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On March 4, the insurgent Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal signed a three-point agreement with the KP Sharma Oli government, pledging to give up its violent ways and pursue its political goals peacefully.
With no party threatening an armed uprising against the state anymore, the argument could be made that Nepal is finally at peace — or at least, a semblance of peace.
According to the Global Peace Index, a ranking of countries by their “level of peacefulness”, Nepal ranks 73rd out of 161 countries. The index, produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, attempts to quantify a concept as nebulous as ‘peace’ using 23 different metrics including number of conflicts, number of deaths due to conflict, perception of criminality, level of violent crime, and political instability.
According to the 2020 index, Nepal was the second most peaceful country in South Asia, behind Bhutan.
To any idle observer, this assessment might ring true. Nepal has relatively low levels of crime and all explicit forms of violence appear to have been dealt with. But if we are to uncouple the concept of peace from explicit violence, and begin to ask questions — “whose peace?” and “peace for whom?” — this ‘state of peace’ doesn’t seem so peaceful anymore.
It is in this attempt to unpack the concept of ‘peace’ that we at the Record spoke to a range of individuals — from academics to activists — to understand what they believe constitutes peace and whether Nepal can be considered a ‘peaceful country’.
“I don’t think there are many reasons to categorize Nepal as a peaceful country or the second most peaceful country in South Asia,” says Dhirendra Nalbo, co-founder of the Open Institute and a peace and conflict researcher. “We cannot in good conscience, even in policy prescriptions, say that Nepal is in a state of peace. It is in a state of constant negotiation and contentious politics.”
While political negotiation is the hallmark of a thriving democracy, it would be difficult to argue that this negotiation has been peaceful, or even in the interests of the Nepali people.
The system you have is not a democracy but a party-o-cracy, where you have a number of parties making deals among themselves.”
In a 2013 interview with The Kathmandu Post, professor Johan Galtung, founder of peace and conflict studies, had this to say about Nepal:
“The name of the country is [the] Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal, but it is neither federal nor democratic...the system you have doesn’t even serve the people. Democracy is all by and for people, according to Abraham Lincoln. It is by the people here in the sense that there is a popular election. But it doesn’t serve the people. The system you have is not a democracy but a party-o-cracy, where you have a number of parties making deals among themselves.”
At that time, in 2013, Nepal had just dissolved its first Constituent Assembly and had appointed Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi to head a caretaker government that would conduct a second Constituent Assembly election. For donor countries, development agencies, and the UN, Nepal was still ‘in transition’ from conflict to peace.
Two years later, with the promulgation of the 2015 Constitution, one of Nepal’s ‘transition periods’ — from conflict to peace — came to a seeming end, and another — from unitary to federal — began. If peace entailed just the absence of explicit forms of violence then Nepal has been relatively peaceful. Armed splinter groups were rounded up or brought to the bargaining table and political violence came to a relative ostensible end. In 2018, the Maoists, the party that had launched the 10-year armed conflict in 1996, effectively ceased to be, joining with the Marxist-Leninist party, the CPN-UML, to form the Nepal Communist Party.
Now, with the Chand party’s capitulation, explicit violence looks to have all but ceased.
But according to political scientist Seira Tamang, the overt conflict may have ended but talk about peace tends to risk falling into the “state-sponsored rhetoric of ‘the successful, nationally led peace process’”.
“Taking this line would have to ignore the stalled transitional justice process, the continuing plight of conflict victims, and the lost opportunity to have a full account of the harms and violations to prevent repetitions in the future,” she says. “Highlighting Nepal as a peaceful country would also have to overlook the continuing weak rule of law and the impunity that it engenders with all the consequences we see and experience every day.”
Indeed, the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Accord, signed in 2006 between the Nepal government and the CPN-Maoist, envisions sweeping and lasting reforms that would, quite literally, change the face of Nepal. A new constitution might have been promulgated but the roots of conflict — the dominance of the male Khas-Arya community, the Nepali language, and Kathmandu — endures. And the open veins of the conflict itself — the victims and their families — continue to bleed.
