Our institutions have been held hostage by the very nobles, or thulabada, who spearheaded the People’s Movement in 2006.
It has been more than a decade since Nepal embarked on the path of full-fledged democracy. The 2006 uprising—rightly called the People’s Movement—culminated not just in the abolishment of monarchy, but also raised questions about other age-old hierarchies that for ages were the foundation of Nepali society. The event was symbolic: a Kshatriya king, believed to have divine rights over his kingdom, was ousted by commoners.
Of all hierarchies this hierarchy between a Kshatriya king and his countrymen appeared unbreakable—the latter were always to be under the former. So when the unthinkable finally happened, there was an implicit understanding that all the other artificial boundaries could also be challenged and broken. Amid the air of optimism all around we forgot that we still had our nobles, thulabada, to take care of.
Before we get into our desi nobles, let’s turn the pages of history and see what happened in 13th century Europe when the nobles of England and Hungary revolted against their respective kings, who they believed were arbitrarily exercising their powers. In both the cases, the revolt and the ensuring agreements that limited the kings’ powers were born out of the self-interest of certain section of nobles. But what ensued in the two countries was completely different.
In England, the agreement between the king and the nobles resulted in signing of a document famously called the Magna Carta. The initial document was imperfect but symbolic. It gave a message that no one can be above the law, not even the king. With successive amendments, the Magna Carta became a universal symbol for law and liberty. By contrast, in Hungary, the revolt greatly empowered the Hungarian elites, and they grew corrupt, exploited the peasantry class and started abusing their power, thereby using power to enrich their kith and kin. The absence of any central authority, previously in the form of the king, precluded any form of social control. With state institutions growing increasingly weaker, Hungary went on a downward spiral, eventually losing its sovereignty to the Ottomans in 1526.
Between the two
The 2006 People’s Movement which resulted in the dethroning of monarchy and the consequent birth of the Nepali republic can be roughly compared to these events in 13th century Europe. In all three cases, the revolt started with the intention of curtailing rampant abuse of power by respective kings. All three states were successful in their initial aim: England and Hungary limited their monarchs’ powers while Nepal abolished monarchy altogether. But what is important for us is what happed thereafter.
Was Nepal after 2006 on the path of rule of law and respect for civil liberties, as in the case of England, or did it now emulate Hungary and let certain section of its elites run wild with power, thereby making mockery of rule of law and state institutions?
Post-2006 Nepal saw two major developments, one in the realm of ideas and the other in realm of systems and institutions. This sort of development is commonplace in most developing nations, particularly in the 21st century, when globalization means that democratic ideas are communicated easily but similar transfer of democratic institutions takes time. In case of Nepal, with the People’s Movement, the democratic ideals of dignity, equality and justice entered Nepali consciousness. There has been continued effort from Nepalis of all sections to claim their political space; hierarchies of any kind, if not directly justified, are questioned. Madhes movement can be considered a case in point. Whether such claims are heeded or left unanswered till people take to the streets calls for a separate analysis. But what is important is the change in common consciousness whereby an average Nepali is well versed in the language of rights, justice and dignity. This is where Nepal can be seen moving along the 13th century English path.
But it is one thing for Nepalis to be well versed in the democratic ideals of dignity, equality and justice and completely the other for our systems and institutions, which can transform these ideals into reality, to be transparent, independent and capable enough to work towards these ideals. If post-2006 happenings are any proof then it is apparent that our institutions have been held hostage by the very nobles, thulabada, who spearheaded the People’s Movement.
From the judiciary, to health to education, there isn’t any sector whose integrity and efficiency has not been compromised by unwanted political interference. Instead of serving the nation, our civil servants are brought up to serve political leaders. We can take the recent example of Chief Justice Sushila Karki. It is still debatable whether Karki was within her rights to go against the executive order. But we can safely assume that the impeachment motion against her was a bargaining chip not to let her move on the IGP appointment case.
If Chief Justice Karki believed that the IGP case was within the purview of the judiciary, then isn’t her subsequent decision to not move ahead with it a form of political compromise? Political compromise of this sort does not occur in a vacuum; it is a culmination of series of small precedents that have time and again found space in Nepali democracy. These small precedents could be anything from appointment of party loyalists with questionable backgrounds in state institutions to giving them a free jail pass in case of any wrongdoing. Our institutions are in a state of perpetual decay, just like in the 13th century Hungary.
Chaos and hope
We all are in a better place than we were prior to 2006. But at the same time we need to acknowledge that after 2006 the contradictions between our ideals on one hand and our social, political, economic and institutional reality on the other have only increased. It is as if we are simultaneously following English and Hungarian roadmaps. Our ideas are taking an English turn while our institutions are following the Hungarian path.
If this trend is not halted, it will only bring chaos, which will largely be a result of unmet citizen’s expectations from the state and its institutions. Perhaps we need to reign in our nobles, like we did with our king. The local, provincial and federal elections offer a good opportunity for this. Then again, there is also good chance that once elected our leaders will start behaving like nobles, if they hope to survive. Such is our system. Or so have we made it.
*Note: The word ‘noble’ has been loosely used. It can roughly be understood as a small section of privileged mass that is in position of power. They can be contrasted with the majority that do not have such access.
The author is a development consultant with a background in sociology and economics. Views expressed are the author’s own.