Friday, 31 May, 2024

Civil Society As A Public Sphere

Dev Raj Dahal

Civil society groups are self-composed by sovereign citizens for the protection and promotion of their general interests. They also aim to abolish superstitions and evils of society that stand as obstacles to their overall progress. These amazing formal and informal institutions spring from the human goodwill. They run under the dictate of universal reason and enable people to imagine self as a shaper of one’s own fate.  Public imagination of civil society manifests from what they do: engage in the contestation of ideas about good life, criticise the abuse of power and wealth, mediate multiple domains of authority, champion common good and speak the voice of the public. They conceptualise the spheres of the state and its sovereignty, economy and citizens vital for each other’s life.
Ancient Nepal had upheld liberal attitude to their roles as Rishis (sages) defended the rule of truth and knowledge over power. It was vital to keep shastrartha (critical discourse on the validity of textual knowledge) alive and secure its free space for all to learn, participate and clarify their doubts. The Vedas say that knowledge becomes burden if not shared with others. “The Upanishads teach that humans are bound by ritual and freed by knowledge,” says Fritiz Staal in his book Discovering the Vedas. Freedom of aham asmi (individual) is the focus of learning.
Nepal’s native civil society found their tone on niskam karma (selfless service) to the voiceless. Gautam Buddha sought human perfection through nirvana (bliss), rule of dharma (higher law), vigil about the cycle of karmic effect (upright conduct), associative solidarity and compassion to the wretched for an orderly and enduring life. An enduring life does not allow one escaping the limits of faultless morality and colonise the natural world. These lofty civic virtues gave the continuity to Nepali knowledge, culture and societal elements making it one of the world’s oldest nations.
Its heritage of tolerance to refugees, cultural diversity, social cohesion and community resilience still resonates today. Temples, monasteries, public inns, homes for the weak and open space in the community acted as public sphere to organise rituals from birth to death, public gathering, festivals celebration, communication and mitigation of problems through deliberation mediated by the experience, social conventions of various kinds and wisdom of the council of five elders.
Unlike the West where faith and reason created split spheres, ancient Nepali scholars such as Rishis, Swamis, Pundits and Jogis combined reason, faith and feeling. Cross-culturally approved knowledge did not produce conflict of faiths, values, interests and identities. The Vedic spell of oneness of life has socialised them to comply with higher law and common good above self-interests rooted in human nature. For the creation of a just state, future leaders and elites were schooled in Gurukuls (residential learning centres) and trained in philosophy, norms, life-cycle rituals, self-help and statecraft. The aim was to protect citizens, promote their wellbeing and enlighten them on divine self, atma gyan, human knowledge and the knowledge of brahma, the cosmos. It detribalised them. The knowledge was validated by Shastrartha and the findings were spread through drama, songs, poetries, essays and stories so that even ordinary folk could grasp their meaning and shape an orderly life.
Rulers formulated vision and policies on the basis of consultation with bhardars (courtiers), scholars and the folk while the latter as s sovereign had the power of judgment. The discursive construction of knowledge was occasionally revised following the change in the national context of raj dharma and sanatan dharma, the spirit of the age. Knowledge was public and the duty of knowers was to share it with the ignorant. It eased the process of social change. Those dedicated to great social works were credited with the title Mahasamanta. Ansuvarma was fortunate to be entitled with this.
The justice of Gorkha had made name and fame. Even today people are nostalgic about it and infuse its memory to posterity. The reformist tendency within the social and national system did not breed boisterous effects because scholars were “organic”. Timely adaptation to change erased the certainty of conflict. The rot of Nepal’s scholars talking truth to power, however, began with the decay of intellectual standards. The control of rulers over scholars marked the start of social and gender discriminations. The impact of modernity executed by bureaucracy and autonomy of business from shuva lav (ethical business practice) upturned the order of dharma donned by Nepali civil society. It is substituted by customary authority and law based on the logic of power, not justice.