When there is no direct warfare, that is negative peace. Positive peace is the delivery of social justice and there is no structural violence. Inequality, violence against women, all kinds of discrimination — are all part of structural violence.
“The constitution was promulgated in 2015 but the entire political process from 2006 to 2015 was not peaceful; it was always contentious,” says Nalbo. “Having a constitution is a fundamental achievement for the country, let’s not forget that, but many people, especially in the Madhes, did not take ownership of the constitution.”
What Nepal has now, going by Galtung’s formulation, is a “negative peace”, i.e., an absence of violence. For Galtung, the more desirable “positive peace” is an optimistic peace that leads to the“integration of human society”, achievable through mutual respect, the ability to freely exercise rights and values, and peaceful conflict resolution.
“When there is no direct warfare, that is negative peace. Positive peace is the delivery of social justice and there is no structural violence. Inequality, violence against women, all kinds of discrimination — are all part of structural violence. According to Galtung, as long as structural violence exists, we cannot achieve positive peace,” explains Nalbo, the peace and conflict researcher.
To be ‘at peace’, therefore, is not just an absence of war, but a generative condition where the wounds of conflict have been closed and the structural grievances that gave rise to that conflict have been mutually resolved.
But a conversation with any victim of the 10-year conflict would put to rest any misconception that the peace process is over and that Nepal now is finally at peace.
“I don’t think the absence of war is a state of peace,” says Ram Kumar Bhandari, a rights activist for conflict victims. “I would consider a ‘state of peace’ to be a full sense of human security, social justice, accountable and responsible institutions, both formal and informal, practical democracy and democratic processes, and equal treatment to all citizens to lead a dignified life.”
Bhandari’s father was arrested by the state security forces on December 31, 2001 from Besisahar in Lamjung district. He was never seen again. Bhandari has since spent over a decade demanding accountability for his disappearance while championing the rights of thousands of other victims of the conflict.
“It’s an endless wait for justice for many,” he says. “The rights of the people cannot be ensured without independent institutions that enforce responsibility and accountability from governments and civil society.”
The continued plight of conflict victims must by itself come as a sharp rebuke to any claim of peacefulness. The transition to peace cannot have ended when transitional justice has yet to be delivered. The two transitional justice commissions — Truth and Reconciliation, and Commission to Investigate Enforced Disappearances — were formed in 2015, but crippled by the faulty 2014 Enforced Disappearances Enquiry, Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act, which still provides amnesty even for perpetrators of serious human rights abuses. Successive governments have failed to abide by the 2014 Supreme Court decision that struck down numerous provisions in the act and directed the state to amend it. None have done so and the two commissions continue to function —toothless.
Beyond broad national assertions of lasting peace and overt conflict, there is also a more quotidian understanding of peace that is related to the everyday exercise of rights and freedoms without fear or coercion. This understanding is perhaps most at odds with the insistence that Nepal is a peaceful state.
According to researcher Sabin Ninglekhu, the contradictions between this ‘everyday peace’ and the larger national narrative of peace are born out of the structural conditions that produced conflicts and have yet to be resolved.
A woman always lives with the insidious fear of being sexually violated, raped and murdered accompanied by even greater fear of being denied justice
“Nepal, to me, was never a peaceful country and perhaps never will be so long as one locates ‘peace’ in the everyday context, which is where I like to locate these things,” says Ninglekhu. “Reconciliation is not really equivalent to peace; in much the same way how rebuilding (of a house) is not really recovery. They can be framed as such but that would only serve certain institutional purposes, not the purpose of everyday life itself. Everyday life always has caveats and conditions before it can accept ‘peace’ handed out to it.”
For everyday people — those without structural access to the corridors of power — peace is often transitory and contingent upon their not upsetting the status quo, something that the poet and artist Sapana Sanjeevani recently discovered.
