Sunday, March 20, 2005

Shaubhagya Shah: Autocracy 101 At Harvard

At the helm
Ethics of anguish and the solace of history
(published: Nepali Times)

by Saubhagya Shah
Budhanilkantha, Harvard alum

The king has sliced the Gordian knot and ended the triangular stalemate between the Maoists, the Nepali state and agitating political parties that had been snuffing the life out of the country.

At the very least the dramatic February First declaration will have the salutary effect of forcing both internal and external forces to show their hands. The festering political stalemate and moral ambiguity had been prolonging the crisis by inhibiting major actors from pursuing their position to their logical conclusions. The royal initiative will bring about a final polarisation in Nepali politics.

Denial of personal responsibility by invoking vacuous platitudes or retroactive abdication of agency has been a part and parcel of Nepali public culture. In order to stop the country from spinning further into chaos and mayhem, someone, somewhere had to take charge of the situation and say that the buck stops here. Only when there is clear acknowledgment of responsibility can there be accountability. The crown has now mandated for itself the specific task of ending the insurgency and creating an effective environment for the substantive exercise of multiparty system within three years.

Circumstances have forced the king to act. And he can only be vindicated by how well he delivers on these two specific objectives. The notion of karma in the Gita has a lesson here: it is the nature of crises on a Mahabarat scale that not all variables will be known beforehand but those at the helm must act to restore order using their best judgment, sincere intention and face history as honourable beings without excuses.

Everyone appreciates that this is a potentially risky course of action but the peril of not doing anything was graver. It is not only selfish but also irresponsible for people on the top floor to pretend that it is all normal when those living in the basement have already been incinerated. Somebody has to call for an evacuation and douse the blaze before it consumes the whole building. Extraordinary situations call for extraordinary measures and the lived experience tells most Nepalis that this is the most extreme phase in their nation’s 236 year history.

A number of foreign governments, the EU, the UN and others have criticised the monarch’s attempt at resolving the present crisis. While their concern are entirely welcome, there is also a need here to liberate the Occident of its heavy civilisational burden by disabusing it of the cosy misconception that only the west has the good of the Third World people at heart and if allowed to act alone, local governments will go berserk and ruin themselves and the planet.

While foreign players intervene because of their contingent ideological position and strategic interest, the local states must act for a longer term stake and also because it is a good thing to do. It is hard to believe in this age of global moral asymmetry that there can be goodness that is of entirely indigenous origin. Besides a general shared concern for citizens’ welfare, progress and human rights, there is one consideration that distinguishes the local state from all other actors: while foreigners cannot be bothered with the territorial and ideological continuity of the Nepali nation-state (westerners generally tend to scoff at nationalism as an infantile infatuation, except when it concerns their own nation) the crown must be cognisant of this imperative as well.

The fate of Kashmir, Tibet and Sikkim are sobering reminders that notwithstanding their beauties, the Himalaya remains treacherous terrain for the survival of small independent nations. None of these countries have been allowed to exist beyond their monarchic lines, this should be pause for thought to all those who seek to mould Nepal into their own image.

When the Indian government issued a statement describing King Gyanendra’s move as a ‘setback’ for democracy and the need to ensure the ‘safety and welfare’ of the political leaders and parties in Nepal, one suspects that the babu in South Block must have been doing so tongue-in-cheek. Was the decade-long anarchy and killings a blessing for our democracy? And why this protective instinct only for the political leaders...what about Nepal and Nepalis in general?

What a pity that New Delhi has not extended this enthusiasm for democracy and political parties elsewhere, say, to Bhutan. On the contrary, the Indian government has summarily imprisoned Bhutani leaders who were peacefully asking for a more equitable and democratic set-up in Bhutan and persecuted Bhutani political parties in exile.

Given this glaring doublespeak, the patronising gesture thrown towards the Nepali political class ought to be taken with caution. As BP Koirala discerned, the Indian establishment has always sought to exacerbate the differences between the political parties and the monarch and set them up in irreconcilable antagonism for its own designs. Rather than locking themselves into the alien embrace in a moment of crisis, the various political formations in Nepal will do well to let go of their egos, sort out their differences internally, forge a lasting national accord and collectively work to hasten the transition back to normalcy.

However seductive, the bad taste left behind by Gandaki, Mahakali, Laxmanpur and Kalapani grabs should remind all that neighbourly solace does not come free or even cheap. Internal compromises and consolidations have always been historically vindicated and and morally dignified than secret foreign concessions.

