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Can Nepalese Civil Society Create a Space that Binds All?

Dev Raj Dahal

The silent social change carried by civil society groups in thousands of villages and towns of Nepal has provided the political parties and the general citizens’ vital social energy for them to speak, agitate and reclaim the sovereignty rooted in them and rationally shape the power relationships in society. A genuine civil society is self-chosen by the citizens themselves and emerges from a process of rational contestation of ideas about good life. The ongoing discourse in Nepal between popular sovereignty embedded in individual liberty and representative democracy legitimized by majority rule has caught the imagination of various civil society groups. This discourse has divided the Nepali public into those who defend absolute popular sovereignty rooted in human rights and the accountability of power to those affected by its exercise and those who accord primacy to the essence of representative democracy which tends to pluralize sovereignty into various institutions of governance. Can civil society represent a unifying symbol of popular will capable of bridging these two camps? It is also important to resolve the risks associated with these discourses to prevent anti-democratic spiral in political life.

The politics of Constituent Assembly (CA) has motivated every Nepali citizen to search for a good life by reinventing vision, form structures, define the environment where they had to operate and unleash positive impacts in public life. The CA however, signifies many things to many people. Can civil society groups help achieve common goals set in CA? When they suffer from a package of self-ironies especially in areas of autonomy, membership, charity work, supporting the marginalized, rural-orientation, resource utilization and self-governance measures how can they create rationalized public as a precondition for democratic consolidation? Can they help satisfy the aspirations of multiple social eruptions against the political class they themselves have fanned?

In this critical juncture of the nation’s history, Nepalese civil society groups need to redefine what is possible for them to do, what is legitimate for them to do and what they should not do. Given their anti-state disposition, they should definitely not excite a nasty fight that generates widespread distrust against democratic institutions of the state. The political challenges for Nepalese civil society groups, however, are varied and complex. To put them into proper perspective requires one to see their relationships with other actors of governance.

Social Microcosm

The irreducible pluralism in Nepalese civil society reflects not only diverse and asymmetric life-forms of the nation’s class, caste, gender, region and religion but also an essential aspect of a democratic society. These groups draw sustenance from a mixture of social contexts and historical spirit of citizens’ community-mindedness and public-spiritedness entrenched into the political culture of duty-bound behavior, dharma and its liberating ideal—emancipation of all and not just those of the oppressed. Recent democratic upsurge facilitated the integration of the movements of subsidiary identities of civil society into a meta identity of secular public and has set a good example of how social capital operates in the Nepalese society. The central challenge for them in the realm of “social” now is to expand the domain of particular form of social capital, such as guthi, dhikuti, volunteerism, public-interest federations, associations, CBOs, NGOs, etc located at certain location into the national scale, beneficial to various communities. This helps to transform diverse people into equal citizens and emancipate rights-based civil society as an urban bourgeiois space in favor of spontaneous socialization of primordial society into a civil society.

Civic Solidarity

Nepali state, as the only locus of democracy and central organizing element of foreign affairs, is very weak to mediate between citizens and the state. A decade-long insurgency and counter-insurgency operations have eroded the state’s authority and capacity to perform basic state functions and release the potential for system integration. It is the duty-based civil society groups which are complementing the development functions of the state and providing the resiliency to citizens’ initiatives to cope with their problems at the grassroots level. Social movements of civil society are liberalizing the nature of traditional politics from status-bound to social contract, altering the functions of political parties and seeking to universalize the human rights of Nepalese citizens. The vision of civil society groups based on freedom, social justice, solidarity and peace-building will continue to hold relevance for Nepal as universal reference points to improve the condition of Nepalese citizens caught in structural injustice. The task ahead for political parties is to establish a synergy between the sectoral social action of civil society groups and national action of the state and make both sets of actors inclusive, visible, representative and accountable to larger public action. The peace accord has offered an opportunity to political parties to build strong networks of association and reengage with the bottom of society. This can lead to enhanced faith of ordinary citizens in the possibilities of modern politics.

Modern democracy requires not just political and economic participation but also voluntary social and civic ones to mediate power and wealth in society, create checks and balances and hold the state and market institutions accountable. In Nepal these groups have played a role in the construction of citizens’ civic identity and emancipate people from their pre-rational orientations through the struggle for rational public order. As an infrastructure of democracy constituted through citizen-based initiatives they can incubate a strong condition for true participatory democracy. Real democratization can occur if Nepalese civil society groups can overcome their partisan character, develop autonomy from the interest groups, build coalitions across the various civic groups and enable socially legitimate collective action on matters of public good. Participatory democracy driven by information revolution does not become functional if civil society groups do not generate the habits of debate and offer political leadership effective opposition and competition on matters of public and national importance. It is imperative for the Nepalese civil society to ensure that the questions of common good such as security, peace, democracy, livelihood and identity are not neglected even for the marginalized. These are preconditions for the evolution of a rule-governed conception of public order.

Policy sovereignty

Globalization has internationalized the Nepalese market. But, it has also expanded civil society’s reach into the regional and global discourse and ignited fresh hope from a sort of global political renaissance articulated through the emerging social movements and world social forums. The universality of human rights has endorsed the legitimacy of the plurality of liberal values in Nepal. But, political sovereignty would be meaningless if there is no policy sovereignty, to enable the Nepalese decide the type of political, economic and social system they prefer for themselves and their children. The competitive spirit of the Nepalese citizens, civil society groups, markets and the political parties equally requires a strong coordinating role of the state to beef up the economic and social foundation of politics. Nepalese civil society groups can help the leadership to articulate the policy sovereignty of politics in economic matters and help to define national priorities for action, seek the support of international community and achieve the economy of scale through market efficiency and social integration. There is also an imperative to build trust and seek the synergy of civil society-private sector partnership to enable the torn state to assume basic governance functions—security, rule of law, voice and participation, delivery of public goods and conflict resolution.


In a phase of difficult democratic transition the responsibilities of Nepalese civil society groups are monumental in scope. First, democracy building in Nepal requires a political consensus on social contract and establishing the legitimacy of the state action. Second, modernization of the infrastructure of democracy---political parties, NGOs, CBOs, public interest groups, media, educational institutions and the other agencies of socialization-- is a precondition to democracy consolidation and developing their compliance to the rule of law. Third, capturing the sovereignty of policy domain is another area to enforce the accountability of governance to public and push for conflict-sensitive programs. In a governance regime, however, a sound mechanism of mutual accountability of internal and external stakeholders must be built so that scarce resources can be concerted into civic and voters’ education for broadening awareness of the citizens as well as multi-track peace-building efforts. The suffering of the losers can easily pose risks to the order of society. Fourth, development of the linkages of micro and macro institutions of civil society is essential to enable their efficacy in the realization of the vision of good governance based on human rationality. A positive peace requires the framework of social justice where civil society groups with other stakeholders can enter into cooperative action for a sustainable democratic peace.

Source: The Telegraph Weekly, 24 September 2008

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