Revolution comes to Nepal: Lessons for South Asia

The News, April 25, 2006
Revolution comes to South Asia
Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The writer is a political activist associated with the People's Rights Movement. He also teaches colonial history and political economy at LUMS

Over the past few years, radicals and idealists of all stripes have invoked Latin America time and again when responding to the by now familiar 'we are saving the world for democracy' rhetoric of the Bushs and Blairs of the world. The radicals and idealists have asserted – quite rightly – that the arguably revolutionary upheavals taking place across the Latin American continent suggest that class struggle is alive and well, in spite of the best efforts to make it disappear with the magic wand of hype and propaganda in the aftermath of the Soviet Union's disintegration.

But it has been difficult to ignore the fact that the re-emergence of a working class politics has been largely confined to Latin America. While many have hoped for the emergence of anti-systemic mass movements in other parts of the post-colonial world, upheavals like those in Latin America have yet to materialise.

The remarkable explosion of popular protest in tiny Nepal has rocked not only that small country's royal establishment but also the ruling class in much of South Asia and beyond. There has been political unrest in Nepal for well over a decade. But, as with all revolutionary processes, very few observers could have predicted in advance the swell of mass protest that has gripped the country in recent weeks. And as with all such revolutionary processes, it is impossible at this juncture to predict exactly how events will pan out.

It is a measure of the vitality of the political process in Nepal that all of the opposition parties have come together to voice the sentiment of the people. Included in the current consensus are the Maoist guerrillas who the king and his henchmen have always insisted represent the greatest threat to Nepal's security and progress.

The people of Nepal, in their own right and through the political parties recognise that their very existence and credibility is dependent on the people's will, and have made it very clear that they consider the king the biggest threat to Nepal's security and progress. The defiance of curfews by ordinary Nepalese is ultimately a defiance of an obsolete authority whose time to go has come. It is no surprise that the coercive institutions of the state that have been propping up the king – including the police and the army –have rapidly been rendered impotent by the loss of morale within the ranks.

That revolution has spread from Latin American and come to South Asia is immensely important. It is important because all such processes have contagious effects. In most of the region, a similar brand of organic and popular politics already exists. For example, in recent times activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) have once again garnered centre-stage in India through their principled protest against the three-decade-old Sardar Sarovar Project that has already inflicted enormous social and ecological destruction in large parts of Central and West India.

Bangladesh is home to a perennial politics of democratic dissent. Sri Lanka, even though it continues to suffer from the effects of deep-rooted ethnic strife, also has a well-established tradition of progressive politics. The current revolutionary process in Nepal will no doubt encourage the left in these countries to push forward, to build upon the gains that have been made by working people over many decades, and to build as formidable a challenge to their governments – that continue to face a crisis of legitimacy – as the Nepalese people have done.

However, the uprising in Nepal is also important because it sends a message to the American empire and its stooges across the sub-continent that the people of the region are alive and kicking, and that machinations of power will not go unanswered. At a time when the rhetoric of peace is being used and abused by all and sundry, the Nepalese people have made it clear that there can be no peace where there is injustice and tyranny. The imperialist peace is never a genuine peace, and the stooge governments in South Asia would do well to bear this in mind.

However, in spite of the overall sense of euphoria that necessarily exists when an organic revolutionary process is unfolding in front of our very eyes, one cannot help but lament the fact that politics in Pakistan is so unlike that in the rest of the region. Arguably the only politics in Pakistan that has retained a popular dimension is that of the oppressed nationalities, the most notable of these at this particular conjuncture being the Baloch.

The oppressed nationalities continue to clamour for the establishment of a genuine federalist form of government as has been promised by the ruling establishment from the country's inception. But the politics of ethno-nationalism is, in its logical culmination, inherently divisive. If it is to take on a progressive edge, it needs to be infused with a politics that views oppression and exploitation as a phenomenon that is not limited to particular ethno-national groups, while recognising that historical circumstances dictate that some ethno-national groups are more oppressed than others.

Such a politics is currently on show in Nepal, and is a force in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. As suggested at the outset, such a politics is sweeping across Latin America. Indeed, around the world, the radical left is on the rebound, even if it is a left very different from that which preceded it. Yet such a politics is conspicuous by its absence in Pakistan. If one is prone to optimism, it could be posited that the Nepalese example will also have an effect on Pakistanis. Then again, hoping is insufficient; it is struggle that produces change.

This is not to suggest that there are no struggles for justice and dignity in Pakistan. In fact there are innumerable such struggles that have existed in the past, continue to exist now, and will do so in the future as well. What really needs to be considered is why these struggles remain fragmented and weak. The answer is that – to some extent or the other – the myth of the indivisible monolith of Pakistani nationalism remains intact. The political entities that project themselves as committed to the cause of democracy take refuge in the same symbols of jingoism (read: Kashmir and the bomb) that have propped up oligarchic rule and the stupefying hegemony of Pakistan's security. If there is resistance to these myths, it is most often expressed – as pointed out above – in the idiom of ethno-nationalism that on its own will never be enough to challenge ruling class hegemony.

Put more simply: At the end of the day, what the Nepalese people have shown – as every such mass movement necessarily implies – is that they believe that their collective struggle will lead to change, a change that is genuine and of their own making. To the extent that they continue to believe this, their struggle will continue and so will the process of change. Pakistanis for the most part are victims of a distinct apathy that privileges sifarish and jaan-pehchaan over collective struggle. Until we too, like our neighbours, start to believe that we can change our collective fate, revolution will remain so close yet so far away.


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