Wednesday, 19 June, 2024

Just Pursuit Of Civil Society


Dev Raj Dahal

In a great moment of global geopolitical flux, civil society’s struggle to restore collective virtue of people can renew democracy and realise their self-worth not determined by forces of arms, fatalism, human nature or instrumental reason without a sense of feeling to public weal. Unjust state of affairs entails a coalition of civil society for multi-scale action aiming for a just order and peaceful coexistence of peoples and nation-states. As an infrastructure of democracy constituted through people-based initiatives, they set a tribute vital for a higher culture.

Cooperative action
Modern life presumes three-legged chair shored up by the institutions of the state to create public order, public good and peace, invisible spell of the market for exchange of goods and alleviate the scarcity and civil society comprising all intermediary institutions, networks and movements’ impulses to education, culture, organisation and engagement of people for redemption beyond the rights oriented, legalistic interests. The heterogeneity of Nepali civil society reflects the nation’s diverse life-forms. This diversity keeps the resilience of democracy.

They pull nourishment from the varied social contexts and historical spirit of Nepal’s public-spiritedness ingrained into the civic culture of duty-bound behaviour, dharma and its liberation ideals -- liberation of all, not just the subjugated ones. These social virtues have provided them a culture of tolerance of diversity, rich associational life and ethics of mutual trust, communication and cooperative action in the process of cultivating higher vitality of sociability to niskam karma (unselfish service) to the needy. The positive roles of Nepali civil society in refining the cognitive and evaluative capacity of people are well resonant.

The florid eternal mantra of civil society -- freedom, social justice, solidarity and peace -- reflects well in Nepal’s Constitution as fundamental values. It aims to improve the condition of its people caught in misery, inequality, joblessness, hierarchy, patriarchy, natural calamities and pandemics, offers scope to spread the light of democracy beyond party politics and beat human predicament through equitable solutions.

So long as the disharmony between the social, economic and political life of the poor Nepalis skews the possibility of transformational politics, civil society will continue to play pro-active roles in the evolution of the forces of state, the economic institutions and society and engage in the democratisation of public life, not just the political parties and their ancillary bodies indulged in instrumental rationality of pork-barrel politics where politicians usually appropriate state funds to brace patronage. Politics is the domain of freedom. But if Nepali leaders are driven more by money and marketing strategy of dull self-ad, collusion or coalition without concrete policy gist, it is the duty of civil society to remind them of their accountability to political power and awaken people’s democratic desire for justice. Economic inequality is the basic reason to mobilise civil society for the empowerment of people.

The high beams of Nepali civil society are clear in advocacy, education, health, community development, network building, debates, assistance to the needy, peace initiatives and green recovery. Their defense of human rights has provided an unremitting drive to a peaceful transformation of Nepal’s public life and infused the essential conditions of modernity. The silent social revolution stirred by them in many villages and towns has offered the once declining political parties a gush and the ordinary people critical social vigour to bubble up, speak, agitate and reclaim the sovereignty entrenched in them, rationally shape the power relationships and protect the vulnerable people left in forgotten corner. The constitutional right to information and growth of multiple channels of communication has helped the people to engage the critical mass of national public and global audience thus overcoming attention deficits to their conditions and concerns.

Nepali civil society presents some uncanny brand of double life -- split identity of a ritual and rational sphere. It is marked by clear traits: rational civil society groups are reason-driven, rights-based, legalistic, partisan, competitive and self-chosen by the people themselves while ritual form of civil society is spiritual, duty-oriented, inherited from the classical tradition of performing good deed by individual and communities, non-partisan, action-oriented and non-discursive in policy matters. Both sets of civil society operate in different spheres of Nepali public life. The policy space for civil society is enormous to shun authoritarian politics fused with market as usual and criticise them for not following virtues inscribed in the Constitution and sanity of tradition. The rational civil society groups of Nepal have now begun to contest democracy legitimised by majority rule which is not following popular sovereignty rooted in human rights and the accountability of power to those affected by its exercise. They, however, temper the primacy of individualism aiming to cultivate the ethical market and control post-modern vices that foster nothing but anomie owing to the loss of social and spiritual capital of the nation caused by modernity’s primacy of materialism. What is crucial for them is to act as a unifying symbol of popular will and prevent the possible anti-democratic spiral in public policies.

