Tuesday, 18 January, 2022

Public Space Makes Authority Responsible

Public Space Makes Authority Responsible

Dev Raj Dahal

A responsible regime undertakes the duty to perform its popular and constitutional mandate and international obligations. A flourishing democracy calls for not only the promotion of individual rights but also social responsibilities to enhance and nurture the common good of society. In the common good, each person has equal stake, the weak and the poor have more because they have less private resources and agencies to defend themselves. The critical eyes and voices of public sphere where people associate, discuss matters of collective interests, solve a raft of vital problems and nourish shared values of ecological preservation, human rights, justice, equity, inclusion and peace gently remind the public policy responsibilities of Nepali leadership to Janata Janardan, a supreme subject of distinction.

The public space has provided a site for critical discourse on matters of public importance if representatives of people and their parliament keep distance, remain unconcerned or engage in partisan wrangling without having positive bearing or due diligence on the functions of governing institutions. So long as the political space of parliament remains squeezed, exhausted and teeters on the brink of political paralysis, the affected, alienated and deprived citizens turn public space, a centre of effervescent civic talk.  It also exhibits their demands and concerns and organises worthy activities as a crucial moment to allure the minds of informed public and leadership. Several mini public spaces across the nation have offered opportunities for the people to share their bewildering array of personal stories, discuss issues and feel empathy to each other and share their concerns beyond the wisdom of the crowd strapped up by offensive politics. 

Space of freedom
Now, Maitighar Mandala in Kathmandu consorts the people and public intellectuals to entice the gaze of passing spectators, raise people’s grievances, grab the attention of media, engage wider scale of civil society movements and sensitive political leaders in a non-partisan way focusing on problem solutions. The spatial centrality of Mandala in the heartland of the nation has offered the concept of deterrence, a hostile stare of the public spotlight, space of freedom and opportunity to display solidarity for civic action and responsibilise the concerned authorities for their duties. It is often pulsating with a multitude of activities of the victims and aspirants of society and spurring a zone of shared sentiment, a solace of hope to the crestfallen and prospect to raise the issues of human rights abuse, violence, unnatural death, delay in transitional justice, injustice to sugarcane farmers, abuse of authorities and governance reforms in education and health sectors. It prompts the authorities to pay attention to and act on their responsibilities.

Common feeling, enterprise and expectations drive the critical mass of Nepali society to engage in civic action. In this sense, the Mandala represents an intimate sphere of people of the whole nation for the formation of opinion, judgment and expression who otherwise are precariously perched in the hinterland and countryside in a timid state of mind and face inferiority complex and invisibility of local conversation. As a result, more and more letters to the editors, articles and social media comments about the activities taking place here fill both journalists’ accounts, command public intellectuals’ gaze and overcome public speaking phobia of people. Obviously, many independent journalists, attentive public and public intellectuals write and speak out of their conscience and act as conscientious persons to responsibilise authorities against their habits of indolence.

In the past, the public spaces of Nepal have offered scope to organise shared rituals and festivals, mass meetings, cultural ceremonies and organisation of hat bazaars, communication, interaction and exchange of goods of public utilities. Nepali history has treasured many such properties in common such as school ground, river banks, ponds, public inns, temples and monasteries, Guthis, grazing land, etc.  Many Gurukuls of Nepal set up by sages for the training of youths for stabilising social functions and rule of responsible leadership in statecraft have spread education, enlightened opinion and moral values and eased timely change of society to remove social prejudices, vices and ills. They have also aimed to overcome what Emile Durkheim calls “anomie, the spiritual aimlessness,” stoked by modernity’s loss of social capital and increasing cost of volunteerism.

The socialisation of people beyond the walls of private houses expanded the notions of neighbourhood and watchful society, enlarged the circle of empathy to each other and helped furnish a larger perspective of an interdependent community in Nepal. They generated trust among the people for the health of good society where inhabitants easily reciprocate their services in times of weal and woe inspiring the deeper connection of spiritual and moral life and caring and cooperating with others, not only working for the victory of materialism and rational choice theories.

The spirit of social inclusion incorporated in the Constitution of Nepal and development policies is vital to improve the works of local self-governance and intensify the scope of deliberative politics. It increases the active participation of people in local community and governance in Nepal exercising what Alexis de Tocqueville calls “habits of the hearts”. It also enables people to learn the art and science of leadership, self-rule, form ideas, create organization and tools, plan, mobilize resources and set the virtues of openness and mutual help.