Sanjeevani recited a fiery poem, ‘Hum ab Sita nahi banbau’, at the Women’s March on February 12, and since then, has been on the receiving end of death threats, rape threats, and threats of violence. The women who’ve come to her defense — the artist Pallavi Payal, and human rights activists Mohna Ansari, Rita Sah, and Hima Bista — have suffered similarly, threatened with violence and a desecration of their bodies. That Sanjeevani is a Madhesi woman and that her poem is in Maithili are not irrelevant details. For women like Sanjeevani, there is no peace.
“A woman always lives with the insidious fear of being sexually violated, raped, and murdered, accompanied by an even greater fear of being denied justice,” says Kalpana Jha, author of The Madhesi upsurge and the contested idea of Nepal. “As a woman from the Madhesi community, my definition of a functional peace would include freedom from the insidious fear of being violated in multiple ways and in the multiple spaces that I function within. This includes systemic racism, ethnic discrimination, and the bias embedded within institutional structures and mindsets of individuals.”
The structural violence enacted upon women like Sapana Sanjeevani is pervasive, cutting across caste, class, religion, and region.
The rape-and-murder of 17-year-old Bhagrathi Bhatta in Baitadi in early February galvanized the country, in the same way the rape-and-murder of 13-year-old Nirmala Pant had done. But while some cases receive national attention, many others, like the suspicious death of 14-year-old Pramila Tharu in Bardiya, are often forgotten.
The pervasive violence against women in the country continues in a reflection of the continuing patriarchal character of the state, which manifests most explicitly in policies that have been passed by successive governments. Tellingly, Nepali women still need to satisfy numerous conditions regarding the status of their husbands before they are able to pass down citizenship to their children.
If you ask this question to a person from a marginalized community, especially a Dalit woman, the answer would be that Nepal is in great turmoil; therefore, it is not a peaceful country. As a Dalit woman in this country, it is not possible to agree with the statement ‘sundar shanta bishal Nepal’ [beautiful, peaceful, large Nepal]; it never made any sense to me
More recently, the Department of Immigration came up with a new provision that will require Nepali women flying to the Middle East or Africa for the first time to first acquire “permission” from their families and the local government.
“Day by day, the justice system has been stepping backward. People still cannot exercise their right to move freely and fears still linger,” says Mohna Ansari, a rights activist and former commissioner of the National Human Rights Commission. “There are many criteria and opinions regarding what one considers ‘peaceful’, I myself am unable to find a definite answer. Is peace considered a state where one can eat and sleep at home? Discrimination still exists, inequality still exists, and in an environment like this, geographical beauty does not suffice for the nation to be called peaceful.”
Ethnic identity, however, continues to be a marker for those on whom violence is enacted — freely and without consequence. Minority groups, whether women, Dalit, janajati or Madhesi, would no doubt contest that there is lasting peace in the country.
“If you ask this question to a person from a marginalized community, especially a Dalit woman, the answer would be that Nepal is in great turmoil; therefore, it is not a peaceful country. As a Dalit woman in this country, it is not possible to agree with the statement ‘sundar shanta bishal Nepal’ [beautiful, peaceful, large Nepal]; it never made any sense to me,” says Sarita Pariyar, founder of the Darnal Award for Social Justice and a board member of Samata Foundation, a think tank that works for the rights and dignity of Nepal's Dalits.
Nepal has long been fraught country for Dalits. While there is often little everyday peace in the lives of Dalits, discrimination, prejudice, and the deeply ingrained caste system can breach their well-worn barriers to emerge in overt violence. Last year in May, 12-year-old Angira Pasi was found hanging in an alleged suicide after being forced to marry her ‘upper-caste’ rapist. Later that month, five Dalit youths were beaten to death because one of the young men, Nabaraj BK, sought to marry an ‘upper-caste’ Thakuri girl.
Peace in a country is amity between diverse people of its society. It’s not just absence of active conflict but institutions in place to address grievances that cause passive or reluctant acceptance of legitimate authority
Dalits, Madhesis, and Janajatis tend to die at greater rates in police custody than members of other communities. They also face more torture and violence at the hands of the security forces, according to Advocacy Forum.
