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Friday, October 3, 2008

The Democratic Chaos

The threat to the democracy from the current trends of extremism

How democracy works

How worst can a democracy work? There are so many situations where mockery of democracy has enormously deteriorated the living condition of the people. When we want to choose the worst among them still many states will prop up. Indeed the practice of the parliamentary democracy with the neoliberal economic policies has faced increasingly intractable problems. To what magnitude this problem comes to the mainstream media is another issue. Last two decades have seen major turbulences in the world which was supposed to transform smoothly to the paradise after the collapse of evil ‘communist’ pole from the world stage of politics.

What democracy now means for most part of the world is the right to vote periodically to choose one or the other candidate. From Denmark to Congo the polls occur every now and then. But why such a gap on the way the two states work? The increasingly complicated world stage with entry of new quasi-states like Kosovo and Abkhazia needs answer to many questions like this which may not have a precise single answer.

The talk about the ‘guided democracies’ like that of the Russia, other ex-Soviet states, Iran and till recently the Pervez-led Pakistan has been there for quite some time and this is increasingly gaining the significance with the fading charisma of the so called western style democracy. The explosion of the violence of all sorts has made the democratic states more vulnerable while the counter violence by the states and the double-standards applied in dealing with the ‘friendly’ and ‘otherwise’ violence has further complicated the matter.

Whether guided or not there is a spectacular absence of the standard set of criteria to judge the nation states of divergent character with respect to their democratization. This has led to equally divergent analyses and evaluations about any country being truly ‘democratic’. Still the respect for the human right has served as the least doubtful criteria to assess the democratization of a state though the versions of the human right itself have been many and this has been the subject of major controversy with rampant use of double standards in case of the ‘our people’ and the ‘others’ by the powerful and the prosperous states.

The US Perspective

A noted American mountaineer-turned-humanitarian Greg Mortenson was irritated by the attention US was paying to the attack on Iraq at a time when reconstruction in devastated Afghanistan should have been a priority. School buildings barely spared, teachers barely paid, and the reconstruction of all other infrastructures in disarray, he predicted unrest. Now that has come true with the resurgence of the Talibans. Same thing was repeated in Iraq and the consequences are already there.

The infamous Vietnam war and many others were triggered by the US while in the Arab-Israel war of 1967 and many others the role of US was indirect but decisive. The damage inflicted by these wars on the democracy and the human rights of millions of people was insurmountable. After all, what is behind this war adventurism?

An observation of the leading American anti-establishment thinker Noam Chomsky is worthy mentioning here. When asked about the human rights and the great world powers, he recalls: It was outlined with admirable frankness in an important state paper of 1948 (PPS 23) written by one of the architects of the New World Order of the day, the head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, the respected statesman and scholar George Kennan. In the course of assigning each region of the world its proper role within the overarching framework of American power, he observed that the basic policy goal is to maintain the "position of disparity" that separates our enormous wealth from the poverty of others; and to achieve that goal "We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization," recognizing that we must "deal in straight power concepts," not "hampered by idealistic slogans" about "altruism and world-benefaction”

The Indian Experience:The Gujrat Precedence

What is most remarkable of the Indian democracy is its flexibility helping it to sustain the supremacy of the civilian government through the turbulent times when the other comparable states have seen the derailment of the process. From Ramachandra Guha’s euphoria about the modern India to the utter discontent of Arundhati Roy towards the working of Indian democracy, India has seen a devoted discourse on the topic. But as the more disturbing events keep taking place, the world’s largest democracy now compels us to doubt the foundation of the liberal democracy itself.

The case of Gujrat where the recent elections crowned Narendra Modi with another term as chief minister is worth examining here. In the aftermath, first Asish Nandy was targeted by the state for questioning the role of the state’s middle class in the self perpetuating cycle of religious violence. Not long after, a commission led by a retired judge successfully performed the task assigned by the Modi government i.e. making the Godhara incident an intentional massacre brought out by the muslims for which the action taken by Modi et al to kill thousands of muslims was appropriate.

