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Mauled by the mob

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post, May 06, 2010
Source: The Kathmandu Post

Back to April 24, 2006 — the date has historical importance. If an unruly mass of people, ignoring the rule of law and the constitution, can force the reinstatement of the parliament which had long been dissolved, can't a similar protest pull the government down when it is not possible to do so from within parliament? After all, if the rule of law, or the constitution for that matter, can be compromised for the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA), why cannot it be compromised for the UCPN (Maoist)? The problem is old although the example is new.

When the Maoist demonstrators were passing by Setopul towards Old Baneshwor yesterday, the slogan they were chanting was "Yaspaliko haija Makune lai laija" (may the cholera epidemic this year take away Madhav Kumar Nepal for good (and, consequently, create space for the Maoists).

As it happens in this poor country, whenever there is an outbreak of cholera, it does not just claim the life of one such individual; but hundreds. Whether it is cholera or Nepal "closure" — the effect is the same on the common people. Yet, that did not matter to the people in the Maoist march-past. In order to pull down the prime minister, they have almost paralysed the whole country and made the life of the common people miserable. The claim is that no matter what the constitution says, the Maoists must be allowed to form a national government and draft a constitution that promotes their line of thought. The ground for such a claim is that they can garner the support of a few thousand people against the lawful government and demonstrate in the city in frightening ways.

Both the claim and the grounds are bizarre in a culture that supports the rule of law and constitutional democracy. Harvard political theorist Samuel Huntington, who passed away in December 2008, was crucial in helping shape modern views on so many important issues of the last five decades or so including civilian-military relations, political development, comparative government and what he described as the global clash of cultures in his famous 1996 book. It is strange that this type of phenomenon did not come to his analysis.

Building on his theme of clash of civilisations, Huntington wrote that current global politics should be understood as the result of deep-seated conflicts between great cultures and religions of the world. The unifying drive for order that had been at the center of Huntington's analysis of the cold war now gave way to a dark vision of a world irreconcilably divided along radically different civilisations with fundamentally divergent values — more specifically those of the secular West and the Islamic world. For many, this perspective created a context for that conflict. All other issues fell in the margins. His thesis acquired something like a prophetic authority.

Yet, the cold war has not gone even though Huntington is no more to see it through his Eurocentric prism. It is not cultures that are at loggerheads here. It is the determination of the people to practice democracy that is being assailed. Nepal is still a parliamentary democracy in which the government (the executive) must be supported, or at least tolerated, by parliament, if it is to sustain. By definition, then, a government must remain tolerated by an absolute majority (50 + 1 percent) of the members of parliament. If an absolute majority actively opposes a government (i.e., it is willing to vote to remove it from power), then it will have to resign. The Maoists have not been able to garner an absolute majority in parliament and move a no-confidence motion in order to pull the government down. Yet, they want to do it by methods which are not constitutional.

Responding to the situation, a civil society group led by senior journalist Kanak Dixit issued a timely press release yesterday: "This general strike imposed by the UCPN (Maoist) is destroying the national economy even as millions of students are kept from attending school and college. The livelihoods of the peasantry have been affected countrywide. Those relying on daily wage labour to keep the family fed are confronted with a crisis. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of young adults have been trapped in a campaign based on violence and anarchy. We believe this attempt to take a society in transition towards confrontation can only increase the country's vulnerability to foreign forces."

It categorically highlighted, "The Interim Constitution of Nepal is itself a document representing consensus and cooperation, and the Maoist party must seek response to its demands within the bounds of this document. We, therefore, appeal to the UCPN (Maoist) to end its general strike and return to the Legislative Parliament. As the largest party in the House, we urge the UCPN (Maoist) to re-engage in the task of constitution-writing. We also appeal to the Maoists to abide by the six-point understanding reached at the High Level Political Mechanism of the three largest parties."

There is little more to be said on the ongoing Maoist movement than that. But what is even more important on the part of civil society is the consistent determination to fight out planned lawlessness by forcing compliance with the basics of constitutional culture. The basic values should not be negotiable — no matter how the issues are approached and solutions crafted. Willingness to compromise on the basic values leads to disaster.

In the discourse of democracy, whether it is the regime of King Gyanendra, G.P. Koirala or Madhav Kumar Nepal, civil society should remind everybody, thoroughly and consistently, that the country is governed by a written document, one that creates institutions of government and sets limits on what the government may do. The belief that the constitution is created by the citizenry, and that although it is not timeless, the understanding that until it is changed or revised, everybody is bound by it is the basic constitutional culture that has been wrecked in Nepal in recent years.

The people must be required to go along with its ultimate results even though they are free to disagree with them. The failure to appreciate the creation of a constitutional culture is a serious oversight. Had it been in order, Nepal would not only have efficiently protected its basic democratic credentials, but also the sovereignty of its people and the political institutions. It would not have been possible for anybody to overrun the dignity of the common people. Instead, what has come to exist is what poet Matthew Arnold has written in his poem "Dover Beach":

"Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

Copyright @ Bipin Adhikari,