Democracy and civil society in the Himalayas: problems of implementation and participation in multiethnic societies
Paper presented to the POLSAN conference on "Civil Society and Democratization: The Contemporary World Scenario", February 17-18, 1999, Kathmandu
Although there are many variants of the concept, civil society is made up of "some combination of networks of legal protection, voluntary associations, and forms of independent public expression".
A well-developed civil society potentially influences government in two ways. It enhances political responsiveness by aggregating and expressing the wishes of the public through a wealth of non-governmental forms of association, and it safeguards public freedom by limiting the governments ability to impose arbitrary rule by force.
Civil society can be defined as the site where society enters into a relationship with the state: "The values of civil society are those of political participation, state accountability and public politics... The institutions of civil society are associational and representative forums, a free press and social associations. The inhabitant of this sphere is the citizen." Based on rights, rule of law, freedom and citizenship, civil society becomes the place for a critical rational discourse. It is a precondition for the existence of democracy and a property of democratic states and societies.
But the existence of civil society alone is not enough. An inactive civil society leads to unresponsive states, while only a politically self-conscious civil society imposes limits upon state power. If the political practices of a self-conscious civil society transgress the boundaries of the state sponsored political discourse, a crisis of legitimacy of the state results. Politics is about the dialogues and contestations that society has with the state. The site at which these encounters take place is civil society.
Civil society has historically been associated with attempts to control the state and subject state practices to critical evaluation. Civil society cannot ask for a democratic state if it is itself undemocratic, and a democratic state requires a democratic society.
Civil society can in one sense be identified with democratization and liberalization, but it is a far more comprehensive and deeper concept than democracy. Democratic practices have often been reduced to rituals and staged political events, such as elections, parliamentary representation and plebiscites which are meant to reaffirm the legitimacy of the state. The concept of civil society, on the other hand, embraces an entire range of assumptions, values and institutions, such as political, social and civil rights, the rule of law, representative institutions, a public sphere and a plurality of associations, which are preconditions of democracy.
Conceptions of state and society
The conception of the modern nation state is of European origin. Every civilization has its own conception and tradition of state. But the modern nation state, as it is defined by the West, has become the only accepted form of nation state in world politics.
The idea of sovereignty, too, in the way as it has been derived from ancient Greek and Roman law, has become international law. With the French revolution of 1789 the European sovereign state turned into a nation state. Its legitimation was based on the principle of peoples sovereignty. This type of nation state became a European institution during the 19th century and a world institution in the course of the 20th century. This globalization has, on the one hand, been the culmination of European expansion, and, on the other hand, the beginning of de-colonization.
But in many regions of the world, e.g. in Africa and Asia, this globalized type of state has neither a material nor a cultural basis. As a consequence, many civilizations have been looking for indigenous, local pre-modern and, thus, pre-global traditions of state. Different kinds of religious fundamentalism are the best examples for this development.
The nation state with its internal and external sovereignty arose from the European bourgeois society and their values of a democratic political order. In its globalised form, this kind of society is called civil society today. This means that civil society is a term to describe the separation of state and society, but it also accentuates the separation of state and religion. In this form is civil society an integral part of a democratic nation state.
The transfer of the western model of nation state upon non-western civilizations has been part of the process of colonization. These states did not become nation states in the course of a long process of development. Their foundation is neither democratic nor are they entities based on civil society.
Samuel Huntington underlines that the nation state according to its historical definition is a democratic state. But most non-western nation states are not based on democratic societies with people conscious of citizenship. Instead, these states are dominated by diverse ethnic identities often competing with each other. They fit more into global forms of civilizations than into a nation state order. On the other hand, is the civil society as the basis of a democratic nation state not defined by ethnicity. But this does not mean that the nation state necessarily has an ethnically homogeneous society. Moreover, a nation state is the result of a consensus on norms and values of a unified community. Constitutional patriotism does not depend upon ethnicity but on the democratic values and norms of the constitution.
In non-western nominal nation states identity is mainly based on ethnicity with corresponding conflicts. The particular we-groups experience the state as an imposed and suppressing apparatus of force they cannot identify with. In such states local forces often gain the upper hand against the central authority, since there is no political community that can integrate the different ethnic, cultural and religious groups.
