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Making Nepal look like Nepal: conversation with Manjushree Thapa

In conversation with Deepak Thapa, Nepali author Manjushree Thapa explains how recent progress on federalism and provisions for inclusion at all levels of government has suddenly opened up political space to new constituencies. But this has left a ‘capacity-gap’ as new appointees lack relevant experience. Manjushree Thapa stresses that the first Constituent Assembly was the most ‘intelligent body of governance Nepal has ever had because it was so inclusive’. The potential is there in the new local and provincial governments, but needs more support.

On where the country stands today

The 2015 earthquake and the subsequent rush to establish the constitution showed how prepared the governing class was to fight back against the basic [more progressive] agenda of the first Constituent Assembly, which they themselves had made to fail. There was a triumphalist moment after their shamelessness and the fury with which they went ahead with the constitution, and the whittling down the agenda as far as they possibly could.

I feel now that the anti-inclusion agenda has softened a bit. The anti-inclusion mood is less prevalent because the group that is doing the governing is not doing such a great job, and so there is a little bit of humility coming back in. People are more relaxed. The moment of danger when the constitution might not have been passed is gone.

If the governing class once again wants to strike back and destroy the provinces, destroy the federalism project, I see the capability still there to do that. But if that does not happen and the transition is allowed to run its course for a period of 10 or 15 years, then that will have changed the reality. It will all depend on whether the parties can organise, democratic forces can organise, liberalism can re-organise in some way.

On Nepali liberalism

Liberalism is like a brand. People who have identified themselves as liberals are not necessarily liberal. The constitution-making and the civil rights movements showed exactly how much caste and feudal structures and power structures operate in Nepali society. I feel [inauthentic progressive forces] showed their face around the drafting of the new constitution. But, it’s always been like that, where the communists are not communists, the liberals are not liberals, socialists are not socialists. Nobody is anything. These are just labels that they have chosen. There has not been a defining of the liberal space. It is there as a small intellectual space. But I don’t see any political party becoming agents of that other than of multiparty democracy – which is important.

Inclusion and the peace process

There was such a force to the civil rights movement and to the demands [for inclusion] of the first CA [Constituent Assembly] that when the second CA tried to draft the constitution there had to be some compromise. So, there is proportional representation, there is federalism, etc. The constitution is a compromise document. Even though it was watered down, such as the citizenship issue [for women] not working out, it has a life of its own. And if federalism can just play out, if the provinces can get more power, slowly, after one or two elections, that will create energy at the local level.

On the antipathy towards inclusion

Inclusion is about making Nepal look like Nepal. Around the failure of the first CA [in 2012], we saw this negative organising from the right wing and that was about sowing misinformation about what the demands [for progressive change] were. So, in the naming of the provinces, the Janajatis [indigenous peoples] had said it was going to be a multi-ethnic province. There was propaganda around it, to which the media was party, and the Kathmandu middle class just panicked, and it was very effective. More of all these progressive movements needed to aggressively engage with more moderate voices, but they did not.

It will be interesting when the provinces actually get named. This process has more to do with the cultural imagination and the inability to imagine a Nepal that is different from the old model that the governing class has got hung up on.

On the possibility of rollback of achievements

There is a sort of conservatism in middle-class Kathmandu that can easily be manipulated to turn all this [inclusive change] back. It is just a basic middle-class conservatism around wanting stability and peace and economic prosperity. The development paradigm that came in with the constitution is focused on infrastructure, and has moved away from any kind of rights or social issues. Which seems like a very Chinese model – throwing money into infrastructure. The predominant vision is infrastructure, money, contracts. This is the stability we were promised, and this is all the establishment wants to do. They don’t want any bigger change than that. Anyone who wants to organise around civil rights issues will have to deal with the potential backlash. I don’t think the inclusion agenda is out of the woods yet.

Issue editor

Andy Carl


Andy Carl is an experienced peacebuilding practitioner with a career of leadership in the NGO sector. Andy currently works as an independent writer and advisor to individuals, groups and organisations engaged in working on peace, justice and social change processes. He helped establish International Alert in 1989 and in 1994 he co-founded Conciliation Resources where he was Executive Director for 22 years.