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Nepal: Media Should Be Remain Independent

Nepal: Media Should Be Remain Independent

By Kamala Sarup and Dr. Anup Pahari Argued

"Media are vital to all democracies. This is why all non-democratic regimes, and we've had a few of those in Nepal's history, target the free press. People and movements that are truly democratic will defend the free press to the last, although they themselves may feel periodically victimized by it. When President Clinton was going through the Monica Lewinsky scandal there were probably moments when he wished he had the power to silence the press. But to act on that impulse would have been unthinkable. The role of the media in any democracy, therefore, is to make those in power think twice before they make decisions, and to keep the public informed and conscious about the affairs of the nation.

The media plays a key role in conflict and must become, as it were, the moral compass of society. In order to do this successfully, it is imperative that the media not be swayed by ideologues on either side that hold a vested interest in having reality portrayed in ways that suit their political and power agendas. The challenge for the media in today's violence ridden Nepal is to resist the polarization that is in evidence all around them and to uphold core values of liberal democracy. Some media in Nepal have taken sides in the present conflict. This is unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable. Democracy will be safe as long as the media in Nepal remain courageous and independent". Dr. Anup Pahari said.

Peace Media's Advisor Dr. Anup Pahadi is one of the most well known names in Nepali community in the US. He has written several articles. As founder and member of various social organization, he is also involved in social service. He writes investigative and analytical articles on politics, human rights, peace and conflict, and development issues

First of all, it is the state, not the global Nepali diaspora, which has the principal responsibility for implementing programs in Nepal. The diaspora lends a hand out of love for Nepal and Nepalis. But the diaspora cannot become the source of sustained and consistent aid for Nepal. Even so, I know of many individual and group efforts within the Diaspora to aid Nepal. In the future I expect this trend will multiply with formal groups like the NRN becoming active in targeted interventions in business investment and development in Nepal.

On this issue let me cite a very promising new development that has come to my attention. Mr. Aditya Jha, a phenomenally successful IT businessman of Nepali origin, now living in Canada, has proposed to build and run a world-class IT University in Nepal. He has approached the Nepali government since 2001 with this proposal to create and run a major IT institute similar to the Indian IITs. This institute will have all kinds of other spin-off potential benefits like capitalizing on US and European outsourcing trends in a big way. The reaction on the part of the Nepali Government has been typically tardy, although up front, all leaders and policy makers exhibit great enthusiasm. I do hope this project is approved soon so that Nepal and Nepalis can benefit from the worldwide IT trend.

The greatest contribution that the diaspora (or anyone, for that matter) can make at this point is to help bring about a negotiated settlement to the conflict between the state and the maoists. With peace there is a lot that individual Nepalis can do for themselves. Doing what's in our power to bring peace to Nepal, in my view, would be the most valuable contribution that the Nepali diaspora can make.

Talking about India first, there is no other nation-state on the planet that is as diverse as India. Nepalis must take heart from the fact that, despite this enormous diversity and accompanying centripetal tendencies, India remains one of the more stable and truly democratic countries in the world. India is proof that modern nation-states do not have to be ethnically homogenous to be viable. India will continue to have simmering ethnic/regional conflicts for many more decades because caste and other forms of exclusion run deep in India. However, the Indian nation-state has developed institutions and strategies to cope with and manage internal conflict. Nepali statesmen, thinkers and political party activists must take lessons from India's success in this regard.

In many ways Nepal is a microcosm of India as far as the landscape of caste, ethnicity, and language is concerned. India is a Hindu majority country with a large Muslim, dalit, tribal, and ethnic population that speaks myriad regional languages. Substitute "Buddhist" for "Muslim" and Nepal begins to look much like India with regard to ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity. But that is where the similarity ends.

In about 60 years of independence Indian leaders have created institutions and means to come up with a progressively integrated nation. The federated state structure and recognition of regional languages, secular constitution, massive educational investment, affirmative action, separation of powers and independent bureaucracy, economic liberalization and other such bold initiatives have given the Indian state legitimacy and resiliency through turbulent times. Nation building in Nepal, by contrast, has achieved very limited successes. Instead of building mission critical infrastructure and institutions, Nepali leaders have concentrated (with some exceptions) on building political careers and personal fortunes. Thus, instead of recognizing the desirability of decentralized government, the power elite of Nepal have prevented real time devolution. Instead of allowing minorities the room to affirm their identities and to pursue cultural goals, paranoid leaders from the majority groups have stifled such expressions in the name of maintaining "national integrity." In India for over five decades the state (at both union and state levels) has intervened on behalf of minorities on key fronts like caste discrimination, education, employment, housing, language, and cultural rights. Many Indian intellectuals still argue the state does not intervene enough. By contrast, in Nepal the state is completely ineffectual in preventing majority power (expressed through caste, culture, language, wealth, politics, and bureaucracy) from exerting itself unduly over minorities and their rights and interests.

