Chaitanya Mishra, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu
Proceedings of Unfolding Futures: Nepalese Economy, Society, and Politics
Friday-Sunday, October 5-7, 2007, Ottawa, Canada
Nepal is in transition heading to a political break from the monarchy and the past semi-feudal instruments but the scope and implications of the transition remain uncertain. Also remain uncertain the constitutive political-economic themes: neoliberal vs. liberal democratic vs. social democratic, and state structures: union of near-sovereign units vs. less than federal but highly autonomous local governments vs. centralized. The conjecture made in the article is that the ensemble of historical shifts and contradictions at multiple levels of social organizations, for example, the levels of the individual, household, class, gender, caste, ethnic groups as well those at state and international levels, have led to a specific form of political transition in Nepal. The constitutive features of the transition in general and democratization in particular were erected upon five variables including (a) the weakening and demise of precapitalist, including feudal, political, economic and cultural forms at multiple levels of social organization, (b) the expansion and intensification of capitalism. The framework for explaining the historic development leading to the 2006 political transition in Nepal is developed on those five variables is presented in this paper.
A potentially momentous political transition began in Nepal in April 2006. The transition will likely mark a key political break with the past as politicians and citizens elect the constituent assembly that will draw up the next constitution. However, even the short-term scope and implications of this transition remain uncertain. It is likely that the 238-year old monarchy – which underwent several political-military incarnations, became sharply autocratic, and explicitly flouted the 1990 political compact of a parliamentary monarchy – will cease to exist. Even in the unlikely case that the monarchy renews itself, it will be rendered politically and militarily powerless, and undivided sovereign power will finally be vested in the people and their representatives. The state and society of Nepal may become more democratic, inclusive, and plural than in the past. State policy may be much less centralized than in the past and may instead be based on substantive devolution of political, financial, and administrative power to local governments, civil society organizations, and private initiatives. Specific features of precapitalist and feudal forms of landownership (e.g. absentee ownership and attached labor like the haliya labor system) may also be weakened or rendered illegal.
Most importantly, the interim constitution, which provides the legal basis for the conduct of state affairs during the transitional period, has been finalized following intense negotiations. The interim constitution, though silent on the issue of the monarchy, recognizes the prime minister as the head of state. More importantly, it seeks to dismantle several key features of the precapitalist and feudal forms, and promote capitalism. It takes the middle position between liberal democracy and democratic socialism. It also seeks to promote inclusion of a host of marginalized groups (e.g. the poor, agricultural tenants, women, Dalits, and ethnic groups) and the devolution of political power to different regions and localities.
However, the political agendas being formulated by various political parties, party-aligned “social” organizations, and diverse civil society actors are disparate. These disparate, and sometimes contradictory, interests have threatened to derail the alliance among the seven parliamentary parties and between the SPA and CPNM. In particular, the political legitimacy of the reinstated parliament, which has been one of the key sites – in addition to the SPA-CPNM conclaves – of political dialogue and decision making, had been strongly challenged by the CPNM. Not the least because the insurgent CPNM is not represented in parliament. The CPNM and various party organizations/party cadres within each constituent of the SPA have resisted the ceremonial-monarch position accorded to the king by the government. The CPNM has also protested against the appointment of senior officials. On the other hand, many in the SPA alliance remain wary of the PLA and, to a lesser degree, of the NA, the de facto allegiance of which continues to remain in question. The emergence of multiple political bodies (i.e. parliament, the SPA government, the SPA apex alliance, SPA-CPNM consultative and decision-making forums and the CPNM, which does not yet occupy any authoritative position within the state organization but nonetheless possesses an immense clout in political-military affairs of the central state organization and exercises significant local political and military control over a large part of the country) adds to the uncertainty. These and several other disparate positions, in addition to the possible backlash from reactionary forces, may derail the political roadmap being devised together by the SPA and the CPNM.
As a result, despite relatively well-orchestrated initiatives toward arms management, the interim constitution, interim cabinet, and the elections to the constituent assembly, a high level of uncertainty pervades over the scope, nature, and speed of the future transitions, as well as the sustainability of the transitions already effected. A rather wide gate has been opened to immediate and further-generation transitions. To put it differently, the country is in the death throes of the “old system” and on the cusp of relatively uncertain transitions.
To begin with, there is considerable uncertainty over the identification of the constitutive political-economic directions and themes of the popular movement and political transition, and as a corollary, over the precise nature of political, economic, and cultural transitions that are likely to be directly affected within the next couple of years (or by the time of the promulgation of a new constitution). More precisely, there is considerable uncertainty over whether the future state will be broadly neoliberal, liberal democratic or social democratic in nature, or whether the CPNM in particular will push it in a “decidedly red” direction. Further, how these broad political-economic programs will be concretized across “sectors” (e.g. the agrarian/agricultural regimes, regimes in other sectors of production, organization of labor, the social sectors, domains of revenue, and investment) remains uncertain. Also uncertain, is whether the state will be a union of near-sovereign units, as some of the current discourses want or if it will consist of considerably less than federal but highly autonomous local governments. On the other hand, and in the medium term, it is not impossible for the new state to become more centralized than the previous state. This is true particularly in view of the unprecedentedly large and “well equipped” security apparatus it will inherit, the high intensity of claims-based politics that the fluid and uncertain present has unleashed among occupational, regional, ethnic, gender, and other interest groups, the rising level of income inequality, and the entry of huge international or multinational investment which demands a commensurately “secure” regime. Communal and other strife, such as the one that took place in Nepalgunj along the highway corridor in the eastern Tarai in late December 2006 may also lead to demands for a highly “security” focused state. Similarly, the neoliberal push unleashed by international financial institutions and many donor countries, which is essentially rooted in capitalist imperialism, may lead to a clash between a democratic and welfare-oriented popular mandate on the one hand and the unwillingness or inability of the state/governments to promote such structures, values, and outcomes on the other. Consequently, salient contradictions and uncertainties will exist within and among political parties, the principal economic actors over whether or not the future can and will remain faithful to the themes of the popular movement and political transition. In other words, different political parties, economic actors, civil society groups, and citizens of different political, economic, and cultural persuasions read the transition somewhat differently. Importantly, there is uncertainty over the transitions that the CPNM itself is undergoing and whether or not the CPNM can keep itself largely intact as it seeks to resolve its contradictions.
