, in the mean time, the compromise for the sake of compromise will basically undo the entire political struggle that had been fought in this country for more than a decade. So, compromise itself is not a panacea nor is extremism.

Development and anti-corruption discourse is becoming lauder in Kathmandu these days. What is your take on prevalent discourse on development as someone who has done doctorate in development anthropology from one the world’s most premier institutions?

I’m glad to hear you say voices on development is becoming louder in Kathamndu these days because that was not the case when I began my life as a PhD researcher in 2001. At that time, the country was gripped in the violence of the People’s War and the entire discourse was on militancy and war and later on peace negotiations and eventually on constitution-writing. It would be a nice break if the country indeed began to talk about development as you suggest.

If we are to skip the 1996-2006 period and go further in time, I would say that Nepal has lived in the rhetoric of aid and development for more than half a century since the 1060s until the 1990s but I don’t think it has actually followed the global discourse on development which is rapidly evolving. The word ‘development’ has changed its meaning completely between the 1960s and now. The generation who grew up with the post-world-war and postcolonial era think of development as the responsibility of the state. Our neighbouring countries like India built industries, dams and cultural enterprises in the name of development in the 1960s, it came up with reservation for its marginalized, and redistributive programmes of public works for its poor. It is a shame that Nepal remained a pariah state throughout that golden age of development under Panchayat autocracy where the King captured the slogan of development to entrench its royal patronage while reinforcing a mono-ethnic state. Devendra Raj Panday’s two classic volumes ‘failed development’ and ‘development and donors’ discuss this at great length.

Nepal ousted Panchayat in 1990 just when the rest of the world had moved on from developmental paradigm to neoliberalism, of freeing capital while precariatisinglabour and minimising state regulations let alone its duties on social protection. It was not a surprise to many following the global situation that Nepal easily equated democracy to economic liberalization. It is deeply regrettable of course, not only that we fell victim to the rising wave of neoliberalism but also that we let go of one genuine opportunity to define democracy in our own terms.

Some other countries have reflected on and critiqued neoliberalism, especially following the Asian financial crisis of 1998 and the Euro-American financial crisis of 2008 not to mention the ongoing Greek crisis. But unfortunately, even the most globally-connected Nepali development practitioners in key positions have chosen to turn a blind eye to these emerging discourses to cling on to old wisdoms of ‘free market’ and lazy theories about wealth trickling down from the rich to the poor.

This aside, it is fair to say that Nepal skipped the era of development as it moveddirectly from feudalism to neoliberalism. I attribute the Maoist People’s War to that historical mishap. We are currently embroiled in an entrenched discourse on how to rectify that mishap and catch up with the rest of the world on affirmative action and social protection. But we cannot also shirk away the reality that the today’s state will not be able to pursue development without achieving growth first. Although some of the leading development experts talked about a ‘peace dividend’ not much of it has materialized because the international community is globally weaning off development aid for the state in the name of economic liberalization. Countries are being told to generate their own capital for development or raise it through commercial FDI. I am myself curious as to how this latter dilemma of persuading the global community that Nepal needs to do what the rest of the world did in the 1960s and 1970s in order to achieve a level-playing field in terms of social protection and social equality. I do hope that this can be overcome, either through its persuasive abilitiesin mobilizing support from international development organisations or through militant resistance against Western hegemony that preaches small state, free capital and precariatlabour as necessary conditions for development.

Is there any possibility for neoliberalism to reconcile with Marxism, as some of the Marxist intellectuals in Nepal, for example former prime-mininister Dr. BaburamBhattarai who has recently left UCPNM and launched nayashaktinirmanabhiyan, are arguing especially regarding the ideas on economic, social and political development?

So much is talked about but so little is known about the Naya Shakti. I agree with its assessment that Nepal completed one phase of national transition and is headed for the next, which is why it is a timely move to retire from an old party to build a new structure of power. The question is, how. First of all, it is important to recognize that one man alone cannot bring the kind of paradigm shift that is needed in Nepal today. There are several other groups seeking similar ‘newness’ in the country and one could possibly join hands with them, we should also remember that these groups have fundamental differences in how they see the world and what they are seeking in this world. In the meantime, there might be ‘old’ forces who share similar ideologies and practices. It would be disastrous to see rushed alliances among the various brands of new and old forces even if alliances are necessary to be effective. Having said that, it is also important to remember that while it is very relevant to talk about economic or other forms development, we should not forget that development involves entrenched politics of its own kind, of freeing development jargons from elite capture, from generating mass support on social movements necessary for development, challenging state failures through democratic means, etcetc. That adds to the challenges. So, like many others, I am also in a ‘wait and see’ mode.

