Politics of intolerance: Threat to Nepal’s fledgling democracy

A worrying aspect of the new attempt at consolidation of democracy in Nepal is the emergence of politics of intolerance. As Nepalis surge ahead to build a new Nepal, the need to develop a democratic political culture cannot be overlooked. Political culture either supports and supplements or opposes and erodes formal political structures and institutions. Thus, changing the centralised unitary structure of the state into a decentralised federal structure is necessary but not sufficient to consolidate democracy. If formal structures are not supported by a democratic culture, democracy may again erode. Political leaders and cadres can play an important role in promoting democratic culture. But the problem is that even the cadres, especially youth activists, are attracted to the politics of intolerance.

Democratisation scholars investigate political culture to find out whether societies have appropriate values to sustain democracy. They survey the level of tolerance of the public and political elite. The premise is that if people cannot tolerate whom they dislike, democracy may be in peril. After all, democracy is about living together despite differences in ideology, socio-cultural identities, class, views and lifestyles.

The interviewees are requested to identify a group that they like the least. The disliked groups could be royalists, Maoists, Bahuns, Madhesis, Muslims, Christians, homosexuals, feminists, etc. The next set of questions asks if one approves of a member of the least liked group engaging in public activities. The responses are captured in a staggered scale of one to five or seven, the opposite ends being complete approval or disapproval. If respondents disapprove of members of the least liked groups from engaging in public activities, it is a worrisome trend. It demonstrates the questionable political culture.

It is understandable that the Maoists, who have engaged in killing thousands of ‘class’ enemies, should have retained residues of intolerance. The Young Communist League displays plenty of it, perhaps at the direction of the leadership who portray a ‘democratic’ façade but want to coerce others into following its agenda.

Coercion and politics of violence in a rebellion can be defended to some extent on

the grounds that the rebels are engaged in a war against the state. However, it may

backfire if these tactics are employed by a group that has reached a formal settlement to end violence. When a neighbour or stranger is bashed up for no better reason than for practicing peaceful democratic rights, an onlooker might feel he or she may be the next victim.

Come election time, people are unlikely to vote for the ‘revolutionaries’ who deny them their fundamental rights. The detrimental result of intolerant politics has been made loud and clear from Nepal’s recent experiences. When King Gyanendra tried to eliminate his “enemy” in the Maoists, instead of attempting to reach a settlement with the rebel outfit, he ended up imperilling the very existence of monarchy.

One hopes that the Maoists realise their follies soon. In the meantime, however, the worry is that even the youth activists of the seven political parties, including professed “democrats”, sometimes have collaborated with the Maoists in violating basic rights of the “royalists”, Madhesis and other perceived enemies. In a democracy, even “enemies” or political opponents have fundamental rights that no one else has the right to usurp under any pretext.

Politics of intolerance is dangerous for consolidation of democracy. First, if everyone starts bashing someone he or she dislikes, the culture of violence may never end. Even if monarchy is rooted out, the Maoists may identify a new enemy. The new enemies could be the ‘feudal’ Nepali Congress or the ‘revisionist’ CPN-UML, depending which party they perceive as a hindrance to achieve their larger objective.

The politics of intolerance could promote societal violence as well. It will prompt different groups to try and eliminate their supposed ‘enemies’ or perpetrators of oppression. In the post-April 2006 movement, the eight parties or constituents among them have identified monarchy and royalists as the “enemy”, with many “democrats” trying to eliminate even the powerless institution. If the same logic is to be followed, then the indigenous nationalities, Madhesis and dalits might go after the Bahuns sometime in the future as they identify ‘Bahunbad’ as the underlying cause of their oppression and suppression, perhaps even more than monarchy.

The leaders and cadres who cannot tolerate the existence of their enemies should realise that in the long run they could be the victims of this logic of intolerance. Not only will the politics of intolerance threaten democracy but it may eventually contribute even to breaking the fabric of society.

Dr Lawoti is Asst. professor, Dept. of Political Science, Western Michigan University