Nepal’s gradual but violent journey from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional government and then a people’s democracy seems to carry some important lessons for Pakistan.

Going back in history, Pakistan’s ill-conceived experiment with the One-Unit plan by amalgamating the federating units created discord between ethnic communities as a (probably) unintended consequence. In Nepal, on the other hand, the unitary government before the uprising of 2006 was seen as subsuming or at worst, excluding, various ethnic and caste identities from the mainstream in favor of a minority of upper caste Hindus.

Like non-party based Basic Democracies in Pakistan, the similarly non-party Panchayat system of Nepal was viewed as largely non-representative in the 1990s and was contested by a popular uprising. The education and resultant urbanization had by then created a strong civil society and urban middle class in Nepal, which played a crucial role in bringing down the monarchy.

Nepal had a parliamentary monarchical system in those times, whereby the monarch was head of the state empowered for giving royal assent to all legislative work done by a bicameral parliament. To borrow from Walter Lippman, it was a classical example of ‘guided democracy’, the likes of which we can still see in Pakistan. The monarchy in our case, however, is replaced by the head of the gun-wielding force with a monopoly on violence. This desi ‘monarch’ might not have any statutory powers to act as head of state, but can exercise all the powers at its disposal to ‘guide’ and in many cases manipulate the democratic regimes.

The Nepalis retaliated on the streets and through weapons from the 1990s till the mid 2000s. After the royal killings of 2001, a shortsighted Gayanendra assumed the throne and brought the monarchy in the midst of political fracases. Bringing the titular head of the state that the monarchy had to be, right inside the thick politics, Gayanendra had started writing the obituary of his own kingship. As the Maoist insurgency started mainstreaming itself in politics, the communist factions gave them legitimacy by entering into political and electoral alliances with them.

After the elections of 2008, finally the Maoists came to govern the country, which had experienced a rebirth after the Declaration of 2006, also called the Magna Carta of Nepal. In the wake of this declaration, Nepal was now a federal republic with a representative parliamentary democracy in place. It would be an interesting study to examine the factors that brought the communist Maoist party to power in Nepal at a time when communism in the rest of the world had breathed its last.

Another important transition was from being the only Hindu state of the world to becoming a secular republic. The communists, ethnic rights groups and women’s rights groups alongside enlightened sections of Nepali civil society had long been advocating for secularism. Unlike Pakistan, where advocacy for secularism is just marginal, the Nepalis got it after long-standing public pressure through rights movements of different shades and leftist groups.

For a long time before this transition, the pro-monarchy Hindu elites had been arguing that the secularization of the state would bring Christian missionaries, convert the predominantly hindu population of the country and cause permanent damage to Hindu culture. At the forefront of this propaganda was Hindu extremist Nepali Shiv Sena (NSS). A decade after the assumption of secularism however, the Nepali society is pleasantly pluralist, multiethnic, multi-religious and much more tolerant than other South Asian countries.

For 4% of the Muslims of the total population, around a thousand Madrassas exist in Nepal that are legally registered with the government. Mosques, however, do not have to be registered. All proselytizing activities and evangelical missions are banned but as per my interviews with groups of Muslims visiting two big Jaamia Mosques in Khatmandu, the Tableeghi Jamaat has been gradually increasing its activity without much interference by the government. A Christian missionary radio service is also running while few Missions have been interrupted in the past two years as per an inter-faith harmony report by the US State Department.

According to a 2012 report by the State Department, the response of this continuing religious freedom to minorities has been a slight increase in Hindu extremism in areas where NSS controls the narrative. But the predominant Hindu population generally lives peacefully with other communities. Buddhists (9% of total population) have many places of worship, which are revered equally by Hindus and vice versa. Some issues with Tibetan Buddhists however, have pushed them to come to the streets occasionally for protesting against discrimination.

An important observation during my brief stay in Nepal was that there was no incident of burning down or the demolition of mosques as opposed to Pakistan where Hindus (around 3% of total population) keep facing religious based violence. Contrary to popular belief, in Pakistan and elite view in pre-2006 Nepal, secularization of the state has not eradicated dominant religion, nor has it promoted faithlessness in the society. The religious pluralism that it has exacerbated has made Nepali society a pleasantly liveable and loveable one. For everyone.

On the governance front, Nepal has recently elected its second Constituent Assembly (CA) with a strong representative character. Of the 601 total CA seats, on 240 seats, the representatives were elected on first-past-the-post basis, while 335 seats were allocated for election on Proportional Representation (PR) basis and 26 were to be nominated by the Council of Ministers as experts or technocrats.

The proportional representation seats were filled by party nominations and elections by converting the entire country in one constituency. The voters had to poll two ballots, one for the direct election of representatives and the other for their preferred party for proportional representation of all ethnic and religious communities. The PR provision has proven phenomenal in bringing marginalized ethnic communities and lower castes into the mainstream political process. The upper caste Hindu elite is for the first time a ‘minority’ (around 30%) in the governing institutions.

The distinguishing feature was, all parties had to nominate at least 50% women on PR seats, while at least 33% women would be given tickets to contest direct elections. Although, only ten women ended up in the CA after direct elections, (mostly because of the fact that the parties did not award tickets to women candidates in potentially winnable seats), with 50% women who came on PR seats, the Nepal’s CA now boasts approximately 34% women in their constitution making body – the highest in South Asia.

I was intrigued to learn that the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus of Nepal formed during the first CA was dissolved as soon as the second CA came into being. On slight probing, it was explained to me that the Caucus was able to create a cross-party consensus on different issues. The parties got offended when this cross-party linkage got stronger than desired and started what was perceived to be the violation of party discipline. So much so that some members even started defecting across parties. That was the time when major political parties entered into an unwritten understanding to disallow any caucuses within the CA. Women members however, are still trying to work together without the announcement of a formal Caucus. Therein lies an important debate, largely missing in our discourse, about members’ freedom of expression versus party discipline.

May be there are one or two things that we can learn from Nepal’s experience.

 The writer is an Islamabad based freelance columnist.

marvi@marvisirmed.com

@marvisirmed