The unique significance of this case comes from the fact that it makes joke of all the pillars of the so called liberal democracy, namely, the freedom of expression, guarantee of human rights, independent judiciary, and the periodic elections. Though the post Godhara violence of 2002 was not an isolated event in the history of India, and the political harvest of the violence following the demolition of the Babari mosque in 1992 was enormous, the trend this time appears more worrisome. With the next general elections at the door, the cost of the developments may be heavy for whole India, not only Gujrat.

It was the socio-cultural transformation from the grass-roots level in which Modi and BJP were able to demonize the muslims instilling the concept of arbitrary superiority among the rank and file Hindu majority post 2002 violence that helped Modi secure victory in an election deemed as to have occurred at a time most adverse for him. The deliberate manipulation of the human emotions to an extent of justifying the killing of the thousands of innocent people is the most striking observation here. The democracy here legitimized the act as the majority thought that killing the ‘muslim terrorists’ is the indispensible part of the campaign to make this earth better place to live. The institutionalization of that gain at the broad national level to gain power at the centre seems to be the agenda of the Advani-led BJP now.

The cost of this transformation can be enormous for India, Indian subcontinent and the world with ever growing intolerance among the religions, races, castes and sects. This poses the increasing challenge to the secular and non-extremist forces worldwide. Especially the impact of the intense propaganda on the young and the vulnerable has threatened to destabilize the world for decades to come.

Nationalism or Nazism

The young Indian historian Ramachandra Guha vehemently criticized Arundhati Roy for comparing the post 2002 BJP rule with the fascist rule in Germany arguing that the fact that BJP let the Congress rule India after its debacle in 2004 polls was the evidence against her allegation. He further hailed the tendency of the BJP to behave more secularly once it was in power. I don’t know how the victims of the deadly riots passively supported by the police and the state feel about this conclusion. But what I feel to be more important is the role such arguments play in shaping the future developments.

The scale of the genocide as that of the holocaust can never be a criteria to compare the other proponents of genocides with the Nazis. We have come long way from the second world war. Compared to the authoritarian regimes, those which abuse the democratic set up to legitimize their crimes are even more responsible for staining the democratic system. Obviously these have given the people the alternative definition of democracy in which no accountability for any horror some act can be guaranteed by a majority, be it be won by any means.

The tragedy of this trend is that, at the end, extremists of one pole promote the agenda of the extremists of the other pole, pushing the non-extremist to the wall. This self perpetuating cycle helps the proliferation of the real terrorists among those who were forcibly announced to be terrorist for the killer interest of the offenders. This vicious cycle which has brought the most intractable and longest running conflicts throughout the world threatening the civil liberties of millions and the lives of lakhs of people is thus being promoted in India. This will do none other than making the Indian subcontinent a highly insecure and socially devastated place to live.

Money Matters

20 years back, when a kid answered that he wanted to be a ‘great’ person to a question, it implied that he wanted to serve the society or country or something like this. In other cases it might have implied that he wanted to ‘liberate’ his people from the life of coercion and extortion. But now? It means he wants to earn a lot of money that is the only way to make him great. From sleep to justice, everything is on sale and one would have to buy everything if he has to lead a decent life. The glory of the prosperous life and the outlook of the poverty-ridden life, both make the young people desperate to get reach by hook or crook.

How much can one earn by vandalizing property and killing people? This odd question arose when Dione Bunsha did a research in the post riot Gujrat. ‘The Model of Development’, as the Modi government likes to talk about the policies in Gujrat, has a lot to do with the investors, especially the NRIs. Bunsha’s stunning observation was that the money from NRIs was used to promote the violence, effectively paying the killers. In such a scenario, what could be the role of the same money in the elections?

This newly discovered scope of the money which is troublesome at present can prove disastrous in the future. An increasingly dysfunctional democracy can face the complete transformation into a tool of legitimizing the crimes.

