Can Hazare teach Nepal some ‘civil’ lessons?

Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption in New Delhi has ignited a debate in neighbouring South Asian countries on the role that civil society can play in a democracy. Mr Hazare’s “apolitical” stature is built on the

contributions he has made to the social sector and, more importantly, the way he has lived his life. The values he adhered to throughout his life connect him almost instantly with populations of foreign countries, especially those suffering from deficit of democratic governance. People see in him a glimmer of hope. Ingrained in the speeches, gestures and the very image of Mr Hazare is spirituality based on the values of “service towards others”. That, above all, is what has touched the people of this region, particularly in Nepal.
Though Nepal’s civil society movement remained non-violent, constructive and yet revolutionary while dislodging King Gyanendra, today it is fragmented and ineffective. It is neither able to facilitate peace in Nepal, nor is it able to give direction to the process of writing the country’s constitution. This is because Nepal’s modern civil society, in the process of challenging the “evils of traditions”, went too far. In its zeal to “reform”, it ended up disturbing the “spiritual and moral socialisation”, and severing the “organic connection”, the core features of Nepal’s society, thereby creating tension between two societies — one holding to “enlightenment” of the past and the other attempting to dismantle the past itself.
Nepal’s societal identity has evolved as a hybrid of Indian, Chinese, Western civilisations and local, primordial knowledge. Nepali civic life is also an outcome of a marriage between Hinduism and Buddhism. Historically, it has its embedded connections with spirituality aimed at nirvana which can be attained in an ethos of selfless service towards others.
Nevertheless, such characteristic features of the Nepali civil society have been dismantled by progressive populism, anarchic communism and rights-based movements. Rights-based movements are, in Nepal’s context, a historical necessity, but they failed to fuse with what Buddha referred to as the “golden mean of politics”. Further, Nepali intellectuals are quick recommend to Western recipes in the culturally different context of Nepal, thereby failing to add any value to our primordial knowledge. Nepal is now worn out, struggling to carve an identity for its “self”. German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ remark that “freedom from tradition is often experienced as alienation from the moral context of life” seems to explain the moral dilemma of Nepali civil society today.
In the past, Nepali civil society used to reform the state by working with the state, conducting discourses on social, economic, political and cultural issues, thereby strengthening its capacity to work. Today, however, it has turned anti-state. This has weakened the state’s capacity to deliver welfare services.
Though there are many commonalities between Nepali and Indian society, there is one fundamental difference and that is in the approach to modernisation. Indian society’s march towards modernisation is not a complete break from its past. There remains a tradition of enlightenment which keeps it connected to its roots. Whereas, submerged by an “external truth”, Nepali society is moving ahead by dismantling its traditions.
Mr Hazare’s movement gives the impression of reforming the present and the future, but with hand firmly on India’s past. His talk and ideals hark back to how India of the past is perceived and the vision of the founding fathers of Independent India. In fact, looking at what is being consistently reported by Indian television channels, Mr Hazare seems to have become the protagonist to lead the Indian reform movement in modern era.
However, Mr Hazare represents one faction of a larger civil society movement in India and there are differences of opinion. Many in civil society don’t support his movement. They find his stand aggressively nationalist and rigid. To quote Arundhati Roy, “Meanwhile the props and the choreography, the aggressive nationalism and flag waving of Mr Hazare’s revolution are all borrowed… They signal to us that if we do not support the fast, we are not ‘true Indians’.” Unfortunately, such opinion has been undemocratically marginalised in the “largest democracy”.
Though there are arguments in favour of and against Mr Hazare’s movement, Nepali civil society can learn many lessons — particularly from Mr Hazare’s life, his non-violent approach and his firm commitments towards India’s glorious past. It should, of course, be careful not to fall prey to the elements of aggressive nationalism in the name of holding to the glorious past. If Nepali civil society consciously chooses both to learn and unlearn the characteristic features of Mr Hazare’s movement, there is enough space where we can rejuvenate our lost spirit.

Sumit Sharma Sameer is the author of Unfinished Journey: The Story of a Nation. He lives in Kathmandu, Nepal.

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