Realising peace potential of constitution

  • Shared commitment to managing divisive identity politics, inter-party competition and foreign interests is essential

Feb 20, 2017-

The process of building a democratic federal state requires reconciling various competing needs of its constituents and international stakeholders. The promulgation of the 2015 constitution made these needs more conspicuous than before at the international, federal, provincial and local levels. The constitution also introduced a new framework of civic and political engagement designed to reconcile these competing needs and manage conflicts arising from the competition.

At the federal level, a key challenge in Nepal’s state-making consists of ensuring the seven federated provinces establish and sustain equal and mutually-supportive relationships with the central governing mechanism under the federal state. To build such constructive relationships, visionary leadership, strong consensus-building skills, and constituents’ active participation are needed. A shared commitment to managing divisive identity politics and inter-party competition is essential.

Four interconnected dimensions

At the provincial level, it is important to overcome the tension between diverse identity groups’ aspirations to claim their respective homelands and the responsibility of each of the seven federated states to govern its territory. At the heart of this tension is an enduring dilemma: while constituent members of each identity group aspire to live in their homeland together, provincial boundaries separate them from one another. Careful inquiry into these communities’ aspirations for their respective homelands, however, reveals that there are at least four interconnected dimensions of the communities’ commitment to their homelands: (1) economic (access to land and resources; allocation of state-generated revenues to meet policy-supported local needs), (2) cultural (freedom to practice distinct customs and religions; freedom to speak and teach distinct languages), (3) political (eligibility to vote and to be elected and appointed in order to ensure adequate group representation; freedom of speech and assembly), and (4) security (ability to join and play an active role in defence and law enforcement services; institutionalised guarantees of human rights and justice). 

Unpacking the multidimensional nature of one’s need of a homeland is important because constituent members of each of the identity groups have varying degrees of commitment to one or more of these four dimensions. The relative importance they attach to these dimensions corresponds to their age, gender, education, occupation, and other critical determinants of their lives and future outlooks. Farmers cultivating their ancestors’ land for livelihood, for example, may prioritise the economic and cultural aspects of their homeland demand, while their young educated offspring may prioritise the cultural aspect over the economic aspect if they seek career opportunities away from home. It is possible that the latter are concerned more about cultural bonds, community support, and non-discriminatory treatment than about the physical location of their motherlands. In other words, identity groups’ attachment to their respective homelands can be expressed in either a territorial or non-territorial manner, often with significant overlaps. In this context, non-territorial association with one’s homeland encourages members of a given identity group to cross provincial boundaries in order to meet their collective identity needs.

Possible lesson from Europe

With respect to local level governance, the scheduled elections of representatives in over 700 administrative units will be of vital importance. As exemplified by the Swiss federation that consists of 26 provinces divided into 2,700 local communities, the most essential foundations of democratic governance and federalism exist at the grassroots level. It is at the grassroots level where interactions between diverse community members are most intimate. In Nepal, these local units of governance offer small identity groups a realistic chance of assuming leadership roles. Also, in each of these local units, elected representatives and constituents of different identity groups can get a hands-on experience in practising inter-communal collaboration and democratic governance. They can make decisions about economic, cultural, political and security issues, and experience firsthand the fruits of their decisions and collaborative efforts.

To realise the vision of social justice and equality espoused in the 2015 constitution, the Nepali government and civil society must actively encourage qualified women, Janajati, Dalit, and Madeshi candidates to openly and freely contest in the local elections. These candidates, in turn, must demonstrate their commitment to serving all Nepali citizens irrespective of their group identities. The candidates must also uphold the highest standard of financial accountability, reject corruption, and advocate community development. To this end, constituents must demand and examine their candidates’ election pledges. Both the federal and provincial governments and civil society organisations can play a vital role in ensuring a fair playing field for all, sponsoring a practical, affordable mechanism of election monitoring, and providing skill-building opportunities for the elected representatives beyond the duration of their election campaigns. State-sponsored investment in sustained capacity-building for elected local representatives can prepare them to enter provincial and federal politics over time and gradually expand the pool of experienced and trusted leaders capable of strengthening Nepali democracy.

Defensive defence  

These steps in state-making can generate positive impact for democratisation when Nepal can exercise sovereignty and conduct an independent foreign policy. The public debates on the diverse international influences on the 2015 blockade and protests in the Terai region, however, underscore the importance of Nepal’s ability to maintain its status as a self-standing political and economic entity in relation to India, China, and western countries.

Recognising both new and historical aspirations of New Delhi and Beijing for regional security, resource and market access, and international respect, Nepal’s foreign and defence policy must build on a balanced and practical understanding of the dynamic tension and partnership between its two giant neighbours. One way of realising a more promising future of Nepal’s foreign and defence policy, therefore, is to establish an integrated practice of defensive defence and proactive peacemaking. Concretely, learning from the Swiss model of defensive defence, Nepal can dedicate a sizeable portion of its defence budget, personnel, and intelligence gathering effort to make its mountainous terrains unconquerable. Concrete steps required to realise this vision include training armed forces to become leaders of broad-based active nonviolence and civil disobedience. Importantly, such a national commitment to defensive defence must be pursued with a complementary effort to avoid all forms of provocative and aggressive military posturing. 

In addition, learning from the precedent of Finnish diplomacy during the Cold War, Nepal can take a greater leadership role in preventive diplomacy and proactive peacemaking on the international stage. It can, for example, progressively build and expand a cadre of well-trained multi-lingual diplomats and mediators capable of bridging the competing and complementary needs of India, China, and other regional and global stakeholders. To this end, Nepal can allocate a portion of its defence budget to enable emerging leaders and qualified university students to master Chinese in addition to English and to acquire advanced degrees and practical experiences in conflict resolution, diplomacy, and related fields. In addition, Kathmandu can establish a world-class institute capable of engaging Indian, Chinese, and other international stakeholders for joint research, leadership development, preventive diplomacy, and conflict resolution. The rationale for allocating a portion of the country’s defence budget for these causes is that Nepal as a small landlocked country can defend itself far more effectively by pre-empting regional conflicts than by building a stronger army that cannot withstand foreign invasions. None of these proposed measures, however, should stand in the way of Nepal’s sustained effort to build well-trained armed forces and law enforcement personnel whose primary task is to maintain law and order within its borders. 


Arai is a professor of Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at School for International Training Graduate Institute, USA

Published: 20-02-2017 08:29

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