Low and Order less

In innumerable Bollywood movies, the police force plays a negative role, led by corrupt and subjugated officers. The influence of the other corrupt and criminal elements is enormous. Thus any attempt by a junior officer to implement the rules of law meets with stiff resistance that may lead to his dismissal. This is, indeed the gross truth about the law-enforcing bodies in India and many third world countries.

Many of the controversial police claims of the encounters killing the terrorists have been the subject of intense scrutiny and dispute though many others go unnoticed. This is though, not the only factor making the police responsible for keeping Indian democracy in bad shape. The incessant harassment of the poor and deprived and mass bribery of the small scale with those who earn a slim daily amount has much to do with their grim popularity of the police.
Inefficiency is one thing, but when an institution for which people have to pay hugely goes unethical, it is practically impossible to tackle the problem. The state-sponsored violence in any part of the world transforms the armed institutions from ethically guided professional ones to those guided by the vested interest of the ruling elites. This is exactly what happened during the 2002 violence in Gujrat.

Despite all the euphoria about the economic growth of India making it the world power and the recent entry of India into the nuclear club after the Indo-US nuclear deal, the improvement of the governance which directly affects the lives of the ordinary people has been the most neglected part. All this has helped to institutionalize the democracy in form where the core matters the least.

Morning Shows the Day

The challenge posed by the guided democracies to the non-guided ones is going to increase further as the institutions in the latter are being increasingly weakened by badly fought wars against the terrorism and other conflicts. As the non-extremist and secular forces keep losing ground to the violent and extremist ideologies, the democracies everywhere are going to be further disfigured. The reckless war adventures will make the people of generations to come to pay for the crimes not committed by them.

If the Gujrat experiment of the BJP repeats the success in polls elsewhere, that will be a major transformation on the way the democracy works. The vicious cycle of killing innocent people under the state’s silent approval to produce a breed of real terrorists, blaming the same suffering population for terrorism to garner votes from radicalized masses, and again attacking them to make a ‘better and safer’ world, will be their strategy now.
Let the republican US candidate McCain win the presidential election this November, the evolution of the democracy worldwide will be accelerated, given his lust for war. The drama in the world stage will be worth watching then.

2nd oct 2008, Bhairahawa

( The following is a different article inadvertently published under the same post)

The Forces Changing Nepal:
1.Foreign Employment.

Ten years back, my village was going through a process of change. The local elected body of the communist party had implemented the radical agenda of eradicating the alcohol use and gambling. With the enthusiastic support of the youth, the program was by and large successful with the game of card being unseen even at the occasions of Tihar. The impact of this in the social life was tremondous especially with those with lower socioeconomic state having practically no access to alcoholic drinks that so often deprive their wives and children from the basic needs of food and education. With the game of cards almost obsolete the young people discovered other games like volleyball for the occasions like Tihar that promoted the physical and mental health eliminating the chance of financial devastation of many by the gambling.

What I saw in the same village this time was also a change, even more impressive,but of different kinds. The young men who were so actively involved in the anti-alcohol campaign were frequently intoxicated and busy with the cards while the Volleyball courts seemed abandoned. Majority of the working-age population was already in the gulf for employment while the remaining ones were in a process to leave for there. The money thus arriving had a tremendous impact in the living conditions. Cassette-players and the CD-players were commonplace while the television sets were on way to replace them. The local shops of garments and cosmetics were booming. People could now easily purchase the rice in the market due to which the existence of indigenous crops like millet and maize was threatened. What were missing were the revolutionary cultural programs of early days. They had been replaced by the booming folk songs, ‘dohari’ programmes and the Nepali and Indian movies in the Videos.

The particularly disturbing fact was the percolation of the deadly urban poison all the way down to the villages. I could not believe at first that the drug abuse that has threatened to annihilate the urban youth had reached the rural area. With little awareness about the consequences this problem can spread soon among the rural youth creating a disaster. With the gulf money, so many other undesirable elements had also been able to penetrate deep into the rural life.
Here we will try to explore this transformation from various angles.
The new rich

Financially, the foreign employment has worked as a sort of miracle by providing a good option for those uneducated and unskilled. Earlier the school dropouts that often form the bulk of rural youth used to remain in the village with the peasantry being the only option, while only those who passed the SLC could get the chance to palpate the city. With the low productivity of agriculture with dependence in traditional methods that meant a never ending crunch of money. Especially the financial crisis would leave no reserve for the events of illness or accidents, compelling them to take loans.

