Shifting Roles Of Civil Society


Political and economic societies have a common utilitarian motive of maximising power and wealth. The non-profit sectors - a world of the powerless-- are being left out. It is here civil society can fill the space and organise them in the public space for their voice and participation in the institutional life of society and use  reason to nourish their will and dignity and pass critical judgment. Urban-centric model of Nepal’s progress does not egg on the growth of genuine civil society in rural areas able to galvanise public talk on policy issues and mediate among the disparate imperatives of people, government, market and global regime in the national space. 

How does the rights-based civil society fit with the native insight, wisdom, culture and charity-based ones to evolve a synergistic future able to liberate Nepalis from the state of nature, necessity and domination and enable them to adapt to technological and economic conditions affirming common humanity? The sovereignty of knowledge over power is the hallmark of the genealogy of civil society in Nepal.  Composed by sages they were neither reliant on, nor reduced to, not even historically, ideologically and economically determined in their quest for the realisation of inner vigilance, cognition and outer life.

Universal justice

First, Nepali sanity of niskam karma (selfless service) through public education and dan (helping the needy) earned people punya (virtuous deed). It has spurred the edifice of informal and formal social, cultural and spiritual institutions, separated culture from the state of nature and linked culture to civilisation. Nepal’s native business ethics of shuva lav added cooperative vigour to keep civic spirits, institutions and activities beyond competitive calculus of politics and free market. Second, the constitutional imperative of welfare state excites a plural approach to realise the needs of Nepalis and their rights and aspirations. People as citizens, consumers and workers are banded together in search of universal justice and public goods. 

Third, civil society grew in tandem with the retreat of neo-liberalism that sought to reduce the state and swell private sector and NGOs, offering a new frame of social duty in  addressing issues of human rights, gender, minorities and indigenous people, peace, climate change, etc. as the nation is a party to these regimes. A new democratic approach offers a rational emblem of change for the creation of a socially coordinated state where the rich and the powerful are no longer above the law. The more the governance is attached to the spirit of constitution, laws and international obligations, the better they improve human condition outside the domain of political life.

Fourth, by embracing the values of worldwide associational revolution for the creation of an egalitarian culture, national civil society has become a driving force for local government, NGOs and citizens groups serving them as partners in influencing governance policies. The shifting geopolitics demands aid alignment of donors to balance the reasons of state and societal interests and building the capacity of people to assume worthy initiatives for a cohesive future beyond certain forces acting as a tool of eternal regime change, or anti-state conversation or deculutration of national life. The future model of progress entails a shift from competitiveness, efficiency and individualism to the core values of popular sovereignty, inclusion, justice, cooperation and ownership. 

Nepali civil society needs to grasp people's point of view, their conception of life and vision of the world, a shared vision grounded in the aspiration of diverse people to live together other than acting paternalistically like an elite-based club. The constitution has embraced decentralised local self-governance. Partnership and consultation with them can break the shackles arising out of the super-structure and political culture of the elite and the top-down social control. Nepal highlights the need of easing civic knowledge and skills rooted in dharma. The rise of the notion of public space, a space rationally governed by the interest of the public, assumed a character of sashtrartha (critical public discourse), thus linking context to rational knowledge and knowledge to socialisation and public policy as per the zeitgeist, sanatan dharma.  

Guthis, temples, monasteries and cultural associations, gurukuls, etc. were autonomous of the state since the Vedic Age, the age of enlightenment, where people shared their sentiments, feelings and shaped action. The dharma (virtuous duties), shastras (moral and spiritual treatises) and sashtrartha moulded the mind and character of all and freed their souls from ugly fetters. The edifice of caste and the spiritual universe of Nepal offered the scope for economic specialisation and conception of higher laws above self-interests.  Recent history reveals altruistic civil society began with the Arya Samaj founded by Madhav Raj Joshi in 1909 to awaken the Nepalis from blind faith and conservative thinking as well as to abolish child marriage, promote widow marriage and initiate social reforms.

On the initiative of Siddhi Charan Shrestha, a Malami Guthi was instituted for social and civic activities that suffered from the Ranas' iron fists. In 1920 Krishna Lal Adhikari wrote Farming of Maize acerbically depicting the Rana policy of sycophancy toward Britishers ruling India and enslavement of native peasants. In 1937, Nagarik Adhikar Samiti (Committee on Citizens Rights) was formed by Sukra Raj Shastri, Kedar Man Byathit, Ganga Lal Shrestha, etc. to stimulate public awareness through the analysis of Hindu religious treatises so as to lift the veil of silence in the nation. When Sukra Raj was explaining Bhagbad Geeta at Indrachowk stating people’s right to oppose unjust order he was hanged. One question then in currency was the relationship of the public to approved knowledge and politics.

Jayatu Sanskritam movement surged with an anti-Rana tone. Its proponents Sribhadra Sharma, Kashi Nath Gautam, Kamal Raj Regmi, Rajeshwor Devkota, Gokarna Shastri, etc. sought to modernise the teaching syllabus including modern subjects and widen the scope of learning. Many literary societies formed at home and abroad prepared the citizens for rational life and collective action. They saw freedom not only from the vantage of erudite reason but reflected social and political conditions inspiring educated citizens to shed their privatised identity and engage in public life of politics. Reflecting the lessons of the Asian renaissance, newer demands for greater political freedom and action brought the downfall of the Rana regime. It opened a space for party politics in the fifties. 

The fractious party politics, however, revived the reasons of state against liberty of people in the sixties. The Panchayat regime thus evolved patrimonial leadership of the monarch until the restoration of multi-party politics in 1990. The struggle of civil society, such as trade unions, human rights groups, student unions, teacher's associations, women's bodies, professionals, etc. sought to break power and wealth monopoly espousing a pluralist sense of justice. The roles of these bodies have been hampered by shortage of funds, information, perspectives and personnel and their absorption into personalised party politics.

The anaemic progress in the nation has shifted social conflict from the state of nature to needs, greed and grievances, society rupturing politics and economy, colonisation of nature to now sustainable progress. The gift of modern technology to reduce jobs has added a vast pool of jobless prompting them to migrate abroad or indulge in conflict, not social integration. Unless there is a paradigm shift from revenue-based models of progress to a production based one, where Nepalis have the capacity and skills to compete in the market, the potential for strife remains high, straining the fulfilment of SDGs. Only mature civil society, media, courts and active citizens can keep the national integrity of the state intact.

National consensus

The evolution of national consensus on public issues among civil society enables them to respond to the viciousness of politics and reduce the extent of cronyism, a big factor behind the roiling failures of the leadership to ignite trust of people. Nepali civil society needs to contribute to design good governance to serve the needy and legislate equity between the gender and generations. An improvement in the nation’s micro-economic foundations for a long-term management of macro-political processes can set a context for the state to become a repository of the collective strength of its people so that it can develop their self-worth.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)

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