Nepal has witnessed major social and political upheavals in the past three decades that have altered its basic social structure in more than one way. But while the focus is on change, little attention has gone to methods employed to bring about that change. The developments of past two decades would suggest the civil war led by then CPN-Maoist was undoubtedly a major marker of social change.
But excessive focus on violent methods of social change often eclipses parallel and competing non-violent methods of change. For instance, the period of 1990s, when the Maoists were gaining grounds, saw massive increase in judicial activism in Nepal through public interest litigation. This helped change women’s status with regard to property and citizenship. Similarly, sustained movement of bonded laborers—kamayiya—helped change their status for the better.
These are few examples of sustained non-violent efforts to change the society. The article in no way intends to undermine the contribution made by the Maoist-led movement. But we argue that non-violent methods at social change have been as effective as violent methods. In fact our political actors have employed both methods to achieve their objectives right from the 1950s. However, those protests that have challenged power through guns have received far more attention than peaceful methods.
This is a telling point about the nature of Nepali state which often ignores peaceful movements. The hunger strikes of Dr Govinda KC demanding reform in medical education is an example of this. He is up against a conglomerate of kleptocrats that seek to benefit from the close nexus of politician, businessman and bureaucrats who are part of the crony capitalistic system. But those being challenged seldom relent. So, at the outset, the efficacy of such protests can be questioned. But, as the authors have argued previously in these pages (Thousand Revolutions, August 17, 2016), there is a need for sustained effort from below, as such bottom-up methods are the most effective. The efficacy of non-violent methods can be gauged from the fact that it compels the powerful to come to negotiating table and stresses on dialogue. This also restricts the use of strong-arm tactics and brute force from the powerful state actors and their accomplices. Such movements bring together political and moral components in questioning excesses of power.
The violent methods create conditions for pitched battles between the votaries of the system and those against it, resulting in creation of sworn enemies. But non-violent methods, though slow, have the potential to transform the society from the bottom-up. Also, sustained focus on violent methods runs the risk of institutionalizing violence and glorifying it, leaving little room for peaceful methods. But it is difficult to assess who is the catalyst of violence. Conventionally, the state seeks to monopolize power and in the process wants absolute control over the means of violence.
On the other hand there are arguments to the end that those questioning state sovereignty through violent means must be given a fitting reply. The process of globalization has only made it easy for non-state actors to gain control over means of violence on the pretext that their culture and livelihood are under strain.
Non-violent means of seeking change can have lasting effect in societies like Nepal that are marked by both vertical and horizontal inequalities. These movements can play an effective role in reducing violence and promoting citizenship by raising the issues of rights and duties. The onus for such efforts lies with political parties that are major drivers of social process. It is these parties that should be promoting non-violent strategies to level the playing field between the haves and have-nots. Otherwise they risk legitimizing the use of violence.
The authors are assistant professors at Kathmandu School of Law