The other option for the under-privileged was to move to India for jobs often poorly paid, moreover, this option too was being difficult in the last decade. This has led to increasing number of Nepalis coming back from India to fly to the gulf.
So where has this wealth gone? A graduate from a reputed university, son of a government employee argues: “The prosperity thus brought about by the foreign employment is enormous and productive. Life long savings of my father as a government employee could not spare us from taking loans to build a small residence at the end. But the people can now construct a good house after working just for few years. The other large chunk of this money goes to the education of their children that will change the face of nation in coming few decades.”

Though the skeptics of this view are not difficult to find, this perception is grossly correct. Mass migration of the village folks to the towns merely to teach their children in a private school is rampant while the increasing number of private schools in the villages promise to cover others who can’t migrate altogether. The perception that the expensive private schools provide the education necessarily better than the government schools may not be true, though.

The other side of the coin is also equally significant. With the ever-growing wealth of the agents and the manpower companies the number of those who fail to make it to the destination or those who come back without earning is increasing. The lost lives and health of an increasing number of workers, especially those involved in construction works is significant. The practically absent mechanisms for the welfare of the workers are further aggravated by the unhealthy competition by the workers from countries like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines and Nepal. The lack of cushion for any worker in trouble by employer or the government from Nepal or the host country has been stark.

After all the universal challenge to this trend has been the financial security of the future. For this it has been compared with the Khahare khola by the village think tanks , where the flood comes once in a year wreaking havoc but remains dry throughout all the other seasons. With absence of the opportunity of investing in the productive field, the maintenance of the life-style upgraded during the employment can cost dearly in the aftermath. Beginning some form of business with the money is an option but not that feasible for all.

Politically the foreign employment has taken a heavy toll in the communist ideology if not in the parties. The concept of the inherent difference between the wealthy and the poor, the feudal, reactionary, coercive and the proletariat, progressive, coerced has been blurred in a unprecedented way. The harsh economic reality has prevailed over the fragile political ideology. First the dissenting communist cadres began to follow their bourgeoisie counterparts and later it became an accepted practice as it was impossible to resist the trend.

The first toll taken by this was in the number of active cadres who were earlier available in cultural and other programs to keep people engaged with the politics. The second blow was the challenge to the concept of coercive feudal class trying to resist the change to maintain their hegemony against the proletariat, always coerced by the wealthy and trying to change the world. The reaffirmation of the affiliation to the party by the changed people could heal the wounded party but not the wounded ideology, instead the party was forced to welcome the things that it hated earlier. The simple life style with no cosmetics and the ornaments recommended by the party was the first to be challenged.

The emancipation by the distant proletariat revolution now seems more elusive than ever. The consequence of this radical ideological shift is to be still seen in the long run. Significantly this shift corresponds the ideological shift in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, though it took about two decades for this to travel all the way to Nepal.

Culture Shock
Culturally the effects are more divergent and more difficult to write precisely. In one bizarre example, a woman began to behave coldly with her husband after he came back home losing his job unexpectedly after working in gulf for five years. The reason was the difficulty that would now arise to maintain the lifestyle in the absence of the income. In other one, a man who began to earn a handsome amount abandoned his ailing parents to keep his wife and child in Kathmandu after a dispute between the in-laws. In a third example, a married man came home with another wife from Kathmandu while coming back from the gulf.

As already mentioned, a ban on alcohol or gambling is beyond imagination in the villages now. The experience of the village folks in the infamous cabin restaurants and the brothels abundant in Kathmandu and other cities is an altogether new dimension to our culture. The increased flow of money in the rural area has provided an expanding market for a new range of products for consumption. The jewelleries and cosmetics for the women, fashionable clothes for women, men and children, Cassette and CD players, DVD players and television sets all have now got the direct access to the vast rural market. The impact: the city no longer remains the only place for the luxurious life.

