I have just returned from an atrocious talk delivered by a famous Nepal expert, David Seddon, who claims to belong to the ‘old British Marxist tradition of Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson’.
So this Mr Seddon is well known in Nepal for a book he wrote three decades back – Nepal in Crisis. More recently, he got along with a local activist to edit a book on the People’s War.
Now, Seddon sahib comes here. He tells a Nepali audience how he is worried about the rising violence and the ‘law and order’ problem. He links the violence with identity – “people feel they have a legitimate basis to pick arms and throw stones because they belong to a caste and ethnic group.” He tells the audience, many of whom have struggled for long to bring some change in the exclusionary Nepali state structure, that ‘identity politics is profoundly undemocratic and federalism is not necessary.” And here is the clincher, “When your constituent assembly members adopted a federal democratic republic, I am sure they were thinking only about the republic part. No one really thought about the federal part.”
To realise how shocking, regressive and profoundly anti-democratic most of these statements are, you have to understand the Nepali context. Here is a country that has been in the grip of a narrow Hindu hill upper caste elite, a country after decades has seen a real opening of the democratic space, where identity has been a major basis for discrimination and therefore is a key basis for political mobilisation, and where federalism is the politically accepted resolution accepted by all parties and incorporated in the constitution to accommodate divergent aspirations and ensure power moves out of Kathmandu.
So Mr Seddon is a self professed classical Marxist – yes the same breed which got so much consistently wrong in the last century, who did not hesitate to justify the killings of millions but suddenly turn pacifists and do not like ‘stone throwing’ when it comes to ‘identity politics’.
His first point is of a ‘law and order’ problem. To be fair, there is indeed a crisis of crumbling state authority in Nepal. Impunity is rampant. Rag tag outfits can operate with political patronage and create a deep sense of insecurity.
But for our Seddon Sahib, law and order problems have taken place because ‘the tiger (of ethnically discriminated groups asserting rights) is out of the cage”. Some would consider that as the best thing to have come out of recent changes in Nepal, but all of Seddon’s progressiveness vanishes here. He does not say a single thing about the state structure, about how a tiny hill clan took away jal, jangal and jamin from Tharus in Tarai; of how the state systematically discriminated against Madhesis by treating them as a fifth column and depriving them of any share in the power structure; of how the traditional land tenure system of ethnic groups was destroyed; of how the cultural hegemony of Hindu religion and Nepali language was imposed on all ethnic groups; of how the Supreme Court as late as end of 90s did not allow languages like Maithili and Newari to be used in administrative offices in areas where those communities were pre-dominant.
No please forget the background; forget the fact that for how the state has treated them, marginalised communities have not yet woken up to fight on the scale they should; forget the fact that all they are asking for are provinces where they can have a say; forget that this is still a great opportunity to reshape this country; and forget that the law and order problem could be more to do with the reason that the state does not have credibility and the idea should be to transform it not to strengthen it as it is. Just be scared – since Seddon Sahib sitting in London is scared – that the tiger is out of the cage.
I am not saying anything new here. These issues have been in the Nepali discourse for many years. Seddon in his work has also referred to it. But for him to treat the present churning as a law and order problem shows how disconnected he is. But the real example of his insularity and ignorance comes from what is actually a shamefully condescending remark.
Seddon does not want federalism and does not think Nepal’s CA members know what they have got into. At the cost of nitpicking, he obviously does not know or does not remember (maybe because they don’t track constituent assembly proceedings in nice academic confines in his university) that the day the Home Minister introduced a resolution to abolish a monarchy, while reading it out, he skipped the word federal and said Nepal would be a democratic republic. It was a slip, for the written resolution did say that Nepal would be a federal democratic republic.
As soon as the minister ended, a Madhesi MP got up to object and asked the government to ensure the word federal in the resolution. It was only to insert the word federalism, Madhes burnt for 21 days and 40 people were killed in 2007; that another 10 people were killed in 2008 to ensure provinces would have a degree of autonomy; and that this has been a slogan of ethnic groups for decades. If the word federal was not there on that day when Nepal was declared a republic, many Madhesis and janjatis across parties may not have voted for the resolution. It is a part of the larger peace compact.
And Seddon still says, ‘Federalism is not necessary. Proportional representation and affirmative action would be enough to include the others.” If he had said that in 80s and 90s, may be but to say that in today’s political context does not show Seddon’s courage against present populist cry – it shows his instinctively conservative instincts and inability to open up his mind to other categories of thinking. Maybe if he stopped talking to Kathmandu liberal and left intelligentsia and got out, he and others like him would know the political sentiment and understand why federalism is ‘necessary’ and how no federalism will mean this country will get immersed in an intractable spiral of conflict.
The point of this post is not to ignore the complexities of this ambitious project – a project that seeks to, through a democratic transition, engineer an overhaul of the state structure. Of course, federalism is going to be difficult especially because we are moving from an existing unitary structure. Of course, a solely ethnicity based federal structure is a dumb and dangerous idea. Of course, identity chauvinism is wrong. Of course, we should not beat up others and throw stones. Of course, ethnic and class considerations must be seen together. And of course, this can all go wrong – with ethnic groups fighting each other, state crumbling further, and small militant groups proliferating. But that cannot be a reason not to engage in this exercise – an exercise decided by Nepali political actors in a series of agreements to deal with the discrimination faced by subjects turned citizens of Nepal. As the respected columnist CK Lal told Seddon at the talk, what we are seeing in Nepal is not identity politics, it is the politics of dignity.
Clearly, Seddon has learnt little from the rigor of Hobsbawm’s work on history or nationalism, or the empathy in his essays on ‘uncommon people’. He has learnt little from the depth of Thompson’s treatise on working class. What Seddon has is the dogma that has been the left’s bane. May left movements be saved from scholars like him, and may the likes of him stay away from Nepal.