NEPAL: Fight the power

An oped from the Kathmandu Post forwarded by the Asian Human Rights Commission

Despite Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s attempt to bully the National Human Rights Commission for its report at the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR), the Commission – represented by its chair Justice Anup Raj Sharma and its spokesperson lawyer Mohna Ansari – fearlessly standing up to the PM to defend its constitutional duty and reminding the PM of his constitutional limitations bodes well for the country. For it shows that, despite political instability and unsettled constitutional issues, the public institutions of the country have gathered confidence; they have gradually deepened their roots and strengthened their foundations. If this trend continues, the country will find its way out of a morass and turmoil and step into a new era of justice and peace.

Realpolitik against idealism

Ordinarily, the state and its machinery grind along on the rough surface of what hardball politicians call realpolitik rather than on dispensable idealism and a high moral compass. And in the name of realpolitik, occupiers of state power, whether democratically elected or usurpers by force or fraud, plan strategies and execute tactics to attain their desired goals, which is most often the perpetuation of their hold on state power. This occurs in all polities to a greater or lesser extent.

If one looks at Nepal’s political history, bypassing the means to grab the end has been the primary mode of coming to state power and running it. Events since the second people’s movement in 2006 have shown that the old ways of doing things – bullying and bulldozing – have continued. But have new ways emerged that would privilege process over product, means over ends and method over madness? It seems that the tussle between the old and the emerging new has continued through the constitution writing process and the Madhes movement to this day.That is why the NHRC’s clear assertion of its values in the face of intimidation by the government comes as a salutary beginning.

While the old culture remains ingrained in the Hindu psyche – Mahabharata’s ethos overshadowing the Ramayana’s flawed idealism – the presence of extreme diversity of faiths, ethnicities, languages, ways of life, further boosted by the adoption of a democratic polity – periodic election, free media, freedom of speech, various professional and non-governmental organizations – seemed to have failed to rein in the traditional end-justifies-the-means sanskar (rough translation: ethos). And the NHRC’s face off with the PM reveals the new but growing confidence of public institutions.

Before this episode, the media, despite its myriad flaws and demographic representational imbalance, had been the only institution that defied both the government and the Maoists, the traditional threats to free speech. It is clear by now that the government cannot touch the media, no matter how upset it becomes. And this is a unique and welcome sign and a matter of national pride in the context of South Asia. But one was not sure about other institutions.

Turning tide

The NHRC has now joined this sacred ground by asserting itself and challenging an act of bullying and a condescending attitude of the prime minister. Not long ago, this sort of defense of one’s territory would not have been possible because the Palace stood supreme and hovered over everything. The source of state power no longer holds mystery in the nooks of a palace now; it lies in the clauses and words of the constitution. The prime minister may not be able to or chooses not to read it, but holders of constitutional bodies, such as the commissioners and chair of the NHRC, can read it – learned legal minds as they are. Everyone’s power is inscribed in the constitution, no matter how flawed or incomplete it may be.

And then there is the social media and the band of Nepalese spread all over the globe. To be sure, each of these at present can be said to be overly represented by the Nepali-speaking, ethnically hill caste people, the natural result of 250 years of direct or indirect monolingual hill caste rule. And a majority of the literate at present may be said to side with the status quo of one language, one culture nationalism.

But the tide is turning. If the media remains free, if independent institutions assert the way the NHRC recently has, and if the marginalized raise public consciousness through peaceful protests and use the power of their vote and voice at the time of elections and in public discourse, the thorny issues, no matter how tangled, will find a resolution in the near future. For that to happen, we all – no matter which ethnicity we come from or gender we belong to – need to be as fearless to defend what is right and committed to justice, as the chair and the spokesperson of the NHRC have demonstrated. They have made Nepalese proud; now Nepalese need to make themselves proud by standing up for what is right and just.

This oped has been written by Pramod Mishra.