A protest in the Madhes still invites occasion for the state security forces to use live ammunition, something that they hesitate to do in the Capital. In 2015, protests in the Madhes against the constitution resulted in over 40 deaths — 15 of them killed by police. According to Human Rights Watch, 14-year-old Nitu Yadav was dragged from the bushes where he was hiding and shot in the face point-blank. In 2017, five people were killed in Saptari over protests in the run-up to the 2017 federal elections. And in 2019, Saroj Mahato was shot in the head by police while protesting the death of a minor.
As long as the state and its institutions remain dominated by a few particular groups — Aryan, Bahun, Chettri, Dashnami (ABCD), in the writer CK Lal’s formulation — peace will always be fragile.
“Peace in a country is amity between diverse people of its society. It’s not just the absence of active conflict but institutions in place to address grievances that cause passive or reluctant acceptance of legitimate authority,” says Lal. “Nepal appears peaceful because the state controls overwhelming physical force and almost total command over instruments of propaganda. There is a permanent state of precarious peace in Nepal. It can hardly be called peaceful.”
It is no coincidence that in the fracas over Sapana Sanjeevani’s poem, the women on the receiving end of all the vitriol have mostly been Madhesi. The invective directed at these women has accused them of many things, but the most vociferous charge has been that of upsetting the prevailing Hindu, Khas order. A recent image macro calls Mohna Ansari, Rita Sah, and Sapana Sanjeevani “anti-Hindu” and “pseudo-feminists”.
According to Pariyar, the Dalit rights activist, a nation can only be peaceful once the right to freedom of expression of every citizen is assured.
“There isn’t just one truth and that’s why we [need to] create an environment where everyone can express their opinions and in the process, better understand each other's views," she says. "When one is repeatedly denied or harassed for practicing their right to love and right to disagree then how can we claim that Nepal is a peaceful country?"
Questions of identity can no longer eschew one of the most fundamental markers of identity — gender and sexuality. When Nepal touts itself as a ‘beacon of queer rights’ in the South Asian region, it often presents its relatively progressive legislation when it comes to gender. Nepal is one of the few countries in the world to recognize a ‘third gender’ in addition to male and female. Nepal’s 2015 constitution even explicitly states that the state shall not discriminate on the grounds of sex and will, in turn, make special provisions for the “protection, empowerment or development” of “gender and sexual minorities”.
I define peace as a state where every individual is viewed equally, where nobody is treated with any sort of discrimination. A state when we practice our rights without hampering the rights of others with total absence of violence.
And yet, despite repeated assurances by numerous governments, Nepal has yet to legalize same-sex marriage. Furthermore, gender and sexual minorities, especially transgender women, continue to suffer disproportionately at the hands of police and other security forces while still being looked down on and discriminated against by society at large.
In mid-January, over a dozen trans women were harassed, beaten, and jailed by the Nepal Police. The women reported the use of derogatory language and arbitrary violence through little fault of their own. And this is not an isolated case; trans women have lost their lives to violence.
“I define peace as a state where every individual is viewed equally, where nobody is treated with any sort of discrimination. A state when we practice our rights without hampering the rights of others with a total absence of violence. The feeling of harmony and solidarity and most importantly, being compassionate,” says Pinky Gurung, chairperson of the Blue Diamond Society, Nepal’s oldest LGBTIQ rights organization.
But Gurung believes that Nepal is largely peaceful, especially when compared to other countries in the region.
“Speaking as someone from the LGBTIQ community, laws in our neighboring country India have criminalized LGBTIQ people, but in Nepal, there have never been such laws. I have been advocating for LGBTIQ rights for the past 20 years but I have never seen anybody taking to the streets to speak against the LGBTQI community.”
Absence of conflict does not justify for a nation to be [called] peaceful, and peace should not only serve one group. It should be practiced from the base level to the top level.
