Why cannot Nepali intellectual community give a clear opinion on pressing political issues? What has led to this intellectual slackening?
In his March 16 blog in Himal weekly, journalist Kanak Mani Dixit had made an important statement about Nepali intellectuals, which few may have cared to notice. “Nepal’s intellectual class seems beholden to the psychology of political instability. Two important political events of recent times show this,” he wrote. “Even those who dislike K P Oli’s government for its incompetence or are disappointed by his flaws should have welcomed these two developments” (translation mine).
The context was the government’s move to bring CK Raut into mainstream politics and crackdown on violent activities of the outfit led by Netra Bikram Chand. Secessionism is a matter of reproach for every thinking being and it had to be completely discouraged. Chand’s outfit was going about bombing infrastructure, killing civilians and launching extortion spree. We still don’t know what actually Biplav wants. His proclivity toward violence seems to be driven more by revenge against his former comrade-in-arms—Pushpa Kamal Dahal—than with the existing political system. Something had to be done about that outfit too, through persuasion or action.
So why did intelligentsia stand divided even on these issues? That was the implied question of Dixit. Embedded in this is a much larger question worth discussing for. Why cannot Nepali intellectual community give a clear opinion on pressing political and social issues?
Often Nepali intellectuals (for the purpose of this essay, intellectuals mean commentators who write in newspapers or speak on TVs on political matters and whose opinion shapes and influences public debate) have either maintained silence or held double standard, or theorized or just made noise without offering any solutions when it comes to pressing political concerns that demand clear response, not obfuscating views.
Consider the citizenship debate. Our constitution and law have treated foreign women marrying Nepalis as more equal than Nepali women marrying foreigners in terms of the right to transfer citizenship to their spouses and children. Foreign women married to Nepalis can get the citizenship within a week and their children will also have no hassle in getting the citizenship, while foreign men married to Nepali women have to wait for years for the same. The question here is how to correct it or whether it can be corrected at all. It can be corrected in two ways. By applying provisions for foreign women married to Nepalis also to foreign men Nepali women marry or by setting a reasonable threshold (of certain years, five or seven) before granting them citizenships. This is where we need to give a verdict. All we get to read in the Nepali press is the narrative of inequality.
Monarchists are demanding a referendum on republic, federalism, and secularism. This is the question we will have to answer with definite yes or no. Then there is a geopolitical question. How should Nepal deal with China and America when both of them have competing interests in Nepal? What should Nepal do? This is the question that needs a clear answer.
Nepali intellectuals don’t offer clear answers to these questions not because they don’t know, or they have no views or they lack understanding but because the independent intelligentsia as such does not exist and they are voluntary victims of what Immanuel Kant calls “self-incurred tutelage.” There is more to it than usual ‘intellectuals are divided along party lines and advocate based on their political affiliation’ explanation behind Nepal’s intellectual slackening.
Lest that the term ‘intellectual’ might be construed as referring to all those who write and appear in public forum and all might be put into the same basket, it’s safer to categorize them and discuss their individual traits separately.
There are those who speak their mind. The objective might not be to influence policy debates but to vent frustration (writing is the most non-violent means of spilling out aggression). They follow their conscience, react when they see the government is making a mistake. They have no political baggage, have no affiliations with donor-aided organizations and speak and write what they see as true. These intellectuals are few in number and few of them communicate to larger masses through media.
Then there are consultant intellectuals or intellectual consultants (you name it). They are affiliated with organizations funded by donor agencies, some of which do not allow their employees to write in newspapers or make their personal views public through media outlets. Or they do not allow their employees to write anything which does not support their agenda. So, when these intellectuals write or speak, either they tacitly promote agendas of their organizations or, to appear that they are independent, they might theorize or comment on trends rather than being specific and providing specific recommendations on specific issues. Their views might sound independent but they may not be so.
Among this group exists a sub-group, whose job is to basically influence and intervene in policy-making, not necessarily with good intention. What they advocate for or whether they advocate for anything at all depends on the ‘project’ they do. They stand against any initiative to regulate them. Think of the outrage against National Integrity Policy. When this government tried to implement this policy (apparently finalized by Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government), Nepal’s NGO fraternity, including media and intellectuals, opposed it as if the government was expelling all I/NGOs from Nepal. I/NGO regulation is only a part of this policy, its major thrust lies on making public servants accountable, ensuring transparency, avoiding conflict of interests and so on. But the policy was interpreted as the government’s move to attack civil society and curtail freedom of expression. (Interestingly, one of the newspapers, when government bowed down to anti-integrity policy lobby, ran a headline asking: “Where is the Integrity Policy?”)
This group of intellectuals should be heard and read with skepticism because they manipulate facts, misreport issues, misinform readers, exaggerate details, demonize some and blindly support other agenda. They lack integrity and their stand on any issue is fickle.
Our public discourse forum is often exclusive to differing views. Think of various literary festivals, talk shows, and seminars. The speakers are usually the same figures whom you have heard or read for years and whose political beliefs, ideologies, biases and professional association you may be familiar with. One initiates the conversation, the second person comes to add to it, the third seconds the first two, and the job is done. Some three or four men (rarely women) on the podium speak until their allotted time. No alternative view finds a space. So goes with most workshops organized by NGOs. What should ideally become the platform to bring out various sides of the subject matter rather becomes the platform for two or three persons with similar viewpoints to assemble, talk and reiterate their consensus.