The recent court ruling in the case of student seat reservations for minorities at Tribhuvan University illustrates this point amply. India has had positive discrimination in college/university admissions for decades, and this has strengthened India in many ways. Leaders and policy makers in Nepal seem completely oblivious to India's rich and lengthy experience in managing diversity through state interventions.

The last point I want to make here is that while ethnic minorities (most particularly the dalit/untouchable castes) in Nepal certainly face discrimination at many levels, it must be emphasized that all poor and marginal Nepalis regardless of caste/ethnic background are deprived of essential rights, services, and decent livelihoods. Poor Bahuns, Chettris, Thakuris, and Newars living in the far west of Nepal, along with the region's minority communities, have the lowest Human Development Index scores in the country. Nationwide, with roughly 40% living below the poverty line, it must be recognized that there is widespread collective deprivation in Nepal; and within this there are additional layers of dispossession and exclusion. Occasionally, ethnic activists get so focused on their own particular conditions that they tend to ignore this larger picture. The remedy is to increase the size of the pie as well as to divide it up more equitably. There is no sense in sharing poverty". Pahari Argued. Since my arrival in DC in 1995 I have worked non-stop on Nepali community issues. Having a community life is important in and of itself. It's especially necessary for an immigrant community like ours to have a sense of community so that the next generation gets a sense that they are Nepali Americans. Starting with a three-year service as vice-president and later president of The America Nepal Society, I served in the ANA Executive Board, and had the privilege of putting together, with the help of many others, the 2002 ANA Convention. At present my community work is focused on the DC Nepali Education Project, a mission to educate Nepali-American children in Nepali language and culture. This is a project under the umbrella of International Nepali Literary Society. The DC chapter is managed and run by enthusiastic local volunteers and parents like Nora Thapa and Saroj Prajapati. The language school currently has 16 children and 5 adults learning Nepali. I have volunteered to teach the adult class.

He also volunteer on Sagarmatha Television as a guest interviewer. He also helping to Radio Dovaan by hosting the "Chirfaar" live interview and audience call-in program every second week.

Talking of Nepal issues, in the past 3 years he has tried to remain quite engaged with happenings in Nepal.

Pahari Said "India is a regional hegemonic power and Nepal and Nepalis have to live with that. India's position on the armed maoist insurgency in Nepal is not static. Initially India considered this Nepal's internal problem. Maoists used the open boarder between Nepal and India very effectively for shelter, and to ferry arms and other vital supplies. It was only a matter time before the resourceful Nepali maoists made links with maoist groups on the Indian side. Recently, long divided Indian maoist groups have agreed to wage a united campaign against the Indian state, and Nepali maoists have pledged to lend their full moral and strategic support to this cause. Indian security may have evidence that Nepali and India maoists conduct joint political and military training on Indian as well as Nepali territory. All added up, the Indians have suddenly realized that this is not only Nepal's, but a regional problem with definite spillover effect into key bordering Indian states like Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Bengal, and beyond. Indian hawks may have initially looked at the armed conflict in Nepal as another way in which Nepal might remain weak, and therefore unable to assert itself against India's interest in the region. Today there is evidence that those same hawks and analysts are deeply concerned and fearful that conflict in Nepal will harm India's security. Scattered throughout major Indian cities there are hundreds of thousands of Nepalis doing menial and low level work. Compared to other Nepali political parties, the Nepali maoists have significant social and political networking within this group. Any Indian analyst looking at the whole picture has to come away feeling very alarmed.