It is a reality of present times that all states, substantial as well as nominal nation states, are systematically related to each other within the current international community. This may lead to the impression that modern history has become a common world history. But this vague and fictive conception of a common world history mostly excludes the history conceptions of local cultures and regional civilizations. Especially in parts of the non-western world we meet ethnically defined local cultures which politically group themselves to civilizations. Culture is always a local social aspect, while civilization is culturally overlapping. This means that both are neither synonymous nor identical.
What Huntington calls clash of civilizations is not an international cultural war. It is more the upheaval of local cultures politically grouped into civilizations against global structures and universally accepted norms and values. Part of this struggle is the opposition against the secular nation state that has not grown from indigenous soil but has been implanted from outside.
The clash or war of civilizations is a struggle against the international order of nation states, against the world order. It is a process of de-westernization. The western world order has first been conceptualized after the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. In the course of the next 300 years the Europeans managed to implant this system upon the whole world.
The nation states of Africa and Asia are thin political surface structures. Under these structures they are conglomerates of multiethnic populations and diverse local cultures that are only formally superseded by the territorial national structures. The latter are the connecting links between the local structures and the global ones.
Globalization produces socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural structures into which ethnicity and local cultures are incorporated. But global civilization as a consequence of the process of globalization is not able to integrate the ethnic or we-groups and their local cultures. Only individuals can be integrated. The local cultures become regional civilizations in their area of origin and revolt against the conception of a global civilization. They see the nation state as a western intrigue, as a strategy of divide et impera to suppress non-western civilizations.
The de-colonization of the world was at the same time a phase of acculturation: non-western elites educated in the west tended to follow the European conception of nation state and other western achievements. Their demand for a nation state of their own was an effective ideological weapon against European colonialism. In recent years we can observe an opposite trend. The westernized elites of Asian and African states may have originally appeared as secular and modernizing elites, but they now turn into supporters of movements based on religious fundamentalism. They reject their own western education and often aggressively distance themselves from the west. Religious fundamentalism provides the necessary ideology for this revolt of de-westernization. It opposes the nation state and aims at the restoration of the lost unity of civilization.
The western nation state never took roots in non-western cultures. Values of local cultures are nowadays revitalized to fight against the implanted European nation state. This revitalization of local cultures supports at the same time the revival of ethnic connections. The state may become aligned to a civilization based on a special kind of religion, but this civilization is split into numerous groups with different ethnicity and local culture. Civilizations are uniting local cultures on the outside, while ethnicity can be the cause for conflicts between the local cultures.
Applied upon Nepal we have the following situation. Nepal is a multiethnic state as defined by the constitution, i.e. there are great a number of ethnic communities living on the state territory of Nepal. These groups are not civil societies in the western sense of a community independent of the democratic state. Instead, we find ethnic sub-communities, which oppose the authority of the current nation state they cannot identify with.
If you take the term civil society independent of its modern western environment then you can also apply it to Nepals different ethnic groups. They are independent of the political structure of the nation state they formally belong to, but towards which they refuse their substancial integration.
On the nation state level there does not exist a civil society in the modern sense with a community system or at least a common identification with such kind of system. Models of identity have been implanted by the ruling elites, but they often collide with ethnic affiliations. Thus, if you want to talk about pre-modern civilizations and their local cultures, you have to considerate the concept of ethnicity, since ethnic and religious identities are of greater importance than the artificially implanted nation state identity.
Nepals ethnic communities, as all ethnic societies, are confronted with the modern global civilization. This leads to a kind of interaction between the local ethnic cultures and their global environment. This interaction takes place within the framework of the nominal nation state. Intellectual state leaders construct idealized identities in order to minimize tensions. This is in the case of Nepal, for example, the constitutional identification with Hindu symbols and values, or the policy of separation from Christian religion or Indian secularism, or the analysis of the society along the conceptions of communist ideologies also derived from the west.
But all this is only externally. Inside, the subordinate ethnic and religious identities are of greater importance. But also the conflict between the different ethnic groups and the nation state only reflects the opposition of local cultures against an institution derived from another civilization.
Ethnicity, nation state and sub systems
The times of de-colonization became a new era of nationalism. At present, we are in a new phase with a shifting of interests from nation building to ethnicity. National consciousness is replaced by ethnic identity. Ethnicity has become a source for conflicts both within the nation state and within regional interstate relations.