Democratic surge in Nepal ignited by the coalition of political and civil society had set an example of how social legitimacy evolves for larger public and national action. The success of change, however, saw the velvet divorce of political leaders unbounded passion for power and civil society’s drive for a change of society’s vices, lethargy and privilege thus harking back to the merit of Nepal’s classical ideas, eternal wisdom and integrity of life. Political change has replaced duty-based dharma by right-based law, constitution and contracts. The integration of scores of elite civil societies into the materiality of polity and subordination to party politics, business and donors loop notably diluted their vigour to empower the public sphere for citizens’ visibility where they can learn the art of active citizenship.
Many consultancy-based institutions of Nepal who rode the wave of associational revolution of NGOs called themselves civil society as donors allocated nearly 30 per cent of their aid to right-based civil society in democracy promotion. Donors’ aid and patronage to them in the execution of their projects including neoliberal modernisation was based on the belief that Nepali society is primitive, traditional and culturally backward. The mobilisation of societal grievances against the Nepali state is thus vital to gear up modernity. The mobilisation of tribal identities lacking an awareness of national history, culture, civility, priorities and emancipative power of public action may be useful for instrumental politics.
But it has weakened the vital bits of Nepali state, its ability to create security, order and stability and punish the evils doers. It is now hotly debated by indigenous civil society. The revolt of Guthi is one example of Nepalis affection to their culture and faith. Native civil society evade those who want to shape Nepal in the image of others, like Switzerland, Korea, Japan, Singapore, etc. by adopting alien advise and use of their soft power regardless of its local relevance.
The universal vision of civil society rooted in the ethos of freedom, social justice, solidarity and peace will inspire Nepalis to reflect on the native genealogy of insight, update to new technology and mitigate their predicament. Those at the bottom are waiting for the support of civic agency. The explosion of communication, awareness and social works has enabled ordinary Nepalis to reclaim sovereignty, reshape the voting power, engage in the public sphere for policy debate and solve the nation’s problems. The aspiration of Nepalis for representation, recognition, justice, balanced foreign policy, sustainable economy, etc. have made its politics an open-ended, politicised them against the rule and its inaction. Already, post-conflict and post-quake tasks require them to settle the lingering transitional justice, rules of shared and self-governance, community mediation, advocacy, communication, upliftment of the marginalised, service delivery, etc.
A lasting conclusion of transitional justice needs Nepali civil society to boost confidence of top leaders who fear trial and loss of patronage that enriched them. Alleviation of this fear requires resolution of conflict residues, removal of the risk of anti-political spiral and honest execution of peace accords. This can restore their image, revive faith in the possibility of peace of the middle way and mediate diverse positions to propel a robust public sphere. Participatory democracy needs Nepali political parties to provide autonomy to their civil society so that they can engage in shared works, set free from interest groups and bolster civic institutions for collective action. 
Uneasy peace remains if civic institutions do not spur leaders’ habits of compliance to the rule of law and offer business leaders effective competition on transparency, accountability and service. A balance between the capacity of civil society to raise citizens’ demands and the ability of public institutions to fulfil them can avoid the crisis of performance. This is vital now because inflation of civic rights and deflation of duties open new fault lines for fierce debate in the national, regional and global public spheres beyond the constitutional spirit.
The Nepali youths are responding to the siren call of global labour market and giving lifeblood to its ailing economy. Still, sovereignty of Nepalis would be empty if they cannot share the same space, enjoy economic choice and decide the type of progress they prefer for harnessing job opportunity for them and their children. It would ring hollow if the basic needs and enlightenment deficits limit their freedom. Civil society can help leaders to articulate policy sovereignty, define national priorities for action, seek the support of international community and achieve the economy of scale through eco-balance, market efficiency and social cohesion.
Strengthening the state-citizen interface is vital to ease governance. It eliminates the primitive reliance on violence. But without the democratisation of  interest groups and the agencies of socialisation it is hard to rectify structural malaises, fortify the social base of civil society and enforce mutual accountability of internal and external stakeholders to people’s needs, priorities and goals. Local mechanism of public hearing, social inclusion, social audit, citizen charter and widening scope for the execution of projects by consumer committees expand the scale of functional areas and bolster the performance of actors.                                            

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