It should be noted that the CPNM made a fundamental break with its past in 2003 when it declared that its immediate political program would henceforth be geared not toward a New Democratic (ND) state, but toward the “completion of bourgeois democratic revolution” (CBDR). In effect, one could very well argue that there have been not one but two CPNMs. The first CPNM lived between 1994 (its birth) and 2002 when it upheld the program of New Democracy (ND) and the strategy of “people’s war” (PW). The second CPNM was born in 2003 when it began to seriously question the historical appropriateness of the ND program, and instead gradually convinced itself of the validity of a program of bourgeois capitalist transition for present-day Nepal and other similarly placed peoples and countries (“for building a people-based democratic program suited to the 21st century”). It was this transition within the CPNM that prepared the ground for a series of agreements, and the currently ongoing cooperation, between parliamentary parties and the CPNM. It would have been impossible for the parliamentary parties, neighboring states, and international organizations to support the peace process and the process of transition without the transition the CPNM itself underwent. (I will not touch on the significance of the strategy of urban mass rebellion, which the CPNM has espoused on and off, in this paper.)
Nonetheless, during the later years of the insurgency, the CPNM appeared unable to resolve the emergent contradiction between this new political program and strategy (Mishra 2004). In other words, even if the ND political program had demanded a PW strategy, the “old” CPNM strategy of PW was not only incommensurate, but also downright counterproductive, for pushing forward the new political program of CBDR. The 2003 CPNM transition may create or exacerbate an internal fault line, and potential CPNM factions may justify their factionalism and trace their origins to the 2003 transition. It is more than likely that a wide fault line already exists between the CPNM and the Revolutionary International Movement (the global coalition of Maoist organizations) and various national-level Maoist political parties (e.g. Communist Party of India-Maoist).
The CPNM has been busy over the last three years attempting to resolve this means-end mismatch and to upstage the political rather than the military domain since the SPA-CPNM 12-point agreement two years ago, as predicted in Mishra (2004). The frequent invocation and implied threat of (the Bolshevik) “October Revolution”, the continuing predilection toward the politicized rather than professional armed force, the absence of a definite and transparent political-economic program, increasing incidences of violence and forced “taxes” and “donations”, and the ambitions of a hegemonic hold over other political parties are all challenges the CPNM has faced. This, in addition to remaining in a multiparty political framework, indicates that not all of CPNM leadership’s feels comfortable with the enormous 2003 transition and with the political, military, economic, financial, and cultural correlates and consequences of that transition. In essence, the CPNM remains much less certain over the objective and long run mandate of the transition. On the other hand, the CPNM views the current transition as a specific historical construction that will have to be undone during the march toward a future ND or socialist state. The realization of such a future will of course depend on the conduct of the CPNM itself and other political parties, the nature of the mandate of citizens, the perception and action of international actors, in addition to the facilities and constraints imposed by local and global structures and processes.
While the preceding paragraphs have emphasized disparate readings and political positionings by different political and other actors on the scope and nature of the current political transition, and the challenges and risk of such factors, they do not imply that the movement and the transition does not possess an overarching zeitgeist. Indeed, the movement was successful and the contours of the political transition are currently being drawn because the movement and the transition were built on a broad platform on which highly disparate political forces, including the armed and insurrectionary CPNM that had been waging a “people’s war” for 11 years, could coalesce and collaborate in a relatively sustained manner. A common political platform was built around the principles of democracy and popular sovereignty, which in the first instance meant an end to the politically and militarily powerful autocratic monarch or the institution of monarchy altogether. The platform was also built around the principles of a peaceful political transition so that popular will and consensus, not arms, would direct the future course of state affairs. It was also built around the principles of equal citizenship, equity, inclusion, social justice, and progress. The state now has to immediately implement steps that enable transitions, such as those that open up politics for popular control and facilitate future transitions. Less important and subsequent generation transitions may possibly find a more graduated resolution and implementation.
Political and journalistic writings on Nepal to date have invariably attributed the success of the popular movement and political transition to the SPA, the CPNM, and civil society groups across the country. Some have also attributed it to the activism of the poor, women, “lower-caste” groups, and particular regional groups. Others have attributed it to an organized resistance against the state put up by ethnic groups. Yet others have attributed it simply to an overwhelming “desire for peace and stability” among citizens following 12 years of incessant fear and searing violence. Many, possibly for want of a concretely identified set of causes, attributed the transition simply to the “demand of the times” or to “expanding human consciousness and enhanced organizational ability”. Finally, some others have plainly attributed it to the outlandishly reactionary political course charted by the king and his coterie. However, future analyses may very well come to different conclusions. These analyses could profit from the rich literature available on monarchical demise, social and political movements, political transitions, deviances, rebellions, insurgencies, armed conflicts, revolutions, terrorism and the like – for example, Gurr (1970), Dunn (1972), Lewis (1974), Tilly (1978), Skocpol (1979), Johnson (1982), Krishna (2002), Ballentine and Sherman (2003) and Held (2003).
These writers have prioritized notions of absolute and mass-scale deprivation, in particular, Macours (2006). Some others have prioritized the notion of relative deprivation. Still others have put the qualities of the leaders of a political movement and/or the psychologies of “the masses” or the faceless crowd of followers at the heart of the explanation, or based their explanations on contemporary contradictions within a social structural ensemble. In addition, there are also those who prioritize the historical-causal analysis and link specific political movements and transitions to historical shifts and contradictions among and within the broader social base, for example classes, groups, sectors, regions, and states.