Second, I am not sure we will arrive anywhere new by following the old, well-trodden roads. I am sincerely hoping that Nepal lets go of the old expression ‘development’ or ‘bikas’. If this country is capable of imagining a new vision and forging alliances that can sincerely correct the historical mishap that I mentioned earlier, then the Naya Shakti walas should at least be able to show its potentials by coming up with a new name and a new definition. If we are going to try to achieve what the rest of the world achieved (and some failed at that) in the 1960s and 1970s, why call it Naya Shakti? Why not just call it Shakti-of-the-1960s/1970s? How is this Shakti going to persuade a generation of Nepalis who grew up watching MTV and listening to Bill Gates talk and Mark Zuckerberg about saving the world?What does it have to offer for those who are disillusioned by the empty promises of liberalization-theorists and want a complete overhaul of the stale-old development recipe that is bound to fail? There is a generation of Nepalis who have learned Marx by heart but are not yet aware of the postmodern and post-development reading of Marxism – what about them?

Obviously this nayashakti comes from left. Even though they may say that they will not use the name communist party in their name, it is obvious that BaburamBhattarai has spent entire life as a left and he will remain a Marxist intellectual. The question for me is, can he then become a NayaManchhe himself in weaning himself off the old-style Marxism to embrace new imaginations about social cohesion and equality? Marx has been re-read and re-interpreted for entirely different conditions around the world. Marx the political visionary is almost entirely different from Marx the economic philosopher. In latter, as you know yourself from your exposure to the sociology, anthropology and political economy syllabi from the mainstream universities that Marx cannot be understood without reading its postmodern, cultural and feminist critiques. In fact, Marxism acquires its contemporary meaning from this dialectic of culture and liberality. In that sense, this dichotomy that you pose to me about neoliberalism vs Marxism is actually increasingly irrelevant especially for development. What China is doing is not Marxist whereas the discourses on solidarity economy in France and Human Economy in Africa and Latin America might have more elements of class and other forms of social struggle for development. Once cannot honestly engage with these new ideas without letting go of the cold war baggage of capitalism vs communism.

What do you think about the future of left in Nepal? Is there any possibility of Nepalese left coming together for example Maoists and UML? Can you suggest some concrete politicies for the Nepali left regarding their programme on economic development?

I see the Left still very strong in Nepal, at least structurally. One can argue whether UML is still Left after embracing JanatakoBahudaliyaJanavaad and now making itself comfortable in the entrenched structures of caste and ethnically charged ultranationalism and extreme forms of patriarchy. But one has to give them credit that it is on the left of the centre, at least ideologically if not in practice. The same needs to be said about the various factions of CPN-Maoist. It is true that parts of the MadheshiMorcha alliance does not believe in the Left and we are yet to understand the Janajati forces form the hills. But having said this, the Left still outnumbers the non-Left in Nepal.

Globally speaking, as I was saying earlier, the neoliberal euphoria of the 1990s have now been contained to a certain extent especially after the financial crises of 1998 in East Asia and 2008 in Euro-America and more recently in Greece and maybe Spain. Even though a clear, alternative vision has not emerged yet, there is policy recognition that neoliberalism needs containing. An intellectual debate has long been running on neoliberalism, Marxism and their fusioning with cultural and gender critiques, as I said earlier. These give more hope for the Nepali Left than would have been the case, say in the late 1980s when Nepal engaged with JaBaJa. In that sense BaburamJi and the rest of the CPN-Maoists are luckier than MadanBhandari and Mohan Bikram of the past.

Do you think Indian and Nepalese left need a kind of cooperation or tactical alliance in political or intellectual terms?

I think such alliances actually might be already emerging. What I take the example of the responses from within India on the ongoing border blockade. I live in India, not in Nepal, so I am more aware about what is happening in Delhi. I was surprised to see that several statements that came out opposing Modi’s blockade in Nepal werefrom the Indian left. I don’t think it was achieved as a conscious alliance per se. Indian Left has been critical of the right-wing tendencies of Hindu fundamentalism which seemed to have surfaced very recently. As such tendenciesbegan to translate into imperialist moves towards weaker neighbors, they began to protest more actively. It seems the Indian liberals soon followedthe suit. Dialogues and alliance-buildingat the level of people or grassroots movements is always good, there is nothing wrong about it, but what I am trying to say is that spontaneous reactions like in the case of blockade also have been fruitful.

There may also be room for intellectual exchange between the left thinkers in India and Nepal. I think of Delhi as South Asia’s academic capital which houses one of the best universities in the region. Intellectuals in these universities have at times produced globally renowned scholarship, for example, Marxian economics, subaltern studies, studies of feminism and anti-imperialism, etc. Nepal, on the other hand has demonstrated a long tradition of left activism and politics, and recently the Maoist movement has taken up the issue of ethnicity and culture. Indian intellectuals might benefit from developing better understanding of this aspect of the Left politics in Nepal.

Especially on my last point about Leftist conceptualisation of the issue of ethnic and cultural identities, there may even be room for exchange of scholarship and ideas with Africa where theories of race have leveraged on Marxian discourses but without defining them narrowly and superficially. Pan-African philosophers of Stalinist, Trotskyistsand anarchist camps have managed to work together to write postcolonial theories on race. I think there is plenty of room for Nepali Left to be curious about theories and practices from around the world, especially within South Asia but also the Global South. An open-minded pursuit of knowledge will strengthen Nepali Left’s own foundation, and offer better clarity for intellectual and activist discourses that can be more relevant for today’s world.

Leave Comment