Keeping track

  • Research archives are crucial for better enquiries into Nepal’s past and analyses of its future possibilities
- Seira Tamang, Pratyoush Onta
Keeping track

Dec 14, 2014-

Better understanding of Nepal today will require better research on contemporary Nepal by academics. This in turn requires a much improved archival support infrastructure. Such archives will not only have to encompass a larger scope than has been the case erstwhile, but also address the challenges associated with the increasing number of multi-national players involved in both generating and researching relevant sources and the multiple forms and ways in which they are produced, stored and accessed.

A larger scope    

To exemplify what we mean, let us take, for example, the case of the Maoist conflict and the post-conflict transition in Nepal, including the on-going process related to the writing of a new constitution for a republican Nepal. As elsewhere, research on the conflict in Nepal has focussed on the structural conditions for the outbreak of the 10-year armed revolt (1996-2006) by the CPN (Maoist). We do now have detailed descriptions of some of the crucial events, turning points, and key political interventions made by national and international actors during the conflict and the official post-conflict phase that started in 2006. These include numerous donor-commissioned conflict and post-conflict reports written by non-Nepali and Nepali consultants of various degrees of ‘conflict’ and Nepal expertise.

We also have numerous analyses of human rights violations, rule of law structures and processes, security sector reform, the constituent assembly processes and products, the demands of excluded groups, conflict victims, corruption, and accountability produced by donors, INGOs with headquarters in Europe and North America, NGOs, Nepali and non-Nepali academic organisations, individual academics, and journalists. Research products range from monographs, edited volumes, special issues of journals, reports, and policy briefs generated by I/NGOs, literary non-fiction by established and new writers, and reportage by journalists. Some of these are available in print, others only as web publications. And there are online blogs, tweets, and much more in the form of personal opinions which exist only in the digital world.

However, serious research gaps exist and moreover, there is a serious lack of initiatives in collecting and preserving past and current materials on the conflict and transitional period. Valuable source materials, including innovative interventions, past research, and analyses as well as factual literature are scattered in different locations. An early GTZ report (2002)—titled ‘Nepal Country Study on Conflict Transformation and Peace Building’, which offers insight into the early dynamics and intervention initiatives of donors—is accessible online to the general public. ‘Cleaned’ documents from the work done by analysts for The Carter Centre (Nepal Office, now closed) have been transferred to the Social Science Baha library in Kathmandu, but the much larger amount of information collected by analysts working for the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) remains inaccessible to researchers.

Maoist declarations and their various changing strategies, except for those that have been published, are equally difficult to avail. Presently, there is no central repository from which to access past analyses of, for example, drafts of the fundamental rights section of the constitution in making and the various avatars of the proposed truth and reconciliation commissions. These would be useful for tracing state (and the ruling elite’s) resistance to complying with international norms. Further, past and current publications on the Constituent Assembly process, political demands made by the excluded, and agreements between the government and various agitating groups have been available in print and have been uploaded in various websites. The former format tends to have a limited circulation and the latter could vanish given that there are no policies regarding the longevity of items uploaded to websites of government entities (also many of the links therein often tend to not work). Audio-visual materials related to the conflict and post-conflict transition, especially broadcast from Nepal’s many non-state radios and televisions, will be lost permanently if copies are not held in archives soon. These important documents and materials should form the base of future academic analyses of the conflict and the protracted post-conflict transition in Nepal, as well as peace-generating policy interventions.

Management challenges

Do we advocate the setting up of new archival institutions with a remit reflecting the challenges discussed above? Not necessarily. We think the scope of existing archives with respect to the width of their collection coverage must be increased and this can possibly be done with new investments made in existing archives or reference libraries. This would be true for both public archives, such as the National Archives of Nepal, and private not-for-profit archives, such as the Madan Puruskar Pustakalya (MPP).

Do we have Nepali social scientists who can guide archivists in such scope enhancing projects? Theoretically yes, although there aren’t too many examples that can serve as precedents. Do we have archivists who have the requisite skills to face the new challenge? Yes, and many from the new generation, who have dabbled in archival work in a semi-professional manner, have the know-how to acquire skills they might lack as the work becomes more complex. In other words, they or their colleagues can facilitate training under experienced archivists in other countries who have successfully tackled the new challenges of the profession. Such training can come in many shapes and long-term mentorship can be done in a low-cost online mode.

Finally, where will we find the money to support such ventures? There is never enough money for everything anywhere, but if we want good research to be done on contemporary Nepal by both Nepalis and non-Nepalis, money will have to be found in Nepali public and private sources and international donors to both expand the scope of and operate the kind of archive we have discussed here. In Kathmandu, we seem to have a lot of money to spend on vacuous jatras at the national stage (such as the just-concluded Saarc Summit) or endless bhojs at the family level. Some of these monies will have to be set aside to support archives for research through public and private decisions. When the proposed Social Science Research Council becomes a reality (a committee is supposedly working on a draft bill to be presented to lawmakers shortly), it should also support archival institutions.

In addition, Nepali advocates of such academic infrastructure will have to continue to apply to international initiatives that support such work (as as been done successfully, more than once, in the case of the Endangered Archives Program of the British Library). As for the international donors present in Nepal, cutting out some of the reports commissioned by highly-paid parachuting consultants will save enough money to support such archives with long-term value.

The establishment of user-friendly research archives is crucial for better enquiries into the past and stronger analyses of future possibilities in Nepal.

Tamang and Onta are researchers at Martin Chautari

Published: 15-12-2014 09:26

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