Johnson (1982), in a brief but illuminating overview of the theories of revolution (and, by extension, of political transition), summarizes and categorizes the explanations formulated by the close of the 1970s into four types; the actor or agency dominant, the structural, the conjunctional, and the processual. The Ballentine and Sherman (2003) volume discusses new explanations of armed conflict in terms of the greed and grievance of the actors directly involved. However, in their concluding chapter they show that the greed-and-grievance model of armed conflict and political change, developed largely though not exclusively in relation to African states, economies, and cultures, often fails to adequately explain either armed conflict or political change.
Many of these explanations of political transition may well be valid for specific cases of transition within particular historical periods, although some may be more valid than others. Alternative frameworks of explanation may not be mutually contradictory either. In addition, explanations that appear to be in mutual competition in relation to explanatory validity and power, may in fact be supplementary. For example, the thesis of relative deprivation may be compatible and possibly subsumed under the thesis of contradictions within the structural ensemble. Similarly, explanations in terms of a longing for peace among citizens following a widespread murderous 12-year strife may be compatible, among others, with the actor oriented or processual explanations. Furthermore, frameworks that prioritize a historical-causal explanation of political transition may nonetheless give space to the agency role of actors as intermediate or proximate variables. Similarly, frameworks that prioritize macro variables may duly recognize the significance of the micro as intermediate or “lower-order” variables.
Some of the explanations offered in literature, particularly those that seek historical-causal explanations, lie quite close to the one I am positing here. In essence, this paper argues that an explanation of the zeitgeist or the constitutive political theme that acted as the beacon for political struggle and led to the political transition currently underway in Nepal should be sought not with reference to immediate political and other protagonists/followers or to contradictions among existing structures, but with reference to the historically shifting and contradiction-prone configuration of an encompassing social base at multiple levels of social organization (e.g. groups, regions, sectors, generations, economy, polity, and culture). An explanation in terms of the immediately preceding (set of) variable(s) does possess the benefits of immediacy, concreteness, and a certain instinctive appeal. However, such an explanation short circuits long term historical and structural processes at work, gives more than warranted idealistic and mystificatory space to immediate actors and agents, and therefore fails to paint an adequate picture of the present and validly identify future tendencies.
In other words, a satisfactory explanation has to concretize historical shifts and contradictions at the level of the state, the individual, family, community, class, ethnicity, region, specific gender, and age groups. That is, contradictions germinate, expand, and intensify not only at the level of the “structural” and the macro, but also manifest themselves at multiple levels of social organizations, including the micro. It would be strange indeed if macro level contradictions were not to manifest themselves and be felt in the dynamics of different social groups, organizations, households, and individuals. As C. Wright Mills (1959) taught us, history, structure, and biography are necessarily interconnected. Biography-level or micro-level contradictions may then be construed as manifesting and concretizing relationships and contradictions at the overarching or systemic level.
The conjecture I wish to make is this: An ensemble of historical shifts and contradictions at multiple levels of social organizations (e.g. the individual, household, class, gender, caste, and ethnic groups (see Figure 1), as well as the state and international levels) have led to a specific form of political transition in Nepal. While redundant, it must be restated that the explanation being attempted here prioritizes history and structure, which it considers to be of foundational significance, not the immediate protagonists of the transition (i.e. citizen and civil society groups, the SPA. and CPNM). In this framework, the immediate protagonists are products of a specific historical and structural configuration. The protagonists are not autonomous and independent actors, even as they may powerfully exercise agency roles.
This framework prioritizes history. It conceives of history as successive transitions in the nature of mutual relationships and the scope and intensity of contradictions within components of a mode of production and distribution (the domains of the economy in particular, and polity and culture in general). Such contradictions necessarily lead to a shift in relative political power at all levels of society, from the household to the state and beyond. All levels of social organization are necessarily implicated in such transitions.
|Levels of social organization||Dimensions of social organization|
Figure 1. Dimensions and levels of social organization simultaneously impinging on political transition
Conjecture: Elements of Analytical Framework
I wish to put forward a parsimonious analytical model for the zeitgeist of the popular movement. The constitutive theme for the popular movement is one of bourgeois democracy, the practice of which may range from liberal democratic to social democratic moulds. It will also, in particular regions, sectors, and periods, lean toward neo-liberalism on the right to mildly new democratic and socialist molds on the left. The “democratization” that is being posited here as the single most important outcome of the political transition, thus has a specific character. At this key and relatively uncertain point in the transition, democratization can be said to comprise an end to monarchical autocracy or the institution of monarchy altogether, as well as respect for the principles of popular sovereignty, equal citizenship and equity, inclusion, and substantive devolution of political power to local governments and civil society.
I argue that these constitutive features of the transition in general and of democratization in particular were erected upon a longstanding historical trend toward (a) the weakening and demise of precapitalist (i.e. feudal, political, economic, and cultural forms at multiple levels of social organization), (b) the expansion and intensification of capitalism, (c) democratization based on successively enlarged, intensified, and relatively successful popular movements, (d) individualization, capability enhancement, and empowerment and (e) a crystallization of the constitutive themes of these multi-level historical-structural processes in the recent royal coup, popular resistance, and the consequent collaboration among the SPA, CPNM and civil society actors. In the analytical framework model I wish to posit here (a) and (b) constitute mutually correlated extraneous variables that jointly give rise to (c) and (d) which are mutually correlated and which, in turn, lead to (e) (see Figure 2 for a more detailed view). Each of these variables can better be conceived as a “block variable”, for example, as a variant which comprises several constituent elements or sub-variables.
