There is a need for sustained engagement from below. For this we need to re-imagine public space in Nepal
The ongoing protest for medical education reforms led by Dr Govinda KC has once again brought to fore the idea of a vibrant civil society and an autonomous public space. We can say that Dr KC and his colleagues, who have time and again raised their voice for reform of medical education, have acted as conscience keepers in Nepali society. This is a society where historically there has been a paucity of such people, the people who have the ability to check the rise of authoritarian tendencies.
In other countries, such activities are part and parcel of what is generally understood as civil society—a vital link between the state and the society. The relative opening up of Nepali polity in the early 1990s witnessed a surge in the number of civil society actors, especially in the form of non-government organizations (NGOs). Most of these NGOs were donor driven and adopted right-based approach to dealing with the problems of the Nepali society.
At the outset, such an opening of spaces did provide for airing of erstwhile suppressed voices. But these spaces were soon captured by a group of people belonging to particular caste, ethnic and linguistic groups with strong links to political parties. This in effect led to what Jurgen Habermas calls the transformation of public sphere. The symbiotic relationship CPN-UML, now the second biggest party in national parliament, shares with these NGOs is a case in point. The party has ‘successfully’ co-opted its cadres into these NGOs, who in turn act as financial lifeline of the party.
This has resulted in the blurring of the line between the state and the civil society and endangered the autonomy of public sphere. Coming back to Dr KC’s protest, he has been vehement against granting affiliation to Manmohan Medical College. This college has significant investment of people close to UML. Dr KC rightly saw this bid to establish yet another medical college in Kathmandu, solely to mint money, as an attempt to commercialize medical education and make it unaffordable even for the most worthy medical students.
He also argued in favor for opening more colleges outside Kathmandu valley, which is already saturated with hospitals, and making them affordable to all Nepalis. As worthy as this initiative is, historically, such citizens-led initiatives have been few and far between in Nepal.
But there is a need for such sustained engagement from below to keep power wielders in check. For this, we need to re-imagine public space and make it more ‘organic’, as suggested by Antonio Gramsci. Otherwise, in the absence of such sustained citizen-led efforts from below, the hegemony of vested interests will continue to grow, not only at the political level but also at the cultural level, which is even more problematic.
The domination of a particular world/societal view ably supported by mainstream intelligentsia including corporate media helps promote the same hegemonic cultural practices. These forces want to counter the ‘dangers’ from below and in doing so promote the narrative of strongmen and authoritarian institutions, which are apparently necessary to maintain public order.
These actors seek to weaken independent civilian space through coercion. In such a situation there is a need for a movement that ignites critical thinking and questions abuse of authority by power-wielders.
This is where Dr KC comes in. His movement has the potential to catalyze the creation of an autonomous public space in Nepal. This initiative of Dr KC has steadily gained public support—especially the support of city-based people and social media-savvy professionals.
Dr KC’s is a unique movement in Nepal. Most popular movements here have been organized against the regime of the day. They were centered on wresting power from an authoritarian structure and giving it to peoples’ representative. They were also partisan, with political parties dominating the process. Dr KC’s protest, on the other hand, is purely organic, with no political overtones.
Given the progressively rightward shift of Nepali polity over the last one decade, there was a need for a movement which would help counter such shift. This is because even those parties that had initially advocated for radical social transformation—the Maoists, for example—were easily co-opted by these right-wing forces.
What we rather need in the country is for a ‘thousand revolutions to bloom’ where common people without party affiliations not only participate, but also drive the entire process. For this to happen, the donors must also change their focus. Donors not only provide money but also shape national agendas. But they are often found to be pushing agendas which don’t have any relevance to Nepali society. Their faulty modus operandi has to change if the help they extend is to go into the right causes that benefit the society.
Concerning the role of the civil society, while it looks to change the society from below, it has to be mindful that it is not always antagonistic to the state. One of the ways of doing so is to offer both criticisms and solutions at the same time. If the civil society, which is an important bridge connecting the state and its citizen, takes up this twin approach, it will help create a responsible state as well as a vibrant public space.
Again, it bears reminding, especially for donors, that insistence on right-based approach, especially in countries like Nepal, could create a ‘sovereignty gap’ in the state as instead of enhancing its capacity everyone is looking to extract personal benefits from it. Instead why not support a grassroots movement like Dr KC’s?
For Dr KC’s movement seeks to remove the lacunas in medical education and at the same time is critical of abuse of power by those in responsible state positions. Such initiatives should be the way forward.
The two authors are assistant professors at Kathmandu School of Law