ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Social Science Engagement and Political Interregnum in Nepal

Silence on the part of the social scientists on the questions of ethnicity and state restructuring in Nepal ought to be a matter of concern, especially in a context where sociological, historical as well as anthropological knowledge appears to be critical in shaping the political debate on these issues. It must be clear to the scholars of Nepal that the nature of structuralviolence and inequality in the country is not about "ethnicity" alone. Therefore, it cannot be dealt within the framework of the proposed model of ethnic federalism. It is in the realm of livelihoods that structural violence is mainly rooted and so marginalised populations within the ethnic groups ought to be the focus of attention.

The Himalayan country of Nepal, long romanticised by anthropologists and other social scientists as an untouched “Himalayan Paradise”, has been going through tumultuous socio-political changes in the last few decades. Following consolidation by the Hindu monarch Prithvi Narayan Shah and his followers to cope with the unusual heterogeneity of cultural and political traditions, the Nepali state has gone through a series of significant sociopolitical transfor­mations in the past 200 years. With the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, the 10-year Maoist people’s war, widespread migration, expansion of the country’s public sphere and the growth of civil society, overthrow of the monarchy, declaration of Nepal as a republic and a secular state, the consolidation of identity politics, and a vigorous debate on state restructuring and federalism, Nepal is going through a major political transition. More recently, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) was dissolved on 27 May this year because an agreement could not be reached on the nature of the federal structure due to stark disagreements between the Maoists and identity groups on the one hand and the rest of the political parties on the other.

There is very little constructive academic debate on the current sociopolitical transition in Nepal except for a few journalistic commentaries and reports supported by donors that either paint the picture of Nepal as a failing or failed state or romanticise the revival of ethnic and regional politics as a process of democratisation. This article takes issue with social scientists for failing to engage with contentious issues such as federalism instead leaving it to contrasting populist discourses. It is not my primary purpose to evaluate the historical or ethnographic evidence on some of the most contentious issues including the diagnosis of state-society relations in Nepal and offer prescriptions, for which there are plenty of activists, pundits, donors and consultants in Kathmandu, but to critique this particular epistemic assemblage for failing to comprehend some of the basic questions facing Nepali society. How should social scientists engage on issues such as ethnicity and state structure? What is the role of anthropologists and historians when the knowledge that they produce is used for the purpose of making claims on ethnic federalism? Should the social scientists accept the fixed ethnic categories used by activists, private donors and consultants or should they adopt a more critical perspective on the social construction of identities and fluidity of boundaries? I argue that the current political impasse in Nepal is worrying, not because Nepal is turning into a failed state as some western scholars and media have often claimed (including a recent piece in the New York Times),1 but because of the academic silence of social scientists working in Nepal who fail to acknowledge the fluid boundaries of ethnicity as well as the changing nature of Nepali society and are instead caught in the timeless and sedentary imagination of Nepal. If the current political impasse ought to break, we will need a rigorous and informed public debate on how the Nepali state and society has been changing over the last 200 plus years.

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