Do you think that had Shah rulers introduced inclusiveness, Nepal would not have to face the present crisis?
The question of inclusiveness in Nepal in the modern context and in the past is quite complex. Traditionally Gurkhali rulers starting with king Prithivi Narayan Shah had principally agreed that Nepal has diversity in terms of language, religion and race. His famous quote that Nepal is a garden of four varnas and 36 castes is testimony to that understanding.
What about the strict hierarchy that was developed in society?
Within that diversity the new Nepali state that emerged after the unification of 18th century was also nation along with the hierarchy. The Gurkhali rulers were willing to allow the local level cultural and linguistic, customary autonomy and independence while building a kind of national hierarchy that was centered in Kathmandu. So, there was both diversity at a local level and a kind of unity at the national level. You could be a Gurung at one level and Nepali at another level. That was the hierarchy-wise step that was developed and I think unfortunately present discussions forgets this important distinction between that people and groups can identify different level at different forms. That you can be Tharu or Chhetri at one level and could be Nepali citizen at higher point.
How do you see that balance?
That is a balance we are losing today in claiming our separate and distinctive identity. We are not focusing much on our shared higher level unity. Just as Prithvi Narayan Shah said this is as a garden of 36 castes and four varnas, the new national anthem also speaks about hundred flowers and this is short of the same things coming to full circle. While only point we are missing is we are now focusing on only our distinctiveness and separateness at the local level and group level but we are not mentioning the higher point of our identity.
Then, why our political leaders, civil society members and ethnic leaders are not speaking this fact?
There are several factors leading to this discussion on inclusiveness. One is because it was felt that the previous regime did not give equal treatment or kind of facilities in the government services and political positions. I think that was one point in which the claim of non-inclusiveness is quite accurate. But in terms of ensuring the cultural diversity and religious freedom, past practices in Nepal starting from Prthivi Narayan Shah was quite liberal. Otherwise how would you explain the existence of 101 ethnic groups and 100 languages and religious groups now? If it is really true that Gurkha rulers had eliminated all the cultural and linguistic groups, we would not have any ethnic diversity now. You can take the example of Germany, France and other European countries in the last 200 or 300 years of nation building, they eliminated all the local level linguistic, cultural and other customary diversity in building one German nation and one French nation. That was not the case with Nepal.
That means, the King Prithivi Narayan Shah had allowed practicing diversity?
Even after the unification by Prithvi Narayan Shah, people were allowed to practice the religious, ethnic and other cultural diversity and their identity related to customary practices. That is why we have diversity now. It would not be fair to say the past regime or monarchical system eliminated all kinds of cultural uniqueness identity. These should be historically inaccurate.
How do you see the on going transition?
The transition period is very complex, prolonged and it is not always according to the anticipated trajectory. While going under the transitional phase new players come up and old players are replaced. The new players with new issues become predominant. It does not take the direction that the original authors might have expected. Given this situation, Nepal's transition is going to be quite challenging and prolonged. If we can make any prediction from experiences elsewhere, it is very likely that the transitional itself is going to become a norm in the perpetual condition in Nepal. Since last two years or following the elections of CA, we can see that there is no clear direction. There is a very wide difference of opinion and ideological position among the major actors or the victors who carried out the regime change in 2006.
How would the ideological differences hamper transition?
There is extreme liberalism on one hand and extreme radicalism on the other. Lack of unity between these major partners/allies is going to be a major challenge in transitional expectations. As long as these two ideological differences are not resolved at the policy level, Nepal's transition will continue to be a challenge and we will continue to see this instability and its implications in economy and social front.
How do you see the role of external players in the context of Nepal's ongoing instability?
In the modern context, no country acts alone like Island. We are always connected politically, socially, militarily and economically with our neighbors and the globe. Every country is dependent on some extent to its external environment. But in cases of smaller countries like Nepal, which happens to inhibit precarious kind of location between two powerful rival ideologies, country and civilization, it is even more challenging because external factors are often much more predominantly powerful in determining the outcome of political process than the internal factors. Nepal is one of those countries. It is the fact that our political transition from 1950 onwards moved towards unstable and became unpredictable and it is going in circle several times in the last 58 years. That means the political transition still continues and political transition became a norm in the last 58 years because of external factors. Particularly our neighbors in the north and south are very much involved in what goes on in Nepal.
What interests do Nepal's neighbors have?
