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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 41 New Delhi October 3, 2015

Democratic Constitution and Political Violence in Nepal: A Part and Parcel of the Transition Stage?

Saturday 3 October 2015

by Sanjal Shastri

Over the last few days, Nepal has taken giant steps in its journey to become a constitutional democracy. The accepting of the Constitution marks a new stage in a decade-long effort to usher in a constitutional framework. Unfortunately, this important phase has been marred by significant violence and protests. The two questions in everyone’s mind are: who is to blame and what can be done to make this transition a peaceful one?

We need to keep in mind that Nepal’s road to democratisation has by no means been a peaceful one. The Royal Massacre of 2001 and the civil war that followed meant that the journey has had its fair share of violence. Though the process of framing the Constitution has been a peaceful one, the violence that has been witnessed over the last 48 hours should be viewed in the context of a much more violent process of transition to democracy.

The idea of a democracy is still in its embryonic stage in the Himalayan nation. For over 200 years the country has had a monarchy and it is only in the last decade that the idea of democracy has began to take roots. One also needs to account for the fact that Nepal is a multi-ethnic society with over 100 ethnic groups. Numerous studies have shown that in multi-ethnic societies, the transition period can be extremely violent. After the fall of the USSR in 1991, the sudden rise in religious and ethnic based conflicts in Eastern Europe was a direct result of long suppressed ethnic identities finding a new voice. A similar case can also be made of the Arab Spring. With the sudden collapse of dictatorships and military rule, long suppressed religious identities have found a voice in the democratic process. If one looks back at India’s initial years, the 1950s were marred by various demands to create States based on different linguistic identities. One can also recall that some of these demands for forming States based on linguistic identities had their share of violence.

This however does not mean that the violence witnessed in the last 48 hours in Nepal is not a cause for concern. At this crucial hour, political groups in Nepal must be proactive and decisive to ensure that the violence doesn’t snowball into something that cannot be handled. In a multi-ethnic society like Nepal accommodating every group in the political process is critical for the peaceful functioning of the democratic system. This means that the concerns of the Madhesi ethnic group must be addressed. It is important to make sure that the agitating groups channelise their protests through means that are within the democratic system. This is why a robust democratic system that allows for these ethnic identities to be channeled politically, is crucial.

The adopting of the Constitution marks the latest and one of the most crucial developments in Nepal’s journey to establishing a constitu-tional democracy. Multi-ethnic societies like Nepal, are susceptible to violence in this delicate phase. The need to the hour is to ensure that the violence does not get out of control and make sure that the various ethnic identities have a voice within the democratic system. Amidst all the negativity surrounding the recent developments, there are some major positives that must be acknowledged. Firstly, Nepal has successfully incorporated all the major stakeholders such as the Maoists into the new system. Secondly, the new Consti-tution calls for the formation of a federal set-up, something that is crucial for a successful democratic system in a multi-ethnic society. Considering all these factors despite the violence, the road ahead looks quite bright. The key to success is going to be how well the various stakeholders are incorporated into the new system.

Sanjal Shastri has just completed his Masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and is currently in Chile on a UN Internship.