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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One thought on “Trying to dance to democracy

  1. Don’t overestimate Western democracies. I know quite well two of them. There are demonstrations there, and not always peaceful. We have “riot police” and it seems that they like the riots and enjoy throwing water with the cannons and rubber bullets…

    But I think that federalism could be good. Powerful local governments can look after minorities and try to smooth over the social inequalities in the whole country.

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