Enhancing The Civic Space
Dev Raj Dahal
Civic space is the flat world of any democratic society for anyone to engage in political conversation. It holds more than a static geographic sense of physical space regulating self. The interplay of geography with population, technology, economy, policy and ideology vibrates the shift of politics to many spheres in the production and diffusion of ideas. It is sensitive space for Nepali citizens’ to know about the endless variation of topographic locations they are situated in such as political heartland, strategic zones, buffer areas and frontiers that shape their psychology and get diverse scales of opportunities and even uneven risks. In the lack of a school of democracy, it is in the civic space Nepalis learn about the canons of democracy, their rights and duties, institutions and processes and run public action. This space reflects a site to assemble for freed communication about each other’s perception and experience, feel for and empathise with the suffering of the weak, discuss, negotiate and settle problems and abide by the effects of its normative standards.
In a nation of enormous diversity, only a shared value of citizenship offers an ideal milieu for each Nepali to choose life of choice, secure national survival and foster its vital and major interests. The civic space awakens the duty of leaders in the heartland, Kathmandu, not to radiate clashing signals in the periphery rather mobilise the forces of national unity and cultivate links with citizens to enrich their knowledge, society, economy, polity and the state and international relations. It is vital to converse on the execution of constitution, laws and policies to improve the qualifying conditions of Nepalis and provide them the benefits of common good, ameliorate the shakiness of buffer and frontier citizens owing to eternal struggle of leadership for power in the heartland infecting attention deficits.
In a time of accelerating and interconnected technological, socio-economic, geopolitical and climate change it is vital to hone the empathy of well off to alleviate the torment of the wretched and enhance solidarity with the Nepali state. This enables all to satisfy legitimate interests in the middle way polity. A robust civic space based on innovative values and institutions is capable of responding to these changes and revitalising Nepali society’s ability to adapt to civility and public-spiritedness and set ethical standards for economic and political society. Civic skills, entrepreneurship and ethics of civic space enable leadership to engage in education and social transformation rebuilding the resilience of national economy to sustainable path. Its power of critique marks a difference from project-centric NGOs and civil society as it is designed to temper the utilitarian tendency of business and politics and adapted to seek non-linear, inter-subjective mode of problem mitigation.
Civic space pivots on the shared values of citizens. It is free from state hierarchy and discipline but not from its laws. By espousing the end of buffer and frontier mentality, right-based civil society and market actors, tend to expand the precincts of civic space the world over as they prefer laissez fair over the state-regulated order. Both do not defend national culture and national interests and less embedded in native society. Due to lack of proper sociability some have even become law breaker. Without a virtuous Nepali state, civic space cannot keep its integrity from the blitz of market-driven anarchy, social and economic hierarchy and geopolitical manoeuvre seeking to drain its soft power of syncretic culture. Nepali elites’ temptation to emulate global fads, fashions and culture, not learning from the wisdom of national history and ground reality, veils them from the sensitive feedback of citizens.
The virtual civic space of netizens, laced by global networks, has helped Nepalis to express their concern and engaged in rescue and relief in the aftermath of great earthquake, mobilised public opinion for support and solidarity and partnered with the visual civic space of citizens built around cause groups’ civic obligations by breaking many insular boundaries for identical and purposive functions. It cultivated nation-building centripetal forces. Both need to share common goals and manage their actions to civilise their lives. The nature of civic space is voluntaristic. It does not need money like modern conventions, conferences, seminars, workshops, training, sensitisation and consultation meetings where closed circle of experts discuss issues without any reflection on public opinion. Their exposure to civic virtue and social learning is vital to liberate from deterministic and disciplinary views and build bottom up choices rooted into its social cosmology.
Civic space is public in spirit and opened to all citizens irrespective of their social distinctions for the scale of new capabilities, socialisation and induction into a civic culture. It also differs from the club-like public sphere of elites. But the unsettled frame of newly crafted provinces and local bodies leave strategic areas and buffer zones of Nepal smitten with the risk of geopolitical turmoil smouldering in the frontiers while scarce progress of lives of the poor and weak locomotives in remote areas unbolt the risk of fault line conflict.
The history of civic space in Nepal is one of constant struggle for freedom, autonomy and justice. Its great cultural feat enabled Nepalis to converse freely about the world as they see in fact and would like to see in ethical terms, not beyond good and evil as scientific inquiry seeks to pursue. Nepal’s Constitution has allowed citizens to form any space to engage in peaceful action for the promotion of common good. Civility ensures non-violent, rational interaction among citizens of diverse cultural context. Civic space in Nepal has served as the foundation of knowledge and inquiry. Its conceptual existence can be traced back to the ancient times when learning centres maintained their freedom.
