Nepal is a small Himalayan country of 28 million people that is primarily known for being the home of eight of the world’s ten tallest mountains, including Mount Everest that is the highest peak of all. Though strategically located between Asia’s two giants, India and China, Nepal’s political importance has derived more from its tortuous process of democratic transition over the last quarter of a century than from its geography.
Democracy was restored in Nepal in 1990 after three decades of absolute monarchy, but the transition was followed in 1996 by a Maoist rebellion, a decade-long civil war that took the lives of 13,000 people, and a return to monarchical control. A peace accord was reached in 2006 leading to the abolition of the monarchy and elections for a Constituent Assembly in 2008 that were won by the Maoist party. Power has changed hands repeatedly since then, and the legislature failed at its chief task, which was to draw up a new constitution.
To be sure, the task was formidable since Nepal is a very poor and immensely diverse country of some 125 different ethnic and caste groups speaking more than 100 languages. But the real problem, according to political scientist Mahendra Lawoti, has been the continuous government turnover and the ability of reform-averse parties and the long-dominant hill Hindus “to block or dilute changes that significantly threaten traditional power relations.”
Even when approval of the constitution was fast-tracked in 2015 following a devastating earthquake, presumably to allow the government to focus on relief and reconstruction, the result was the precipitation of yet another crisis. The Madhesis, who are the country’s largest ethnic group and live mainly in the Terai plains bordering India, felt that the constitution denied them fair representation. In protest, they launched a blockade of the border with India that prevented fuel and other critical supplies from reaching Nepal. The blockade had the tacit support of India, which felt that it had not been properly consulted before the constitution was adopted.
The Nepali government refused to buckle to the pressure of its powerful neighbor, and the blockade was called off after 135 days. But in August, the government in Kathmandu changed once again, and there is hope that the new government might be able to negotiate amendments to the constitution that would be acceptable to the Madhesis and other aggrieved groups. A new constitution would lead to local elections that have not been held in almost two decades.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the tangled politics of Nepal as having little international political significance and no relevance to the prospect for democracy in South Asia and other regions. But there are three factors that make the protracted effort to achieve real reform and democratic consolidation in Nepal resonate beyond the borders of this small country.
The first is that the struggle for democracy and equality in Nepal raises the issue of caste discrimination, which most severely affects the Dalit or “untouchable” minority caste. Dalits make up about 15 percent of Nepal’s population, and because of their extreme marginalization, they made up about one-third of the militants who joined the Maoist rebellion. Since discrimination against Dalits is also a problem in India and other countries in South Asia, it affects at least 300 million people in the region.
According to Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the former director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Dalits have no right to property, education, and business; and they face residential segregation and physical and social isolation. As a result, they are landless, lack capital and other assets, and suffer from very high rates of illiteracy and poverty.
Thorat notes that the problem of Dalits in Nepal is even more severe than in India and the other countries of South Asia because the social movement against untouchability arose later there, and the Nepali Dalits lack a “reservation” system like the one that exists in India, which provides for quota-based affirmative action in education, politics, and employment. Dalits in India are nonetheless subject to “lawless vigilantism” and “terrible prejudice,” according to a recent editorial in The New York Times, and as in Nepal, there is also impunity for those who perpetrate anti-Dalit violence. Thorat links the Dalit problem to the Hindu caste system, which the famous Indian jurist B.R. Ambedkar once called “a veritable chamber of horrors” for the Untouchables.
Systems of caste discrimination based on the descent and occupation of endogamous groups exist in other countries and regions, so this is more than a South Asian problem. Such systems exist in the Sahel region of Africa, in Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as in southeastern Nigeria where the Osu caste system is an ancient practice. In Japan, the Buraku is a caste group that is at the bottom of the social order, and there is also the hereditary Songbun caste system in North Korea, where the population is divided into three broad castes—and 51 sub-categories—based on trustworthiness and loyalty to the Kim family and the North Korean state.
