Lessons from Nepal

Thursday 1 May 2008, by Pierre Beaudet

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Nepal is a country that no one ever hears about, except if someone climbs Mount Everest. It is a country that seems to have been forgotten by time. It is a country that does not seem to interest anyone, since it has neither oil nor gas. However a political earthquake, with repercussions extending far beyond its borders, is making its way to the surface.

In Nepal, as in neighbouring northern India, poverty and exclusion have dominated for centuries. The ruling classes act like the feudal lords of a bygone era, practically determining their fellow citizens’ right to live or die. On top of class and ethnic domination a caste system is superimposed thereby perpetuating these conditions from one generation to the next. In Nepal’s countryside, the majority of the population is comprised of low caste peasants as well as the dalits, who are without a caste and are considered by the small monarchical elite to be less-than-human.

In the past few years, however, these non-humans have decided to exist. They revolted. They organized themselves. They gained influence. As time passed by, they put in place various tools. They played the political game. They were driven back. They built a small "Red Army," which though weak militarily, became formidable on the social and political fronts. And all of a sudden, the poor became aware of the fact that they were the majority! And then came the elections of a few weeks ago, when all of this came to a head. The experts, the consultants, the ambassadors, the mass media journalists, the United States, India, and, of course, the political elite of the country itself had never thought that this incredible scenario could arise: Maoists find themselves far in front of all the other political parties at the ballot box and so, in theory, are on the eve of forming a new government.

How can all this be explained? Of course, and by definition, it is a revolt of the dominated classes. But more often than not, theirs is a struggle that remains just that. The ruling classes, using force and manipulation, continue to dominate. Sometimes- rarely- there is an exception. As has been demonstrated in Nepal, just as it has in other parts of the world such as Bolivia, one needs to weave ties that bind- uniting disparate forces with a platform that is at once ambitious and realisable. In this case, for example, the Maoists were smart enough to gather the majority around an inclusive, republican project that takes into account the peasants, the dalits, the middle class, the various national minorities, in short, a bit of everyone. The revolution they speak of promises schools and clinics to people who have never had them. It promises to bring order to a country devastated by the delirium of arbitrary rule. It promises to rid Nepal of the contempt and the institutional violence that is at the heart of the current system.

What is another lesson learned from Nepal? That the ruling classes, when they read the handwriting on the wall, do not hesitate to mince words and order massacres. The King and his men have killed readily without provoking the slightest consternation from the international community. Those who know they are well connected are constantly overriding law and democracy. It is merely a matter of being deemed a good guy, which grants a government veritable impunity internationally where matters of domestic violence are concerned. What happens, then, when the dominated practise self-defence? In conventional circles, they are automatically condemned; they become "terrorists" for having dared to respond in kind to the violence of the dominant classes. The Nepalese Maoists, like so many liberation movements around the world, are condemned for having resisted. Most of the time, this vilification works and the violence doled out by the dominant classes, which is invariably of a more sophisticated and potent variety, carries the day. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes the revolt of the subjugated classes holds good. Even without completely defeating their adversaries, they can manage to destabilize them sufficiently to, say, force a compromise. Before condemning violence, remember the importance of context. Recall how Nelson Mandela and the ANC finally vanquished the apartheid; it included a handful of guerrillas to help put the regime’s back against the wall. It is neither a recipe nor an ideal solution but, every now and then, the dominated classes have to resist. Frankly, I think that was the case in Nepal because without their small Red Army the once-dominated classes would still be less-than-human.

Now that the Maoists are on the verge of political power, it remains to be seen how they will manage it. They must, and this will not be easy, face a certain number of old demons, which include a tendency toward authoritarianism and know-it-all-ism, read militarism. According to the human rights organizations that have monitored the civil war that has raged there for more than a decade, the army committed a majority of the atrocities, but the Maoists were not angels either. With a little bit of power in their hands, they could be tempted to – and we have seen this in the past- take it all. At any rate, this is not what their leader, Prachanda, which is a nom de guerre meaning "the fierce one" seemed to have in mind. On the contrary, he repeated his willingness to put in place a government of national unity, stretching out his hand to the other parties that his Maoists soundly defeated at the ballot box. Thus, let us say that, for the moment, the Nepalese have decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

On the other side, we can expect some turbulence; the dominant classes will provide no shortage of it as they cling on to their privileges. Worse still, with the assistance of the United States and India, they could foment disorder and support groups which refuse to compromise. Not unlike Bolivia, where the reforms promoted by the government of Évo Morales, despite being elected on these reform platforms by a healthy majority of Bolivians, are being harried by the latifundists and the oil interests, who are threatening to break away with the richest areas of the country. It will take a miracle for the Nepalese to eke their way out of a situation where 80% of their people live in crushing poverty and want changes NOW. We wish them good luck! In all likelihood, those movements that have made great strides in alter-globalization, notably in Latin America, will be eager to learn of the shifting of the plates in the shadows of the Himalayas.

Pierre Beaudet is a member of Alternatives and professor of Sociology at the University of Ottawa.

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