In search of good life, Nepalis have invented values that inspired the constitution, formed institutions, defined the policy environment where they had to operate and left their positive impacts on the associational life of ordinary people. The challenges for civil society in Nepal, however, are varied owing to the hierarchical needs of Nepali people. Many civil society groups, however, have convulsed into self-contradictions, especially in areas of assistance, connection, charitable trust and contribution, supporting the vulnerable, resource utilization and autonomy measures. Some even got absorbed in the materiality of party politics, remained bureaucratised and even fossilised lacking emancipatory ideals. In this transitional time, Nepali policymakers need to redefine what valuable civic tasks for civil society are, what is lawful for them to engage and where they should not coddle? They should definitely not coddle in social engineering and construct a vicious social divide between “we” and “they” thus weakening the value of national citizenship. Obviously, Nepali civil society requires redefining their relationships with other actors of governance and securing civic space for worthy initiatives.

Nepali state, as the only locus of democracy and central organising element of national security, monetary policy, tax and foreign affairs, is very weak to mediate ties with citizens. Civil society can complement the inadequacy of the cash-strapped Nepali government. A decade-long insurgency, earthquake, pandemic, floods and political instability have hobbled the state’s monopoly on power, taxation and loyalty of citizens. The geopolitical forces are seeking to fill the vacuum of authority and infect the nation’s peaceful evolution. It is the resilience of native civil society groups which are complementing the development and political functions of the state and providing continuity to citizens’ initiatives to mitigate their problems. Social movements of civil society are struggling to liberalise the nature of personalised party politics, demanding the execution of the social contract, orienting the regime to welfare direction and seeking to universalise human rights of Nepalis.

Democracy requires not only interest-based utilitarian politics and economics but also value-based just pursuit of voluntary civic action to mediate power and wealth in society, create checks and balances and enforce the accountability of their action. Participatory democracy does not become purposeful if civil society groups do not spawn the habits of public debate and offer political leadership effective opposition and competition on matters of public and national importance. Recent social surge of Guthis, domestic violence against women, peasants’ stir in claiming the price for their sugarcane, demands for fertilisers, informal sector workers demanding social security coverage and so on and integration of the movements of subsidiary identities have set examples of how spiritual, social and cultural capital operates in Nepali civil society. The central challenge for them is to enlarge the sphere of particular form of trust, such as Guthi, Dhikuti, volunteerism, public-interest federations, cooperatives, associations, CBOs, union, NGOs, conflict victims claiming for transitional justice, etc. located at certain place into the national scale, beneficial to diverse communities capable to transform passive people into active Nepali citizens.

Nepal’s segmented market is stretched to the global sphere. It has widened the participation of Nepali civil society, workers, youth and business community. It has also ignited fresh hope from the emerging peace, ecology and social movements and world social forums and helped Nepalis reclaim policy sovereignty to enable their representatives decide the type of political, economic and social progress they prefer. The competitive spirit of Nepali people, farms, markets and the state, however, requires a strong foundation of self-determination. Nepali civil society can help the leadership to articulate the policy sovereignty and help to define national priorities for action, seek the support of the international community and achieve the economy of scale through market efficiency, social integration and democracy.

Geopolitical flux
In a time of great geopolitical flux, the just pursuit of Nepali civil society for democracy deepening requires first, constitutionalisation of all actors and an improvement in the legitimacy of the state action. Second, social modernisation of the institutions of democracy, such as political parties, NGOs, public interest groups and the agencies of political socialization. Education of people about their rights and duties is a path to democracy consolidation. It musters the utility of positive and negative rights of Nepalis and their compliance to the rule of law.

Third, capturing the sovereignty of policy domain by civil society helps to enforce the accountability of governance and ownership of people thus mediating the top and the bottom. A robust means of mutual answerability of internal and external stakeholders must be built so that resources can be mobilised into priority sectors -- sustainable progress, infrastructural support and self-governance. Fourth, development of the linkages of micro and macro institutions of civil society can enable their efficiency in grasping the vision of the Constitution. A positive peace requires the framework of social justice where civil society groups with other stakeholders can enter into cooperative action for a just democratic order.

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)