The Importance of Being CK Lal

by Pratyoush Onta

I am a long-time reader of CK Lal’s writings. He first broke into the national scene in Nepal in the early 1990s through his ‘Fifth Column’ in the English language weekly, The Independent. His short essays were very popular amongst what was then a small community of English-language readers. I and several of my peers enjoyed Lal’s avatar as a Fifth Columnist for his ability to be critical in a non-serious mode. After 1997, even as he continued to write his weekly column in English, Lal began to write in Nepali regularly.


Through his writings in a variety of publications in the Nepali language, including in Himalaya Times and Himal, Lal began to assume the status of the most influential bi-lingual (English and Nepali) political commentator in the country. For almost ten years now, he has been a columnist for the English weekly The Nepali Times. More recently, he has also written a column for the English monthly Himal Southasian. He is a regular contributor to the premier Nepali language magazine Himal Khabarpatrika.


In addition, he has contributed articles to various other publications including academic journals such as Studies in Nepali History and Society, Seminar and South Asian Survey and magazines such as Outlook and Frontline. He has also contributed chapters to various edited volumes, the best known of this set perhaps being 'Cultural flows across a blurred boundary' published in State of Nepal (2002).

In more recent times, whenever a big event has taken place in Nepal, he is sought after by national and foreign media. For instance, during the 2006 jana andolan, he was regularly interviewed in BBC World Service Radio in more than two languages.


The Focus

Lal’s columns challenge the readers to focus on the big picture. For him, the big picture is related to the challenge of democratizing Nepali society through formal political institutions. The state matters to him and so do political parties without which there is no loktantra. Hence he has kept his gaze squarely on the political process that Nepal has experienced since the major political change of 1990 when Panchayat was shelved.


During the 1990s, one of the silent wars that was waged in Nepal was between the forces that supported the erstwhile absolute monarchy and those that supported a multi-party pluralistic democratic set-up. While most of the nation was disappointed with the foibles and failures of the leaders of the various political parties that ruled us in different combinations during that decade, Lal kept reminding us that we had to look beyond them to strengthen the pillars of representative democracy in Nepal. For him, this meant writing about the needs and means of democratizing our political parties, making our structures of governance socially inclusive and advocating for a rule of law in all spheres of the polity.


His hard hitting columns were not appreciated by those who wanted to take advantage of then (and current) failings of the people’s representatives in their way to reassert their erstwhile authority. It is no coincidence that when representative democracy was pushed aside in October 2002 and finally squashed on 1 February 2005 by the then King, Lal’s columns became the first stop for the resurrected censor officers. In early 2005, some of his essays were banned and others appeared with missing sentences. He received several indirect threats from the security forces whose representatives advised him to ‘cooperate’ with then King-led political dispensation.


Soft Corners

Among the political parties, Lal has a soft corner for Nepali Congress (NC), it being the political tundikhel where he learnt his fundamentals on why state and political parties matter in a loktantra. It is also the turf where as a student he experienced first hand the moral force of political opposition (namely, NC's post-1960 opposition to Panchayat) and learnt his lessons on the limits of violent revolutions that tend to consume the societies that have supposedly been 'freed'.

His love for NC is related to his respect for the party's founder, BP Koirala whose writings Lal knows by heart. Reportedly when G Shah once wanted to hear Lal's views on the state of the then kingdom, the then King could not figure out where BP's views ended and Lal's began, so embedded were extracts from BP's writings in Lal's oral conversation. The towering personality of BP and the fact that Lal encountered the leader when he was a young student (and thus at a very impressionable age) partly explain this fascination of his.


Although for many Girija Prasad Koirala (GP) is the main villain of post-1990 Nepali politics, for Lal he is a hero for several reasons. When BP died in 1982, the NC was a virtually rudderless party. More than 20-years of Panchayat had decimated its organizational structure and strength. In Lal's view, it was GP whose political marathons during the early 1980s enabled NC to declare a satyagraha in 1985 and eventually lead the jana andolan of 1990.


In the post-1990 years, GP made several mistakes – this Lal acknowledges grudgingly. But for his refusal to bow to the diktats of the political rightists, for his ability to withstand the pressure from the military most of the time (except perhaps in the immediate aftermath of the royal massacre and during the Holeri fiasco), and for his oppositional leadership during the period of royal lunacy, Lal thinks GP deserves our thanks. But even more than these points, Lal thinks GP is a hero for having brought the armed insurgents - the CPN (Maobadi) - to the political mainstream in an as-yet unfinished peace process.


