Contentious Politics and Democratization in Nepal Edited by Mahendra Lawoti and published by Sage; Pages 348, Price Rs695

New Delhi: ‘Sadakma orlanu’ (to take to the streets) is a way of life in Nepal. This is democracy for its rural peasants, ruling elite and for the rest of the population. The book brings into focus contentious politics as witnessed in Nepal and its effects on democracy.

Mass mobilization and consequent street protests brought down the King’s government in April 2006. The social justice movements spearheaded by dalits, Madhesis, adibasi Janajatis (indigenous nationalities) women expanded the political space of these traditionally disadvantaged groups.

Rural indigenous movements such as the Kamaiya (bonded labour) movement of Tharus forced the government to announce an end to the system.

Moving away from these accepted points of view, the authors have provide ample data to show that some contentious activities have indeed hindered democratization and privileged groups have used the medium of collective protests to protect their traditional turfs and privileges.

Divided into five parts: context and framework; Maoist insurgency; identity politics; collective public protests; contentious politics and democratization, individual insights have filtered into the narrative, making the book an absorbing read.

Valuable nuggets on Maoist literature

Moving away from the usual path of civil-war literature, it has almost emerged as one of the best studies of the Maoist movement, tracking its philosophy, evolution and practice. They point out that poverty and historical grievance is the primary reason behind the rise of the Maoist movement.

Ironically, this seems to conflict with the sudden change in the mid-1990s, when economic opportunities were booming in rural and urban areas.

The explanation was that a weak state and ruling elite engrossed in power struggle could not take care of the aspirations of the rural peasants making it easy for the Mao insurgents to convince the masses that only a violent struggle was the answer. Resultantly, post 1990, Nepal witnessed steep rise in violent protests. With martyrdom (Shahaadat) as their central philosophy, they seemed in no mood to listen.

First person accounts of the impact of insurgency

There are first person accounts of victims narrating circumstances under which they were uprooted from peaceful surroundings and their lives disrupted. New perspectives are gently woven into their accounts tracing specific points of intersection amongst various groups existing in South Asian region. Communication and consensus between Naxal groups operating in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Maoist groups kept law enforcing agencies in India on high alert.

Taking the discussion further, the book adds an interesting angle to the insurgent struggle by looking at the ‘the web in the shadows’ (Chyaamaa Maakuraako Jaalo), while talking to stakeholders influencing the movement.

Detailed study of identity movements

Ethnic nationalism with specific reference to Newars Newars is dealt in good detail. Why the sect of Theravadin Vihar Buddhism spread rapidly amongst Newars and not others? It brings out that class and identity often coincide in Nepal, in a potentially explosive way, especially if not handled carefully.

‘Constitutional engineering’ as mentioned in the book is depicted by means of data to show how marginalized groups were deliberately kept out of the electoral system by under-representation. This exclusion has subsequently fuelled gender and identity movements.

Dnamics of Nepali society have been dealt by describing how small ethnic parties have contributed to its democratization process. Parties like Mongol National Organization (MNO) have brought up issues important to marginalized groups. Student movements have traced their evolution. Most student activists were from educated elite with sound grounding in the nation’s socio-economic history. Today they have moved away from their role of assisting political parties and taken on the identity of a distinct group with its own demands.

Protest—for the people?

The authors do not always assume that public protests are democratic in nature. Increasingly, they are also becoming unpopular and regarded as a nuisance to the smooth functioning of the economic activity of the state. For, democratic space is not spread when coercion and violence are tools used by protestors.

The book describes the state of democracy in Nepal as being illiberal. Unlike stable democracies, rights and privileges are determined not based on law or the efficient performance of bureaucracy but find a way via public struggles. In this framework, often the focus gets lost and benefits never reach the right people.

Mobility and productivity is the foundation for any industrialized society. In so doing, the organizers directly impede individual autonomy of other citizens and transform neutral space into a charged atmosphere of slogan shouting and aggression.

Being a compilation of scholarly articles, the slim book tackles the theme of contentious politics from a wide range of variables—inequality, political exclusion, ethnic dimension, state repression, weak state apparatus, environmental degradation and lack of developmental activities.

The book makes one think whether contentious politics and their various modes of expression are regular features of a democracy. Should we take pride that this is better than being under a dictatorship? Or should we build institutions that have the capacity to absorb the voice of the protests quickly. Economic costs of violence are always borne by the disadvantaged groups.

Democracy—the cause of environmental destruction?

A very interesting aspect of the book is the connection between environmental degradation in the Kathmandu valley and democratic structure. With sharings from NGOs, and other development professionals between 1997—2003 working towards ecologically sustainable development, it has coincided with the period of political and social unrest, escalating violence in the countryside. The essays enrich our understanding of democracy.

A Kathmandu Post editorial titled ‘My House Beneath Bagmati Bridge’ said

‘This is democracy. Money is the only thing we have left to call our culture. A handful of money can hush them for sure. So long as the government falls upon the hands of those who never care whether the Bagmati came first or we did,…and if you really have power or money in your pocket, join us. It is far more lucrative than crying out for stopping the pollution in the river.

This should not be read as merely a kind of intersecttion between river politics and the experience of democratization but as broadening the idea of a democratic state. Disaffection with democracy must not be viewed in terms of unmet material expectations but also in terms of anxieties over cultural losses, a river in this case.

If one reads the book with Nandigram as a backdrop, one ponders to think, if the Nepali experience of democracy is also an Indian one. The big difference is that unlike India, Nepal does not have a strong Constitution. An independent judiciary is the only protection for the citizens, against autocratic rule, illegal acts, and at times, even democratic protests.

Useful not only for research students, it is a good read for both policy makers as well as citizens; to move beyond the concept of ‘law and order problem’.