No matter how powerful a government, it can’t withstand stethoscopes pointed at its head from multiple directions
Mercifully, fifteenth episode of the hunger strike saga of Senior Orthopedic Surgeon Dr Govinda KC has come to a close in the nick of time. Even though as strong-willed as ever, body of the good doctor had begun to show signs of deterioration after 27-day long fast. Physicians attending upon him have decreed that he must remain under their watch for at least a week more before he can be allowed to back to routine.
The White Shirts—the urban bourgeoisie always looking for a fashionable cause to champion over the weekend—are jubilant that their vigorous campaigning has finally prevailed over the notorious obduracy of Premier Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. The Oliars of the media are happy that their coming of age announcement has been made and now they can credibly claim full freedom from the tutelage of their ideological master.
Drugged with dangerous doses of demagoguery in the aftermath of 16-Point Conspiracy of June 2015, the Nepali Congress has been in delirium for more than three years. The once-powerful party sleepwalked through the promulgation of a contested constitution. It then moved unsteadily during staggered elections, fainted amidst la’affaire Lokman-Sushila and surrendered abjectly when one of its appointees was hounded out of a constitutional body.
Thanks be to the fasting Doctor, the NC has found its feet and is looking for political crutches to stand up and begin walking again. In a hurry to prove that the party has regained consciousness and is ready for rehabilitation, it rushed to take the credit for Dr KC’s meager and provisional successes. Considering the past record of the PEON, it’s extremely unlikely that the plutocrats controlling the reigns of the government will let go of their grip over the ‘illness industry’ that includes for-profit schools, hospitals and institutions dispensing medical degrees for a price. But recovery after any addiction needs feel-good bouts of triumphant engagements.
Mediators in the fifteenth episode of the fast rendered yeomen services in saving the life of Dr KC. Forever-young educationist and diplomat Kedar Bhakta Mathema in cautious casuals and carefully unkempt stubble pulled strings with consummate skill. Due to multiple compromises that he had to make in political life, former quasi-Maoist Narayan Kazi Shrestha has aged beyond his years. He played the role of an elder statesman pleading restrain.
Inculcated in the culture of subservience to the Supremo, legal eagle Subhas Chandra Nembang worked upon nitty-gritty of the provisional settlement. All of them have ample reason to be satisfied. However, it will be a mistake to assume that the government backed out and the good doctor got vague assurances due to the combined effort of Mathema, Shrestha and Nembang alone. What perhaps clinched the deal was behind the scene maneuvering of the PEON stalwarts and the threat of the Nepal Medical Association to halt all heath services except emergency duties. No matter how powerful a government, it can’t withstand stethoscopes pointed at its head from multiple directions.
One can always say that all’s well that ends well and pray. Nobody can predict when the mercurial campaigner will have another brainwave and decide to go on another hunger strike to reform medical education, remove an errant Vice-Chancellor or prevent the appointment of a public official with less than savory image. Risks remain because politics is such a game that one’s wishes can be fulfilled even in defeat.
Mahatma Gandhi had once thundered, “If the Congress wishes to accept Partition it will be over my dead body.” Leadership of the Indian National Congress allowed him to have his way. British India was partitioned and Gandhi was killed by a Hindu zealot soon afterwards. The rise of Hindutva in India shows that the Mahatma’s failure has been unequivocal. Muhammad Ali Jinnah prevailed over him in life and has triumphed after death as well. Once done, some acts are impossible to be undone.
While keeping Dr KC in good health is important, perhaps the real question to ask is the deafening silence of the masses over his repeated fasts. It’s not that his campaigns aren’t well planned. There is no better place to raise the consciousness of commoners than a public hospital where patients from all over the country come when all other options of recovery have been exhausted. The treatment facility of the Institute of Medicine (Tribhuvan University) at Maharajgunj is the hospital of last recourse for those that can’t afford to travel abroad in search of advanced medical care.
The venue for the fifteenth fast was also carefully chosen. Jumla is widely believed to be the fountainhead of Khas-Arya culture. Even those HAMNS (Hindu, Aryan, Male and Nepali Speakers) families that migrated to Nepal from Kumaon, Kashi, Prayag, Ujjain and Pune like to trace their lineage to somewhere in the upper reaches of mid-mountains in the Himalayas. Perhaps Dr KC’s acolytes assumed that the shriek of the conch-shell from the Jumla highlands will succeed in awakening the populace everywhere. It not only faltered but failed as the hunger striker had to be airlifted to Kathmandu to save his life.
The comfortable class did arise in defense of Dr KC. The asocial media was abuzz with sympathetic chatter. But cover-page of almost all capital-centric daily newspapers, endless urging of radio newscasters and cajolement of television anchors didn’t succeed in awakening even the middleclass of the hinterland, let alone shake up the proletariat of small towns and agitate plebeians in far-flung villages.
Part of the apathy is understandable. To the poorest of the poor, medical attention implies quackery of the neighborhood placebo vendor when the sorcery of the shaman has failed to cure the disease. Only those that have some dispensable income or property to dispose dare to approach a hospital, which more often than not have little hesitation in fleecing them in the name of irrelevant tests and unwarranted medicines available only from dispensers of the profit sector. As philosopher Ivan Illich had correctly diagnosed decades ago, modern medicine is more about profits than health care.
Second reason behind widespread indifference is equally compelling: Struggle for everyday survival leaves little time to spare. The leisure class has enough surpluses to live on. The salaried white color workers can draw upon accumulated leave or spend the weekend for causes dear to their hearts. The rest have to ration their resources with extreme care. They often have to depend upon interpretations of what academic Alan Jacobs calls “The Watchmen” and what is commonly known as the public intellectual.
The qualifier added to the term ‘intellectual’ is an invention of Americanism and is wholly unnecessary. If the person works for the market, she deserves to be called an intellect—a respectable member of the intelligentsia. No matter how influential, a scholar in the service of the state is a counselor at best. Prominent university professors are academics. A private scholar is just that—a scholar. It’s only when knowledge enters the public domain for the common good that it becomes the practice of intellectualism.
The concept of scholarly guardians is as old as history. Sages of the past often succeeded in telling ‘truth to power’ in even more forthright manner than their modern counterpart can ever aspire to do. What differentiates an intellectual from her scholarly predecessors is the ability to engage with the public. In its modern form, intellectualism established itself after the Dreyfus Affair that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906 into competing camps of Dreyfusards vs Anti-dreyfusards. After Émile Zola’s public accusation of “monument of bias” in the trial of a Jewish officer of the French army, the idea gained credence that the main responsibility of an intellectual was to question received wisdom, hoary traditions and nationalistic orthodoxy.
An intellectual is someone that lives in the realm of ideas but is also part activist, part scholar, part journalist, a writer at large and a thinker of things in general rather than a formulator of useful techniques. The fatal attraction of asocial media has lured intellectuals into detached reactions rather than engaged reflectivity. They no longer connect, they only pontificate. Little wonder, their public is limited to the echo chamber.
The New School political theorist Nancy Fraser thinks that “subaltern counterpublics”—people-sphere rather than public-sphere—have to be created to empower fearful voices. It’s only then that the likes of wrongfully incarcerated lawmaker Resham Chaudhary will get to flutter like a silk-scarf in the balmy breeze.