Nepal walks a social and political tightrope


Authors: Rumela Sen, Columbia University and Richard Bownas, University of Northern Colorado

The more things change, the more they stay the same — this rings true for politics and society in Nepal. Former Maoist rebels, along with the moderate Communist Party of Nepal, are now part of the ruling Nepal Communist Party. It was fair to expect that the rebels-turned-rulers would implement some of their radical programs. But little headway has been made on political and social issues.

Uttara Saud, 14, sits inside a Chaupadi shed in the hills of Legudsen village in Achham District in western Nepal, 16 February 2014 (Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar/File Photo).Progress has stalled on issues of transitional justice, the role of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) in domestic governance, the practice of menstrual ostracisation (chaupadi) and geopolitical balancing between its heavyweight neighbours. There’s little to show despite these issues having remained top of the agenda since the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Maoist rebels and the Nepalese government which ended the civil war.

During the war, over 16,000 people were killed and nearly 1400 disappeared, many at the hands of security forces. Yet the 2014 amendment to the Transitional Justice Act — that was later declared inconsistent with international standards by the Supreme Court of Nepal — granted amnesty to the perpetrators. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons were created in 2015. They received thousands of complaints but are still yet to publish any findings.

Successive governments have tried to fill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with political appointments who were perceived as neither impartial nor independent. Critics allege that it has been used as a witch hunt against political rivals. Currently, the commission is not operational, as it is waiting for a new commissioner to be appointed. Despite objections, the government is expected to make an appointment without any reform to the process, further bolstering apprehension that transitional justice is a perpetrator-led process rather than one that holds perpetrators accountable.

Several INGOs played important roles in voicing demands for transitional justice. But their aggressive lobbying alarmed many in Nepal enough to propose the National Integrity Policy in 2018, requiring NGOs to submit regular financial and progress reports outlining their activities. The policy was ultimately backtracked, but was revived last November when the Cabinet authorised the Ministry of Home Affairs to draft a new law to regulate NGOs.

The consternation about INGOs meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs is not entirely unfounded given their rapid growth. In 1990 there were 220 NGOs in Nepal. Now there are around 40,000 NGOs and 200 INGOs. Eighty per cent of the NGOs are funded by the INGOs, and in 2017, 140 INGOs associated with the Association of International NGOs in Nepal brought in US$410 million.

Despite allegations that some countries use INGOs as instruments of foreign policy in Nepal, their work has positive impact. INGOs monitor elections, reintegrate former rebels, aid community development and work to improve child welfare and women’s empowerment. Backed by formidable foreign funding, they have even set up lavish infrastructure in remote districts.

INGOs have also been effective in directing resources to addressing the custom of chaupadi, or menstrual ostracism. About 20 per cent of women nationwide and 75 per cent in the western hills of Nepal are estimated to be subject to the practice. During menstruation women are expected to live in cow sheds, also known as menstrual huts, where they are exposed to cold, snake bites potential suffocation and burning from fires.

Efforts to reform this tradition were made in 2005 when the Supreme Court banned it. In 2017, it became a criminal offence for families to force the practice on women — perpetrators can be fined or imprisoned. But national laws banning chaupadi have been ineffective. Last year, international media organisations including The Guardian and National Public Radio took an interest in the issue after the deaths of a mother and her two children due to smoke inhalation in a menstrual hut. More recently, local governments are threatening to withdraw welfare benefits to families found guilty of practicing chaupadi.

Also making headlines in Nepal was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Kathmandu visit last October. Xi was the first Chinese leader to visit the capital in 23 years. Fifteen trade and investment agreements were concluded during the visit and nearly US$500 million in development aid was promised over 2020–22. The visit marks the apex of an intensifying relationship between China and Nepal that has worried India.

China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment and aid in Nepal. But India is still Nepal’s largest trading partner. India imposed blockades (most recently in 1985 and 2015) on Nepal to influence its domestic politics. So in a bid for autonomy, left-leaning parties in Nepal adopted a balancing agenda. They hope to access Chinese ports and benefit from the proposed Trans-Himalayan Multi-dimensional Connectivity Network. Partly in response to Chinese influence, India offered Nepal access to seaports via a proposed internal waterway on the Gandaki River.

Balancing between its neighbours offers leverage for Nepal but also raises concerns about long-term economic dependency. Some even worry that Nepal is following the Sri Lankan path to dependency on China. Better transportation linkages will not be transformative unless Nepal has niche products to export. Indeed, rather than considering Nepal’s interests, China probably sees Himalayan infrastructure projects as a way to access India’s vast markets. From navigating shifting geopolitics to upending entrenched cultural traditions, Nepalese society and institutions face a challenging year ahead.

Rumela Sen is the Associate Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University.

Richard Bownas is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Northern Colorado.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2019 in review and the year ahead.

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