Wednesday, May 26, 2010

People against people

Dr. Celayne Heaton Shrestha

A student of civil society, I was enthralled by the developments of 2005 and 2006 – the massive citizens’ assemblies across the capital, including Basantapur, where seas of people would cover the steps of the square’s landmark temples. As a researcher, I delighted in firsthand accounts of the programs featuring speeches, songs, poetry recitals and drama, uniting a broad swathe of the population in the critique of an authoritarian regime that had brought neither peace nor prosperity. Civil society, which came forward to lead a democratic movement when political parties were not able to do so, claimed to be ‘the voice of the people’, bearing ‘people’s agendas’ and following ‘the people’s philosophy’. In 2005 and 2006, there seemed little reason to doubt these claims.

Following the historic people’s movement of April 2006, civil society was to be ‘dormant’ for a good four years. At least, it adjusted its approach and we were not to witness assemblies and programs on the scale of those of 2005-6 till last week. The press coverage of last Friday’s program in Basantpur, the ‘peace assembly’, seemed to bring back those times: the artists were there, the seas of people were there. But rather than a cause for celebration, I found myself disturbed by the way the program unfolded. Two aspects, in particular, alarmed me, as a civil society enthusiast.

First, despite the proferred agenda of the assembly to ‘put pressure on political parties to forge a consensus’, the rumours had already circulated within the public domain (electronic and face to face) that the assembly was ‘against the bandha’. During the program itself, similarly, alongside statements that political parties should come to a consensus within two days, noted artistes called upon the UCPN-Maoist to ‘withdraw the strike, violence and protests’. In these highly politicised times, this could easily be interpreted as a move against one single party, namely UCPN-Maoist. Such an interpretation was further supported by developments later in the day. Indeed, the assembly of tens of thousands was then to turn into a ‘peace rally’, during which less savoury slogans were heard (‘hang Prachanda’, ‘death to YCL’). This was, moreoever, against an informal agreement concluded between the organisers of the assembly and UCPN-M leaders the day prior to the rally, that the peace assembly would not march. Unsurprisingly, as the peace rally ran into maoist protest marches, confrontation ensued. What is disturbing here, is not so much the politicisation of civil society, which occurred as soon as it pitched itself against a single party (though this may not have been intended by the peace assembly organisers). I have said in the past (The Kathmandu Post, June 2009) that civil society could and should rethink its role in new Nepal – and that acting as political party or closeness with political parties could be a positive development for Nepali political culture. The blurring of civil society and political society is not uncommon in post-conflict transition contexts and not necessarily dangerous or harmful. What is disturbing, rather, is that instead of pitching people against the state, as we have come to expect of civil society worldwide, Friday’s events pitched people against people. And rather than a counterweight to the state, ‘civil society’ helped to protect the state by countering UCPN-Maoist’s bid to challenge and transform it. This seemed a violation of the very raison d’etre of civil society and of the support that has been extended to civil societies globally by the international community.

A second, most disturbing development was the use of the image of ‘civil society’ in this project of protecting the state. The term ‘civil society’ has significant appeal still today worldwide. In Nepal the protests of 2005 and 2006 did much to increase its credibility. The format of the programme in Basantapur last Friday was clearly meant to evoke the civil society programs against the autocratic regime of ex-king Gyanendra, in a bid to imbue it with legitimacy and power. In the assembly and the hours that followed, however, the image of ‘civil society’ was put to use in a regrettable manner. There, statements were made to the effect that change comes after intellectuals and professionals come to the streets, as were suggestions that ‘the people’ were those assembled in Basantapur. These were widely quoted and proved highly controversial, as was the representation of the hundreds of thousands of protestors on the streets as ‘merely Maoist cadres’, who did not belong to that abstract entity ‘the people’. Articles in the press promptly highlighted the very different class backgrounds of the ‘peace assembly’ on the one hand and the protestors on the other. The privileged position of the middle classes in civil society has been noted in published studies in Nepal and elsewhere, and again, is not a problem in itself. In 2005 and 2006, these classes found common cause with the less privileged and could then reasonably said to represent ‘the voice of the people’. But here, this priviledged group used its status and power in society, as well as the power of the image of ‘civil society’, to delegitimise the agendas and grievances of other social classes. It turned against society itself, rather than the state.

In other words, last Friday, privileged groups in society used the label of civil society in support of a political project that can hardly be seen as falling within the role we have come to expect of ‘civil society’. Drawing on the symbolic power of ‘civil society’, they sought to defend, rather than challenge the state. This latter manifestation of civil society (as defender of the state) is not at odds with theory: indeed, civil society has also been conceived as the site where the state constructs its own hegemony (eg in Gramsci). Others such as noted Indian political scientist Neera Chandhoke, have pointed out that the space of civil society is highly divided and conflict-prone. But the question is, is this the kind of civil society that we want in Nepal? Is it not a violation of the history of the citizens’ movement of recent years? And what might be the consequences of last week’s events, for civil society’ future? My request is that the press, responsible civil society leaders and others be vigilant, so that the image of civil society is not misused and mobilised in support of initiatives that create rather than solve conflicts. For I fear that this might damage the very image and name of civil society and render its ability to gather support against authoritarianism in the future, nil.

(Celayne Heaton Shrestha is a visiting research fellow at the University of Sussex. She is working on a research project exploring Nepal’s civil society during the years of the conflict. This project is part of a research programme directed from the London School of Economics, UK and is supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council.)