Liberty is an explosive theme in political discourse, a theme irreducibly associated with the emancipatory project of democracy and modernity. It is explosive in the sense that once kindled; it begins to glow and spread across various strata of population and many generations nonstop, arousing intense feeling and interest and catches every one even those having no knowledge about it. Democratic politics considers human liberty an end in itself. It is a value as well as an analytic concept whose use cannot be reduced to the whims and dictates of higher executive authority, laws or institutions. Cultivation of faith in politics touches the domain of liberty.
Its rajo guna (statecraft) presupposes the autonomy of politics from the dominant interest of society and non-political territories, integrity to uphold its raj dharma and performance in the public interest evoking it as persistent truth-seeking and public duty premises. The siren of Vedic echo aham asmi, finds its existential resonance in the liberty of individuals in the cosmic web of life. Yet in no way it is projected into a selfish drama in the world which even justifies bad faith, preference and indecent acts. Life’s vision and experience can be settled in the synthesis of both dwait and adawait. The resolution of a hiatus between the life-world and the system can be found in the golden mean, not in the extremism of crushing nature of ideological politics.
Either it over-exploits, imposes total regimentation in society or oversteps into the liberty of people with bellicose tone. Jean Paul Sartre, therefore, rightly says, “Liberty is a powerful weapon to use against the soul-destroying ossification of both capitalism and communism.” Both share a common belief in crude materialism. The melody of real liberty haunts its enemy and opens a fervent spell for the people to embrace emotional love of their natural rights. It supposes a condition in which people are not constrained by vicious avidya (phony education) having no relevance to life and their subjection to laws, authorities and institutions without their consent.
Ignorance about it only torments them to a culture of silence and keeps the antinomy between the aspiration of individuals for unbounded liberty and its spurious cognitive, moral, spiritual and material condition alive. Fixing politics to its purpose, national constitution and human rights obligations can create a condition of liberty for Nepalis to realise reflective vigilance, self-perfection and achieve completeness of lives, a salvation through pure action. For Sartre, action denotes the purpose, values and possibility of politics. It is equally important to harness a spiritual life of people, a life of oneness, connectivity and cooperation and help others in dire need, reverse the dismal trajectory of Nepali politics and economics and hone moral maturity of people through apt socialisation and acculturation.
Determinism is the enemy of liberty, a fatal enemy that cuts off the connectivity of sensitivity and conscience and demands absolute tribal-like conformity in politics in total animus to democracy. When ordinary Nepalis become conscious of their own condition and raise their intense voice, leaders have to ditch their double life in politics — promising too much and delivering too little or nothing to them thus perpetually sheltering in unredeemed life. The concept of nirvana is, therefore, invented by Gautam Buddha in the ideas of duties and self-emancipation from all types of illusions and irrational attachment to non-permanent factors. Human beings, according to him, are self-chosen beings but the scale of liberty they enjoy depends on the level of consciousness and their ability to undertake punctilious responsibility.
Nepali history is driven by the struggle of its people for liberty and a system which confirms its essence, a struggle that hastens the conscious belief in the exercise of free will away from crushing burden of misery and lawless chaos. Evocative of critical conscience, it has opened Nepalis to think about the future. Liberty, in this sense, offers a proud satisfaction with the rightness of living unhindered by internal weakness and external factors. It can support the legitimate hope of people for a just social, economic and political order where they are at liberty from coercion and the burden of scarcity of survival needs.
The class consciousness is vanishing in the din of political discourse on age, gender, ethnicity, caste and region, professional categories, post-modern penchant for identity politics, loss of faith in ideologies, rise of power bloc politics and a politics without public policy and accountability. It has thrown liberty into a tool to political bargain and set a contract, without harnessing the spirit of constitution and the sanity of tradition that shaped the free-spirited character of public intellectuals. Today politics in Nepal is well understood in instrumentalist terms — the empirical divisions of social, economic and political groups.
Certain amount of reconciliation across the empirical categories is essential in the normative frame so that each does not bump into the other or betray like in party politics of the nation. The growing economic crisis in the nation caused by the experiments of capitalism and communism has already nudged Nepalis into the abyss and now they know why social democrats criticize the excesses of both for the contradictions their doctrines bred in the nation without finding an anchor of golden mean in the constitutionalism that balances liberty and a vision of an egalitarian society.