We all have our mental paradigms, our worldviews. The racists have it, the sexists have it. The autocrats have it. The Marxists have it. The democrats have it. Many of us inherit them, either through family and social circles, people we grow up around, hang out with, befriend. Many get through education, self, or at institutions. A few of us constantly challenge the paradigms we have, or at least present it as a disclaimer before we throw open our perspectives. But then many of us refuse to acknowledge that we have paradigms, and what they are. Instead we pretend to speak The Truth. Da Absolut Tru.

I take one glance at this article and see an autocrat, someone who finds his place in the world when he sees the name Shaha hit the world headlines: I am somebody, look!

The thing with paradigms is, people can accumulate all sorts of facts down the road, but all those facts only help to reinforce those strongly held paradigms. Prejudices are paradigms.

Prithvi Narayan Shaha militarily "created" Nepal - I mean, the whole talk of "creating" Nepal is like saying Columbus discovered America; Prithvi Narayan Shaha my ass - and then gave it to the Shahas and Thapas and the ilk. And then Jung Bahadur, one of the most gifted politicians in Nepali history, took part of the cake for the Ranas.

But all that is passe. This is 2005. The whole point about democracy is your last name should not matter. The state should be serving the individual, not harassing it. The citizens call the shots, not members of the lucky sperm club.

Shaubhagya Shaha is right about the polarization part, though. It is autocracy or democrcy. The choice is simple and clear. And I know where I stand.

If this king is going to face history, history is now. It is history fast-forwarded. As Madan Bhandari said, "Rajniti nai garna chha bhane sripench phukalera aau." If you want to actively engage in politics, rest your crown, and come into the open.

Shaha says, " ..... this is the most extreme phase in their nation’s 236 year history." And he is right. This is the turn in time when Nepal finally, for the first time ever, is going to become a full democracy. A total democracy.

His diatribe against "the Occident" is one of the autocratic mindset that claims to speak for the Nepali people whose voice they have muzzled out through use of force. I do not want India, US, EU to be making decisions for the Nepali people. By the same logic, I do not want the hereditary monarch to be making those decisions either. I want the Nepali people to be making decisions for the Nepali people. It is not "Nepali culture" to put up with autocracy, rather Nepal's misfortune that it has put up with it for as long as it has. But enough.

The junta has tried to use the sovereignty card. I am all for Nepali sovereignty. But that sovereignty belongs to the Nepali people. A democratic government will be the only legitimate guardian of that sovereignty. India is not trying to turn Nepal into a Sikkim. It is trying to put itself on the side of the Nepali people by being for the democratic ideal. It is the monarchy that has hijacked the sovereignty that belongs to the Nepali people, it is not India or some foreign power. And it has done so through sheer use of force, and so the Nepali democrats will forge any alliance, with any power foreign and domestic, to counter that force. It is called being effective.

I am for democracy in Nepal, in Bhutan, in Pakistan, in China, in Maldives, in Burma, and every other place that does not have democracy. I am an ideological democrat. But just because there is no democracy in China, in Pakistan, in Bhutan, in Maldives, in Burma does not mean I have to put up with the junta in Nepal. But then I thought you wanted Nepal's affairs to be entirely Nepal's internal matter a few paragraphs back. Why are you suddenly drawing your tentacles outside the borders? You want to go global with your autocratic instincts, but feel it wrong for the democrats to do so?

To the Shahas, the Ranas, the Thapas, and what have you of Nepal, this is what I am saying. You have every right to be families, and love your families, and take pride in your last names. All that is your private matter. But in the public domain - like with the state and governance, and the economy -there has to be equality, there is going to be equality. Make peace with the idea, or be thrown out of the momentum of progress.

As a Madhesi, I draw upon my personal experiences when I tear apart your diatribe against India. I call it the 1% theory. There is that 1% elite that has called the shots in Nepal for generations. It is classic divide and rule. Pit the Pahadis against the Madhesis. Maintain sexism to put the women down. Pit the Bahun-Chhetri-Newar against the Bhotes, Janajatis. Pit the Bahuns and Chhetris against the Newars. And define Nepali nationalism in a sick way solely as anti-Indianism. So it not that 1%'s fault that Nepal is so poor. It is India's fault.

The best aspect of your anti-India rant is I am glad it is coming out into the open, because I want the Indians to see what has always existed. I want them to shake off their unceasing one-sided love affair with what they call "constitutional monarchy."

Only democratic governments can bring dignity to their citizens in the vast community of nations. Autocrats, by definition, are too busy disrespecting those citizens inside the borders to be able to give them any dignity outside of it.

P.S. I guess Harvard is not all that progressive a place, after all. It has a racist, sexist president in Lawrence Summers, a pig, and it has an alum like thyself.

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