The autonomy of shastrartha (discourse on treatises), ashram (residence) of rishis (sages) and gurukuls (private learning centres at teacher’s residence) from power was vital for their pursuit of knowledge. They made statecraft useful to the public. Knowledge was socially constructed and easily applied in the public life. The other civic spaces such as court of rulers evolved the tradition of listening to the grievances of citizens, communicating policies and consultation with scholars, noblemen and citizens about their remedy. Now, the outreach of Nepali state to citizens entails arteries of progress which can link the local narratives to public articulation. The heartland lacks the capacity to integrate, educate, act and fix the society in various spaces through the use of hard and soft power.
Nepal still retains open civic space in the middle part of communities in many villages and towns which offers scope for sharing of ideas and feelings and celebration of culture and rituals from cradle to grave. The beliefs, shared by the members, shape their everyday conduct and provide a pivot for social and economic exchanges and inter-cultural integration. During Rana Regime secret operation of civic space assumed critical opinion, publication of critical voices in favour of freedom and responsibility for judgments about the regime’s conduct. It, however, did not intervene in the spiritual, cultural and social life of people. The collapse of this regime has provided great leaps forward for the nation’s democratisation of the polity, creation of a rule-based regime and explosion of civic spaces in many spheres of life.
During Panchayat regime, the autonomy kept by learning institutions, such as colleges and universities, journalists’ federation, human rights, lawyers, students and teachers’ associations, literary societies, etc. served as civic space for the defence of a range of voices of citizens and creation of a well-fortified moral community which challenged the prejudice of tradition and arbitrary behaviour of authorities. But Nepal’s communitarian culture is now changing fast and turning its society low-trust.
It is ironic to see the feebleness of the old civic space causing its fission and fall. Now political debates are conducted in the hotels, resorts, parks and enclosed spaces where ordinary citizens are excluded. In this sense, they hardly serve as prototype of old civic space where cross-disciplinary issues were debated for public policy. Limited agenda, non-voluntaristc character and poor feedback only help to manufacture the consent, not public opinion. The ruthless imperative of party politics peeled off the functions of open-ended civic space, divided them along partisan lines and denied out-groups’ access leaving frontier elites boil with fire and fury. Academic freedom too suffered the loss of autonomy caused by unwarranted intrusion in its life, partisan recruitment of the authorities, birth of party-affiliated intellectual bodies, unions, federations and societies and their increasing subsidisation by the donors and the government. Now the context of civic space can hardly be framed in full righteous gist.
Education in Nepal poorly captures the contextual, moral and humanistic dimensions. This is why the concept of citizenship and human identity is weak while sub-national identities of Dalits, Madhesis, Janajatis, Madhesis, Khash, women, youth, etc. are sprawling. It is flagging the concept of political community harnessing national sentiment. Nepal’s political parties are now harbouring three rival trends - multinational identity, geographic identity and communal identity, each of them is contesting the validity of national identity of Nepaliness. Elites of Nepal are, therefore, alienated from the society of their origin and do not feel accountable for its progress while less educated ones are migrating abroad for jobs depriving the nation of change agents.
It is, however, wrong to argue that now civic space in Nepal is shrinking for media, NGOs, human rights and civil society engaged in helping the needy. The deficits of trained personnel, resources, skill and leadership at provinces, municipalities, Gaon Palikas and ward levels offer ample civic scope and space for building network, infusing knowledge and innovation and engagement with citizens in education, health, climate change, poverty alleviation, employment, infrastructures, etc. to enrich the virtues of civic life. This can fill the societal needs for inclusive development, participatory democracy and realize the ideal of an egalitarian society.
The rise of local civil society, duty-based rituals, citizen activism, unions of producers, consumers and business groups, public hearing, NGOs, teachers and professionals at the grassroots have opened a new space for communication and connectivity, muster the local pools of skills and resources and leverage to political parties, polity and public servants. Local media have provided a chance to interact with each other, government, opposition and civil society leaders. The boom of community buildings, public inns, chautara (resting places) and density of citizens activities act as civic space where Nepalis can evolve a sense of community connected to each other. Those living in buffer areas and frontiers born of a feeling of seclusion need support from all the space while leaders should be taught about the sensitivity of Nepali geopolitics which is vital to make foreign policy decisions to reach to global audience for active articulation and engagement.