Thus ethnicity has become the focus of anthropologists as well as political scientists working on international relations. While anthropologists and ethno-sociologists turn their attention to ethnicity as expression of a local culture, political scientists are trying to analyse ethnicity from the perspective of world, regional or national politics.
In Nepal, being a non-western state, the nation state has not grown out of the indigenous soil, but it has been artificially transplanted. Thats why I would like to call it a nominal nation state. Sections of Nepali society, or better to say special Nepali elites, came into contact to modern political thinking based on the conception of the western nation state in the 1930s and especially 1940s. The modern state of Nepal that developed after the successful overthrow of the Ranas in 1950/1 cannot be called a nation state in the western sense, since it did not overcome its ethnic diversity. In modern western nation states, sub-national and ethnic communities have been integrated into a common civil society. They have totally lost their original meanings. Thus, ethnic diversity can be called a pre-nation state phenomenon. Each nation as a modern formation has her own ethnic origin. Anthony Smith speaks in this context of the "ethnic origin of nations".
Nominal nation states like Nepal are missing this common civil society. There is no modern community with national loyalties and patterns of identity based on citizenship, that have replaced the original sectarian ethnic bonds. There does not exist the consciousness of a citizenship that compensates ethnic loyalties and identities. When Nepals ruling elites defined the state in the constitution of 1990, then they could not break away from the civilization and culture they had been born into. If they talk about the modern nation state Nepal, then many ethnic groups, the so-called depressed castes and the Muslims of the country cannot identify with this conception. Imported western institutions of democracy and symbols like the national flag or the national anthem cannot conceal from the different ethnic groups that there is still no common nation behind this facade. The existing sub-national and sub-ethnic cleavages within the nominal nation state Nepal cannot be removed under the present conditions.
One has to ask if modernization in the sense of a simple transfer of the European model of nation state can help to break up the solidarity within the ethnic we-groups in the interest of the common nation Nepal. The nation state newly defined in 1990 has so far not been able to assimilate the different ethnic groups.
The roots of ethnicity originate from the socially produced and steadily changing foursome of common myths, oral tradition, values and symbols. Nations are neither in the pre-modern sense original and unchangeable nor are they totally modern. They have maintained their ethnic origins even in modern industrialized societies. But there, national bonds have replaced the erstwhile local communal identifications and have thus created a common basis for a local culture on the national level. The modern media of communication further help to promote the process of integration and cultural assimilation. The nominal nation state Nepal with her non-western forms of civilization is not based on a democratic community defined as a communication community.
The nominal nation state does not have a historical experience of her own. Its sovereignty is nominal, not historically grown. In Nepal, even nine years ago sovereignty was still vested in the monarch. The new pattern of state has been transferred from outside. It lacks the necessary institutional infrastructure as well as the accepted legitimacy. Such an artificially constructed state is hardly able to cope with conflicts. In one and the same such state there do exist several ethnic collectives competing for power, all of which having their own culturally given identity. The politization of this ethnic diversity finally leads to a struggle for supremacy within the state.
In each ethnic community there are patron client relations. The patron often a powerful person in a state position with access to resources uses his position to gain an advantage to his/her ethnic we-group. This leads to distribution struggles. The institutionally weak nation state in non-western civilizations is not only lacking a non-ethnic community with a substantial consensus but also the political culture that defines the terms of the competition for the regulation of ethnic conflicts on power and resources. State power is not shared between the different groups, but it is monopolized by one single group.
The ideology of Nepali nationalism is not likely to regulate ethnic conflicts and to manage the ethno-politics in a democratic manner. A democratic solution would be power-sharing. But how can an institutionally weak state like Nepal develop such mechanisms of democratic government?
Sovereignty and the institutionalized political order of a non-ethnic community are substantial principles of a nation state. Ethnic conflicts are typical for political orders that lack these principles. In a really modern state, the citizens feel part of a political community and not of an ethnic one. The political culture of such a state is characterized by norms and values that have been internalized by the whole population. Each group articulates its interests in the public and discusses it with other groups in a peaceful manner. Even events in the Nepali parliament have proved, that Nepal has not reached this level, yet.
