Though strategically located between Asia’s two giants, India and China, Nepal’s political importance has derived more from its tortuous process of democratic transition over the last quarter of a century than from its geography, notes Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the tangled politics of Nepal as having little international political significance and no relevance to the prospect for democracy in South Asia and other regions. But there are three factors that make the protracted effort to achieve real reform and democratic consolidation in Nepal resonate beyond the borders of this small country, he writes for World Affairs:
- The first is that the struggle for democracy and equality in Nepal raises the issue of caste discrimination, which most severely affects the Dalit or “untouchable” minority caste. …According to Professor Sukhadeo Thorat, the chairman of the Indian Council of Social Science Research and the former director of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Dalits have no right to property, education, and business; and they face residential segregation and physical and social isolation.
- This raises the second reason that developments in Nepal could resonate beyond the country’s borders. From the very beginning of Nepal’s democratic transition in 1990, the country’s social and economic character has underlined the importance of what has been called inclusive democracy—the need for democracy to be more than a system of political rights, institutions, and processes but also a way to address problems of poverty and social exclusion. Nepal is one of the world’s 20 poorest countries and the poorest country in the world outside of Africa. …This is why the Maoist rebellion was able to take root in the society, since Maoism promised a radical break with the past and a complete social transformation…
- If Nepal meets this historic challenge [of democratization], it will primarily be because of pressure mobilized from below by a growing citizens’ movement, including groups fighting for Dalit rights that are led by some of the most talented and devoted democracy activists to be found anywhere ….One of these activists was Suvash Darnal [right], who was tragically killed in a car accident in the United States in 2011 when he was only 31 years old. Darnal, who remains an inspiration to the movement in Nepal, was remembered at a major ceremony in Kathmandu’s City Hall on August 15, when the first Suvash Darnal Award for Social Justice was presented to Raksha Ram Chamar, a young lawyer who is a leader in the fight for equal rights for Dalits and others marginalized groups.
“The drama that is playing out in Nepal over the last quarter of a century has been largely overlooked by the international community,” Gershman adds. “But the resilience of its democratic transition, despite great odds, demonstrates democracy’s great appeal to ordinary people and to its universality.”