Considerate rich persons of Nepal have donated money and land in various parts of the nation to construct the public places while the poor provided voluntary labour. Both had a stake in the sustainability of public space. The popular place for daily meeting of people, Chautara - still serves as an open space for get-together and offers a venue for talks in matters of general interest, forge links and settle their issues and problems under the civic codes and ideals. This is the reason despite economic and social gaps in Nepal a sense of community is very strong. Its resilience can be found during quake, armed conflict and pandemic where communities mobilised resources, volunteers, tools and empathy for the greater good of those affected.

The courtyards provided a space for public hearing and Tundikhel offered a place for celebrating large scale national functions and organisation of cultural, civic and political activities. During earthquakes and pandemics these open spaces presented a place of safety and security for people to escape the perils to their lives and take resort for many days, organise physical exercise, healing and reconciliation, mediation and isolation functions to come out of their traumas. They have enforced the world of interdependence between open space and survival of life. Senior Nepali citizens narrate that in times of the great famine in the nation, national forests with a variety of wild fruits and edible roots, rivers, ponds and parks provided security and livelihood means as well.

With the advent of modernity and the rise of individual interests many public sites are now in a dilapidated condition, as a subject of benign neglect while public spaces, grazing land, property of temples and monasteries, Guthis, ponds, river banks, roads, unused canals, etc. are encroached by predators for personal profits. Every day news media are awash with such cases to grab attention of public authorities and take responsible and remedial action. They consistently highlight their nexus to bureaucracy, uncultured bichaulias and powerful special interest groups. Owing to a lack of political agency, many ordinary Nepalis keep a culture of silence as they find their voice less resonating, unheard and unaddressed. In this context, the generation of trust between the local government, civil society and stakeholders is essential to enlarge the domain of civic engagement and their commitment to democracy by abolishing the evils of society and protecting the public spaces upon which democratic ideals thrive.

One great civic virtue of Nepalis these days is that they have learned the art of peaceful protest, hunger strike and sit-in in the public place thus making them heard and heeded to without choosing the means harmful to the nation’s bodypolitik. It has occupied central importance in Nepal as parliament most of the time is trapped either in confrontational politics or log jam, not policy making and resolving the problems of the nation and people. The importance of public space will remain vibrant so long as Nepali political parties renovate and renew with the idealism of fresh blood, remain more honest and more responsible to public duties and arrest the drift of unsteady politics shifting from one coalition to the next in a struggle for power.

Politics as usual, privilege, bribery and impunity mark the unfitness of political leadership which in the long-run can hobble the strength of public institutions and privatises public money meant for the collective welfare of people. Those and their justifiers are guilty of national sin in the eyes of law and the nation’s ancient wisdom echoed by Prithvi Narayan Shah. The conference halls, hotels and resorts are comfortable places for Nepali gentlemen to communicate with each other, organise seminars and workshops but they are costly for the majority of poor to organise their voice, visibility and activities.

Responsible political culture
The public space like Mandala thus stands a chance for them to venture outside their local and regional orbit on the belief that they find connections to a wider audience of the nation’s enlightened public which is keeping due diligence on the operation of national institutions and authorities. Peace accord has reduced the scale of direct violence yet not blissfully. It has failed to turn into a common triumph for justice, dignity and human rights as it did not herald substantive change for the people on the margins. Victims are often visible in the Mandala and other public spaces. It requires a responsible political culture of authorities. The absence of responsibility or lacklustre performance has created several types of foes from both the right and the left thus leaving the nation to lose a sense of direction.

The irresolution of conflict residues afflicts the conscience of the nation as transitional justice lingers and commissions for disappeared and reconciliation hardly link their efforts to spark the democratic political process. Each regime of coalition has set itself to win powers despite a lack of commonalities among them. Deep partisanship has begun to infect the functioning of the coalition, paralysed the panorama of sustainable progress and became more and more maladaptive. This risks turning the wheel of national fortune any time and puts off a sense of social justice and glorious life.

It is, therefore, important to build Nepali society in which each member escapes from the tutelage and sees the delight of emancipation, enjoys freedom from want, owns adequate property to sustain life, assured of their rights to dignity, speaks without fear, remains at peace with other co-citizens and acts together in the public sphere for nation building as responsible persons and authorities.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)