To feel as a member of a political community in the sense of citizenship is not an abstract idea, but it demands a really existing structural basis. This feeling must be common to all sections of society independent of ethnic, religious or political orientation. The consciousness of such a political community is the basis for the internalization of a higher identity, which is necessary to overcome pre-modern forms of affiliation.
And this is precisely what only nominal nation states like Nepal are missing. Outwardly, are all political states in the possession of nation state sovereignty, but they are missing it internally in the sense of democratic sovereignty. And this is the crisis of nominal nation states. In most of the nominal nation states, political power is not democratically shared by the members and groups of the political community, but it is monopolized by an ethnic or ethno-religious clientele as a sub-community. Ethnic tensions are boosted, since there is no culture of democratic power sharing.
The Himalayan situation
The following remarks are part of some fundamental ideas concerning my current research project. The purpose of this project is to test some explanatory hypotheses on democratization and development of civil society in multiethnic environment taking the central Himalayas, especially Nepal and Bhutan but also Sikkim and Darjeeling, as an example. All these states or regions have in common that they are inhabited by a large variety of population groups belonging to three main stocks: Tibeto-Mongolian, Indo-Aryan and Austro-Asiatic. The general questions to be explained are as follows: Are there common trends and problems in implementing democracy? Does the social and cultural variety hinder broad scale participation of population? In which way can democracy promote the development of civil society? Why do even states or regions with a longer democratic history still have problems in achieving higher levels of governance? Is the trend to violence, radicalism and separatism the result of shortcomings in implementing democracy and participation?
The Himalaya is neither a geographical nor a social and cultural border line. As the main rivers rise north of the Himalayan chain and later break through the mountains in deep gorges, the area has always been open to infiltration by population groups from the north. So, from the social point of view the Himalaya and its foothills have been a meeting place of different races, cultures, languages, religions and ideologies.
Racially we meet Tibeto-Mongolian peoples side by side with Indo-Arian Groups. In recent years, anthropological research has brought to light a lot of information about the history of immigration of many of the Himalayan peoples. In addition the growing ethnic consciousness has led to some kind of self-identification of many groups on the basis of racial, linguistic, religious and cultural features.
Culturally, the Himalaya is an area where different worlds are meeting. One of the main characteristics of every culture is the language spoken by its representatives. The multitude of languages can hardly be greater than in the Himalayan region, where we find Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Tibeto-Burman languages. Even linguistically closely related languages are of such a variety that they are hardly intelligible among each other.
Similar to the situation of the languages is that of the religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and shamanism are the traditional religions of the Himalayan peoples, showing a lot of syncretistic tendencies. In the course of history they have been joined by foreign religions like Islam and Christianity with their missionary foundation; the latter, too, play an important role in the current processes of social change and political formation.
In addition, events and developments in the adjacent northern and southern regions often have caused waves of migration into the area under discussion, where they have influenced the distribution of political, social and economic power in a decisive way.
Political influences and processes of transformation
In quite recent times the Himalayan region has been the meeting place of two different political ideologies, both of whom being the product of western industrial nations: democracy in its western form as it is practised in all South Asian countries today, except in Bhutan, and the communist ideology in its Soviet and Chinese variations. The development of the modern nation states of the region must be seen against the background of confrontation of these western ideologies with the traditional elements of power distribution and participation.
But the ethnic and cultural diversity of the region sometimes conceals common structures. The Hindu state Nepal for example seems to have little in common with the Buddhist state Bhutan. But when you look more closely you will find a lot of historical or structural parallels. In both states the power is in the hands of elite minorities who immigrated, or at least claim to have immigrated, in relatively late historical times. These elites have made their own culture the foundation of their state ideology, which is defended against every kind of attack from inside their state boundaries. In recent times the elites of both states feel endangered by the dawning of the modern western ideology of democracy. The supporters of this democratization are interior forces like disadvantaged ethnic elites, but also the modern state of India with its type of state order closely related to western democracies, and with her efforts for security along her northern border.
Today Nepal and Bhutan are on different stages of a similar process. Both states faced very cautious experiments with democracy in the 1950s, in the case of Bhutan also in the 1960s, followed by a return to traditional forms of politics, when democratic institutions were only used in a hypocritical way. It was only in 1990 that Nepal faced the breakthrough of democratic ideas and the constitutional confinement of traditional forces. Bhutan has not done this step, yet, where so far only disadvantaged groups of population have called for democracy. In Nepal the process of democratization has mainly been carried by special circles of the traditional ruling elite, while in Bhutan the Ngalung elite has so far not participated in this process.
