18 October 2016: Political transition in Nepal is awakening sleeping grievances and threatening social cohesion, argue Subindra Bogati and Benjamin Britton. They say that local organisations are best equipped to help the country navigate this tense period.

As Nepal navigates its way through a tricky political transition, local organisations are well placed to deal with fast-evolving needs for conflict resolution, dialogue and peacebuilding. Image credit: Lenz

Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended Nepal’s decade-long civil war in 2006, the country has been wracked by recurring outbreaks of sometimes violent protest against the state and the perceived injustice of the status quo.

Many of the marginalised ethnic groups from which the Maoist insurgency gained most support during the conflict have become dissatisfied with the pace and degree of change in the Nepali state following the peace settlement. Nepal’s much anticipated peace and democracy dividend never materialised for the vast majority of Nepalis.

The promulgation of Nepal’s long-awaited Constitution in 2015, which was approved by 89 percent of the Constituent Assembly representatives, increased political dissatisfaction and violence in Nepal’s southern Tarai region. This eventually claimed 57 lives, including those of 8 police officers. Since then, the Madhesis and Tharus, the most numerous and prominent ethnic groups of the southern plains, have been protesting to ensure that their political and economic exclusion and systematic discrimination is properly addressed by Constitutional amendments. 

The state has been the agent of structural violence in the eyes of many of the disenfranchised and marginalised
Though Nepal is a diverse country, with over 125 ethnic and caste groups and 93 living languages, the Nepali state has been dominated by Nepali speaking, high-caste, middle hill origin, men for many decades, but especially since the emergence of multi-party democracy in 1990.

The state has been the agent of structural violence in the eyes of many of the disenfranchised and marginalised living in peripheral areas. They hoped that a democratic Constitution, originally envisaged in the 1950s and finally promulgated in 2015, would be broadly progressive and inclusive. However, instead of being a symbol of unity in diversity, it came to represent the ignorance and arrogance of the centre in the eyes of many disenfranchised ethnic groups and Madheshi commentators, politicians and protesters.

Negotiating change: the problem of social cohesion

In this fragile situation, even a minor incident takes on a political or ethnic colour
The Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative recently visited current and former conflict hotspots from East to West in the Tarai region and talked to a wide range of individuals and organisations, all with different perspectives, demands and visions for the future of the country. It became clear that Nepal faces the challenge of maintaining social cohesion while negotiating a path through massive structural change in the Nepali state.

The transition from highly-centralised unitary state to a state of devolved federal provinces will, inevitably, disrupt entrenched interests and awaken sleeping grievances and therefore create a degree of disruption. In this fragile situation, even a minor incident takes on a political or ethnic colour making it difficult for local authorities alone to resolve it. However, in many regions, it has fallen on local NGOs, human rights civil society organisations and local and national community networks to develop and adapt their programmes to meet these fast-evolving needs for conflict resolution, dialogue and peacebuilding. Where an institution is designed to facilitate peacebuilding processes, inclusively, within its own context, then it can prove to be an asset for the community.

Local-level peace interventions for local-level conflicts 

It seems relatively clear that local-level peace interventions by local organisations are an appropriate response to community-level conflicts. Government is widely perceived as a party to conflict in many places in the Tarai and therefore, in this volatile situation cannot be the driving force behind efforts toward conflict resolution and social cohesion through dialogue and peacebuilding interventions. Especially in the Tarai, there is a trust-deficit that will not easily be overcome.

Local organisations have an opportunity to develop local methods to address local concerns, but only if they have sufficient resources. Where these local organisations have responded to conflict, initial indications are of success in reducing the instances of violence and inter-communal conflict and tension. It seems that when you consider these two findings together, namely that government is seen as a party to conflict and that local mechanisms could work to undermine conflict dynamics if properly resourced, a suggestion presents itself. There may be some benefit in exploring the idea of government resourcing local mechanisms and organisations in an impartial and hands-off way. 

Local mechanisms could work to undermine conflict dynamics if properly resourced
There is also the issue of the disengagement of the international community, which has lost credibility and representation in these ‘difficult’ Tarai areas. Most INGOs are confined to monitoring, if they are present at all.

Yet, there could be a valuable role for them in contributing to the peaceful resolution of conflict here. Some people in Nepal’s Tarai have argued that if the INGOs and the donor community, along with the government, had contributed to building significant local capacity of peace-conscious civil society organisations in the aftermath of the first Madhesh uprising in 2007, then the protests for legitimate aims and real grievances might not have been discredited by the protestor violence that the state used to justify their security-focused response which, in turn, has led to the current near impasse in the politics of Nepal’s southern belt.  

How long is a shoestring?

Local organisations are often run on the tightest of budgets by volunteers, yet must have enough economic and human resource capacity to expand their activities
The need is there and, during the Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative’s research study visit, it became clear that groups of highly motivated individuals were establishing or expanding autonomous and impartial dialogue groups to defuse local conflicts.

Informal and formal membership networks and contact networks established by local NGOs and Civil Society Organisations have also proved valuable in reestablishing ties and reinforcing social cohesion in what are still very diverse communities.

The need for appropriate action and interventions for peace have far overtaken the pace at which funds can be raised or applied for from donors. Therefore, for any interventions to take place, local organisations - often run on the tightest of budgets by volunteers - must have enough economic and human resource capacity to expand their activities. A tough ask.  

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