Dev Raj Dahal
Despite the legendary strength and drive of the Nepalis epitomised as valiant Gurkhas and gallant mountaineers, the prime trend of the Nepali political culture is what Paulo Freire calls the “culture of silence.” The “spiral of silence theory,” elaborated by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann tells “people who hold the views that they believe are not quite popular or widely held tend to keep quiet.” In this frame certain views are ignored or suppressed while the others are expressed in discourse, policy-making and public life. The flaws of Nepali society in its relations to the political society, civil society and the market can be easily distinguished from the image of a mass society, a society whose primary social units and cohesiveness are torn by various shifts but are not well integrated into modern institutions capable of mediating, representing and visibilising their voices.
Rural Nepal abounds with silent contracts where the illiterates put their trust on those who know better and habitually submit to their knowledge, authority and influence. This social conditioning has rendered the majority of Nepalis to thoughtlessness and passiveness succumbing to the politically and intellectually eloquent ones. Silence also implies that even if Nepalis are sovereign by law they do not determine or consulted on crucial public matters or heeded to by their leaders unless they display heroic feat. The risks of revenge, opportunity loss and fear of marginalisation spur them to resort to strident whistle blowers.
The nation’s humbling encounter in Anglo-Gorkha war has left a lasting memory. A vivid portrayal of “silent cry” of Nepalis described by Ludwig Stiller has become an integral part of the nation’s history. Nepali leaders continue to conceal their anguish under the mask of shame that ensued the silent years. This forced them to define their state on the basis of territoriality rather than nationality. The Ranarchy stifled the consciousness of Nepalis so as to preserve its control of resource, power and authority. The downfall of Ranarchy led to a series of democratic trials. Political leaders were expected to give voice, identity and leadership to them.
But the nation had fallen into a trap of political instability, putsch and elites’ seductive charm to power yielding to Panchayat. It had exposed the public to routinised life, loss of a sense of personal identity and initiative. Fear of penalty, bad faith and iron hand yielded them to amazing conformity to regimes but allowed the voice of people to cry against the fear of foreign meddling. In no way these regimes could weaken people’s capacity for life experience, popular culture and struggle for freedom and justice. What they lacked was open public space for scintillating discourse and beat the cruelty of fate through rational action. With poor civic knowledge and political stake, national rituals encouraged them only to celebrate ruling regimes.
The ensuing modernisation discourse dressed up in bureaucratic clichés projected Nepalis illiterate and low standards of behaviour to justify their domination, direction and control of their lives and activities, thus making the native knowledge, technology, experience and practice slowly passe. The discourse did not enable Nepalis to become reflective of their reality, imagination, feelings and artistic ability grown out of years of experience to plan beyond the conformity of Singha Durbar. The diffusion of expert knowledge meant creating an authority to club people into silence and seeking no justification for their misery. The modernised elites’ notion of progress was defined in a functionalist angle and sought to shift their focus from traditional to modern devoid of native spiritual, social, cultural, economic and political visions, lore and diverse life-forms. In the process, the “demand side” where the substance of grassroots development being shaped by people was rashly buried as they were less attuned to listen to the people.
The poor execution of national plans is attributable, in large part, to a lack of consultation with the people and the non-use of local success stories. Considering the native tradition of knowledge as pre-rational, the bureaucratically encrusted planners ignored the socially embedded everyday thought in action. All these efforts lulled their souls into a false sense of progress while educated elites were used as an instrument to defend its policy. The approach to social change has always been incremental, except roaring waves, but they too failed to lay a firm foundation for integrating diverse Nepalis into polity. The three political waves - 1950, 1979 and 1990 - followed the gradualist ways while that of 2006 favoured overdrive and provided unusual political arbitration to spell the end of silence. In a short time, however, its leaders sunk into comfort and intra-leaders conflict and became prisoners of their own promises emptied of any sense to the people.
Each political upheaval briefly opened the polity to society. After that organised interests began to control the reign of power functioning often behind the scene. The people, then, are divested of their eloquence, means and energy. The politicisation of people on party lines is providing an impetus to lower economic groups to resort to radicalism, recrudescence of tribalism, regionalism and sub-nationalism venting defiant feelings and expression of anomie. Nepalis, lulled into the avowal of inclusive, secular, federal, democratic republic, now raise their voice in vociferous tone along with dissidents within the establishment and finding eloquence in the social media and streets. They find their leaders’ motives hardly different from their predecessors: de-politicise them, enforce their conformity, grab power by any means and appropriate state revenue. The partisan basis of the polity infused acidic influence on all branches of the governance.