The framework prioritizes a longitudinal and long-run view and posits all five independent variables as long-run secular trends (within this specific phase of history) rather than as specific structural attributes discernible at a particular moment in time. It must be noted that the trend signified for all five independent variables, over the long run, was an accelerating one. Illustratively, while democratization in Nepal at the state level did suffer periodic and sharp reversals within recent memory, I argue that democratization has successively expanded and intensified at many other levels of social organizations during the last seven decades—sometimes against the political tenor at the levels of the state and government. I have recently put forward several components of this overall conjecture in two Nepali newsmagazines (Mishra 2006a, 2006b).
Let me elaborate possible elements or indicators of each of the five variables. The first and the second variables, that is, those related to a longstanding trend toward the weakening and demise of the precapitalist and feudal forms and the expansion and intensification of the capitalist form constitute conceptual obverses of each other. The two also historically overlap and call attention to a somewhat similar set of indicators and evidences. Nonetheless, the first variable may, in the first instance, be buttressed or refuted based on longitudinal information, among others, about the nature of ownership of land and other productive natural resources, that is, nature of tenure of agricultural, landed and other natural resources. Second, it may be tested on the basis of longitudinal information on the nature of the organization of labor, that is, on the basis of whether the labor regime is attached (or bonded and semi-bonded) or free (in the form of wage labor). Third, and while not as valid an indicator of the precapitalist or feudal form as the preceding two, the relative significance of the agricultural and the rural—as against the non-agricultural and the urban—may also be posited as a key proxy indicator of the relative salience or otherwise of the precapitalist or feudal form. Fourth, the significance of “inborn” and ascribed social characteristics in the construction of an individual’s personal and social identity as well as life opportunities may also be taken as a distinctive element of the relative salience or otherwise of the precapitalist or feudal form. Fifth, and at the ideological level, the relative salience and legitimacy of “old” explanations of social order and the gap or contradictions between such explanations, on the one hand, and social and self conduct, on the other, as well as the salience and legitimacy of private and public faith in the worldly and the supernatural in its various forms, for example, the notions of fate, god, may also be regarded as indicators of the relative presence of pre-capitalism/feudalism or otherwise. I have no doubt that it is possible to identify additional or alternative components or indicators of the relative salience of such political-economic forms. These indicators are, however, adequate to test the plausibility and validity of the conjecture.
Figure 2. A framework of 2006 political transition in Nepal
The second conjecture of a longstanding trend toward the expansion and intensification of capitalism may, in the first instance, be verified “negatively”, that is, through the use of the components identified in the preceding paragraph—under the fairly reasonable assumption that a relative lack of salience of the precapitalist and feudal forms shall imply an expanding and intensifying capitalist transition. In addition, however, several other elements can be identified as well. These would include, among others, the relative salience of sedentary vs. migratory labor, hereditary vs. other bases of leadership at the community level, power of the older generation over the younger generation and men over women within households, non-agricultural labor and non-agricultural income vs. agricultural labor and income, as well as the relative significance of cash transaction, market-based production and consumption, and the relative salience of “formal-sector” savings and loans in household affairs. Further, the extent of entry of women and child workers into the labor market is another indicator of the relative salience of the capitalist form. In addition, one could use the share of total trade in total GDP as an indicator of the rise of the capitalist form.
It must be noted here that the capitalist form posited here is not a well developed or core capitalist form. Often, the left and communist literature in Nepal and elsewhere has tended to fathom capitalism only in the salience of industrial advancement, presence of large-scale enterprises and large-scale employment in the “organized” or “formal” sector. (Also see the second paragraph of the next section.) Some others, in a curious twist—a la Stalin and early-Soviet initiative—tend to discover it only in large-scale development of the electrical power sector. More discerning literature in this genre, on the other hand, have tended to see capitalism only in expanded reproduction and internally articulated and well developed markets for commodities and labor. While the latter is a fundamental feature of classical national capitalism led by the national bourgeoisie, and while it must be regarded as a goal to be relatively aggressively pursued, capitalism in peripheral formations in the imperialist or monopoly capital era comes in various guises including the colonial, the dependent, the disarticulating, the bureaucratic and so forth (cf. Blaikie, Cameron and Seddon 1980, Mishra 2006: 37-70, 71-126). Nonetheless, the fact that the size and cycle of expanded reproduction is very small and feeble does not in any case warrant the conclusion that the political economy of Nepal is largely or primarily precapitalist or feudal. To the extent that left and communist writers in Nepal recognize the sharply monopoly capitalist or imperialist nature of world political economy today, their conclusion that the nature of Nepal’s political economy is largely or primarily precapitalist or feudal would have to be regarded as invalid.
The third conjecture, on relatively successful democratization based on successively enlarged and intensified popular movements, draws attention to the longitudinal information on the following elements: frequency, location, scale and spread of democratic movements; extent of “inclusion” of relatively socially excluded groups within political, economic and cultural movements, and the nature of civil, political, economic, cultural and other rights. It also draws attention to the scale of public participation in, and duration of, the movement. Finally, it draws attention to successive reconfigurations, expansions and use of the public domain.
The fourth conjecture on individualization, capability enhancement and empowerment, in turn, draws attention to relative distancing or dis-attachment of an individual from the family, kinship group and other primary relationships and from anchors of ascription. It also draws attention to the enhancement of capability of an individual to perform tasks related to the non-household public world both for private and public benefit. It draws attention to the constitution, identity and empowerment of an individual as a public person.
