What’s Happening in Nepal?

We must confess our incomplete knowledge of what is really happening in Nepal but this is certainly a phenomenon that warrants close attention. Let us try and sketch a big picture and hope that readers with more details can fill in the gaps that are inevitable.

In a series of posts on modernity in South Asia (see under the theme on the main page) we have repeatedly gone over the sequence of events in Europe that marked the change from the old feudal order to the new era of democratic governance. We highlighted the key markers: the emergence of a realization that all men should be equal; the embedding of these ideas in the thinking of the times; a social revolution nurtured by these ideas that overthrew the hierarchical aristocratic order to force the recognition of equality; and the gradual emergence of democracy as the form of governance most compatible with a society comprised of individuals equal in all fundamental attributes.

We contrasted this sequence of events with the process in South Asia where representative governance preceded a social revolution, the ancien regime survived intact, and notions of individual equality still remain alien to dominant ways of thinking. Our last post along these lines was Democracy in India – 7 where we argued that the Indian case represented a complete contrast to the European sequence. It is in the democratic arena that the battle for equality is being fought and it might ultimately yield the desired outcome of social equality.

But Nepal has been under the radar all along. And Nepal looks like a phenomenon much closer in spirit to Europe than the rest of South Asia. Here we have a revolt against feudal oppression, a people’s struggle culminating in the replacement of a monarchy by a republic, the transformation of the revolutionaries into an element in electoral politics, the formation of a constituent assembly, and the introduction of proportional representation to give voice to previously excluded groups in society.

It is impossible to predict the future because the one thing that did not exist at the time of the European transformations, at least to the same extent, was the power of external intervention. Today, it is a key ingredient of any process of social change be it Cuba, Nicaragua, Cambodia or Afghanistan. Perhaps Nepal has been fortunate to escape the worst excesses of external interference for reasons to do with its geography.

Whatever the reasons and whatever the future, it does seem that the parallels with the European model are quite striking. Should this make us rethink our position on the nature of social change in South Asia? India too has a growing Naxalite movement. But is India too large for a Nepal-like outcome to be possible? Does India lack the single monarchical symbol against which a majority of its oppressed can unite? And will the sizable pockets of prosperity in India prove too strong an opposition for the revolutionaries to overcome?

That is what it looks like at the moment. But let us hear some arguments to the contrary. And let us also invite readers to correct our impressions of what has been happening in Nepal.

The September 2008 issue of Himal SouthAsian magazine is dedicated to the topic of contemporary armed struggles in South Asia. Readers interested in further details and more advanced analyses are recommended to read the articles in the magazine.

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