The caste system, in other words, is a significant international problem affecting hundreds of millions of people in many countries and regions. If progress can be made in Nepal through civic action and constitutional reform, this could help promote greater international awareness of caste discrimination and violence and perhaps suggest a road map to change the caste systems in other countries.
This raises the second reason that developments in Nepal could resonate beyond the country’s borders. From the very beginning of Nepal’s democratic transition in 1990, the country’s social and economic character has underlined the importance of what has been called inclusive democracy—the need for democracy to be more than a system of political rights, institutions, and processes but also a way to address problems of poverty and social exclusion. Nepal is one of the world’s 20 poorest countries and the poorest country in the world outside of Africa. Because of its caste system and extraordinary ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity, very large sections of the Nepali population suffer from extreme levels of marginalization, discrimination, and inequity.
This is why the Maoist rebellion was able to take root in the society, since Maoism promised a radical break with the past and a complete social transformation. Maoism, of course, also raised the problem of revolutionary violence and oppression, exemplified by the Maoist totalitarian system, the enormous human suffering associated with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and China’s sharp turn away from Maoism after the dictator’s death in 1976.
Nepal considered the Maoist option but rejected it with the peace agreement in 2006. For the past decade, the country’s social movements and political parties, including the Maoists themselves, have been trying to find a democratic path to inclusive democracy. It has already come very far along this path. The 2007 interim constitution was, according to Lawoti, “the most progressive and inclusive in Nepal’s history.” The 2015 constitution was a step backwards, but compromises can still be worked out having to do with provincial boundaries, the devolution of power, and some other issues that would restore the inclusivity of the earlier document. If they can resolve enough of these issues with the new government to reach a consensus on the constitution, they will have created a framework for addressing over time issues of poverty and marginalization. This would be a historic accomplishment and would represent a democratic model for addressing problems of extreme poverty and inequity without compromising fundamental political and civil rights.
If Nepal meets this historic challenge, it will primarily be because of pressure mobilized from below by a growing citizens’ movement, including groups fighting for Dalit rights that are led by some of the most talented and devoted democracy activists to be found anywhere in the world. Since such activists can be a model for their counterparts in other countries, their emergence is the third factor that makes the democracy struggle in Nepal internationally significant.
One of these activists was Suvash Darnal, who was tragically killed in a car accident in the United States in 2011 when he was only 31 years old. Darnal, who remains an inspiration to the movement in Nepal, was remembered at a major ceremony in Kathmandu’s City Hall on August 15, when the first Suvash Darnal Award for Social Justice was presented to Raksha Ram Chamar, a young lawyer who is a leader in the fight for equal rights for Dalits and others marginalized groups.
I got to know Darnal when he was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in 2008. I consider him to have been a consummate democracy activist. He had an infectious sense of humor and an uncanny ability to connect with people and inspire confidence. He was an inspiring advocate and an astute political analyst, and he was also a supremely competent organizer who created cutting-edge media and policy institutions that helped the Dalit struggle and the larger democracy movement in Nepal address critical challenges.
These attributes were complemented by what one of his colleagues called “an unending positivity against all odds.” Darnal rejected the politics of grievance and victimization that is the bane of so many social movements today. He always took the high road, appealing to common ideals of social justice and shared humanity. I have gone so far as to compare Darnal to Bayard Rustin, the great US civil rights leader who organized the March on Washington in 1963 and who was, in my view, the pre-eminent US democracy activist of the last century. (Full disclosure: I also knew Rustin and worked with him for more than 18 years until his death in 1987.) Activists in other countries and regions can benefit from studying Darnal’s life and work as they try to respond to their own very formidable challenges.
The drama that is playing out in Nepal over the last quarter of a century has been largely overlooked by the international community. But the resilience of its democratic transition, despite great odds, demonstrates democracy’s great appeal to ordinary people and to its universality. This is a source of hope at a very troubled time in world history.
Carl Gershman is the president of the National Endowment for Democracy.