While Gurung speaks from a broader, more generous perspective, structural violence against members of the LGBTIQ community — policy restrictions on marriage, education, property rights, and citizenship, along with state violence — continues. Many also believe that the ‘other’ category is restrictive and lumps together all queer individuals, despite the range of differences that exist within the larger community.
What then entails peace, for whom and importantly, where? The exercise of rights and freedoms is often better enforced in the cities and urban centers with the mofussil falling by the wayside. This is a perspective that Nyima Thinley Gurung is intimately familiar with. As headmaster of the Shree Janajyoti Basic School in Upper Mustang’s remote Lo-Ghekar Damodar Kunda Rural Municipality, he migrates with his troupe of 80 students every winter to Tanahun.
“If I were to define a ‘state of peace’, the foremost thing would be one’s mental peace. The right to exercise one’s rights freely without any discrimination or challenges,” says Nyima. “Nepal is not peaceful at all. The absence of conflict does not justify for a nation to be [called] peaceful, and peace should not only serve one group. It should be practiced from the base level to the top level. What is considered peaceful in the cities might not be the same in the villages. While comparing Mustang to other districts of Nepal, I think we are relatively at peace, but still not fully peaceful.”
True peace, then, requires addressing distinct structural inequalities, whether these be due to geography, caste, class, religion, or gender. Without an honest reckoning of what has happened in Nepal’s recent past — the Rana oligarchy, the Panchayat, the Shah rule, and the continuing experiment with a federal multiparty democracy — the continued assertion of Nepal as a peaceful country rings hollow. In fact, many of the individuals that the Record spoke to identified certain groups that benefit from this grand narrative of peace — namely, those with access to power.
The rhetoric of peace in Nepal today has actively suppressed the issue of human rights
“It is no longer acceptable to deny us — the marginalized people — our dreams and demands for equal rights to love, [lead a] life of dignity, and pursue happiness. Those who oppose and distort this historic demand are the ones who should be ashamed and blamed as the ones inciting ‘jatiya dwanda’ [ethnic conflict], not marginalized people,” says Pariyar.
The crux of the matter lies here, in Pariyar’s statement. The nation is at peace as long as the privileged are able to continue exercising their privilege. When they are outraged, they seemingly forget that Nepal’s minority groups have always remained in a state of conflict; they have always been outraged, only no one has ever listened to them.
“The subjective interpretation of violence is much more important to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of peace. Increasing instances of rape, physical, and social violence have resulted in existential crises for minority communities, especially sections situated at the intersection of caste, ethnicity, class, and gender,” says Jha, the researcher and author.
Nepal has long existed in a state of limbo, neither at peace nor at war, neither here nor there. There is no real reason why now should be the time to discuss a deeply discursive issue like peace, but there is also no real reason why this discussion should not happen now. For without questioning what peace entails, it might never be possible to achieve it. To buy wholly into the grand narrative of Nepal as a ‘peaceful nation’, a ‘zone of peace’ or the ‘birthplace of the Buddha’ would be to eliminate the counter-narratives that emerge as lines of flight, providing opportunities to rethink seemingly basic concepts like peace and violence, conflict and dialogue.
“The rhetoric of peace in Nepal today has actively suppressed the issue of human rights,” says political scientist Tamang. “This rhetoric allows the current spate of violence against women, Dalits, Madhesis, and LGBTI in all their intersectional identities, to be seen as aberrations, as opposed to being built on foundationally structured inequalities in state and society, the ‘root causes’ left unaddressed by the veneer of ‘peace-building’ activities.”
Galtung’s conception of a positive peace where all social justice is ensured might seem like a utopian idea but according to Nalbo, that’s precisely what it is — a goal that is worth striving for.
“Positive peace is where there are equity and justice, where you feel ownership of the state and a part of its institutions,” says Nalbo. “Positive peace might be impossible to attain but that should be the goal — to achieve a sense of equity and justice and belongingness.”
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