Trying to dance to democracy

Do we really know democracy? Can we lead our lives and structure our society on the “imported” principles of Liberty, Equality, Fratenity? As a society with caste, class and ethnic divisions, can we strive to become equal as and not more powerful than the other?  Or will we remain an aid-seeking, labour exporting “new” republic, broken along ethnic faultlines and taking up arms against each other to make our voices heard?

Anything I say or write about federalism and restructuring of states in Nepal will be seen as coming from a representative of a particular group- I am from the east and that, too a district with one of the highest literacy rates in the country, I have been working outside the country for way too long now and the fact that I come from a village called “Bahundangi” doesn’t help much to conceal the group I belong to. But since the restructuring is going to affect me as much as the next person from the next village, I do have my own share of hopes and fears about the process.

A lot has been said and written about the proposed models of federalism. What is perhaps unretractable is that we are now going to have a federation, and in all likelihood- one based on identity instead of just geography.

Much can be said about the dangers of ethnicity based division- the majority might turn against the minority, we might see people being evicted, ethnic faultlines may show up, there might be demands by new groups for new states and violence may erupt. All these are reasonable fears- almost every country that was colonised,as well as nations in Eastern Europe, are witness to what ethnic division can do.

But languages and cultural practices are dying in Nepal. The domination of Nepali as the language of instruction in schools, as the preferred language for official communication (necessary because administrative officers usually are Khas Bahun Chhetri and usually not local to the place they serve in) and as the language of the media has contributed to the gradual decline in the usage of the various languages that make up our diverse country. There is an under-represenation of ethnic groups in political and administrative life as well as in arts. The federal model should change that. The federal model should patronise local languages and culture in the respective states and work to update those languages to be usable in the 21st century.

To show us how this would work- our leaders point to Switzerland: 26 cantons, with at least four different languages among them- education, TV shows, official work happens in the dominant language and there is no single national language.

But let’s face it, we are no Switzerland. Apart from the mountains, there is little that we share in common. We are offended too easily, we feel victimised too soon, we block roads too happily and we form alliances too readily. To make our voices heard, we shout, we burn, we beat.We are the country that burnt shops and tires and even lost a life when a film star from a neighboring country supposedly said something about us. We are a country where we pay thrice the price of a vehicle and yet do not have insurance against someone breaking it at will in a street protest.

If ethnic violence broke out in these states, it will result in loss of lives and property.

Writers and politicians alike advocate the formation of small states. India is used to exemplify this (though most of their states are larger than our country). When ethnic violence breaks out in one state or there is demand for separation- such as in Assam or West Bengal, the rest of the country functions without interruption. The assumption underlying that statement is that ethnic violence is expected. It’s like saying that we as a people are prone to violence and it’s best to keep us in parts so that when we fight, we do not disrupt the whole.

I am no expert in the politics of my country. How the country is restructured is of lesser importance to me than how we behave. We have thrown out the king, we have voted twice after that. And yet the only way we know to make ourselves heard is by blocking roads and burning traffic and beating those that disagree with us- with no accountability whatsoever. “Peaceful strikes” do not stand true to their name.  Perhaps we have forgotten what peace is. When we talk about the government- we compare them to those in other countries- USA, UK, Australia, Continental Europe. We talk of civilised parliaments and presidential debates.”Hamro yesto kahile hune?”

And yet when it comes to ourselves, we take the fight out of the parliaments on to the roads. Our debates include throwing stones and burning tyres. We expect our leaders to be civil and yet we can’t even behave civilised. We expect our administration to be straight while we remain crooked. We want Plato’s Republic and behave like Freud’s patients.

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Of attacks and apologies

When the Ram Sena and Hanuman Sena go about beating people for going to a club, (and even when they kill language with atrocious slogans like “Valentine vulture is against our culture”), when Hindutva groups bring down mosques and burn churches, or when right wing parties attempt to rewrite history, I am not asked to conduct a rally against them, or to explain to the world that that is not what my religion teaches.
I have also never felt the need to apologise for the centuries of oppression that people of my caste perpetuated on the lower castes. I do not have to share the blame when “upper caste” people thrash and rape those of “lower castes” for entering villages, temples or drawing water from the pond.

I wonder why then we expect people of any particular community around the world to apologise for, or to hold rallies condemning, the actions of a few fundamentalists who hijack the religion.

The killing fields

Perhaps it wasn’t the nicest way to spend the last day of the year. But we can’t look for nice all the time, not less so after having stayed mute spectators to such crimes against humanity. The audio guide at the Killing fields near Phnom Penh will tell you this isn’t history’s only genocide, it isn’t the worst; it isn’t the first and sadly, it won’t be the last.
Walking through an open ground with tooth and bones, clothes and shackles of thousands executed in no time for no justifiable reason overwhelms you. It also shows you how cruel we are as a species and how primitive we can be. Skulls cracked open with hoes and machetes, pierced with bayonets and farm implements stand witness to what ambition can do- how dangerous a seemingly utopian ideology can actually be when corrupted by power.
Perhaps at one point you realise how horrible all this is; perhaps at that moment you will look around you and see how we are collectively disgusted by the horrific acts of the Khmer Rouge, perhaps you will think that the world is becoming a better place and that we learn from the mistakes of the past.
At that moment the audio guide will tell you that even after the fall of Pol Pot- the one man who makes Himmler seem human- most nations looked up to his government as a valid authority, a member of the United Nations and an attendee to its peace conferences. And a sudden realisation will dawn upon you that 35 years on, we are still killing each other- for ideology, for religion and for oil.
To recover from systematic killings of almost a fourth of its population and to wake up from a nightmare that sadly wasn’t a dream, Cambodia, you deserve a salute. You exemplify the resilience of the human spirit- the spirit that will rise even from the deepest abyss of a living hell to work towards a life filled with love and peace.