The development of the small Himalayan state of Sikkim, situated between Nepal and Bhutan, has been a little bit different. Similar to its neighbouring countries, Sikkim had been under the political control of a minority elite, in this case Tibetans who had immigrated some centuries ago and reigned the country according to their Tibetan-Buddhist tradition of kingship. But different from Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim had been a British protectorate since 1860 and had become open to Indian influences. As a result, the country faced an immense pressure for democratization when India became independent in 1947. The forces behind this process were the Nepalis, Sikkim's most numerous population group, but also the Rongs (Lepchas) and Tsongs (indigenous groups of Limbus and Magars). India supported the replacement of the traditional royal system by a democratic one in 1974 and brought about the integration of Sikkim into the Indian Union. But even more than 20 years later it is still under discussion whether this step was right or not, and Sikkim's politics is marked by tensions that have their basis in the multiethnic population of the country. Independent of the Indian annexation, Sikkim's politics of the last two decades is a reflection of the same racial, ethnic and cultural problems, which the young Nepali democracy is confronted with in the 1990s.
Another case is the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, which got special treatment in modern history. After the British forced Sikkim to cede the area in 1835, Darjeeling became a summer resort and later the centre of a flourishing tea industry. Since the middle of the 19th century many people from Eastern Nepal were called in as cheap labourers. This is the reason why today Darjeeling's population is mainly of Nepali origin. This ethnic potential has given the politics of the district a special orientation, that differs from the rest of West Bengal. Since the 1980s Darjeeling has faced a militancy similar to that of the North-East Indian states. It culminated in the clash between the government of West Bengal and the Nepali elite of the district with its constructed ethnicity as Gorkhas.
With the exception of Bhutan democratic forms of government have taken the place of traditional ones in all states and regions of the central and eastern Himalaya. But tradition has not been totally superseded. Even the former systems in their final stages had tried to revive and safeguard their tradition by integrating some democratic aspects and institutions. One such example was the Nepali panchayat system, that had been sold as an indigenous Nepali system of democracy by its founder, King Mahendra. The introduction of fictitious democratic institutions by the Bhutanese King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk must be seen in a similar context. But in both countries there has not been a radical coup d'état, e.g. the replacement of the traditional monarchy by a republic.
Those forces that have brought democracy have frequently compromised with the traditional forces. So, in Nepal the monarchy that had been absolute according to western political thinking was changed into a constitutional one in very recent times. The persons in power may have changed, but they come from the same ethnic and cultural groups as their predecessors. The reason is that the social hierarchy of the Hindu state that had been fundamental for all kinds of participation in the partyless panchayat system is also dominating the thinking and structure of the political parties of the 1990s. An outward characteristic is the retention of the term Hindu state in the constitution by today's democratic elite.
A bit different is the situation in Sikkim, where the integration into the republican state of India in 1974/75 meant the expulsion of the Namgyal monarchy and its ruling elite minority of immigrated Tibetans out of power which had controlled the country for about 300 years. Since then the political parties in power are dominated mainly by Nepalis who immigrated within the last 150 years, but also by the old indigenous groups of Lepchas and Limbus. Typically enough the great Indian national parties have hardly played any role in the past.
The role of ethnic movements
It may be asked in which way the very differentiated aspects of education and political consciousness have influenced this development. The democratization of the Himalayan states has been the consequence of the fast growing political consciousness of ever growing circles of society. Bhutan, the country with the lowest standard of general education, characteristically has the lowest grade of democratization scale. The great attraction of the most disadvantaged people by radical parties and organizations, that call for a further revolution and the introduction of a republic, is an indication that the process of democratization is also incomplete in countries like Nepal. The very tradition that has been removed or changed has been the tradition of the ruling elite in the respective countries. Compromises with this tradition, as they are typical even for communist parties like the CPN-UML, necessarily lead to the retention of the traditional power structures. Thus, in the case of Nepal the political, economic and social domination of the high Hindu castes has been retained irrespective of some kind of democratization. The disregard of the traditions of the other peoples of the country has in the same way survived the system change of 1990. The disadvantaged groups in a state democratized in this way have only the chance of subordinate participation by adaptation and Hinduization.