This is the context within which we should try and understand India's recent proactive position on Nepal's maoist insurgency and her commitment to support the Nepali state to defend against the maoist armed challenge. So far this has remained at the level of arms and material support (training etc.) for the Nepali army and police. I don't think this will change to troop support any time soon because India has learned many lessons (or one hopes she has) from the IPKF misadventure in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. In the calculation of Nepali maoists, Indian troops entering Nepal will prove to be the biggest and most effective recruitment tool for the maoists. Nepali maoists may not be far off the mark on this assumption. I hope Indian analysts and strategists are paying attention to this dimension of the Nepal crisis and will exercise caution. Having said this, I still believe that managing India's involvement in Nepal is the responsibility of Nepali statesmen. It is up to our leaders to define the framework within which to seek Indian assistance and to make certain that this assistance does not compromise Nepal's long term interests and sovereignty". Dr. Pahari further said.

I think I have addressed this to some extent in answering your last question. Let me address it briefly and more directly here. Yes, the insurgency in Nepal has the real potential to rekindle pockets of simmering maoist conflict in India. South Asian maoists openly aspire for a "red corridor" that extends from Nepal to Andhra Pradesh via UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. And Nepali maoists have a track record of converting aspiration to reality as we can see from the scope of the insurgency in Nepal at present. There is also concern that Bhutan and Bangladesh may become embroiled in some maoist inspired internal conflict. Bangladesh has been politically unstable for many years and there is a core group of committed maoists in that country who may be swayed into action following regional trends. For Bhutan the threat of maoist insurgency is linked up with the problem of Nepali Bhutanese refugees who have taken shelter in Eastern Nepal for over a decade. An uprooted population like that of the Jhapa refugee camps is always fertile ground for radical ideologies. There is mounting evidence that Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin living in the Jhapa camps have developed significant links with Nepali maoists. A delay in resolving this refugee situation would spell sure trouble for Bhutan down the road.

Lastly, South Asia is a nuclear hotspot. Anytime there is gross conflict and instability in this region one has to worry about its implications for the entire region and the world. These are not immediate but rather long term considerations. But they are considerations that must be factored in". In theory, India can play a pivotal role in helping resolve the crisis in Nepal. In practice, India's role is circumscribed by a number of important variables. First, India cannot by itself push for a "solution" if key Nepali protagonists do not or cannot agree upon the terms of the proposed "solution." When the King, UML, NC, and other political party leaders go to India on their own and represent their own positions and interests before the Indian state and key leaders, there is no incentive or basis for India to pursue a consistent "line" vis a vis Nepal. But if Nepal presents to India a united front and a consistent message about how India can help resolve the conflict there will come a time when India will have to take action. For example, if there were solid unanimity in Nepal that third party involvement in building a negotiated settlement was the way to go, then bringing India along, necessarily through some give and take, would not be that hard. But this domestic consensus is absent. It's not realistic to expect India to pursue objectives and strategies on behalf of Nepal for which there is no domestic consensus among Nepali constitutional forces themselves. If and when there is solid domestic consensus among the constitutional forces, the onus will be on India not stand in the way of peace in Nepal.

In the meantime, the high level decision in India to provide extra security and monitoring of the open borders, and to put pressure on the maoists to not use Indian territory for planning and staging raids into Nepal may provide Nepali maoist leadership with incentives to opt for talks. Indians might also be persuaded to use their intelligence and leverage to send signals to the maoist leadership that it should sit down for talks with the Nepali Government rather than wage a costly and futile war.He said. Dr. Pahari is a sociologist by training and education. He earned Ph.D. in 1995 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since then he has taught sociology at Goucher College in Baltimore and Catholic University in Washington, DC. Currently he works at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia. The Nepali state is fractured, divided, and in disarray. The constitutional political forces cannot agree on ABCs, much less on how to handle a determined armed insurgency. Trust and working relationship between the monarchy/army and the political parties is at a historic low point. Even as maoists threaten to attack and capture the center, the monarchy, army and political parties are involved in internecine power struggles and continue to undermine each other at crucial junctures.

Anyone who understands how insurgencies work understands that these are exactly the conditions under which conflicts are prolonged. Maoists have no reason to negotiate with a state and government whose legitimacy and effectiveness is undercut by serious internal division. Maoists have created a structural power vacuum in the country and the state/government is unable to check or reverse this trend. The only form of "negotiation" that the maoists will be interested in at this juncture would be to stipulate the terms of surrender for the state. Maoist ideological rigidity has always been there. But disunity, disarray and desperation on the part of the state/government are also major reasons for the failure of the past two rounds of negotiations. The avowed aim of the maoists is to overthrow the Nepali government and to capture state power, and on that basis to embark on an ambitious political and social engineering campaign. To the extent that the maoists see the state as unable to prevent them from reaching this goal, the former are liable to use talks and negotiations as mere tactical tools. For talks to succeed, the maoists and the state must both feel that there is truly no other way out. There is some evidence that the state forces are rapidly reaching that realization. The maoists, on the other hand, feel they are winning this conflict as evidenced by their increasingly offensive and strident tactics and their unchallenged presence outside of district headquarters.