Biological existence alone does not make Nepalis free able to exercise their choices at will in their public and private lives. Liberty and power are interconnected. Poverty is politically translated into powerlessness which implies the lack of choice and freedom. In psychological terms, it is dehumanisation, the process of denying people the qualities of life and general wellbeing for their overall progress fulfilling the attributes of compassion, dignity, individuality and identity. The indicator of liberty rests on how political development for the wretched grows faster than those of the powerful. It is important to cultivate their inner virtues and make them stakeholders of society. There is a truth: inner vigilance and self-awakening manifest in the outer form of liberty. This used to be the purpose of education in Nepal until recently.
Broadening the base of public is important to spread intelligence and enlightenment and create an open society of ideas, innovation, inclusion and mobility. It is vital to overcome the passivity of Nepali society created by brain drain and migration of youth force abroad, the critical mass of dynamic change agents. Liberty has its links with the laws of the land and the political culture created by it. The merciless assault on judiciary, rule of law, power checks and due process, educational and health institutions and their increasing partisanisation and privatisation marks the erosion of the edifice of justice. As a result, lawyers are interpreting the constitution on the basis of legal logic, not merit, constitutionality, public reason, justice and morality.
The disparity in justice grew as per inequalities in wealth, power, organisational connection, education and access and those deprived of opportunity of justice found solace in centrifugal forces and grabbed rights-advocating mission and attention without any concern for responsibilities. The Constitution of Nepal, 2015 envisions creating an egalitarian society guaranteeing liberty, equality and justice. This denotes that liberties — both positive and negative - are law-based, not lawless as laws alone can guarantee the rights of people and make them enforceable so that a just public order can be created for Nepalis to exercise their liberties.
Liberty in Nepal can be constructed in the dearth to the barriers to people’s virtuous action, free exercise of reason and free will. But in no way it is a license for the anarchy of free wills which can easily pull Nepali society to a state of nature which spoils the reasons for the state to protect the weak, defend people against each other and regulate the competition of power and wealth in society. The purpose of politics is to promote liberty, justice, peace. Liberty for Immanuel Kant, like ancient sages, is a public good, something from which every person can get benefits beyond the Marxist distinctions of political and human emancipation, or Isaiah Berlin’ dichotomisation of positive and negative liberties, even J. J. Rousseau’s articulation of “forced liberty of demands to obey the general rule.”
The Hindu-Buddhist philosophy provides full liberty to individuals to exercise their free will but also bear its consequences and responsibility for their actions and decisions. They are neither free from nature, nor natural environment, not even living human conditions. A fairer society in Nepal can be created with the equality of opportunity. But if education, the leveller of society and wellspring of knowledge and hospitals, the providers of healthy population, are based on economic model, in no way society can overcome the blind pursuit of profit, exploitation and monopoly in order to build the sound foundation of liberty and offer basic necessities of life for the people. A well-informed citizenry is the building block of democracy.
The right to know is embedded in the Constitution. It aims to make governance law-based and transparent. Yet, the policies of de-agrarianisation and de-industrialisation in the past have imperilled the hope of people to cooperate on productive activities and augment their choice of jobs. One cannot separate ecological security, green economy and social justice from liberty. There is a correlation among these variables, not trade-offs.
Uneven living conditions
The uneven living conditions where labour market is diminishing, work environment is less productive and economy is anaemic the scope of liberty for the less advantaged has no meaning. In Nepal, each social and political movement has steadily enlarged the domain of rights and liberty but disproportionately weakened the economic base of participation to make their political rights meaningful, animating and enduring. The movement has expanded the elite base for political power and opportunity and distribution of resources to the upper echelons of society.
Similarly, the Constitution has disproportionately enlarged the scope of rights relative to duties, their material basis is fundamentally fragile mirroring a policy of empty prattle on political discourse. This is the reason Nepalis use their liberty to lash out capitalist and communist classes in the nation who, despite their lofty utopia, have failed to scale up production to trim down the costs of public goods and move money top-down, not bottom up. Only the lofty ideal of liberty, its flash and dazzle, can give Nepalis stirring hope in democracy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)