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Stephen Rowe '09 Studies Democracy and Justice in Nepal and India

By Laura Bramley
Posted August 2, 2008
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While many of his fellow students worked in internships or in the library doing research, Stephen Rowe '09 (Niskayuna, N.Y.) was walking through the streets of Darjeeling and Calcutta. "I didn't want to spend the summer in an office," the rising senior said. Instead, he spent it experiencing monsoon season firsthand, walking through streets flooded with one or two feet of water to collect personal observations for his project on deliberative democracy. Rowe's research collaborates with Associate Professor of Government Robert Martin, and was funded by a fellowship from the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center.

The project, Rowe says, grew out of an independent study on capitalism and justice that he did at the end of his spring semester in Nepal. Rowe interviewed people living along two sections of the trail to the Mt. Everest base camp. He studied opinions of residents on both sides of the Lukla airport, which has shortened the Everest trail cut people along the lower portion of the path off from the tourist economy. The resulting antagonistic divide between the geographic groups, Rowe says, is based on lack of knowledge about the other's real situation. "They didn't have the sense of what the other side thought," he explains.

This independent study led Rowe to apply for a Levitt fellowship to continue his research by investigating deliberative democracy as a solution to social injustice. Where the traditional theory of democracy stresses electing representatives to debate and decide on policy, in a deliberative model, citizens gather publicly to make decisions for themselves. To study how deliberative democracy might work to amend issues of conflict and injustice in South Asia, Rowe spent a month living in West Bengal – three weeks in Darjeeling and one in Calcutta – researching the daily realities of democracy and injustice through interviews and personal observations.

Rowe's research focuses on the possible benefits and problems of deliberative democracy, as well as the ways in which current tension between Gorkhas (ethnic Nepalis) and Bengalis in West Bengal might be resolved using the deliberative model. On one hand, he says, a lack of real discussion between different groups causes prejudice and antagonism, which obstructs the process of finding solutions to issues that affect both sides. He saw this firsthand when he was caught by the general strike in Darjeeling, instituted by the Gorkha population to demand a separate state. Rowe was cut off from transportation and faced the choice between being smuggled out in an ambulance or milk truck, or walking for days, when a temporary lift in the strike allowed stranded tourists to leave the area.

On of the problems with representative democracy is that it "sets people up to be against each other," Rowe says. "If you vote for a candidate who loses the election, then your views aren't represented at all." He notes that deliberative democracy does raise other challenges, though. Dialogue is no guarantee for compromise on emotional issues, and "a lot of people aren't good at discussing." Productive debate can also be easier between people who have more in common, such as religion, culture, and ethnic heritage, so deliberative democracy in West Bengal would also face antagonism between the Bengali and Gorkha contingents. However, Rowe sees the deliberative model as a chance for positive change from the current system, where injustice is made worse by mounting antagonism (in response to the Gorkha strike, Bengalis called their own). "Deliberative democracy would let people explain injustices," he says.

For Rowe, the intensity of his experiences in India was a "shock," he says. "The highs and lows were very high and low." Through all of the poverty and injustice he found in West Bengal, however, his biggest finding was the commonality between humans. "The food's different, the dress, the language," he says. "Those are such shallow differences." 

-- by Laura Bramley

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