Liberty is a liberal catchword born during the great intellectual ferment. Positive liberty is rooted in popular sovereignty which allows people to choose their own way of life and enables them to exercise their free will for wellbeing. The negative liberty presupposes a condition without dependence, constraints and impediments to the exercise of their intelligence and will. Knowing self can help one to control instinct, impulse and passion that tend to dominate others, not liberate them and hone inner vigilance which is an essential condition for the exercise of liberty. Both positive and negative liberties spell upon the frame of social justice supposing the distribution of equality and a full life for all Nepalis. When justice is denied, the poor suffer from the retreat of their liberty and the ignorant are sacrificed each day by the tricks of clever elites.
Rule of law can operate only if rights and duties of people and leaders enshrined in the constitution remain reconciled, anchoring them in the solidarity of a healthy political community - the state. The concept of liberty in Nepal is ancient associated with the atma gyan (inner vigilance) and emancipation, mokschha or nirvana. Internalisation of this enabled people to live and exercise liberty to act without harming either themselves or others. Its classical treatises have argued that the satisfaction of the existence of pluralist society requires the security of life, liberty and property. It a word, it demands bliss entailing a condition of empirical consciousness of Nepalis for self-fulfilment in the frame of dharma, the virtuous conduct, beyond utilitarian calculation of pleasure and pain or borrowed ideas of deterministic nature of economic progress fervently misapplied in the native society.
Nepali scholars, trained in Gurukuls, debated on the inner split of the boundaries of advaita and davaita vision of the world for self-clarification. The five liberties articulated in its ancient treaties are freedoms from violence, want, exploitation, dishonour and early death by disease. In no way did they justify the vulgar selfishness that creates the clashes of rights across various populations of the nation. Liberties of one person do not clash with the other if all rationally follow these rules. Human desire to be self-seeking without the consideration of others would hit society to its weak spots. Awakened Nepalis, therefore, did not reduce all mental and psychological phenomena into the fundamentalism of crude materialism and live under arbitrary power, prejudice and innocence; all reflect the distortion of liberty.
They emancipated themselves from false beliefs and misdirected choices of the modern world where individuals are reduced into the image of consumer, class, gender, caste, region or religion to ease instrumental politics which the nation’s elites have borrowed. Nepali constitution holds the primacy of rights over duties. Rights are those vital elements that provide choice for Nepalis to improve their lives, not reduced to a culture of silence and neglect of their personality and dignity. They are the fountains of liberty but that liberty can be exercised only if the edifice of decent legal, economic and social order is dressed on the duties of mutual respect and mutual recognition of each other. Too many rights and far less duties, however, are sure to weaken the foundation of political order as Nepal is currently facing.
The primacy of duties, by contrast, hones only a society of conformity and enforced consensus like authoritarian and totalitarian regimes which have no safeguard for liberty. Isaiah Berlin rightly argues, “To realise the relative validity of one’s own convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a man from a barbarian.” The hegemony of conviction-changing powerful elites over the powerless and organised over unorganised in a nation of heterogeneity like Nepal whose political, economic and social sectors are largely informal and less constiutionalised create two kinds of political culture.
As the obscene chasm between the two widened, it has infected the democracy stabilisation and realisation of Nepali constitutional vision of an egalitarian society. Now, its constitution, politics, political parties and civil society are aspirational motivated to raise the demands of people with no intention to fulfil them. This chasm has eroded the efficacy of impersonal state institutions to perform basic governance functions, set the checks and balance of power and manage the operation of liberty, order and social justice, the linchpins of constitutional democracy. Nepali state suffers from the defective monopoly on power while constitutional bodies and public institutions are mired in patronage politics thus marking the gradual erosion of democratic values from political life.
So long as public institutions are not strengthened by recruiting the persons of integrity and capacity neither the leadership gains the trust of people nor are they capable of providing public goods and services to society to create material conditions for the enjoyment of liberty. Progress rests on the domination of instability by the purpose of constitution, policies by the will of popular sovereignty and common cause with the wretched people. Liberty requires eternal vigilance and no suffering from dire necessity of survival needs. The fire of liberty once lit cannot be deconstructed. It expands its space providing Nepalis necessary choices and settles in mutual recognition and respect, not negation of the liberty of the other which is undemocratic.