The maoists can be convinced to negotiate in earnest if the legitimacy and strength of the state are not in question. Unity among the constitutional forces and a strong national reaffirmation of democracy is, I believe, the only mechanism by which state power in Nepal can be reasserted. The middle ground of politics in Nepal is weakened. Only a sustained resurgence of this middle ground can compel the maoists towards a peaceful resolution. Some in Nepal believe, mistakenly, that putting up a robust state response against the maoists means suspending democracy and resorting to stong-arm autocracy. But doing so achieves exactly the opposite effect – i.e., the maoists gain support and supporters every time state heavy-handedness and scepter of autocracy rear their heads in Nepal. And by extension, maoist advocacy of "total change" loses appeal when democratic institutions accountable to the people are seen as both legitimate and effective. Actions based on this line of thinking, I believe, will deter maoists from pursuing the unattainable "total victory," and encourage them to approach negotiations as strategic rather than merely a tactical end. Despite being an eternal optimist it's hard for me to see any good coming out of the violence and conflict that has descended upon Nepal in the past 9 years. Some like to advance the thesis that all stable democratic societies have gone through their own bloody conflicts in the course of their history, and hence these are "growing pains" for Nepal. This may sound really learned and sophisticated, but when it comes right down, it's just another form of apathy and post-facto rationalization for violence. Monumental achievements like India's independence from the British, end of apartheid in South Africa, the US civil rights movement were all consciously conceived as non-violent socio-political movements. These were nation, civilization and history altering events. The point I am trying to make is that if such large-scale transformations as Indian Independence, black liberation in South Africa, and civil rights for American Blacks could be achieved through non-violent means, then changing a small nation like Nepal for the better should not have required an armed insurgency. The resort to violence is especially paradoxical given that since 1990 Nepal was not a closed autocratic nation but one embarked on the path of democracy. Opting for violence, whether it is for settling a personal issue or whether it is for bringing a better life to the "people," reveals a fundamental bankruptcy of imagination on the part of those who advocate and adopt it. I am certain that history is going to judge Gandhi and Mandela as more creative and effective leaders than the recently deceased Arafat.

"Conflict analysts," now part of a virtual cottage industry in Nepal, like to talk about "root causes" of the violent maoist insurgency. Their argument is that the "root causes" are so endemic and extensive in Nepal (economic, social, political, ethnic/caste, regional et., etc..) that some sort of violent movement was inevitable. I find this to be a fundamentally flawed argument, in theory, methodology and also historically. Nothing is inevitable or automatic in history, especially organized violent movements. Nazism, the Chinese Revolution, and the current war in Iraq, and 30 years of Panchayat rule, for example, did not erupt automatically out of "root causes." As always, active and conscious human and institutional agency was behind these large-scale social phenomena.

Similarly, historical actors in Nepal have made choices over the years that, taken together, shapes current socio-political reality of Nepal. As of 1990 the monarchy chose the path of compromise with political parties and agreed to a constitutional set-up. The CPN-UML consciously chose to renounce armed revolution and communist dictatorship in favor of multi-party democracy. The Nepali Congress Party chose to move to the right of center from its originally social democratic ideology. The Sadhbhavana Party chose to define itself along Tarai identity issues. The former Panchayat elite chose to participate in democratic politics by forming the Rastriya Prajatantra Party. The CPN (M) and its leadership made a conscious and calculated choice to use violence for political ends after one major attempt to adopt the parliamentary road. None of these decisions were inevitable or based on foregone factors. In each case leaders and intellectuals helped define the issues, and helped guide action towards a particular cluster of ends among a range of alternative clusters. The "root causes" hypothesis, however, can tell us nothing about why one set of choices was made over another set. It is a deterministic and fatalistic approach to explaining social reality. In other words, the "root causes" thesis has no predictive value. At its best, it is an attempt to impute causes to events after the events have taken place. In that sense "root causes" is a catch-all category that explains everything and nothing. Plausible analysis, on the other hand, actually explains the process and mechanisms by which causes translate into actions and outcomes rather than simply assert that "root causes" led to this or that outcome. The latter trend is dominant in analyses of the maoist insurgency in Nepal.