The fifth conjecture on the royal coup, popular resistance and SPA-CPNM-civil society collaboration possibly needs less explication than others. In a sense, for close watchers of the 2005-2006 scene in particular, it has been there for all to see and feel. While this can be the subject of a separate, astute and possibly gripping investigation, the manner in which the SPA-CPNM collaboration came to gain wide popular and political legitimacy despite their respective and serious limitations and why the SPA-CPNM collaboration was blocked prior to 2005 and how this collaboration led to the “unblocking” of the transition needs a close review. The review, further, needs to explain how and why the CPNM, which sought to demolish the parliamentary system and the parliamentary parties prior to its 2003 transition, came to work together with such political parties and how and why the latter agreed to such a collaboration. There is also the task of elaborating how and why the SPA-CPNM agreements and collaboration constituted an outcome or a product of the preceding set of variables. Finally, there remains the task of gazing into the short-run future: Since the SPA-CPNM collaboration is the proximate cause of the political transition currently underway, how will the transition shape up within the short run if and when the collaboration ceases Will the transition be blocked Or, how will the transition be reshaped
First, some important caveats are in order. The present conjectures fill a large, if not an impossibly vast, canvas. In a real sense, the conjectures, at this stage, remains only one step ahead of loud thinking. But I think this is an important and potentially very fruitful task. In particular, the framework, together with the constitutive elements, needs to be worked out further and refined. In addition, the proposed indicators of each of the components need to be much better defined and more sharply operationalized. These steps will, among others, add precision and refutability to the rather wide-scale information required to test the conjectures. It is not, at this stage, possible to adequately meet such informational requirements. Nonetheless, in the remaining body of this paper, I propose to bring together a body of information—of admittedly various degrees of precision— to support the conjectures.
Let me start with the two initial mutually twined conjectures, longstanding and accelerating trend toward the weakening and demise of the precapitalist and feudal forms and the expansion and intensification of capitalism and their causative linkage with the political transition under way. Most left and communist political parties and their sister organizations in Nepal have characterized Nepali society as semi-feudal (and semi-colonial), largely—although not exclusively—on account of a relatively sharp (but rapidly declining) skew in land holding. I have, on the other hand, for quite some time argued that Nepal’s economy acquired a decidedly capitalist tendency as early as the mid-1880s, and that it is much closer now to the capitalist pole rather than to the precapitalist, feudal or semi-feudal one (Mishra 1987, also see Blaikie, Cameron and Seddon 1980). Skewed ownership, by and of itself, is hardly a capitalism-versus-feudalism issue, particularly in an area (or period) where land has been owned privately and the market in land has been rather well developed and competitive for a long time. This closeness further increased since the 1950s and expanded and intensified since the 1980s. Never a location (or a state system) of the kind of highly developed feudalism that was erected in medieval and early-modern Europe, Nepal under the Shahs and Ranas nonetheless did privilege the royal household, nobility, priests and senior military and civil administration personnel with absentee-landlord and often rent-free birta and guthi tenure of agricultural land which approximated the feudal system. But the landed domain, the labor power of the workers and many other productive resources did not, in the final instance, belong to the feudal lord, as was the case in Europe under feudalism. The feudal lord enjoyed the benefits only at the pleasure of the king (or the prime minister, as the case might be). The center was always politically and militarily more powerful than a local feudal lord and, to a large extent, the lord was actually a functionary of the king or the state. It was often that a new king or prime minister would appoint a new set of feudatory families. Feudal lords rarely, if ever, had an independent power base. In fact, this is precisely why the eminent historian Mahesh Chandra Regmi had to invent a new and rather apt conceptual category, “state landlordism”—not feudalism—to describe the nature of landownership during 1769-1950 Nepal.
This did not, of course, mean that feudal ownership and labor was of inconsequential size and significance. Indeed, its size and significance were quite high, particularly in the Tarai region. Not all rent-free (birta) tenure holders of land were absentee owners; indeed, many birta owners were small holders who tilled their own land. But many birta holders owned large tracts of land and were not involved in farming. The birta and guthi tenures, which did not oblige owners to work, manage, raise productivity and wage rates, live off the land and re-invest surplus in agricultural, agro-based and other pursuits within a capitalist regime of expanded reproduction and instead prized or tolerated a system which did not penalize the fallowing of agricultural land, tilled the land at low cropping intensity, kept the productivity low and tied some agricultural laborers into dependent and exploitative relationships (for example, the obligatory and unpaid labor regimes of jhara, beth, begar), occupied approximately 40 percent of the total arable land during its peak period in the 1940s, that is, during the last years of Rana rule. The birta tenure, which occupied a very large proportion of rent-free land, however, was rendered illegal by the end of the 1950s.
This feudalistic tenure, in much of the region and much of the period, in addition, competed with the decidedly capitalist smallholder tenure and a commensurate organization of labor. This was a period when the state was engaged in opening up the “frontier land” in the Tarai region. The competing tenure, in most of the locations except the western Tarai, was contract farming with the state as landlord and with subcontractors (ijaradars) employed at the regional, sub-regional and local levels (Regmi 1971). Labor was organized either on a contract basis or workers were brought or invited to clear and work a new frontier, mostly from North India with the promise of a tract of private land. This was free labor, and the state often warned the contractors at various levels not to overexploit workers and not to lead to a situation under which workers may refuse to open up and work the land, often by leaving the settlement altogether.
In addition, as noted, land had been privatized in most parts of the country much earlier and could be bought, sold and mortgaged like any other commodity. This was true also of forest and pasture land. Most agricultural land was operated historically by small “independent”, freeholding peasants who operated largely within the ambit of capitalism. The scale of such peasants began to increase substantially since the 1940s and following the abolition of the birta tenure in the late 1950s. The size of freeholds at the household level, which was small to begin with, was further reduced by the end of the 1970s, which was the last decade during which substantial new land, mainly in the Tarai region, was brought into cultivation. By the late 1980s, 70 percent of all operators worked on less than 1hectare of land, the size being reduced by successive intergenerational transfer to often multiple coparceners as well as the sale of land in the market. In essence, the “old” land ownership system, for successively larger proportion of farm households, entered into increasingly sharper contradiction with household labor. The “domestic mode of production” entered into a period of crisis: An increasing proportion of households were no longer able to use the labor resources of its members within the limits of the landed resources it owned or controlled. The forces of production and the relations of production at the household and community levels, and across most rural regions became locked into increasingly expansive and intense contradiction. This was the principal structural platform on which the distancing and dis-attachment of the individual was carried out. In a very important sense, it was here—within a space of property relations in which a family member could no longer become an effective coparcener of jointly held productive resource—that an individual was born, powerfully and successively distanced, dis-attached and uprooted from the household and the community.