Talking to please
Cocktail receptions held by diplomatic missions provide a picture of how some of our intellectuals choose to degrade themselves. Prominent figures hold drinks in hand and talk to their foreign interlocutors criticizing Nepal. They smile showing their teeth, waiting for a nod of their interlocutors. I try to psychoanalyze the foreigners. They seem to respond to these exhorters with a suppressed sense of pity and loathing for talking ill of their own country.
Whenever I get a chance, I discuss politics and diplomacy with foreigners—Indians, Americans, Chinese, and others. They disprove of some of the policies of their government but they never speak ill of their country. Instead, they defend and justify their country’s core values. Read the opinions in The New York Times, for example. They criticize President Trump and his policies but in all such criticisms, there is a worry that Trump is failing to uphold American supremacy in the world. There are some core principles which they do not violate— in speech, writing and advocacy.
One might argue: Should intellectuals give a verdict on purely political questions? That’s not their job. Their job is to write about the problems. It is up to the political leaders to decide what is right and what is wrong. I disagree. In a country where politicians are often clueless about policy issues and who tend to take decisions on whims, it is the job of the intellectuals to remind them what is right and what is wrong. They need to give verdict on contested issues too.
Intellectuals on intellectuals
Intellectuals themselves have drawn the lines of what they should or should not do. American author Noam Chomsky, for example, says intellectuals have a greater responsibility than common people and therefore they have to speak the truth and expose lies. In his 1927 essay “The Treason of the Intellectuals” French philosopher Julien Benda criticizes academics, journalists, pundits, and moralists as “clerks” for losing the ability to reason about political matters.
Thomas Sowell, American economist and the author of Intellectuals and Society argues that intellectuals, whom he also calls “idea workers,” during the 20th century made the world a worse and more dangerous place by not speaking against mass murder. Sowell attacks intellectuals for relying on “verbal virtuosity” by which he means clever phrasing, vague euphemisms, and witty quotes in their arguments instead of using evidence, logic, and analysis. “Verbal virtuosity,” for him, also refers to invoking “rights” which have no legal basis, vague calls for “change” and relying on “the abstract” instead of “the concrete.”
In Nepal, Devendra Raj Panday, civil society leader and a public intellectual, has written about how donors and donor-funded NGOs have contributed to the erosion of intellectualism. In his recent book The Idea of Integrity and the Universe of Corruption and Anticorruption he writes: “The donors regularly hire competent scholars and specialists on individual basis as consultants to contribute to their agenda” and by doing so, he writes, “they [donors] do not help build independent institutions, instead independent scholarship and expertise is banished from the public sphere.”
“The donors,” he writes further, “ rarely fund locally inspired institutions that independent intellectuals and scholars might set up for conducting independent research and contributing to knowledge and action that could excite the imagination of the political class (or the rest of the society).”
These intellectuals are mentioned here because this helps us figure out where we stand.
Be thy own judge
One boon (or bane) of intellectual freedom in Nepal has been that they do not have to be accountable for what they write or say. We have never questioned those who openly advocated foreign meddling during the constitution-writing process. Those who at one time advocated for creating as many as 14 provinces in this small country which is now struggling to financially manage seven provinces never had to explain why. Some of them also openly advocated for creating strictly ethnic-identity-based provinces—the idea that our population composition and geographic structure never support—and separation of hills and plains while finalizing province boundary. They never had to explain the possible repercussion of such faulty recommendation. Our media also becomes the vehicle to spread false information at times. They were among the ones to report that constitution has disenfranchised half of the country’s population.
Fairness and accuracy are vital in writing and reporting because wrong views and information circulated through media contribute to the making of wrong reports about Nepal’s political and social situations on both domestic and international fronts.
Ever increasing innovation in information and communication technology and the internet has meant that readers today are fed with numerous information and views—biased, unbiased, rational, irrational, fair, unfair, right, wrong, misleading, well-researched and not-researched—by media and intellectuals. In a way, this is the boon of the century we are living in. Readers don’t have to rely on one particular individual, writer, scholar, media outlet or institution for alternative views.
Our intellectual space is expanding more than in the past. Thus the chance of one group of individuals or certain media institutions dominating the sphere of public discourse is diminishing. In Nepal, the rise of online portals has meant that the major view or information left out by one media outlet, including by major media outlets, are covered by others. But this has also left readers with the dilemma of who should they listen to or read or whether they should listen to anyone at all.
They have got to be smart. They have to read and listen to views with skepticism. American literary critic Harold Bloom calls this process “creative misreading.” They have to judge if the writers and speakers are advocating for certain issues to serve the vested interests of some groups or institutions, whether their views and opinions are guided by fair intentions, whether they are speaking their own minds, whether they are offering solutions to the problems or simply creating more problems with exaggerated claims and details.
They have to read by keeping in mind the background, affiliations and interests, biases and convictions of the creators of those materials. When intellectuals confuse, readers and listeners need to be smarter.