The Citizens’ Movement has called for freedom from political regression and justice for the marginalised.
The Supreme Court has reversed the political regression that KP Oli, the prime minister, had begun by unconstitutionally dissolving Parliament on December 20, 2020. The Supreme Court deserves thanks for doing its duty and playing by the book. It has also put to rest all the rumours that had been floating around among Nepalis, even the educated ones, about various kinds of ‘settings’. The rumours began because, in the past, Nepal’s rulers had been wayward and very often violated democratic norms and constitutionality. The Supreme Court has also reversed its own past by supporting the constitution. So, democracy-loving Nepalis are rightly rejoicing this decision. Oli’s penchant for proverbs may not cease altogether, but may not grab headlines from now on. The Parliament will reconvene, the violators may be punished and a new prime minister may be elected, but the fundamental questions the Citizens’ Movement has raised to realise full democracy will remain to be addressed.
On the national day of democracy last Friday, February 19, the movement issued its manifesto. One can call it the Full Democracy Manifesto of the Citizens’ Movement of Nepal 2021. Like many other declarations and manifestos, such as the Declaration of Independence of 1776, which was a philosophical justification for the war of independence of the American colonies against Britain, or the Communist Manifesto of 1848 by Marx and Engels that laid the foundation for future communist movements, this concept paper is for a future roadmap. It is based on an analysis of past failures. Like the philosophes of the European Enlightenment, the manifesto makers are artists, writers and intellectuals. Unlike the philosophes, this Citizens’ Manifesto for full democracy is not merely a philosophical assertion but has resulted from citizens’ participation in the country’s multiple movements for democracy. In the earlier movements of 1990 and 2006, citizens who were also intellectuals, educated at home and abroad, led the charge by holding meetings and making speeches but had not issued a collectively drafted declaration. In this sense, this declaration is both a result of political action and philosophical thought, theory and praxis fused together that Jean-Paul Satre practised in France. It embodies the twin principles of freedom and justice. Freedom from political regression and justice for the marginalised.
But like the philosophes, those who have provided the intellectual foundation for this citizens movement come from the ranks of writers, poets, artists and public intellectuals, who write not just for the libraries and academic journals but for the general public—not only to change public discourse but to give a new direction to the country’s future politics and thought.
How these ideas will influence Nepal’s future course of action, only time will tell. But from the initial signs, it appears that these ideas will have a long-term effect not just in Nepal but across the border in India as well and from there to the rest of South Asia. Nepal here has a chance to be a thought leader in South Asia.
These intellectuals, writers, poets, artists call themselves citizens but they are not the freighted and hauled masses that fill the crowd at political party events. Nor are they politicians who are officially aligned with one party or another. Except for rare exceptions, such as BP Koirala and Baburam Bhattarai, Nepali politicians lack the ability to be intellectuals and original thinkers. They grab one line of thought or another (and versions of Marxism in its various manifestations from Leninism to Maoism has been the dominant strain) and run with it. They repeat old slogans ad infinitum. They build their parties and run for elections for the share of state power. On the other hand, these citizens are not interested in state power or any active political career. They just want a democracy that would include the rule of law, freedom of expression and freedom from corruption—and justice for the marginalised and the environment. And their source of power is their intellect and the streets. That is why they emphasised freeing Tundikhel, the largest open space in the middle of Kathmandu from the monopoly of Nepal’s military and officialdom and for the use of the people.
This manifesto or declaration for full democracy shows that those who made it possible are not just citizens who have the right to vote or hold the country’s citizenship papers or passport. They are cosmopolitan humanists who love their country and its people and land with the diversity of cultures, flora and fauna and altitudes.
Now that the Supreme Court has reinstated Parliament, how are these political parties going to behave? Will they continue to act in the same old ways of horse-trading? Or, alternatively, will they follow the precepts of the Citizens’ Movement by handing over the reins of the parties and the government to the next generation of leaders so that the new leaders will bring in a newer vision, newer perspectives, absorbing newer thoughts about women, indigenous groups, Dalits and implementing them? We will see how non-Oli parties will act. But one thing is clear. The new generation of intellectuals has announced its arrival on Nepal’s public scene. And this new generation is not going to merely spectate.
What is the concept of full democracy that the Citizens’ Movement has proclaimed? In my view, it has two chief components: democracy and justice. Just holding elections is not democracy, as the leaders of the Citizens’ Movement have repeatedly pointed out. Democracy means freedom. It means transparency. It means the rule of law. It means not just free and fair elections between and among parties but within the parties as well. But the second component of full democracy is no less important. In its absence, political democracies all over the world, especially in the non-Western world, have faltered and failed. Justice for the marginalised means participation of those who have traditionally been excluded from state power. In Nepal’s case, those would be Madhesis, women, the indigenous nationalities and the Dalits but also the disadvantaged of any ethnic group.
And justice would also include justice to the environment and justice to salvageable cultural heritage, as the Citizens’ Manifesto has made clear. Nepal is richly endowed with natural beauty—its mountains, its rivers, its flora and fauna. Why can’t development happen that sustains the environment and protects the country’s rich cultural heritage? Development, progress and prosperity can go together with the preservation of the rivers, mountains and salvageable cultural heritage. Salvageable cultural heritage means not all cultural heritage is salvageable. For example, casteism, sexism and those cultural tendencies that create othering and marginalisation are not worth saving. But for that, critical thinking and vigorous debate in the public sphere are indispensable. The Citizens’ Movement’s manifesto has opened up that door for such a debate.
So, Oli may be departing soon but his proclivities must not remain intact. Nepal will truly move forward only when it leaves behind both Oli and Oli-garchy and internalises what the Citizens’ Movement has laid out in its manifesto. These are the lessons of the Oli imbroglio.
Pramod Mishra is a biweekly columnist for The Kathmandu Post. He is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.
This article was originally published on The Kathmandu Post. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.