August 14, 2020
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The Heart's Fifth Chamber

Nepal's experiment with anarchy and democracy holds a lesson for India—how autonomised regions of India could evolve.

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The Heart's Fifth Chamber
illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
The Heart's Fifth Chamber
The stock of Nepal has never been lower with the Indian public. This is no longer the benign India-locked Hindu kingdom of the hills, but rather a politically unstable, underdeveloped and (to some) even malevolent presence that means India no good.

Much of this image is undeserved, but what Indians think and do have overwhelming impact on Nepal's society and economy. Millions of Nepalis live and work in India, and the number increases by the day. In addition, there are the millions of Nepali-speaking Indian citizens, wrongly assumed to be Nepalis of Nepal, and they too suffer when the perception of Nepal plummets in the Indian mind. This 'downgrading' has been inexorable in the last few years, starting with the Kathmandu-to-Kandahar hijacking drama in 1999 when it was made to look as if the skyjacking was practically a Nepali conspiracy. The 'Hrithik Roshan episode' a year later further battered Nepal's image.

All along, of course, there have been exaggerated reports of Nepal being used by Pakistani intelligence to hit at India's soft underbelly. Kathmandu's willingness over the decades to turn a blind eye to smuggling into India's protected market had already exasperated Indian officialdom no end.

The political instability of the past six years further damaged Nepal's image in India. In 1996, the Maoists launched their "people's war", then in 2001 came the royal palace massacre, the imposition of emergency, the deployment of the army and ordinary Nepalis got increasingly caught in the middle. Then, on October 4, 2002, King Gyanendra sacked the prime minister, parliament was suspended and local elected bodies were dissolved. Today, the country is enmeshed in a triangular struggle between the king, the political parties and the Maobaadi.

And yet, India maintains a distanced view of Nepal, because Indian academia and media find little reason to look up to the hills. The fact is, Nepal's experiment with democracy and anarchy over the past 12 years is interesting in itself and also an indicator of how truly autonomised regions and states of India may evolve. Nepal's well-being also has a direct bearing on the social and economic advancement of the neighbouring regions of eastern UP and Bihar.

The open border between the two countries has long been a canker for Kathmandu's educated classes and now, with Nepal being perceived as a problem-exporting country, proposals for the closure of the border are being viewed appreciatively by think-tankers in New Delhi as well. In fact, the India-Nepal open border is ideal for a region such as South Asia where demographies overlap, and should over time be emulated elsewhere. The pinpricks are not enough to justify closure, besides the fact that it would be Nepali peasantry who would hurt the most as they would be restricted in moving to the plains in search of work.

There is currently a heavy exodus of desperate peasant families from west Nepal, fleeing a conflict in which they are caught between brutal Maoist action and blunderbuss state forces. The state of Nepal has never seemed more desperate, and talk of a 'failed state' is gaining momentum.

And yet, under Nepal's on-the-surface downturn, are positive elements that Indian media and scholarship would do well to appreciate. The past dozen years of troubles with inexperienced politicians and violence-inclined insurgents hides the solid foundation that has been laid for long-term stability in a country that had never seen true democracy till 1990. Nepalis have been engaged in a telescoped period of learning and the experiment with constitutional democracy and parliament democracy has been a largely positive exercise.

Most importantly, whenever grassroots Nepalis in the districts and villages were handed the management of their affairs, they responded with enthusiasm and a sense of responsibility.Whether in farmer-managed irrigation systems, rural credit, community forestry or in local government, rural Nepalis had started to learn to shake off the heavy hand of central authority, to speak out, demand and organise. The Maoists are just the most extreme fringe of this trend.

When the villagers were entrusted with self-governance, they responded in a way the national class in Kathmandu was not able to. It was always the Kathmandu elite, whether in bureaucracy, business, politics or the social sector, that let the country down. Even today, the Kathmandu-centricism of the state and polity poses the biggest challenge to a country that is one of the most demographically and geographically diverse in the world.

For all their false promises to Nepal's youth, it's worth keeping in mind that the Maoist insurgents profess to be fighting a class war rather than an identity-led war, which is what rages along the subcontinent's eastern flank, mostly. The immediate tasks for the sake of a stable Nepal is rapprochement between King Gyanendra and the political parties, and then together to bring the Maoists to the table.

Once Nepal emerges from the Maobaadi quagmire, the longer-term task is to make the democracy more inclusive and the economy more vibrant. For India, a democratic, stable and economically resurgent Nepal is of vital importance. Nepal can be the dynamo that powers the revitalisation of eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where a fifth of India lives. The symbiosis of hills and plains, the possibilities of the Nepal terai as an infrastructural backbone for the advance of the Hindi heartland are all reasons why Nepal should be regarded not as a nearly-failed state, but one which offers hope of a shared advance with northern India.

(The author is editor of Himal, the South Asian monthly from Kathmandu.)

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