They claim to have their strategic, military and security interests in Nepal. In the pretext of that, they continue to meddle politically and economically and this does some time bring some players into the power and they are not happy with that group and they replace that with another group and this has happened three, four or five times in the last fifty years. Even now, that is major occurrence because the alliance that came to power after 2006 is not able to establish itself. Because even within the five or six party alliance, various external actors are in alliance with various factors and they are again trying to break up and play one against the other. This is classic divide and rule game. In this game, India's role is much more prominent than any other because India is claiming to have much more security and strategy involved in Nepal.
How do you see the role of India?
India can act directly with political groups including armed or unarmed groups in trying to shape Nepal's politics according to its design. India views it as an inheritor of British empire in South Asia or India has inherited the Whiteman's role in my book, which was published in 2001, in which I called it legacy Raj Syndrome.
How do you define the Raj Syndrome?
India inherited the British Raj in South Asia and it must uphold that colonial order in order to deal with Nepal, Bhutan and other South Asian neighbors. That is going to be one critical factor how India decides to work with various political factors- Nepali Congress, UML, the Maoist, the various Terai parties including MJF and TMLP. So how India deals separately in terms of its dealing with previous political forces will be critical external factor in terms of determining the outcome of this political transition. In the past, Nepal was between two great empires: powerful Chinese empire in north and the emerging British colonial power in South. Two hundred years later China is emerging global power to the north and India is also emerging as an economic and military power in south. India has added characterization of being as an inheritor of British order in South Asia. It also claims it has these strategic claims in the Himalayan region. Thus, Nepal becomes the zone of contestations between these two civilizations and political orders. In this term, Prithivi Narayan Shah was absolutely correct in characterization of the metaphor of Nepal being a yam between two boulders. Nobody can improve that metaphor.
As Nepal is known for multi-ethnic and multi-lingual state and there is no single community that has majority even in village level, do you see the possibility for ethnic based federalism?
Yes that is going to be major contentious issue. Nowhere in the world where such a mix of ethnic groups in the village level are living together like that of Nepal. For instance, Indian states have certain linguistic and ethnic groups like Bengal. I don't think there is one district or VDC where there would be hundred percent homogenous population with single identity and language. In trying to devise political units with particular identity will be a great challenge.
Given Nepal's geo-political situation, don't you think prolonged political instability will create difficult situation to our neighbors?
As far as international relations go, instability is part of diplomacy. There are some countries which do not want stability around them. If one country's political or strategic interests can be served by making neighborhood unstable, they will do so. It depends on what kind of neighbor we have. If we have neighbors which believe stable and prosperous neighborhood can serve its security and political interest, it will act accordingly. Such neighbor helps to bring stability in neighborhood. If particular nations see destabilizing neighborhood and making it ungovernable serves its interest, those countries will continue to play such role. The countries with such neighborhood remain in perpetual conditions of instability. In that case, neighboring countries find easier to intervene. If a country is stable and peaceful and governs well, it is very hard for external player to intervene and influence the policy.
What has Nepal lost when it is unstable?
If the country is weak and unstable, it will conceal all its interest with no negotiating power. That is what happening to Nepal. Nepal's neighbor particularly India seems to desire a situation where Nepali rulers whether they be king, president or prime minister are weak and it can strike the most hard deal in the areas like in hydro power and security sector or strategic alliances. Question of instability is sometimes hurtful to neighbors but it sometimes benefits. Unfortunately, in Nepal's case, a neighbor seems to hold the view that it can benefit from Nepal's instability.
How much influential are western countries including USA?
Western powers have their own interests. One is ideological and other is idealistic. They want to see free market and democracy in Nepal. Second more important thing for USA is how much Nepal positions itself close to China. It becomes strategic position of US centered on China. For European powers, the religion is another area of interest. Until just two years ago under the Hindu Kingdom, it was very difficult for them to work. Although they have not stated in their policies and programs, the Christian missionaries' policies are also important for them. Many development projects are channeled through missionary groups.
Editor's Note: Dr Shah passed away at the age of 48 due to heart attack on Tuesday night. This interview has been re-published here as a tribute to late Shah. Nepalnews family would like to express hearty condolence to the ereaved family and eternal peace to the departed soul.
Courtesy: New Spotlight (VOL. 28, NO. 17, Jan 02, 2009 (Paush 18 2065 B.S.)Â
Editor's Note: Dr Shah passed away at the age of 48 due to heart attack last Tuesday. This interview has been re-published here as a tribute to late Shah. Nepalnews family would like to express hearty condolence to the bereaved family and pray for eternal peace to the departed soul.