The role of civil society and democratization in Nepal

The role of civil society and democratization in Nepal-Professor Ananda P. Shrestha, (Tribhuwan University) - - - - In the ongoing political circus that the Nepali people have to bear helplessly leads one to ask: Why has the Civil Society of this country suddenly lost voice?

It hardly needs mention that Civil Society in the true sense has played a catalytic role in different parts of the world in ushering in and sustaining democracy for the long term. Its role of a watchdog of democratic transition in Eastern Europe, as an element of renewal of civic virtue in America, as politics of reconstruction in Africa, as instrument of people’s power in the Philippines, as democratic development in Asia or as a network of serving public good in many developing countries will not be forgotten.

These roles clearly suggest that democracy cannot be sustained or survive for long if it is alienated from Civil Society.
Why is it that in the Nepalese context nowadays not much is heard of Civil Society, or at least not much as during the restoration of democracy in the country?

In the early 1990s, the Civil Society concept was regarded as a pre-requisite for sustaining and consolidating democracy in the country.

Today, after two decades since the restoration of democracy, it has become hard to believe that not very long ago numerous seminars on the Civil Society theme occupied center stage in Kathmandu seminar halls, public debates and in academic discourse.

However, in the Nepali context, though Civil Society was instrumental in restoring democracy in the country, the same cannot be said of its later role in sustaining the same.

The “loud” silence maintained by the Civil Society when they should now be exerting tremendous pressure on the government and the political parties to come to an agreement in choosing a PM, drafting the constitution and moving the peace process forward is an enigma of sorts.

Considering our tinkering with democracy in all these years leads one to mull over whether we really have a Civil Society in the real sense of the term?

Considering that Civil Society is a space for popular forces to manage, organize and develop the identity and bring real progress in the life of the majority of the population, it seems that Civil Society, unlike what it was earlier, has now been lost to us and exists only in name.

The silence of the self-styled leaders of Civil Society over recent political developments in the country compared to the fiery speeches they made earlier in different forums lends credence to the thinking they are also ‘dollar spinning political activists’ professing loyalty to foreign and regional powers.

This is far from being the nation’s voice of conscience and objectively observing and analyzing situations and acting in the interest of the country and the people. It is rather unfortunate that politics has also made gradual inroads into this vital component, which truly should have been the lifeblood of a democracy!
The complexity and gross politicization of Civil Society operating in Nepal leads one to question whether in its present state it can help forward democratic norms, values and ideals.

This obviously questions whether Civil Society leaders have really contributed to sustaining democracy in the country or whether they too have been more into personal interests rather than the national cause.

Whether the proliferation of Civil Societies in Nepal is really based on the genuine needs, experiences and aspirations of the Nepali people, or whether they, as is widely supposed, are willing pawns in the hands of donors constitute equal food for thought.


No less stimulating is the study of the functioning of the news media that like to call themselves the Fourth Estate. In the present context, the role Nepali media has played in escalating or containing the same also needs a hard critical look.

For instance, the practices of media—mediated communication and the pivotal role they should be playing between the general mass and the politicians in general and the relationship between politics and news media in particular.

It needs no mention about the role news media plays in informing society on political affairs, functioning of political institutions and especially, the ploys politicians employ whether for the sake of publicity or for purposes of shielding themselves “from the consequences of their acts of commission and omission.”

The role of the news media in this regard is crucial for institutionalizing democracy and sustaining it for the long term. However, equally important is how the media in the name of freedom play partisan and willingly become party mouthpieces as well as promoting the agenda of outside powers for personal benefit.

Except for some that have bravely withstood foreign influence and survived independently on their own, the others, in the name of the free news media have used, misused and even abused the concept for personal gains.

Instead of fulfilling their assigned role of faithful ‘watchdogs’ of society, they have turned into ‘hound dogs’ and ‘lapdogs,’ not to speak of greasing and swaying public opinion. In the process, national interest, patriotism and code of ethics have been virtually thrown to the winds.

We now stand at the threshold of the twenty first century and the opportunities offered in the media field are no doubt tremendous.

But going by the not very successful and somewhat questionable past records of some, equally challenging will be the hardships and obstacles likely to be faced by the Nepali media before it finally comes of age.


Against the above backdrop, the way out of the political impasse will certainly not be an easy one.

The problem is purely political and entirely of the making of the three big parties: it is therefore, imperative that they find a way out and not those that find themselves at the dancing end of the stick.

But going by the bitter and 17 fruitless rounds of negotiations in trying to elect a PM it can be safely assumed that for the big three to relinquish the politics of power will be a near impossibility.

The dose of realpolitik, statesmanship, national duty and pure common sense that the big three would need to show to progress along the line of peace, stability and national interest, would as of now, have to be a near miracle.

Even then, it is imperative that a way be found out of the impasse that has virtually held the country to ransom for months at a stretch.

The other alternative and a sensible solution to the crisis, no matter how unreal or surreal it may sound in today’s multi—party context, would be for a combined effort on the part of-
1- sane representatives of different political parties/workers/youth forces to come together in the national interest and pressure their respective parties to reach an agreement.

  1. donor agencies and democratic communities to apply pressure on the big three in the name of democracy (that they helped usher in) and the people (that for them exist only in name) to reach an agreement within a certain deadline failing which diplomatic relations and future development Funds will be at stake.
  2. different civil societies, media-persons, intellectuals, youth and labor organizations of the country to come under one umbrella and give, not just fiery speeches, but also an ultimatum and apply pressure, for a good cause, even if it calls for bringing all organs of the state to a grinding halt till demands are met.

# Speech delivered by Professor Ananda P. Shrestha at a seminar held by the Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies (NEFAS) on “The role of civil society and democratization in Nepal” held in Kathmandu a decade ago: Editor

Thanks NEFAS and the Author.


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