Virtue And Vice Of Civil Society

Dev Raj Dahal     


Social spirit is the bedrock of civil society, a society that sustains an ethics of responsibility and fosters civilising vision and worthy action. It foils the execution of absolute ends which ruins the virtues of life-forces driving human coexistence. The virtues of civil society help build trust between the state and people, and animate them to gain full maturity. In Nepal, the homo cogitans of civil society is poorly grasped.  Its boundary with political parties, private sectors and NGOs is hazy. Many pre-rational and anti-rational rag tag bands have seized civil society’s pursuit for a cohesive national community. As a result, politics suffers from accountability deficits in aiding social and intergenerational justice, business resonances the burden of corporate ethics while civil service is infected by partisan apathy. The great duty of civil society is to orient them to serve the people giving oneself for a cause of freedom so that they can liberate society from the state of nature and socialise human wills for the desire of common good.


The distinction between non-partisan, duty-based, altruistic and conventional civil society and partisan, right-based, rational and post-conventional ones is that the latter are self-chosen, group-enclosed and emerge from a process of contestation of ideas about good life affirming human rights, democracy and market economy. Former are motivated by the obligation of wisdom and wealth and seek to spur inner vigilance to invest in social progressBy sustaining the native legacy of enlightenment, they gave Nepal an enduring unity, continuity and identity. Now, the domination of right-based over the charitable ones poses veiled threats to the nation’s culture owing to its excess control on power, technology, donors’ loop, party links and alienation from the ordinary folk.  

Nepal’s conventional civil society groups have reconciled ancient wisdom with belief and reason to combat social evils without becoming either ostentatious or fanatic enemy of the nation’s past. The forgetting of past wisdom by post-conventional civil society marks a decline of the nation’s duty-based political culture. Their habilitation into the materiality of power has succumbed Nepali society to class-based politics, its right-based institutions often haunting the weak state for group benefits and anti-institutional social movements with infinite demands. The outcome is: decomposition of the sanity of tradition and values that nourished state-society unity so far. The cosmos of post-conventional civil society reflects what the global geopolitics feeds, not meeting the organic needs of Nepali people and becoming an apostle of its syncretic culture. Propelled by the siren calls of cultural transformation, they have played vital role in regime change, shared the spoils of power, shifted politics from status-bound to social contract and altered the functions of Nepali state.

Now, the fading sight of transformation, caused by their passions, split and elusive life with the shift of aid stimulus, hallowed the civic spirit. Lifting the people from the conventional burden of scarcity to post-conventional realisation of rights entails their own liberty from the conditioned reflex of crushing choices of greed and grievances which reduced them into a sub-culture of global system. Their social utility rests on the unity of will with the common Nepalis and heals the nation’s fault lines. The right-based culture fulfils the demand of only the organised groups, not the needs of Nepali society, polity and economy which are mostly informal. The right-based civil society, recoiled from the cost of their political activism, however, faded into anachronism in post-earthquake condition. Their deep snooze has opened a space for new civil society to sprout from villages and engage in practical works of national reconstruction.

The virtuous civil society are  remedying the lopsided progress of Nepal through critical education about citizens’ charter, rights, laws, networking, organising powerless, public hearing and social audit serving local priorities on relief, education, health, livelihood, community development, peace and an adaptation to climate change. They are spurring silent progress in Nepali villages and towns offering the people courage to speak, agitate and reclaim their sovereignty. The communities have been pro-actively supporting the functions of state providing the resilience to people to realize needs for survival, justice, peace and identity. The need of post-conventional civil society groups is to rise above their partisan character, develop autonomy from interest groups, mobilize resources, build coalitions and engage people in public action in pursuit of public good. The changing state-civil society relations in Nepal define people’s position in power while capital-labour contract underscores the new course of history. The right-based civil society-business ties are marked by relative trust as the former are silent on faulty economic policies while issue jarring idioms against vital bits of state’s institutions, rather than enabling them to impartially perform.


 Nepali state is created by its own society. Its soft power of culture radiated beyond the national borders. The pluralism of Nepali civil society reflects diverse life-forms and an essential aspect of a democratic society. They draw sustenance from the varied ecological and social contexts. The historical spirit of freedom, community and public-spiritedness entrenched into the duty motivated them to work for the liberation of all, not just the oppressed. The modern Nepali state, however, has undergone diverse nature of state system driven more by geopolitical conditions, than internal needs and hence regimes of various hues practiced many concepts of progress regardless of national relevance. It opened the state to social revolts for power, resource and recognition, predation of armed groups, political volatility, economic malaise and external penetration along inclusive, secular, federal, democratic republic lines which now determine Nepal’s unsettled public life. Now, state-society relations in Nepal are mediated by social inclusion, representation, interface between public authorities and citizens, legitimacy through law and politics, education and communication that illuminate critical social issues, constitutionalism, public policies and delivery of public goods. The local, provincial and federal elections reflect further the opening of Nepali state to the perspectives of many civil society groups, external stimuli and feedback enabling adaptation to institutional restructuring to address social imbalances and meet future commitments.

The constitution of Nepal and policy documents have provided mandate for INGOs, civil society, NGOs, private groups, etc. to engage in social development by aligning with national and local priorities. Caught in anxious self-absorption, they view the draft of Social Welfare and Development Act 2016 with suspicion considering that it corrodes civic space for they require approval from different agencies in order to execute projects by foreign support. The Social Welfare Council, as coordinating station, is feeble to decentralize and monitor their functions and find escape from political tension. The Nepali polity is very feeble to balance the interests of people, party politics, economy and the state and build national capacity aided by its own tax base to finance civil society’s engagement in social development. The ratio of remittance is higher than tax, tourism, foreign investment and foreign aid but its social costs of drain of youth is huge. Weak governance has eroded the state’s monopoly on power while poverty, impunity and economic dip stunted civic awareness and lured the focus of global community on its human rights condition.


Civic renewal

The social diversity of Nepali society with many ethnic and caste groups, languages and religions made it resilient, resourceful and tolerant. Now the noise of freedom and justice vibrate beyond cultural relativism that defines needs and wants of people in cultural terms. Its rich associational life, social trust, mutual aid and pluralistic source of democratic will are breaking the social closure for Dalits, women and poor in public life and the illusion of eternal calm.  The rebirth of dharma in daily life continues to socialize people, perform punya (good deeds) and set up private trusts to assist the needy. The nation’s resilient recovery requires enculturation and revitalization of public interests above the selfish ones. The virtuous civil society with reflective impulse can promote common values and purpose, insist the democratic accountability of power and mobilize crucial weight of autonomous media, public space and judiciary to control the abuse of authority. A project of social modernization can enable them to contest the bond between popular sovereignty embedded in individual liberty and representative democracy legitimised by majority rule and question the corruption of power in many public institutions. A society dissolves if its public spirit evaporates and critical mass of civil society loses moral guts to live by their duty, intellect and conviction. The choice of paths for Nepal is neither conventional nor post-conventional civil society but a synthesis of competing values aspiring to foster the dignity and destiny of Nepali people and the nation.


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