Inclusive by association

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- Deepak Thapa
Inclusive by association

May 7, 2014-

Writing in Nagarik daily a couple of days ago, Santosh Mehta, spokesperson for the rump Sadbhavana Party, reiterated what has by now become conventional wisdom, that the poor showing of the Madhes-based parties in the second Constituent Assembly (CA) was a result of the perennial splits that have characterised Madhesi politics since its heyday of the election to the first Constituent Assembly. Refreshingly, Mehta goes further to criticise all the parties, including his own, for pandering to narrow caste interests that has led to the fracturing of politics in the Madhes.

Faultlines in the Madhes

Mehta analyses the CA II election to conclude that most candidates of any reckoning (his cut-off being those securing more than 2,000 votes) in all the eight Madhesi parties belonged to the same caste as the party president. By his count, the proportions start from 49 percent Tharus among such candidates in the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik, headed by Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar (a Tharu) to a full 100 percent Yadavs in the Rajkishore Yadav-headed Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Ganatantrik. The inference is that all these parties are under the control of the caste group the party leader hails from.

Mehta identifies the faultlines in the Tarai, such as Tharu—non-Tharu, Yadav—non-Yadav, Hindu—Muslim, forward castes—backward castes, Dalits—non-Dalits, Pahadi—Madhesi, etc, and rues the fact that rather than erase these divisions, the Madhesi parties have been moulded to mirror these differences. Further, commenting that the ongoing unification attempts between the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Nepal, the Sadbhavana Party and the Tarai-Madhes Loktantrik Party that are in the final stages, he points out that none of these three parties have been able to attract Tharus and Pahadis into their fold in any meaningful manner. Applying the same rule of thumb mentioned above, he finds only one Tharu who made the 2,000-vote threshold in these parties and not a single Pahadi.

There are two lessons one can take from this soul-searching. The first is that in the eyes of the general Madhesi population, the Pahadis make up a homogenous group, and given the manner in which the latter has tended to view Madhesis over time, whether it is the Dalit from Rolpa, the Tamang from Mawkanpur or the Bahun from Taplejung, it should not come as no surprise that such is the case. Hence, Mehta’s worry that no Pahadi made the mark but without any acknowledgement of the distinctions within the Pahadis themselves.

More importantly, however, the point he makes about the political parties not being able to surmount the caste divide is an instructive one. That brings us to an idea that has been with us for some time—the need for strong civic organisations that are representative of different social groups to stand as a guarantor of societal peace.

Facilitating communal harmony

Indian-American political scientist Ashutosh Varshney first articulated the idea in his 2001 article ‘Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society: India and Beyond’ (and elaborated further in his 2003 book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India) through research in six Indian cities and looking at conditions under which the two communities riot against each other or live in peace. He says that in society there are various forms of civic interactions taking place all the time. But it is only when these civic bodies are inter-community (or, inter-ethnic) and not intra-community (or, intra-ethnic) that these can play a meaningful role in maintaining communal harmony.

Civil society networks can be distinguished by two kinds of interactions: everyday and associational. The first consists of mundane activities whereby ‘families from different communities visit each other, eat together regularly, jointly participate in festivals, and allow their children to play together in the neighbourhood’ and so on while the second is much more formal with different groups working together in ‘business associations, professional organisations, reading clubs, film clubs, sports clubs, NGOs, trade unions, and cadre-based political parties’. Varshney believes that while both are essential to ensure inter-community harmony, it is the associational form that can stand up to the pressure, usually from political actors, to break the peace in times of crisis. He writes: ‘The more the associational networks cut across ethnic boundaries, the harder it is for politicians to polarise communities.’

This, of course, is a simple summation of his argument and he has his critics, including those who doubt whether the North American concept of civil society as we know it now can be applied to a specific Indian context. But we can certainly take some lessons from Varshney’s findings and see how these can help social relations in Nepal. Take Mehta’s plea for more inclusive Madhesi political parties and the significant role these can play in reducing communal stress.

As a politician, he may have been looking at enlarging his vote bank by making his party more attractive to voters across caste and ethnic lines. But, can there be any doubt that a more diverse political force is less likely to engage in ethnic war-mongering whether it be directed towards others within the Madhesi community or against Pahadis?

Fragile peace

There are many who sneer at the whole idea of inclusion since it, in their words, allows token representation or the forced inclusion of the ‘unworthy’. But the fact remains that hitherto-marginalised groups are now guaranteed representation in every public endeavour, from water users’ committees to the CA. The civil service has become more open and so have both the police forces and the Army. Likewise, political parties have also introduced quotas, as have various professional organisations, most recently, the Federation of Nepali Journalists. The impact may be slow to be seen but it is only a matter of time before the different social groups who would have engaged, to use Varshney’s words, at most at the everyday level, such as in the marketplace or as patrons and clients, will surely develop better relations with each other through engagement as peers by way of these different institutional arrangements.

Inclusion is thus not only about jobs or preferential access to resources. It is also about a state of being in which everyone has a stake in the continued existence of peace in society, which comes about partly by the de-demonising of others that is only made possible by close association. Peace has broken down any number of times in the recent past, and we should count ourselves lucky that it has not led to larger conflagrations.

It is only a poor understanding of Nepal’s realities or wilful ignorance that leads some to think that it is because of foreign funding for this organisation or that group that we passed through such tribulations. Hence, we can either continue to build more representative institutions or we can pretend all is well in our society, or will be so once all the donors leave the country. I do not suppose Santosh Mehta was induced to write his op-ed piece for any financial gain. It was a reality plain and simple for all to see—if only we open our eyes.

Published: 08-05-2014 07:53

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