Back in 1989-9, non-violent nationwide protests set the stage for the transfer of power from the monarchy to the representatives of the people. The violent means adopted by the maoists since 1996 has, by contrast, succeeded in slowly transferring power back to the monarchy. This is an irony that we need to seriously ponder over.

The hope that I see lie in the area of growing public awareness of what it takes to make democracies work well. I think more Nepalis today realize that democracy is not something that can be entrusted solely to the political parties. As a result of the conflict, civil society in Nepal is alive to a whole host of issues previously swept under the carpet of Nepali history. There is a sense of national consensus and urgency in addressing these issues, be it poverty, inequality, exclusion, cultural rights, or gender equality. I see the mobilization and activism of civil society around long neglected agendas as perhaps the only redeemable aspect of the senseless violence of the past 9 years.

But much before implementing neglected agendas, there is the enormously complex task of making peace, and carrying out reconciliation and reconstruction. We should consider ourselves extremely lucky if we can have peace in five years and are able to begin working on reconciliation and reconstruction. Once we are able to work out a lasting peace, I think Nepal can move very rapidly towards democratic consolidation and economic growth. But like in the past, much will depend on the orientation and choices that elected leaders make this time around. The Nepali people deserve better than they have been getting in all areas".

These days it's fashionable to claim -- as some US-based Nepali "analysts" do – that 1990 yielded a fake form of democracy. In Nepal too, ideologues on the far right and the far left often outdo each other in questioning the democratic bona fides of the political system ushered in through the 1990 Constitution. In truth, I believe, that the political order that resulted from the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and the 1990 Constitution was a genuine democratic system. It vested sovereignty in the people and power onto an elected government. An autocratic King and the pseudo-party (Panchayat) that he supported for 30 years were on the full defensive after April 1990. The first elected house of representatives was filled with young political activists from over half a dozen political parties who, a few years before, lived on the run from Panchayat persecution. In 1990 the tables turned and for the first time in Nepal's history, people's elected representatives began to rule Nepal from Kathmandu down to the villages. Of the 205 representatives in the elected House, most were relative unknowns who came from humble backgrounds. Many of the ingredients that make for a stable democracy were, in fact, in place in post-1990 Nepal: a democratic constitution, entrenched political parties, relatively fair elections, high voter mobilization and participation, a free and vibrant media, conscious civil society (including NGOs), a dynamic private sector. In addition, a political culture of peaceful transfer of power was well underway, including within the United Marxist-Leninist Party (UML).

Look at Nepal today. The Constitution is moribund. We have had non-elected governments for the past 2 years and elections are not in sight. The center is parliament-less and local bodies are defunct. A vicious armed conflict has converted the nation into a zone of war and fear. Despite the avarice of some political party leaders, was the political order of 1990 better than what we have today? I think only a hopeless ideologue or a nihilist would argue that what we have today is preferable to what we had between 1990 and 1996, the year that the maoist insurgency started.

I hasten to add that there were flaws, some of them very significant, in the post-1990 political order. In my mind there were two principle sources of flaws. First, there were exclusionary provisions in the Constitution on issues like language, religion, and gender equality which made the document less acceptable across the nation than it could have been. Second, independent of constitutional issues, successive regimes in Kathmandu simply ignored good governance and the practice of democracy. Thus, in the post-1990 period, although there was a major change in the political process by which governments came into power, not enough changed as far as how and to what end that power was exercised.

In my analysis, rather than constitutional issues per se, it is the latter set of issues relating to ineffective governance, failure to enact reforms, persistent corruption and cronyism, infighting within and between political parties that has led Nepal down the path of gross political instability. If political parties and the post-1990 leadership had managed to enact basic reforms and to provide the public with a clean and effective government, then although the maoist leadership may have tried, it is unlikely that they would have succeeded in waging a national armed campaign. In other words, a new and revised constitution alone will be insufficient for bringing long term stability to Nepal. Sweeping reforms in targeted sectors and sustained good governance I think are the building blocks for peace and stability in Nepal.

( Kamala sarup is editor to )

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