The Art Of Civic Renewal
Dev Raj Dahal
The history of civic and political struggles of Nepalis has provided them more rights than customary rule and new rules of coexistence. The basic art of self-awakening has kept their minds alive, set promise to core values, goals and choices and engaged them in community, society and the nation. Civic space and institutions have provided opportunity for them to seek common good. Nepal’s ancient wisdom offered cheery civic spirits spurring the ideals and practice of self-rule. The civic art is the key to resolving critical issues encountered by Nepalis in everyday life through historical insight of reason beyond tribal conformity and demonisation of each other. Attentive leaders still harbour this insight to build their cognitive, affective and evaluative capacity vital to evolve social equilibrium of a non-conformist culture and law-based freedom.
The foundation of freedom from basic needs and removal of institutional barriers to overall progress can promote right ethics and civic virtues of citizens, cultivate good character and liberate self from the bondage. Common background of Nepalis guarantees legal and political equality under the Constitution and mutual accountability to each other so that conflict is not reduced to a tension between one’s preference and social duty. The dynamics of Nepali democracy flourishes with proper acculturation to constitutional values shared by each citizen of Nepali state without refuting the sanity of nation’s wisdom that gave it enduring existence.
Nepal’s key agencies of political education need to cultivate public spirit aiding democratic progress so that norm-based order can shift politics from the vices of social conditioning and mysticism to grasp universal reason vital for a peaceful future. Family is the basic school of cognitive progress. But, in Nepal, it is slowly turning thin depriving children of grandparents’ warmth. The workaholic parents have less time to inform children what is good and what is bad, which shapes their attitude, feeling and critical faculty. Nepali children instinctively learn about the outer world and normal politics from their peers and neighbourhood. Nepali teachers need to offer civics course, some even digital one, and link their learning to useful practice in various community services.
The sense of civic competence is vital to overcome the biases of leaders who brought public education into ideological trap by splitting it into different spheres and breeding intellectuals who clash with the nation’s culture. Nepalis exercise choices in the community, society, local government, civil society, local parties, private sectors and federations and learn civic art to promote their collective interests. They familiarise citizens with constitutional and human rights and right civic values beyond rote learning and mind control. Public morality flourishes outside the domain of scientific reason. Sensitive Nepalis of cities and villages, through charitable donations, are engaged in regenerating trust-building and social progress while mobilising grassroots communities, volunteer groups, civil society and NGOs on sharing, caring and healing the neurotic anxiety disorder of citizens inflicted by a negation and violent conflict. Cultural products—religious rituals, cartoon, films, music, poetry, art display and media contents - bubble the nation’s cultural arteries and fill youths with normative vision of democracy.
In Nepali family, society, school and religious sites, father, leader, teacher and priest have evolved a proclivity to think act as supreme authority of knowledge. Many of them are less willing to learn from the other’s contextual local and national experience, no matter how intelligent, innovative and creative they are. This is well reflected in political parties where leaders refuse to accept dissenting ideas, no matter how useful they are for the institutionalisation of party and building democratic life. When leaders subdue public reason for their faith and whims it nurtures a personality cult, breeds rift and flags active vigilance of cadres, so vital for civic renewal.
The cultic personality in Nepal is clogging the listening culture causing an atrophy of feedback so crucial to address interrelated problems. Obsessed with a sense of superiority, top leaders are disposed to a culture of exhortation, prescription and articulation while juniors are fated to sustain a culture of silence. The leaders are givers and the followers are recipient of welfare benefits, not sovereign citizens. In such a paternalistic style, delivery of public goods remains highly patronage-based. It devalues the notion of citizenship equality-the ideal to renew civic life of post-conflict Nepal.
In an authoritarian political culture, leaders are command giving structures with less responsiveness to feedback of citizens. The charm of democracy is based on fellowship, not on hierarchy akin to feudal tradition of landlord-landless ties where decision is taken by one and followed by another. The rebellious spirit of egalitarian social movements in Nepal continues to ignore the persons of ability and talent just because they are in minority. Meritocratc leaders can solve the problem by engaging citizens in the deliberation of broader public sphere of law and policy making, providing them learning opportunity about the art of civility and forming public opinion for peaceful action.
The issue is whether Nepali political parties are ready to democratise the curriculum of party schools and agree on rational political frame upholding mutual accountability to citizens’ security, freedom and wellbeing. Civic renewal entails removing caste, gender and disciplinary borders of knowledge for scientific division of labour and specialisation and giving those born with unfair burden a chance for social mobility. In a syncretic society of multiple faiths Nepali leaders need to evolve right values and nurture courage and consciousness. The passion of irrationality decomposes its heritage of truth and tolerance, subverts resilience and undercuts their ability in social modernisation Faith-based bodies have, therefore, to play crucial role to face falsehood, moralise the leaders and citizens and save the nation’s souls from the corruption of intellectual power, a corruption rooted in the flawed belief that Nepal often existed in an intellectual wasteland.
Its ancient wisdom of vasudiava kutumbakam, a single humanity living in global culture, however, refutes this. Intellectuals versed in native wisdom should help citizens confront the prejudices of social science arguing that faith-based thinking may be good but blind faith incubates fatalism which Nepali aphorism “good fate does not allow a bucket with holes to hold milk” contradicts this. Even scientific orthodoxy, like political indoctrination, blunts individual conscience and subordinates citizens to the will and interest of others spreading the ripples of ignorance and misery. Inculcating civic virtues to priests, politicians, teachers, civil servants and citizens is, therefore, essential to challenge illiberal political culture that has fostered a politics of negation and self-seeking authority of all kinds.
In Nepal, democratic rule requires a legitimate compromise of interests and rebuild infrastructures for durable progress assuring good quality of life. Reasoned deliberation on constitution, plans and policies, citizens’ charter, public hearing on planning and budget, social audit and political reforms at the grassroots level provide citizens to learn the concepts and practices of democracy and make rule transparent and accountable. It can ignite the rebirth of civic virtues, serve as an incubator of participatory political development and transmit the messages to each Nepali increasing the voices of even weaker sections such as poor, women, workers, Dalits and children.
Civic competence of Nepalis is essential for judgment, engagement and value-orientation to unleash the spirit of a dynamic society. This connects democracy to all Nepalis and hones their civic virtues of unity of life species. The rights of self and duties to others help create a modicum of political order. But it is in decline now as a result of their preoccupation with rights than duties to inspire future generations. The rapid social transition of Nepal caused by modernity’s impact, growing materialisation of values, collapse of joint family, acceleration of technology, migration, municipalisation and avid aspiration continues to unravel social fabric, anomie and increased cost of living.
Civic renewal, in this sense, can instil hope for moral voice across left-right divide and revitalise the civility of society to temper crass individualism, control the ability of market to commercialise public good and engage Nepalis in a constructive praxis for the creation of a just society that also protects nature from predators. The diversity of Nepali society has thickened mediating institutions and made it flexible while its historical political culture of middle path offered it a scope for the creation of a mindful society to avert ideological extremes.
The critical concern now is the promotion of civic sense in many spheres of Nepali lives for inclusive nation. It beefs up Nepali feeling on human condition and its reform for the better so that youths with poor choice do not have to migrate abroad for living. In this sense, regular civic renewal is expected to refresh the politeness of Nepali society, break the standoff and fortify the rational base of politics, law and development. A society with a high degree of civic awareness acquires moral voice by performing worthy acts. The art of civic-mindedness strengthens the national bases of democracy, development and peace. Nepali society can flourish if persons of civic virtue are given credit for their good deeds in governance and vices are penalised.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)