Civil Society In Nepal Role In Democratisation Of The State


Mukti Rijal


In Nepal, the term civil society (Nagarik Samaj) has become very popular and hit the popular psyche with a comprehensive magnitude. Not only non-governmental organisations but even private and business organisation and corporate bodies often tend to claim themselves as being a part of the civil society.

In fact, the term civil society is very nebulous and fluid. It includes the entire range of organised groups and institutions. These institutions should be independent of the state. They should be voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. These, of course, include not only non-governmental organisations but also independent mass media, think tanks, universities, and social and religious groups.


Pluralism, diversity

In fact, to be part of the civil society, groups must meet some other conditions as well. In a democracy, civil society groups should have respect for the law, for the rights of individuals, and for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions.  In fact, the word “civil” implies tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity.

An important prerequisite for civil society groups is that they must keep and preserve their autonomy and independence of the state and private sector. The civil society groups may establish ties with political parties and the state, but they must retain their independence, and not seek political power for themselves.

Often in transitional situations in a country like ours, such groups have come into existence and sought to monopolise the lives and thinking of their members.  These groups do not tolerate the right of their members to dissent, and they do not respect other groups that disagree with them. Some of these groups may merely be fronts for political parties or movements that seek to win control of the state.

These groups are not part of the civil society and do not contribute to building democracy.  Some important roles of the civil society in the democratisation of the state and society are mentioned in this article.

           The first and most basic role of the civil society is to limit and control the power of the state. Of course, any democracy needs a well-functioning and authoritative state. Civil society actors should watch how state officials use their powers. They should raise public concern about any abuse of power. They should lobby for access to information, including freedom of information laws, and rules and institutions to control corruption.            

This constitutes a second important function of civil society:  to expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobby for good governance reforms. Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society. In this regard,  the role of civil society organisations in Nepal has been very poor and lukewarm.

Moreover, civil society should help to promote political participation. NGOs can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens, and encouraging them to listen to election campaigns and vote in elections. NGOs can also help develop citizens’ skills to work with one another to solve common problems, to debate public issues and express their views.

Moreover,  civil society organisations can help to develop the  values of democratic life. The values of democratic life are tolerance, moderation, compromise and respect for opposing points of view. Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable. These values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice.

The civil society can also help to develop programmes for democratic civic education in the schools as well. In Nepal, as we are at a very crucial stage of implementing the new  federal constitution, we need to inculcate the values of tolerance and accommodation in the citizens. The civil society organisations can be tapped  for this very purpose.

What can be said is that the  civil society is an arena for the expression of diverse interests, and one role for civil society organisations is to lobby for the needs and concerns of their members, as women, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors and so on. NGOs and interest groups can present their views to the parliament and local governments by contacting individual members and testifying before parliamentary committees. They can also establish a dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for their interests and concerns.

Civil society is not simply to be in tension with the state. Just because civil society is independent of the state doesn’t mean that it must always criticise and oppose the state.  In fact, by making the state at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, effective—and hence more legitimate—a vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the state and promotes their positive engagement with it.

A democratic state cannot be stable unless it is effective and legitimate, and has the respect and support of its citizens.  Civil society is a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between a democratic state and its citizens.

And it is not only the resourceful and well organised who can have their voices heard.  Over time, groups that have historically been oppressed and confined to the margins of society can organise to assert their rights and defend their interests as well.

The  civil society can strengthen democracy and provide new forms of interest and solidarity that cut across old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious and other identity ties. Democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same religion or identity. When people of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists and environmentalists, civic life becomes richer, more complex and more tolerant.


Parochial interests

However, in Nepal, the real danger lies in the fact that the political parties have promoted  primordial identities so intensely that  the ethnic groups have started to keep focus on their narrower and parochial interests. This will hurt the process of democracy  building and state reorganisation in line with the provisions of the Constitution of Nepal.



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