But few Nepali perceive they have effect on governance to improve their lives. It reflects extremely low output cognition prompting them to despise their leaders, not yearning for power but for justice. The superstructures and other elected and nominated offices -marked the stink of failure in grappling with the multiple sclerosis - pandemic, poverty, job loss, political inertia, etc. where problems outrun solutions. The Nepali leaders’ attitude is full of mystery: when they are in opposition they trenchantly defend rights of citizens but when they are in position they easily ignore the same rights and, therefore, pay no heed to order, freedom and justice. A practical way in correcting this situation can be found in just governance free of parochialism. It can relieve people from silent status and false shift from caste to class, rural to urban and even abroad, not agriculture to industrial progress.
Politics of negation has left a large size of Nepalis on the sidelines of political life. Deprived and marginalised peoples, Dalits, suffer from a serious obstacle to group mobility and fair say in the institutions of governance. Translating universal suffrage into political power able to realise egalitarian society has become an uphill task. The notion of citizenship treats individuals on the basis of the laws of the land and personal virtue while the historical caste character of Nepali society treats individuals according to their unequal caste status, biology and tradition generating awfully dispirited underclass which can be used for cheap labour only. The size of critical mass in the deprived, oppressed and marginalised people is so small that it is virtually impractical for them to achieve democratic change without the support of a broad coalition of social forces.
Similarly, bonded, semi-bonded labourers and micro minorities are powerless to push for any change on their own. They are deprived of their freedom. Their labour power has been entirely appropriated in exchange for subsistence living for a long period of time. Democratic transformation requires their liberation from fear, hunger, anguish and infinite needs. The political climate in Nepal is promising. Social groups have begun to speak loudly for themselves so far lain silent and demanding for a space and formed associations to unite the people of several political hues to achieve a society in which they are capable of exercising civic power, effective citizenship and civil rights. Civic culture can flourish only in a condition where the virtuous public is nurtured by a self-governing society and the issues of rural-urban dualism, gender imbalances and the rich-poor gaps are well mediated.
A stable political order in Nepal is achieved not by unlimited rights of some while deprivation of many. Basic inequalities in the social system and the differences in life-chances arising from this confound the purpose of the rule of law, the core of democracy. Societal consensus on fair distribution of wealth among the people is a critical prerequisite for democratic resilience. Beating the marginalisation for their empowerment is linked centrally to the question of recognising their space in mainstream political society now rocked by leaders’ unfeasible sermons, artificiality of ideology and rude noises painfully obvious to all risking the shared norms of the pluralistic Nepali society.
In a society characterised by hierarchy, social relations become fragmented and excluded groups try to create their own sub-cultures, rules and institutions to govern their behaviour. This puts future of socialisation, social integration and harmony at risk. Compared to marginalised, who find the hopelessness of their situation very depressing, major hill ethnic groups, especially Rai, Magar, Gurung, Tamangs, Limbus, etc. with their critical mass and organisations seem culturally disposed to be forward in rearranging all areas of public life through unconventional discourse invoking instinctive loyalties -- primordiality and exclusive boundaries and unleashing silent revolution for self-determination. It is replicated in Bahuns, Chhetris, Newars and Madhesis and Aadibasis worlds too who are organising themselves in clan and lineage group and are being galvanized into similar loyalties.
Freedom of expression and organisation cannot be legitimised in one territory and ignored in another. Each must understand that it has a lot to learn from the others, beyond prejudices and stereotypes evolved over the years and appreciate Nepalis’ general empathy to the victims of society and a revulsion against misuse of power. Only then general public interests take precedence over particular interests whose undercurrents can break the silence. A tendency to frame nearly every social question in terms of common cause eases compromise, mutual understanding and discovery of common ground for civic responsibility to give voice to silent people.
A culture of silence can be broken by what Freire calls “conscientisation” of leaders and people for their critical self-awareness, strengthening public institutions and formulation of strategy for listening culture and collective action. Democratic dialogues create a mindful awareness, enhance public trust in rules and stir creative political innovation with respect to active citizenship. The use of political power for the liberation of the oppressed and establishment of their rights and duties in law, authority, power and means of livelihood can create their stake in the polity and ensure social decency. This provides social opportunity for them to an awakening and realises their self-worth and dignity.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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