Postscript to Commitment as an Analytic: Reflections on Nepali Student Activists’ Protracted Struggle
Reflecting back on a piece I produced a decade ago on how anthropology can grapple with the temporal immediacy of political crisis seems ironically fitting for this virtual edition’s theme, “Futures.” As I argue in the piece, historical circumspection is necessary to understand what structures the present and what futures are possible. A lot has happened over the last decade in Nepal and consequently within my research. As I mentioned in my conclusion, this was very much a thought piece. The article relied on data gathered early on during my doctoral research, from the nascent stage of the students’ political movement against the king’s regressive rule. Both the political situation and my research developed in surprising ways.
Unfortunately for Nepal, political crisis did not abate. The Maoists and the political parties unified against the king as this piece was being revised, and soon after it was published, the general public joined them en masse, transforming their political movement into the 2nd People’s Movement (Jana Āndolan II). The king was forced to step down, which paved the way for peace talks and for Nepal to become a democratic, secular republic. This marked the beginning of “making new Nepal” into an inclusive federal state.
In cooperation with the United Nations’ Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), Nepal officially embarked upon post-conflict transition and state restructuring. The 2008 constituent assembly (CA) elections determined the 601-person delegation tasked with rewriting the constitution. It was not a smooth process. The Maoist majority-led CA expired in May 2012 due to lack of consensus over the federal state structure. Elections for the second CA finally occurred in 2013, yielding a significant swing to the political right and the CA becoming less diverse.
The constitution was finally promulgated in 2015. The massive earthquakes in the spring of 2015 were the impetus for fast-tracking the constitution. To regain relevancy after their abysmal response to the earthquakes, the leadership of the top three parties—NC, CPN-UML, and UCPN (Maoist)—whipped their two-thirds majority despite deep opposition from ethnic- and regional-based parties and women’s groups against the citizenship law, political representation, and federal state delineation. In August 2015, the constitution was promulgated amidst ongoing protests and government-enforced curfews that left over forty dead throughout the country.
Many lamented that this constitution was more regressive than the interim constitution; however, it was nowhere near finalized. A number of the articles were left vague with the intent that they would be amended in the future through the political process. Constitutional incrementalism was meant to convince all factions to continue investing in the political process.
In the short term, however, it entrenched a polarizing dynamic. Power politics continues to fuel the governing arena as parties struggle to maintain the parliamentary influence necessary to determine these constitutional provisions. Agitators in the south, who had reaped little from formal political participation or peaceful protests, enforced a border blockade to bolster their bargaining position with the government. The blockade lasted over three months, crippling this land-locked country that relies heavily on imports from India and causing great hardship to ordinary citizens. The dimensions of the political struggle may have changed; however, as I documented in my 2006 article, the movement continues (āndolan jārī chha).
In this article, I was intent on understanding temporal immediacy, but as my research on Nepali student activism continued, I was more interested in the socio-cultural mechanisms that fueled Nepal’s political developments over the longue durée. My research on this topic spanned 2003-2015, during which time I came to view political crisis as ongoing rather than episodic, which required shifting from putting crisis into context to analyzing crisis—“as terrain of action and meaning”—as the context (Vigh 2008: 5).
The context for this generation’s political coming of age involved a close-knit relationship between contentious politics and governance. I tracked the students’ entrée into politics through street activism as they negotiated the shift from revolutionary politics to working within the party system. In August 2015, as the constitution was being promulgated, my meetings with these young politicians were weighted with ambivalence.
Follow-up research for a different project on Nepal’s southern border with India placed me in the thick of oppositional protests and government enforced-curfews. I was reaching out to formal student leaders with personal accounts of young men being shot as a result of curfew orders given by the very same political leaders they rallied behind to have reinstated into government in 2002-2006. Furthermore, the constitution that was being fast-tracked fell palpably short of what these former student activists envisioned in 2006. But at the same time, many were now politicians and party members themselves, worried about national security as well as their own and their party’s approval ratings. As one of the former student leaders who successfully transitioned into national politics explained to me, “I used to be on the demand side of politics. Now I am on the supply side. I still know what I’d like to see done but how to get it done within governing institutions is more challenging than I could have known.” Another research subject lamented that as student activists they used to think in absolute, idealistic terms, but now, she explained, “We know that truth is conditional.”