In Sikkim the situation is different. The integration into the republican Indian state meant a total break with the tradition of the elite ruling before. With the constitutional exclusion of religion and culture from politics, the Tibetan-Buddhist Bhutia elite lost any chance to save their former supremacy in a democratized form of government. The numerically dominating Nepali population within the political parties of Sikkim gives the impression that the changes of 1974/75 have given way to another form of ethnic and cultural domination. But Sikkim's Nepalis are of a similar ethnic, linguistic and religious divergence as the society in neighbouring Nepal. This became obvious in the mid 1990s when Nar Bahadur Bhandari, a Nepali Bahun who had dominated the politics of Sikkim for 15 years, was driven from power by ethnic Nepalis.
Democratic ideas and the formation of civil society
Successful ethnic movements that have brought a greater power sharing in countries like Sikkim, but also in the North-East Indian states, lead to the question, if the western democracy can be a form of government, that is appropriate to replace the traditional systems and to solve the numerous conflicts in the multiethnic and multicultural states of the central and eastern Himalayas. With a western democracy, some kind of "foreign" tradition is replacing the "indigenous" one of the ruling elite. The latter usually hinders an equal participation of social groups other than the ruling one. This means that the western democracy could be a positive foundation for at least a theoretically broad-based participation of population. The western democracy uses political parties via which persons are elected into special functions or bodies by the people for a definitive period of time. These political parties are tied to common principles of organization and state mechanism, but they, at the same time, represent different approaches of social and economic order.
The very special problem of transferring western democratic types of state lies within the multiethnicity being so characteristic for the countries of the central and eastern Himalayas. In Germany like in many other Western European nations, ethnic boundaries and differences have become fluid. In the course of centuries the European states have developed a more a less single national identity, which is bound to territory and language, and to a lesser degree also to culture and religion. But in spite of these established identities even Western European Countries are confronted with tensions that even escalate sometimes.
There is no democratic country in the western world that has nearly as many ethnic groups, cultures and religions as the Himalayan states. So one has to ask the question how far western models can be transferred to these countries. King Mahendra, for example, justified his coup d'état of 1960 arguing that the western kind of democracy had proved unsuitable for Nepal. The political system introduced by him afterwards was based on the tradition of those population groups, to whom also the royal Shah family belonged. But this royal system failed as well, and again it was replaced by a western type of democracy in 1990. The Nepali system of government practised in the 1950s as well as the later panchayat system were lacking in openness for the multicultural set-up of the country's society. But even though the democracy introduced in 1990 has similar starting points, the situation is different because of the growing political consciousness of the disadvantaged population groups and because of the guarantee of fundamental rights by the new constitution. Today the state meets demands that would have been nipped in the bud during panchayat times, but now they lead to open discussions.
The way of democratization introduced in Nepal can lead towards two directions. The current democratic system did not supersede the tradition of the ruling elite, but instead incorporated this tradition. This means in practice that members of those population groups, which before constituted the ruling elite of the former panchayat system, today decide the politics of the political parties. It depends upon them, if they are willing to reduce the dominance of their own tradition and so make possible the integration of other population groups into the nation. Their instruments at hand are the political parties. The constitution of 1990 prohibits the recognition of parties which have been formed on the basis of religion, community, caste, tribe or region. But the same constitution continues to orientate the state according to the tradition of the high Hindu castes of the pahad, Nepal's hill area, only. If this basic foundation is not corrected, the state may go another way that might not have been in the mind of many of those people who fought for democracy in 1990. The special feature of this second way is the accentuation of the respective traditions of the different population groups of the country. The repeated demands for autonomous regions based on ethnicity are a first indication for such kind of development. The North-East Indian states have set a good example for this.
So western democracy does not automatically solve the numerous problems of the Himalayan states mainly based on social conflicts. But different from the tradition of a dominating elite, democracy can lead to a solution, if those responsible finally make up their minds and separate politics and culture. In view of the great importance of tradition among the peoples of the Himalayan area it will always remain a question of tolerance, if conflicts can be avoided or solved.
Copyright © 1999, Karl-Heinz Kraemer