Confronting a heckler’s veto

Published On: June 19, 2020 03:00 PM NPT By: Manjeet Mishra

Sovereignty of a nation surely cannot be fragile enough to be shaken by the defiance of an individual. Giri’s action wouldn’t have changed anything of substance anyway.

The unanimous endorsement of a proposal to consider constitutional amendment bill replacing the country’s map in the national emblem to include territories of Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura by the sovereign parliament of Nepal is a bold step. How it impacts Nepal-India ties in future is a matter of conjecture. This event also highlighted an unseemly event where a sitting MP from a newly formed Janata Samajwadi Party Sarita Giri, defying her party line, lodged an amendment on the above bill brought by the government stating that the area should be removed from the map as its source and evidence is yet to be revealed, for which she was castigated by her party. Giri is a naturalized citizen after marriage and was born and raised in India.

The pent-up anger building against her since she rightly claimed in the parliament that the disputed zone cannot be unilaterally added to Nepal’s map and sought trilateral settlement of the issue through dialogue with India and China reached its peak and led a lumpen mob to enter her residence and indulge in acts of hooliganism. Social media is rife with outrageous comments demanding her house to be set ablaze to sending her back to India, her parental country. Despite pressure from all corner she refused to retract.

Lone dissenter

Giri’s chutzpah can be viewed in two ways. First, her act of defiance represents essential sovereignty of an individual and she is very much within her rights as a sitting MP to avoid voting in favor of the amendment. If each of us is to consider ourselves as equal, autonomous and rational agents, we must be sovereign in deciding what to believe in weighing competing reasons for our actions. Fair democratic exercise requires that each of us has a voice, not just a vote. A majority decision cannot be called fair unless everyone has a fair chance to express their opinions, fears, ideals and prejudices, not just in a hope of influencing others but also to confirm their standing as a responsible agent in collective action.

Second, her act, her critics claim, undermines the sovereignty of parliament and nation. This is a paranoid view. In a democratic set up, parliament is a place where the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade of ideas. Even if we assume that parliament’s decision to amend constitution is fully correct, if it is never challenged it will come to be held in a manner of prejudice. It is important that truth is constantly tested against the bludgeons of falsehood. Sovereignty of a nation surely cannot be fragile enough to be shaken by the defiance of an individual. Giri’s action wouldn’t have changed anything of substance anyway.

But why did she resort to such a brazen act of being a lone dissenter? Was she not aware of the repercussions? In all probability she was. Was it an attempt to garner cheap popularity?  There is little reason to believe it. She has more to lose than gain. If her party expels her for defying the party line she can lose her parliamentary seat.

In all the media appearances she made since her first comment on Lipulek, she has been accusingly called out because of her Indian origin even though she is a legal Nepali citizen and has a long political career behind her. The questions she had to put up with hardly ever related to anything of substance. That she had her story to tell which she articulated lucidly and made amply clear that she was not against the amendment per se was never important. It was as if the interviewer never wanted to know her side of the story, rather they were out to seek validation of their pre-existing biases owing to her origin and her association with Madhes-based party. The talk shows were framed in a way to deliberately belittle her for going against a popular opinion.

The state of journalism in the age of hyper-partisanship is such that no one gets excited by facts as they do by yarn and sharp polarizing opinions. Falling media revenues mean the shows will have to be heavy on entertainment and low on facts which call for prioritizing cheaper opinions over expensive facts. To manufacture cheaper opinions binaries are created and views are judged against the popular opinion of the day. In a bid to pander to the enraged mass, the agent provocateur ensures they bring the basest instinct out of the speaker by forcing them to take a stand. This leaves little room for nuances and bridge building and the extreme viewpoint invariably seizes narrative. Facts are simplified, rather dumbed down to suit the prism of country club elites and enraged masses. The only one who gets carried away by this drama is the gullible public.

Attempt to intimidate Sarita Giri and to label her as a traitor acting at India’s behest is a direct result of institutionalization of stereotyping of Madhesis in a negative way, leading them to suffer from group defamation. The persistent vilification of Madhesis means that the individual members of this group are not given public assurance of their equal dignity as members of a well-ordered society, rather they are publicly humiliated.

Past weeks have witnessed several such instances. For instance, Krishi TV broadcasted a program with sardonic humor disparaging Madhesis. Later it was taken down after hue and cry on social media. Similarly, Karma Tsering Sherpa, president of ANFA made an invidious remark questioning nationalism of Madhesis and asking them to be trained under Nepal Army to get lessons in patriotism. These events pandered to the traditional caricature of Madhesis in Pahadia lore—dirty, uncouth, weak and unpatriotic. This constant drip-drip of dehumanizing abuse against them makes them vulnerable to violence. Internet, on the other hand, far from serving as a ideal liberal public sphere end up contributing to group polarization and echo chamber effect where people seek out the company of those who share and reinforce their particular prejudice. Here Madhesis are vastly outnumbered.

Courageous stand

The only other option Giri had during voting in the parliament was to be a passive victim of collective action and the one she now has is to yield under pressure and issue a groveling apology for offending the majority and move on. This would amount to going against her conscience and resort to appeasement of hecklers, a chronic weakness of free society. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having it. If the heckler’s veto of being offended is held to be sufficient reason for shutting up, then the notion of ‘respect’ has been artificially inflated in a way that curbs liberty.

To tolerate such vile abuses and humiliations for holding a different opinion is to insult the very virtue of tolerance. Going too far in tolerating who are themselves programmatically intolerant will end up destroying the very foundation of tolerance. The survival of free speech has depended on the courage of exceptional individuals who refuse to bow down in the face of imprisonment, torture and death threats. Suspension from party is too small a price to pay for it.



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