Class and justice

  • The marginalisation of victim’s priorities widens the gap between the powerful and powerless
Class and justice

Jul 29, 2014-

The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2006 brought the 10-year ‘people’s war’ to an end and ushered in a period of supposed transition. For the past eight years, debate has raged over not only what form that transition should take, but also the mechanisms and policies best placed to achieve those goals. In a traditional liberal sense, transitional justice is concerned with the establishment of a liberal democracy and free markets, perceived not only as complementary but also as a recipe for stable and prosperous societies.

Class and caste

This simplistic prescription of liberal democracies and free markets overlooks the complex context in which conflict exists. In Nepal’s case, it has been shown that the conflict was born of centuries of class and caste marginalisation, resulting in disillusioned and disenfranchised communities of people who were largely excluded from the gains that Nepal’s modest development had afforded to some, particularly the well connected, privileged elites that live in the Capital and city centres. To continue discussions of transition without adequately addressing the concerns of such communities will ultimately undermine the transitional project. Indeed, there must be a reframing of transition—one that incorporates the needs and perspectives of conflict victims while recognising that poverty and social exclusion are rights violations that result from power imbalances and deserve to be on the transitional agenda.

The majority of Nepali conflict victims are from the peasant class, marginalised, ethnic, illiterate and ordinary people from remote villages who joined the Maoist movement in the hopes of gaining freedom from poverty and exclusion. Instead, when the conflict ended, the Maoist leaders became part of the political class, enriched themselves and perpetuated the existing feudal system. The transformational agenda that motivated so many during the ‘people’s war’ was all but forgotten. Old social relations and governance structures have failed to shift towards a people-centric approach that prioritises issues like livelihood, and the provision of healthcare and quality education.

Well-funded NGOs, Kathmandu elites and human rights lawyers associated with I/NGOs continuously dominate the transitional agenda, imposing a legalistic lens that distracts from issues of social, economic and cultural rights. This lens and the associated power dynamics don’t allow victims to speak for themselves on their own terms to express the kind of transitional justice that they prefer. This is an ongoing challenge in Nepal’s transitional justice sector, illustrating the nature of class discourse, and the difficulty of bringing attention and agency to the agendas of victims.

The wife of a disappeared citizen argues, “I do not understand the notion of transitional justice as discussed in Kathmandu where experts teach and lecture the victims. To me, justice means continuing my family life with full dignity and fulfilling my daily needs. I need respect and acknowledgement from the government that my innocent husband was forcibly disappeared during the conflict.”

Cyclical victimisation

This ongoing dichotomy in the transitional justice sector between victims and elite actors has not only derailed the discourse but also weakened the people’s agenda at the ground level. The marginalisation of victim’s priorities causes cyclical victimisation, a process of creating and recreating victimhood while widening the gap between the powerful and powerless. In effect, transitional realities of the past eight years have produced a class of political elites and experts who are supposedly best placed to chart a path for Nepal’s future.

This elite class is juxtaposed against everyone else, who have little to no say in any of the ongoing transitional debates. These dynamics result in a class of ‘followers’; ‘silent listeners’ in the name of empowerment and ‘loyal agents’ in the name of little charity. According to one victim group leader, “We have been fighting injustice and demanding our rights to truth, justice and reparation, but at the same time we have to fight within the rights community to establish our agency. I feel like there is a class struggle within the human rights circle.”

For victims groups, the creation of constituent assemblies and truth commissions mean little in practical terms, and even less when those bodies fail to be promulgated or remain stuck in intransigent partisanship. Thus, movement on transitional goals has not created a foundation for true transition—a transition away from the structuralised discriminatory violence that has plagued Nepal for centuries. There must be an assurance of agency for such disenfranchised groups. The victims alliance, indigenous rights groups, local associations and Madhesi representation on human rights and justice are some examples of traditionally marginalised groups of people making progress towards better representation for their interests and priorities. However, there remain many class and ethnic groups that are not lucky enough to have such powerful representation. This should not be a barrier to their voices being heard.

Bhandari is Coordinator of National Victims Alliance and Wilson is a development professional actively working on transitional justice issues in Nepal

Published: 30-07-2014 09:29

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