While most commentators have focused on Sujata Koirala's recent promotion as GP's ill-advised swan song, for Lal the effort of the political rightists to sideline GP from the mainstream of Nepali politics is more worrisome. According to him, once GP is out of the scene, the military's ascendancy over other political players will be more thorough and loktantra will be further challenged.


The eastern Tarai where he grew up is another of Lal's soft corners. Over the years, he has painted for us cameo social histories of happenings in the villages-towns around greater Janakpur. The dynamics of local politics, the aftereffects of the remittance economy, the sapping of agriculture and the rise of armed groups have all been linked in insightful ways in his columns.


Targets of Criticism

As a columnist, there are different sets of individuals who Lal has variously taken to task. First in the list come the Kathmandu-based national Nepali elite, especially the military-sahuji complex. This set has been criticized for its equivocal support to the process of democratization in Nepal. Often evoking his biographical ties to the Tarai, Lal reminds members of this set how various Nepalis have experienced entrenched discrimination in modern Nepal based on their gender, ethnicity, region of origin, and educational status. As a corollary, he has challenged the Kathmandu elite to abandon its chase of slogans and invest its intellectual and cultural capital into creating robust foundations for a democratic society.


Second, Lal has also spent a lot of words criticizing the national members of the development set for their various excesses. These folks have been criticized for their naivety and for taking politics out of the development debate.

Similarly, Lal has not spared Nepal’s influential international friends who have often hidden their penchant for authoritarian technocratic regimes in Nepal under the garb of support for participatory democracy. He has often dissected the hypocrisy of this dominant development set in his typical style, providing us a perspective from, as it were, outside. (In a recent UNDP publication, Towards a New Nepal through Cartoonists' Eyes, in which Lal contributed a commentary, his perspective has been described as, quite correctly, 'inimitable').


Among the political parties, Lal has been most critical of CPN (UML) for its duplicitous take on parliamentary democracy (recall Madhav Kumar Nepal's ill-famous "regression is half corrected" statement). He never loses an opportunity to remind his readers that it was the UML that set the precedent of obstructing the then House of Representatives for a full session of Parliament some eight years ago. Lal also does not like the UML for its "visceral antagonism" against NC and its anti-Madhesh character.


Fifth, Lal loves to put down PhD wallahs for their pretensions and more. Those of us who belong to this PhD club who happened to have enjoyed his company for over a decade have gotten quite used to this but Lal's sometimes ruthless take on 'doctorsahibs' can unnerve a fresh PhD. I have often wondered why this set became his target. I guess many of the PhD types including myself have not read as broadly as he has or have not, subsequent to our dissertations, published long-lasting contributions to the social sciences in general. In contrast, Lal loves the international gurus of social science and that is why when a Merton or a Levi-Strauss passes away, he is often the only Nepali writer who reminds his readers of their important contributions.


Given that he is the most influential bi-lingual columnist writing in Nepal today, Lal has many detractors. They often point out his soft corners (discussed above) and accuse him of bias. But even his most trenchant critics can not question his continuous commitment to public discourse on matters important to Nepali society,

As an ex-columnist who wrote two op-eds a month for five years in English for The Kathmandu Post, I can imagine the energy and commitment necessary to produce five to seven columns in English and Nepali every month year after year for a whole decade. I salute Lal who has done this in good style with humility and generosity (column writers are still paid a pittance by our media sahujis).

You can disagree with Lal's points of view but you can hardly ignore what he says. His words have always been good to think with. They are more so now as we try to make sense of what is happening in the old-into-possibly-new, possibly-old Nepal.


Published in Republica Daily on 25 Dec 2009

Martin Chautari

Martin Chautari (MC) is a research and policy institute based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Begun as an informal discussion group in Kathmandu in 1991, MC now focuses on research and policy on democracy, media and education, with cross-cutting themes of gender and social inclusion. Along with the continuing discussion series, publications, open library and a rigorous mentoring program of young researchers are in-built into MC’s work. These all form an intrinsic part of MC’s primary objective: strengthening the social contract between state and citizens by expanding and making inclusive the public sphere with informed dialogue, analytically rigorous research and viable policy choices.

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