Thursday, 5 August, 2021

Intellectuals Must Speak The Truth

Mukunda Raj Kattel

Fifty-four years ago, on 23 February 1967, the New York Review of Books published a long political essay by Noam Chomsky, who was until then known to the public, if at all, only for his work in linguistics. The essay – The Responsibility of Intellectuals – was an attack on the American intellectuals of the day, especially the Harvard professors serving, as experts and advisers, the administrations of President Kennedy and President Johnson while shrugging off the atrocities, such as those committed during the Vietnam War, triggered by the administrations they were a part of.

Chomsky’s guideline
With the essay, Chomsky burst onto the political landscape of the United States risking his prestige and access to lucrative government grants by taking up an adversary position that could cost both. With the essay, Chomsky also set a global intellectual standard for a voice against atrocities. “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies,” Chomsky wrote. Intellectuals “have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression” and from “the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation…”
My intension here is not to paraphrase or summarise or critique this masterpiece of the legend of an unparalleled voice for truths to-date. The intention here is to earnestly remind our Nepali intellectuals of their moral responsibility to speak the truth and expose a lie. I should be clear about what I mean by intellectuals given the fuzziness and fluidity of the term. Here I am speaking of the advisers and thematic and technical experts that are a part of the highest administration of the country now.
Institutionalisation of lokatantra – which we have named to mean a system more inclusive and more accountable than prajaatantra (democracy) – requires, at the very least, political leadership with impeccable integrity and acumen. Politicians may, at times, be subject to emotional impulsions and take decisions that may not be in keeping with the spirit of lokatantra. Here comes the responsibility of the intellectuals: to stand upfront to counter emotive political reasoning with rationale arguments based on historical precedents and the untoward outcomes they have led to.
Unfortunately, the intellectuals have failed to live to this basic responsibility. I will point to two instances – drawing on the recent two orders of the verdicts of the Supreme Court (SC) – to elaborate what I mean in this regard.
The first instance relates to the SC’s reasoning behind the nullification, on February 23, of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve the House of Representatives (HoR) two months ago. The dissolution triggered a politically charged debate nationwide. Among many arguments, the defendants claimed that the dissolution was the exercise of an inherent political right of a prime minister beyond a court scrutiny. The constitutional bench of the SC disagreed. Quoting extensively from the preamble of the constitution that confers Nepal’s sovereignty on its people, and articles that differentiate Nepal’s governance system from traditional parliamentary systems, the SC said that a provision of an article cannot be chosen at one’s convenience remaining aloof about the history that lies behind it. Nepal’s constitution, the SC underscored, is the synthesis (to speak in terms of Hegelian philosophy) of the multiplicity of ideas, debates, arguments and counterarguments in the constituent assemblies that does not grant any right other than what is literally articulated in the body of the document.
Similarly, staying the implementation of the Nepal Citizenship (First Amendment) Ordinance 2021, introduced on May 23, two days after the dissolution of the HoR restored three months ago, the SC invoked the principle of ‘colourable legislation’ to remind the executive branch that an act prohibited directly is also prohibited indirectly. An ordinance can be introduced only in rare circumstances to address an issue of immediate urgency and one that is likely to pass the test of parliament within the constitutionally stipulated timeframe, the SC said, adding an ordinance cannot be used to circumvent the function of parliament. An exception cannot be treated as a rule, the SC implied.
What the SC has stated had to be in the notes and opinions of the Prime Minister’s advisers who are renowned scholars in their respective fields as well as privy to the nuts and bolts of the constitution and the arduous period of gestation it has undergone. Such informed opinions could have prevented the Prime Minister from taking the decisions he took.
A budding lokatantra such as ours requires all organs of the state to strictly operate within the checks and balances established by the constitution. Any imbalance in the exercise of power by any of the organs creates strains on the other, particularly on the judiciary that is expected to stay above politically controversial issues at all times. The imbalance in power exercise also triggers opportunity costs, produces spillover effects, creates perceptional winners and losers, taints the integrity – the lifeblood of lokatantra – of political leadership, and, most concerning of all, generates a political cynicism among the people at large, not least among youths, that poses a threat to lokatantra.

Fundamental hallmarks
Among a few fundamental hallmarks that underlie democratic politics – or lokatantra, as we happily identify ourselves with – two stand out conspicuously. One is political morality, the combination of acumen and what noted author Gurcharan Das says as political dharma. The other is intellectual reasoning. Political morality is expected to guide the thinking and decision-making of political leadership all the time, good or bad, summer or winter. At times, as is in the nature of things, political acumen and dharma risk being overwhelmed by emotional undercurrents – or the “veil of distortions,” to quote Chomsky. Here comes the role of intellectual reasoning in helping political leadership transcend the veil of distortions, seeing things as they are – and should be – on the basis of merit and salvaging the political leadership from the impulsive condition besetting it. This is the sole responsibility of the advisers and experts hired by the office of the highest administration.
However, as the two cases I have cited above suggest, the intellectuals failed to do justice to their duty. There is nothing that cannot be fixed and it is never too late to try to do things differently. Let Chomsky’s words inspire the intellectuals to redouble their efforts to fix the things that have gone wrong.
I wish I had a different topic to write on and a more pleasing note on which to end the piece.

(A PhD on human rights and peace, Kattel is a senior research fellow at Policy Research Institute.