The expanding and intensifying contradiction between land and labor was partially resolved, successively, in several ways. Most importantly, opening up of new landed resources within the hills, the inner Tarai and the main Tarai principally helped to resolve the contradiction. So did agricultural intensification (much of the Tarai began double-cropping as late as the 1970s and early 1980s, cash cropping and intensified fragmentation). The freeing up of the last vestige of the attached and semi-bondage system of labor, the kamaiya labor system, which accounted for approximately 20,000 agricultural workers in the far-western Tarai, did also help resolve the contradictions. Other historical processes and initiatives which led to partial resolution of the land-labor contradiction were: (a) The abolition of the birta tenure and the imposition of ceilings on landownership and award of ownership rights to sharecroppers to part of the plot farmed—both under the Land Act of 1964—also had the effect of making agricultural land accessible to a larger number of farmers, bringing more land under cultivation, intensifying cropping making agriculture more production-focused and legally securing the rights of sharecroppers; (b) diversification of household labor across agricultural non-agricultural jobs and sources of income; and (c) the community owned tenure and leasehold tenure of forests, under which households and communities could organize their initiatives and labor both for regenerating forest resources and earning livelihood, since the early 1990s. In addition, the contradiction was also partially resolved through an expansion of wage labor in general and seasonal, temporary and more permanent migration, primarily from the hills to the rural Tarai, towns in Nepal, rural and urban locations in India and, beginning the mid-1990s, to east, southeast and west Asia in particular as well as schooling, skilling and manufacturing and employment which led to the postponement of the entry of labor into the rural and agricultural sector. Further, while one could possibly argue that sharecroppers, who account for 15-20 percent of all agricultural households, to constitute a category of attached and dependent and, therefore, “feudal” labor, possibly one-half of the sharecroppers are legal coparceners of the land they till and, thus, are, in effect, independent and potentially free, agricultural workers. In essence, except for household labor, wage labor has, increasingly and by far, been the predominant form of labor in agriculture and elsewhere since the 1850s.
All such contradiction reducing initiatives, that is, new jobs, new categories of tenure of productive resource, and new ways of earning livelihood, it must be emphasized, lay within the expanding and intensifying capitalist domain. Within the domain of the wage economy, one very important avenue of entering a new labor market involved labor migration, which, in turn, involved the creation of a new self that was, once again, dis-attached from the “old” production regime as well as “old’ property and social relations. Continued attachment to the “old” production regime and property and social relations, for an increasing proportion of individuals, the new generation in particular, was no longer a viable option. The scale of migration, which was significant in some areas as early as the 1850s when migration to northeast India and to security and labor services to the British Indian empire began, successively reached such very high levels since the 1950s that the Tarai, which contained approximately one-third of the total population of the country during the 1940s, is now home to more than half of the population. Remittances from international migration alone is currently estimated to contribute as much as 20-25 percent of the GDP and has been credited with reducing absolute poverty nationally by approximately 20 percent between 1995 and 2005.
There has been a dramatic shift in the structure of production in the last four decades, that is, the last two generations. While agriculture contributed more than two-thirds of the GDP till the mid-1960s, its relative contribution has now come down to less than 40 percent. While the reliance on agriculture as the principal location of employment has not gone down by the same ratio, only about two-thirds of all households identify agriculture as the principal employer now compared to 85-90 percent during the mid-1960s. The share of non-agricultural income in total household income has become substantially larger even in the last decade.
The significance of the urban has multiplied by many folds in the last three decades. The urban is no longer an enclave separate from the ocean of the rural. The official size of the “urban population” is only about 20 percent. But the government’s definition of what constitutes an urban population is too restrictive. The urban has entered the rural in multifarious ways, such as in the provisioning of consumers’ and producers’ goods, functioning as an expansive labor market, serving as a center for public service, creating new cultures, etc., even as the rural ebbs, flows and pours forth into the urban. The urban has become, in recent decades, much more intimately intertwined with the rural. The urban is rapidly restructuring the information, education, employment, incomes and lives of the rural young. And, opposite to the portrayal of the romantic political left of the rural as pure and idyllic, the urban has become a world of hope and aspiration for the new generation of the rural and altered their imagination of the past, present and future.
A large service sector, the urban “sector”, the “migratory sector” and all other “non-traditional sectors” have been created in rural areas and the new generation which works there are no longer bound by the old order—political, cultural and economic—and its limits. The new generation is relatively free from the authority of the parents and close relatives as it is from the authority of the village landlord, bista, headman and other authorities of the traditional economic, political and cultural order. The new generation is entering a successively newer world and is obliged not to abide by the structures and values of the old world. The “inborn” and ascribed social markers are no longer as potent markers of personal and social identity as they used to be even a generation ago. Markers of clan, caste, etc., can no longer back up claims on cultural and political leadership. This does not mean that gender, caste and, to some extent, ethnic and other bases of ascription have become culturally and politically irrelevant and that such ascribed features no longer shape identities, aspirations or influence access to opportunities and attainments, but they have greatly diminished and the legitimacy of such features are being widely and intensely questioned and resisted. The CPNM rebellion has been instrumental in this regard in the rural areas.
