Lost in Transition is a refreshingly dogma-free analysis of Nepal’s recent past and a blueprint for the future
If the earthquake in April was not enough, Nepalis are now bearing the brunt of a bigger catastrophe, this time in the form of a blockade imposed by India and enforced by the agitating Madhesi Morcha parties in central and eastern Tarai.
Millions of Nepalis are facing an acute shortage of fuel, medicines and essentials because a section feels justified in choking the entire nation to get their demands met. What started as a movement for justice and equality has fallen into the hands of politicians who would willingly plunge the country to ethnic war in order to gain political power. Fifty people have already died in violent confrontations between Morcha cadres and the police.
The protests have taken such a violent turn, it is now common to hear of ambulances and buses being attacked, police posts being bombed and ordinary people set to fire for ‘smuggling’ few litres of petrol. The brutalisation of politics in this scale is not a sudden occurrence. The humanitarian crisis that the blockade has unleashed will torment Nepal for years to come but to understand how we came to this point, one has to go back to where it all started.
Retired Assistant Secretary General at the UN and one of the most senior Nepalis in the international civil service, Kul Chandra Gautam, takes us to the heart of our problems in his book Lost In Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and the mega earthquake. In a brilliant counter-narrative, Gautam destroys the dominant discourse that eulogises the Maoist war as a natural and inevitable uprising of the oppressed, arguing instead that the war cut short Nepal’s march towards democracy and development and pushed us into protracted transition.
He argues that the Maoist movement used grievances of the oppressed and the marginalised to launch a power grab, and in doing so, derailed democratic consolidation and state-building at a crucial point in our history -- pushing the country into a needless and ruinous war and disempowering the state. Gautam challenges the root causes theory that has been the leading explanation for the Maoist war and argues that the war was more an instrument for state capture, as frequently declared by the Maoist leadership in public and private meetings, than a genuine desire to liberate the oppressed who in reality have been the biggest victims of the Maoist war.
More significantly, he argues that the Maoist war established political violence as a legitimate instrument to gain power and institutionalised the culture of impunity with repercussions far into the future. Indeed, in many ways, our current problems are tied to our uncritical acceptance of the Maoist violence and our inability to challenge them on their decision to bypass legal, constitutional and democratic means for achieving political goals and setting a dangerous precedent for other political groups. The Maoists chose to wage guerilla warfare against a young democracy that was only beginning to free itself from the shackles of autocratic monarchy. At a time when the state should be building institutions, ours was embroiled in fighting an insurgency. In essence, that has been the story of the Nepali state post democracy: a continued fight for survival with domestic and external forces while never having the opportunity to consolidate and strengthen itself. This continued erosion of state capacity, abetted by glorification of destabilising forces, militant rhetoric and political adventurism is what is at the source of our problems. Moving forward from this mayhem as Gautam argues will require discarding all outdated, parochial and extremist ideologies, embracing democratic values and prioritising economic development , inclusion and good governance.
Gautam served in a number of post-conflict and transitional countries before retiring to Nepal and becoming closely involved in its peace process. This book is also notable for its strong and detailed criticism of the international community’s role in Nepal’s peace process, in particular their willingness to compromise on accepted principles of human rights, rule of law and democracy in Nepal to appease radical factions. Gautam fiercely criticises the internationals for their coddling of Maoists and ethnic extremists and for falling hook line and sinker to their doublespeak and progressive rhetoric. Gautam has minced no words in criticising UNMIN and its misadventures in Nepal.
Descriptions of how UNMIN misreported events in Nepal and its visible bias towards the Maoists despite frequent breaches of the CPA, how UNMIN treated Maoists at par with the state while displaying a complete distrust of democratic parties presents a side to which most Nepalis are not privy to. In an interesting comparison, Gautam notes how Ian Martin and Karin Landgrin’s disdain for NC and UML as 'thoroughly corrupt, Bahun-led, status-quoists parties' while considering Maoists to be the exception to the rule, reminded him of King Gyanendra and his father Mahendra’s dislike for democratic parties, both of whom ended up suspending democracy and ruling as absolute monarchs. The Note Verbale issued by Gyan Chandra Acharya, Nepal's Permanent Representative to the UN against the Secretary General's biased report on Nepal prepared by UNMIN and the DPA, and the way it was dismissed by UNMIN makes for a gripping read on how a weak state, with no geostrategic importance for larger powers is left to fend for itself.
This book is a refreshing change from the established discourse on Nepal shaped by a narrow group of elite, English-speaking writers who fail to look beyond empty sloganeering and rhetoric. Their division of Nepalis into monolithic categories of us vs them, ‘progressive’ vs ‘regressive’, ‘Pahades’ vs ‘Madhesis’ and ‘Hill Bahun Chettri’ vs the ‘rest’ ignores the complex and contradictory realities of Nepali society. For international experts that parachute into Nepal, this is a convenient framework to work with, one that fits nicely with their worldviews and makes for dramatic and compelling narratives but does little to explain our issues, let alone find solutions. Gautam's book is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding contemporary Nepal without the dogma of radical posturing.
Lost In Transition attempts to dig deeper and presents a more nuanced and sensible understanding of our problems with clear and detailed way-forwards. Despite the heaviness of the subject matter, it is a tremendously hopeful book, laying in concrete terms a roadmap with which Nepal can prosper and achieve stability. The epilogue of the book discusses the Indian blockade and what Nepal can do to initiate negotiations and secure its interests against larger and hostile neighbours. What carries the book beyond its rigour is its sincerity and impassionate defense of democratic values and principles. At the very beginning one gets a glimpse of what inspires the writer. With an earnestness characteristic of Gautam's humble beginnings from a village in Gulmi, Gautam speaks of an identity that binds all Nepalis, a pursuit of shared prosperity for themselves and their children. And it is this desire to leave a better Nepal behind for future generations, that resonates throughout the book.
Lost In Transition: Rebuilding Nepal from the Maoist mayhem and the mega earthquake
Kul Chandra Gautam
UN-KUL, Prashant Jha
Calling a blockade a spade, Editorial