TCS Daily

Mixed Messages for Nepal

By Christopher Lingle - January 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Kathmandu, NEPAL -- Given the political vulnerability and conflicts in Nepal, along with the weak performance of its underdeveloped economy, the country could soon become a failed state. Such a tragedy is unlikely to have the global impact of a similar outcome in Afghanistan during the 1990s. Nonetheless, Nepal is a land link between China and India that could be a regional powder keg.

To halt its political collapse, outside parties with diverse interests are moved to support various domestic political groups. While India continues to encourage the Maoist rebels and political parties to engage in dialogue with the King, China has provided limited military materiel to the government. Meanwhile, Western governments and NGOs are trying to encourage the development of democratic ideals and human rights.

An important consideration in all this is that the manner in which human rights and democracy are being promoted both within and without do not bode well for the future of Nepal. For example, insistence on Nepal being a multi-party democracy suggests that voting rights and political participation are the final aim of the struggle. But democracy alone cannot and does not guarantee peace or prosperity. Indeed, democracy can become a hollow vessel that allows populist politicians to usurp the freedom and wealth of citizens. Equally, those who argue for human rights frequently argue for collectivized rights, which often stifle the cause of human dignity.

Lessons about the failure of democracy to lead to prosperity and stability can be drawn from the experience of Nepal's neighbor, India. There, the claims of democracy allowed its political leadership to impose misguided policies that kept too many of its citizens too poor for too long. Independence and democracy allowed India's political class to become masters over the citizenry. Armed with political power, India's politicians and bureaucrats ensured that they have been the primary beneficiaries of "trickle-down" socialism that gave them comforts and high incomes, while others did without. Ambitious Indians tended to migrate abroad while those remaining endured restraints on their economic freedoms and high tax bills or suffered from low economic growth.

The problem with India's democracy is that it has become a tool to apportion power rather than to guarantee individual liberty, whereby the interests of citizens come last. This same essential problem confronts Nepal where opposing factions, whether Maoist or "democratic" or royalist, are all competing to decide who will wield power.

The real question is not whether the Maoists are "cruel" or if the king acts as a despot, as expressed in the facile remarks made recently by US Senator Patrick Leahy. Instead, the complaint should be that there is no political voice for promoting the welfare of each and all Nepalese citizens. Each and all should have guaranteed individual rights and freedoms whether rich or poor, man or woman, Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim.

As such, individual rights and freedom should be at the heart of Nepal's struggle. Unfortunately, one set of political interests is vying against others to acquire state power to use in the service of ends deemed best for others.

Despite pretensions of creating or promoting a broad sense of community, populist democracy allows the interests of special groups to dominate the wider community. This can occur if the discussion about human rights leads to specific groups being granted special treatment. Despite good intentions, assigning rights in terms of social or collective identity undermines the universality that is the aim of the concept of fundamental human rights.

Granting rights and freedoms on the basis of a collective identity has done considerable harm to communities. This is because "group rights" divide communities into distinct, separate political classes that invite conflict, since the interests of some groups are promoted over others. Countries suffering most from communal violence and sectarianism are those that have granted rights to minorities that tend to be resented as recipients of preferential treatments.

When rights reflect collective or social identity, there will be "negative-sum" policy outcomes whereby some groups benefit at the expense of others. Granting social or group rights imposes obligations in that other groups of individuals must give up some of their rights to act for their own ends. As such, human beings tend to be treated as objects and servants of the community rather than being valued as unique individuals.

Basing freedoms and rights on special traits or granted to certain groups of citizens is the principal cause of the powerlessness of individuals. Replacing individual initiative with political imperatives allows a relentless expansion of restrictions and bureaucracy, which contributes to a process of dehumanization.

While collectivized rights invite conflict and require coercion, assigning and enforcing rights of individuals encourages them to coordinate and cooperate. Those that would support preserving the dignity of humans should vigorously support individual rights through the rule of law.

Over the course of the 20th Century, some individuals or parties gained power to rule over the rest of the population by using the slogan of "power to the people". A better motto to guide politics in Nepal and elsewhere in the 21st Century is to promote "freedom for the people", freedom from bureaucratic coercion, for every individual.

Christopher Lingle is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi.

TCS Daily Archives