The intensity of reliance upon the old explanations of social order, importance of actions geared to promote such an order and private and public faith on the supernatural has quite possibly been diminished. The order and absence of order apprehended in the emerging social world within a household, in the neighborhood and around the locality is no more fully explainable, if it ever could be, only on the bases of local headman, local landlord, ancestor, caste, religion, fate, spirit, god, etc. A host of new structures, values, norms, agencies and capabilities are frequently highlighted in order to apprehend and explain successively emerging social orders. Among them are: schools, health posts, the press and radio, agriculture offices, banks; civil society groups such as forest user groups, savings and loans groups, mothers’ groups; political groups such as political parties and their sister organizations, including student unions; political but non partisan interest groups such as women’s groups, dalit groups, ethnic groups, linguistic, regional and religious groups; local and central government organizations and public policies; similarly groups which promote empowerment of the poor, dalits, etc. Post-1990 and CPNM-led politicization has contributed to “non-traditional” and alternative ways of comprehending and linking personal and social processes—and, again, in the words of C. Wright Mills—personal troubles and public policies. There have been successive and, more recently, a growing realization that traversing the beaten path of “tradition” is no more an infallible guide. The older generations, as a result, increasingly frequently seek the counsel and assistance of the young in relation to the expanding domain of worldly affairs.
The growing participation of women in the public domain can be taken as an illustration of the illegitimacy of the “old” society and the emergence of a new one. The gender enrolment and retention gaps at different levels of schooling have narrowed considerably, including in rural regions, beginning the mid-1980s. The entry of women in the labor market, including through labor migration, is increasing. It has recently been reported that 10 percent of all Nepali workers in the West Asian region were women, despite the fact that international labor migration of women remains rather harshly restricted, among others, by immigration policies of the government in Nepal. Political participation of women has increased through the last decade, both in state politics and in the counter-state erected by the CPNM. Women have considerable presence in local clubs, savings and loans associations, community forestry and other local public resource regulation regimes and social reform initiatives. Public laws relating to gender relationships, partly in response, have undergone a highly significant revision during the last three—particularly last one and a half—decades. The political system has increasingly been forced to recognize women as independent—rather than being adjunct to men—and public persons.
We can now consider the third, “intermediate” variable, that is, relatively successful democratization based on successively enlarged and intensified popular movements. The political transition that is unfolding before our eyes now is only the last in a series that goes back at least three quarters of a century right from the days of the formation of the Gorkha Parishad and the Praja Parishad in the 1930s. The latter’s political activities, of course, led to the death of four of its key members at the hands of the state. The political movements of the late 1940s and 1950s culminated in the political transitions of 1951 and 1960. The cycle was repeated in the popular struggle of the late-1970s that led to a political transition, again, in 1980. Finally, the relatively better-known movement for the restoration of democracy in 1990, in many ways, was the forerunner of the current political transition. The principal constitutive theme of all of these political struggles was an end to hereditary autocracy and the promotion of popular sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law. Of course, the left struggled for additional achievements which included, among others, expanded claims and rights to ownership, employment and income, together with claims and rights to education, health care, etc. But, in most instances, the political left understood that these were additional demands, and were not to be pursued in lieu of popular sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law. This indeed was the public position of the preeminent communist leader, Pushpa Lal, who, as early as 1960s, made serious efforts to collaborate with the centrist democratic forces in the struggle against monarchical hereditary autocracy.
The early-generation democratic movements, including the 1990 movement to a significant extent, was based in urban areas and among the middle class and the bourgeoisie and was, therefore, relatively narrowly based. This was, however, to be expected as these movements aimed to end autocracy and center-stage bourgeois democracy. The left, except for the Marxist Leninist Party of the early 1970s (which transformed into the United Marxist Leninist Party in 1990) and the CPNM, were, in the main, and despite the nomenclature, left-of-center democratic parties. The long run objective of all such parties was socialist in nature, but the immediate objective was to develop a class of national bourgeoisie that could push forward an anti-imperialist capitalist transition which, at the same time, paid due heed to the interests of workers and the poor. At heart, this was the image of a progressive bourgeois political, economic and cultural system. Such a struggle would necessarily be centered in urban areas and be led by the bourgeoisie who could then establish an alliance with the left in a struggle against autocracy—in a repeat of a battle that has been played out in a large number of countries many times over since the 18th century. The urban, in addition, was a culture that had transformed itself from the rural and the agricultural. It was also decidedly anti-feudal in as much as it was largely a space, in relative terms, for learners, skill-promoters, doers, achievers, earners, profit makers, investors, etc., rather than one that lived off inherited resources worked by relatively domesticated and dependent workers within a setting where the market for labor was not fully developed. It was a social category that relied on achieved individual qualities rather than identities that were inherited and ascribed. It was a category that had to invent new political, economic and cultural rules both in order to govern itself and to grow. “Traditional” precapitalist and feudal institutions, values and norms were structurally as well as psychologically incompatible with this class.
The intensification of the rural-urban interaction—which is another way of expressing the increasing “capitalization” of the rural—together with the political resistance and armed struggle the CPNM waged against the remnants of the (truly) feudal (as well as “feudal” by attribution) structures and cultures vastly extended the reach of the political movement against autocracy. Even as the urban centers continued to be the prime location of the movement, the rural was no longer a passive onlooker. It participated in the political movement intensely and in a historically unprecedented scale and manner. The rural, in this sense, engaged directly and intensely in the demolition of autocracy and in the birth of a progressive, bourgeois, capitalist and democratic future.
