Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Short Analysis on the Politics of Nepal and Bangladesh

In a subcontinent that has been mired by centuries of feudal exploitation, class conflict and colonial subjugation, the prospects of contemporary democratization in South Asia seems utterly difficult, if not patently impossible, especially in the wake of current events in the countries in the region. Nepal is still recovering from the heels of a national crisis that almost toppled the monarchy. Sri Lanka still languishes from the effects of the tsunami disaster in its southern areas, notwithstanding the continuing threat of the Tamil Tigers. Pakistan and Bangladesh have both been experiencing a growth in Islamic fundamentalists that have resulted in suicide bombings. India, on the other hand, despite its so-called vibrant democracy, still has to contend with a growing Maoist insurgency in its countryside and hinterlands.

Nonetheless, the paper seeks to examine two of these South Asian states – Nepal and Bangladesh – in terms of how a variety of issues have undermined their democratic institutions and the forging of national identities among its population.

Nepal – Is it the Monarchy or the Insurgency to Blame?

Since the start of the Maoist insurgency led by Prachanda, the Nepalese monarchy and some international commentators have blamed the rebels for undermining the efforts of the present and past governments to establish a truly working democracy in peaceful co-existence with the Nepalese Monarchy. The monarchy charges the Maoist insurgency for terrorizing the villagers in the hinterlands of Nepal, leading blockades of the capital to push the government to its knees.

However, since the start of the government crackdown on its political opponents and the dissolution of Parliament, the discourse on the real causes of the curtailment of democracy in Nepal has focused on the repressive measures employed by the monarchy to crush any forms of dissent, to the extent that even the Maoists seem more morally ascendant than the apologists of King Gyanendra, as royal security forces have resorted to bloody repressive tactics, which according to Amnesty International utilized arbitrary arrests and torture. (Ganguly & Shoup, 2005) On the other hand, the mainstream political parties are also to be blamed for undermining the efforts towards democratization in Nepal due to their heedless, endless game of rent-seeking and more than petty personal quarrels and patronage squabbles. (Ganguly & Shoup, 2005) All of these inevitably contributed to the rise of the Maoists in the Nepalese politics, that the people have been wary of the conservative and moderate sections of the political system and have learned to embrace the radical politics of the insurgency.

On the other hand, the stumbling block to Nepalese democratization also operated in a backdrop of a society that was still enmeshed in socio-economic contradictions which gave the Maoists fertile soil to launch their revolution. In a paper by Stuart Gordon (2005), he explained that –

Nepal’s conflict is the product of a complicated convergence of regional, ethnic, and economic inequalities and deprivations. The majority of Nepal’s 36 major ethnic groups have been marginalized in a power structure in which multi-party democracy and modernization have, perversely, reinforced upper-caste privilege while also highlighting systematic inequality. The Maoists have attempted to mobilize grievances by appealing to

ethnic communities suffering discrimination, such as those of Tibeto-Burman

stock and the Dalits (untouchable castes).

While most members of mainstream political parties came from members of Nepalese society’s upper castes, the Maoists were able to secure the support and loyalty of a broad cross-section of the people’s lower castes, promising genuine land reform and a dismantling of the feudal and semi-feudal political economy that has relegated to poverty much of Nepal’s constituencies. The radical left was also responsible in brokering an alliance between the peasantry and the intelligentsia, which, in classical Maoist theory, was an indispensable alliance in waging revolution.

In the long road towards democratization, the left was able to mobilize not only the different economic classes, but ethnic minorities as well that – (Gordon 2005)

Partly as a consequence of democratization, the Maoists have been able to mobilize other castes and ethnic and familial groups (Dalits, Kham Magar, Sarki, Tamang, Damai, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, etc.), transforming the war from an intra- elite conflict into a fragmented inter-group struggle. In effect, in addition to being a conflict between ideologies, the war has become a much more broadly based struggle for emancipation from the ruling Brahmin, Chetri, and Newar elite.

In all of these, however, it is clear that the state and all its apparatuses have been clearly unable to realize the goals of a democratic Nepal and has since been isolated from the majority of its people, to the extent that the Maoists themselves – the anti-thesis of a free and democratic republic – are taking the cudgels for the monarchy and the mainstream political parties’ patent inability in enforcing a true democratic system that would truly benefit, in political and economic terms, the lives of the people, as it has been the revolutionary movement that has been able to create unities between castes and mobilize the minorities into action in fulfillment of their democratic hopes and aspirations.

Bangladesh – The Problems of Transition from Authoritarian Rule

Bangladesh democracy is also in peril, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in their country in a backdrop of intense political bickerings among mainstream political parties that has led to relentless political crises. In 2005, the mainstream opposition continued its boycott of the Parliament, including massive street protests to force the ouster of the sitting government. Bangladesh also saw the rise in extrajudicial killings of more than three hundred persons in the span of a few months, notwithstanding the unprecedented death sentences on twenty-two persons for the murder of an oppositionist in Parliament. (Riaz 2006) The Ahmadiyyas, a Muslim subsect, have also been the target of political persecution from all fronts, that radical fundamentalists attacking the Ahmadiyyas are being helped even by Bangladeshi security forces in pulling down signboards of Ahamdiyya mosqes. (Riaz 2006) More so, Bangladesh again topped the list, for the last five years, of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (Riaz 2006)

Nonetheless, all of these seem to be part of the continuing struggle of the Bangladeshi people in the path towards democratization, especially in the light of the long experience of the country under authoritarian rule, that the executive branch in government still tends to over-extend its powers despite the existence of a parliament and judiciary to maintain the checks and balances in government. (Datta) More so, because of this difficult transition to democracy, a true democratic culture within Bangladeshi society has not been created yet, that even the very concept of separation of powers and the system of checks and balances have yet to truly take root, especially when assertions of general corruption in high and low offices of government abound, with even the international community convinced of such a phenomenon in the Bangladeshi government. (Datta)


In both states, it is clear that governments, past and present, have been clearly unable to establish and sustain a democracy that will truly serve the needs of their people, especially in societies replete with generations of ethnic discrimination and caste oppression, to the extent that a real national identity of Nepalese and Bangladeshis has never been created, except for these societies as a heterogeneous mix of people from different social groupings. It must be definitely noted, however, that the foudning of democracy in regions that have been beset with decades of socio-economic and cultural contradictions would definitely find difficulty in such an undertaking.

The leading state actors in these countries must be able to sufficiently convince their people that building a true democracy is beyond the internal prejudices between classes and ethnic groups and instead founded on libertarian principles of social justice and the rule of law that knows no race nor creed, but only the upliftment of the lives of a society’s people and their pursuit of happiness and dignity, as individuals and as a people.

Works Cited:

  1. Datta, S. Bangladesh: A Fragile Democracy. New Delhi: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
  2. Ganguly, S. & Shoup, B. (2005). Nepal: Between Dictatorship and Anarchy. Journal of Democracy. Vol. 16, No. 4.
  3. Gordon, S. (2005). Evaluating Nepal’s Integrated Security and Development Policy: Development, Democracy and Counter Insurgency. Asian Survey. Vol. 45, Issue 4, pp. 581–602.
  4. Riaz, A. (2006). Bangladesh in 2005: Standing at a Crossroads. Asian Survey. Vol. 46, Issue 1, pp. 107–113
  5. Uddin, S. Constructing Bangladesh: Religion, Ethnicity and Language in an Islamic Nation. University of Carolina Press.

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