My ethnographic observations of this generation’s political transition led me to contextualize possibility in Nepal’s political history through the institution of student politics. I’ve theoretically framed Nepal’s political history as political regeneration within a radical democratic process, arguing that Nepal’s democratic struggle has always been a generative process in which each new generation attempts to establish itself politically by negotiating between previous acts of claim-making and new political formulations. The concept of regeneration extends Karl Manheim’s theory of fresh contact—each generation interacts with its world anew based on its accumulated socio-cultural history—by considering how generational relations mediate processes of social and political change (Cole and Durham 2007).
Looking at Nepali politics in this way provides a more nuanced narrative of democracy than would an account of successes and failures. It captures how democracy works as a radical ongoing process—a series of contentious acts of claim-making in which new voices struggle to be a part of and reframe the terms of the debate—rather than a sphere of formal politics (Mouffe 2005, Rancière 1999 and 2004). Analyzing Nepal’s democratic struggle as interplay between generations through the lens of political regeneration has allowed me to unpack the relationship between socio-political change and the status quo, an age-old anthropological conundrum (Benedict 1934).
Reviewing my 2006 POLAR article, I am struck by how much the theoretical scaffolding of my ethnography echoes the ways the students explained their political commitment through the aesthetic of change to me in 2005. This has also been the case for anthropology focused on Nepal.
While there is not room here to document everything that has been produced, Nepal-focused anthropology has approached the last two decades of political turmoil with sensitivity and sophistication. Early on it established the need for ethnographic research to track various forms of everyday resistance (Gellner ed. 2003) and puzzle out the impacts the Maoist war was having on everyday village life (de Sale 2000; Hutt ed. 2004; and Pettigrew 2003 & 2014).
Many have contributed to the anthropology of war by ethnographically linking microscopic events to history in order to elucidate social restructuring, demonstrating how political ideology becomes entrenched through different socio-cultural registers, and how the ruling elite were isolated by the very same cultural mechanisms of network solidarity they relied upon to maintain their traditional foothold (Lecomte-Tilouine 2013). Numerous studies of youth activism reveal how the socio-political dimensions of youth have changed over time (see Snellinger 2013) as well as providing sensitive psychosocial models for reintegrating children into war torn communities (Kohrt et al. 2010). Critical investigations of Nepal’s postwar transition have interrogated how the normative dimensions of the post-conflict concept structure temporality and affect, and the degree to which post-conflict governance can address nonlinear processual change in everyday life (Shneiderman & Snellinger eds. 2013) as well as the socio-cultural implications of state restructuring and how it intersects with previous dynamics of structure and agency (see Shneiderman et al., forthcoming).
After the earthquake there was a collective soul-searching among anthropologists regarding our academic, public, and personal roles in earthquake relief and intervention (Warner et al. eds. 2015). Thus, Nepal-focused anthropologists have embraced a collective process of refinement as their academic commitment in ways that echo Nepali student activists’ political commitment, a collective process of struggle for the possible.
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Shneiderman, S., L. Wagner, J. Rinck, A.L. Johnson, and A. Lord. Forthcoming. “Nepal’s Ongoing Political Transformation: A review of post-2006 literature on conflict, the state, identities, and environments.” Modern Asian Studies.
Snellinger, Amanda. 2013. “Shaping a Liveable Present and Future: Review of Youth Studies in Nepal.” European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 42: 75–104.
Vigh, Henrik. 2008. “Crisis and Chronicity: Anthropological Perspective on Continuous Conflict and Decline.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 73(1): 5-21.
Warner, Cameron, Heather Hindman, and Amanda Snellinger, eds. 2015. “Scholarly Affect in a time of Crisis: Responses to The Nepal Earthquake,” Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots Forum Collection.
Amanda Snellinger is a researcher at the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. She maintains lecturer affiliation with the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.