Successive struggles for democratization, the 1990 struggle in particular, also enabled and gave a stake to the engagement of the relatively peripheral political, economic and cultural groups in the ongoing struggle and transition. The 1990 movement gave women, dalits and other “low-caste” groups, ethnic groups as well as regional, linguistic, religious and a plethora of other groups the legal and political voice required to resist the old legitimacy of ascription, oppression and discrimination. It gave rise to multifarious popular organizations, for example, civil society organizations, development and empowerment NGOs, human rights associations at the local, regional and central levels. The 1990 movement and its aftermath also questioned the principle and practice of centralization, valued the local and gave a strong voice to devolutionary forces. In all these, the CPNM uprising not only lent a supporting voice, but also pointed out some glaring gaps between the profession of pluralism and devolution and its practice. Further, it also sought to provide a political platform of autonomy and self-determination on which such pluralism and devolution could possibly be effectively practiced. All in all, both the parliamentary parties and the CPNM, in their separate ways, and more or less effectively, were attempting to demolish the old structures of ascription and centralization, and seeking to give the principle of equal citizenship not only a limited and legal but substantive and political—and economic and cultural—content. But the parliamentary parties were burdened by the gaps between the profession and practice, on the one hand, and failure to address second-generation contradictions and the increase in the number of the educated unemployed, on the other.
While some writers have interpreted the ongoing movement and transition as being based on the failures of the 1990 compact, it is arguably much more valid to interpret it as being based on the successes of the compact. Indeed, there is adequate ground to believe that both the 2006 political transition and the Maoist movement was built on the successes of the 1990 compact, including contradictions the compact generated in the body politic of the post-1990 state. In addition, the heightened and democratic politics of the post-1990 period also saw a massive expansion of domains of education and communication. The expansion of education, among others, led to an increasing popular demand for the creation of an individual-centered and achievement-oriented resource endowment that contributed to the enhancement of productivity. It also tended to insistently question the legitimacy of the “traditional” order, including the traditional political order, right from the household level to the national (and international and global) levels. The expansion of communication also helped to the creation of a new culture based on information and observation rather than faith and rumor. Both education and communication have been utilized, to a considerable extent, as weapons to de-legitimize the “old” order and nurture a new one.
We can now come to (d), the fourth independent variable, that is, individualization, capability enhancement and empowerment. “D” may also be visualized as the site that explicates the micro as well as the agency dimension of the historical framework. Many of the components of this variable have already been discussed in preceding paragraphs of this section. It has been argued that the relatively recent but increasing failure of resource ownership or property relationship regime (such as a specific agrarian regime) to contain family work hands within the rural and agricultural sectors has been a fertile ground for the creation or fortification of individuality. This contradiction between land and labor has fed the process of distancing or dis-attachment of the individual from the “traditional’ cultural, economic and political order at multiple levels. Illustratively, at the household level, this process, within the last two decades in particular, may very well have been exacerbated by increasing longevity which, among others, delays the transfer of land and other productive resources from one generation to the next. Further, in contrast to the coparcenary resource regime of the family farm that has been weakening, more “household dis-attached” and individualized resource sets such as education- and skill-related, health-related and other similar capabilities have been on the rise. This fosters dis-attachment and individualization that undercut ascriptive anchors and identities and serves to further de-legitimize the “old” order. Increasing delegitimation of the ascriptive order has led, at the same time, to expand and intensify the publicness of the individual as also to the expansion of the public domain. This expansion of the public domain, because it could not be regulated within the precapitalist or feudal order, required a redrawing of the authority structure along a democratic alignment.
Finally, the proximate variable of the royal coup and the SPA-CPNM-civil society collaboration—the proximate variable that effected the political transition. This variable elaborates the framework further and highlights the substantive and conceptual significance of macro-micro interface. In addition, it also highlights the significance of agency in partially shaping and actualizing a powerful historical tendency. Nonetheless, the significance of agency can be overemphasized: The collaboration between the SPA, CPNM and civil society, which are themselves products of the preceding set of four variables, is based on a robust historical and structural foundation of the longstanding popular struggles against autocracy and for democratization. All popular struggles in Nepal right since the 1930s have been waged as intrinsic components of partially successful attempts at the resolution of contradictions within and among political, economic and cultural domains at different levels of social organization, for example, the social individual, the household, the community, the state, etc.
The royal coup was a last ditch attempt by the remnants of a feudal order headed by the king himself which had increasingly been battered by capitalist and popular democratic struggles for more than one hundred years, but which had managed to exercise control over the security organs of the state, including the army. It was principally the security organ that had delayed the transition by a number of years. On the other hand, it is possible to argue also that the CPNM’s PW, which had become a strategy in search of a program during the post-2002 reincarnation of the CPNM, had also blocked the transition for several years. Nonetheless, the confluence, during 2003-2006, of a (a) hardening royal posture, (b) growing popular trust of the CPNM’s new program of CBDR and (c) increasing realization on the part of the parliamentary political parties that they could not drive a decisive political movement on their own and, thus, have to ally themselves with the new CPNM and civil society coalesced into a powerful movement which effected the 2006 transition.
Civil society—in fact, a myriad of civil societies scattered across the country and beyond, which was a key actor of the 2006 political transition—was itself a product of the rise of capitalism and previous democratic struggles. It was composed of urban and urban-allied interests, educated and skilled persons, professionals, small and medium businesspersons, political party workers, individuals who had worked within the old order, but had become disillusioned by the performance of the post-1990 political parties and governments. Though diverse, civil society realized that deep down the feudal political, economic and cultural order ran contrary not only to its parochial interests, but also to the future prospects of the state and society. To a large extent, civil society was also fulfilling its historical mission of abolishing the precapitalist and feudal order and expressing its allegiance to the bourgeois capitalist democratic order that the precapitalist, feudal order had given birth to in the first place.
In Lieu of Conclusion
As noted, the framework formulated here must be further refined. In particular, it must be insured that the framework and the specific conjectures upon which the framework is based upon are empirically verifiable. The conjectures must be subjected to further tests and refutation through the generation and examination of life history and case study data, analysis of large-scale secondary data sets, and by juxtaposing the information and arguments with cross-national experiences and historical-theoretical literature.
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