The value of liberty provides reason for Nepalis for living and the national space sacrosanct. It is the highest public good in a democracy. Political leadership’s longevity to govern rests on its legitimacy. But it requires them to become faithful to themselves before they are respected by others. The instruments of liberty require improving human condition: equality of people, education and opportunity for people to realise their subjective and objective needs and rights.
As a result, many leaders who were idolised in the past for democratic struggle are despised for their lack of complying with the spirit of the constitution, keeping interest and ability to cultivate inner-party democracy, building civic culture, settling national problems and providing an impetus to national progress. Independent scholars think that the political causes of underdevelopment must have a political solution, not technical or literary. Even the revolutionary leaders animated by powerful hatred of history feel shy when attentive people judge their cause severely mauled by the litmus test of periodic elections forcing them to seek alliance partners to acquire power. It even tested the rule of proportionality and social inclusion aimed to accommodate the different categories of Nepalis in the institutions of governance.
Liberty and public order find their equilibrium in the middle path, not in the extremism of one side, which stokes political instability and reduces the condition of liberty. The Kantian ideal of liberty is individualised by conscience while the Marxist idea of liberty is collectivised by non-alienation, non-domination and not exploitation of the working class. Inhuman determinism of one unit — economy, politics, society, climate, institutions, party or class closes the possibilities of openness to cooperation of various stakeholders of society for shared future progress. Initially, science had aimed to control nature for human progress. Now the shared understanding of sensible statesmen, scientists and scholars aims to keep the resilience of nature.
It is, therefore, important to open the left, the right and the centre to liberate them from the tyranny of abstract ideologies, overcome the heat of radicalism and coldness of conservatism and open to realistic perspective to mend the torn Nepali societies and politics. Each political party of Nepal has a different voice to convert people to its one-sided faith. But the reality of the nation is the same and their leadership culture does differ much. They need to respect the nation’s diversity and become representatives of the entire population capable of crafting common ground for the solution of problems of society. Most of the party leaders completely reject the real life of Nepalis by ending up in the drapery of ideology.
They seek an artificial approach to the reality yet bound up to illusion, rendering their roles as rationaliser, justifier and legitimiser of deception and capriciousness in style. Nothing edifies Nepali leaders if they do not pay debt to society that elevated them to the height of power and position. The perpetual oscillation of Nepali leaders from their position defines the nauseating political condition in the nation that has exhausted people by burden of debt, deprivation and lack of opportunities for livelihood in the nation. It amounts to a succession of evasion from their moral and political responsibilities. The crowd does not debate. It only acts under the command and control of leadership and is easily manipulated.
The critical and informal intellectual can think and socialise Nepalis as the claimants of sovereignty, possibility and dignity, not exiled morally and favour a condition conducive for the people to exercise their liberties. Liberty is neither inalienable nor impossible for people if fatalism and determinism do not constrain them to keep their courage and realise their potentialities. The struggle of Nepalis now is between the consciousness they have acquired from politics through their participation in democratic struggles, elections and demonstration and constitutional, institutional and leadership atrophy. They have time and again revolted against the wretched human condition that restricted their liberty and sought a state of satisfying life combining need and rights-based fairness.
The culture of human rights is anthropocentric. It reconciles both liberty and social justice, if not order. It treats human beings as an end in itself, idealises them, and abhors reducing them to others will. It is one way to measure human condition away from revengeful and savage human nature lacking imagination, understanding and reflection of the means to improve it. A singular ideology cannot grasp the basic aspects of its complexity and a sense of humanity as history reveals that living human beings are sacrificed in the name of doctrine and ideology. Nepalis, worthy of civic virtues, must be aware of how to assume human responsibility for nature, their own nature and behaviour.
So long as Nepali elites’ virtues are not determined by the measure and make up of civility and the flow of positive actions with immense diversity and intensity, people’s lives remain tormented. The normative foundation of liberty crumbles if the empirical frame is fragile and regulative principles find no clear resonance. The frame of social justice is vital not to make liberty and equality objective truth. This is precisely the reason Nepali constitution has sought to balance liberty, security and social justice.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)