The traditional norms of cautious spending in clothes, etc. thus stand challenged. Similarly the inter-household bonding that was essential for survival in the rural areas earlier and marked the difference between the rural and urban life has considerably weakened. The universal applicability of the concept ‘the better the education, the better the life’ has also been questioned, at least in the short term.

Most importantly the tussle between the traditional culture based on the social hierarchy with the elderly, male, higher cast, at the top and the then evolving so called Marxist culture dictating the abolition of all the inequalities has now been sidelined. The consumerist culture is thus rapidly displacing both of them with the hegemony of the market on the issue of how people can and should live. The glory that comes with the money is now luring everybody to an extent that they do not mind applying the means that were earlier unacceptable to earn money.
Better Destinations

With increasing value of money, the cost people are ready to pay for a good earning is growing. Within few weeks of assassination of 12 Nepali workers in Iraq, at least 6 young men had reached there from my small village of fifty household, by illegal means. To earn fast and change fast they were ready to take loans upto 2.5 lakhs so that they can reach there to earn on average four times that can be earned now in traditional gulf destinations. Their determination does not falter due to any destabilizing trend in Iraq, even those who returned safely after earning 8,9 lakhs in Iraq did everything to go there again.

Even with the gruesome tales of coercion of the female migrant workers an increasing number of women are also leaving for various destinations like Kuwait, Israel or other countries.
While Japan and the European countries have been the preferred destinations among the educated and desperate youth, the process has disproportionately high risk and the cost. The scandals of the elusive agents and the forged documents have been increasing. During the maoist insurgency there used to be the flood of Nepali youths seeking the refugee status in the European countries. The fascination to be on and to earn on the better world has, however, not decreased with the end of the insurgency.

The cost of wealth
It was more than a mere coincidence when every other week a patient with mental illness told that he had been working in Malaysia at the time of onset of illness. The findings while working in the outpatient department of a Bhairahawa-based hospital were stunning. The patients would explain their experience with a bizarre composure about the working conditions there. Many had to be fetched from there by the family members. The enormous stress resulting from the pressure to pay back the debts taken while going there in face of the poorly and untimely paid jobs with extreme working conditions had taken a heavy toll on them. As expected the devastation of the family caused by this burden of treating this illness of often the only earning person in the face of an already ruined financial status was obvious.

There could be other factors as well which could affect the living conditions of the workers, making it disproportionately worse than other countries. The recent economic depression in Malaysian economy, however, has been decisive in this regard as the employers are unable to give a reasonable amount to the workers.

The number of the death and disability resulting from the work is also increasing. With practically no mechanism to safeguard the interest of the keens in such cases, the sufferings are multiplied as the compensation and the insurance money hardly reach to the family members. In many cases bringing the body back to Nepal becomes a huge problem.

The major setback for the Nepali workers is of course the lack of qualification and the skill required for the well-paid jobs of good reputation. Many workers who have been there resent this condition in which most of the Nepalis have to work as a ‘helper’ for a slim salary while the Indians and other skilled workers can earn very high with comfortable jobs. The regressive trend of education in the villages is going to aggravate this further.

Warmth of the Urine
There is a famous proverb in Nepali that compares a momentary comfort in troubled time with the warmth given by warm urine during cold. Shortly after, the warmth goes but the wetness in the cloth remains for long the cold piercing the skin.. At once the economic boom brought about by the foreign employment doesn’t seem to resemble this warmth but once we explore the dynamics of the economies of the nations and the world and the volatility of the global job market in the liberal world, a number of similarities emerge.

Firstly, there is no assurance that the job opportunities that are relatively lucrative for us will keep on propping up in the future, even in the gulf countries. The economic boom in the gulf countries that has invited an unprecedented number of workers from Nepal and other countries in the past decade is not immune from the imminent economic depression of unknown magnitude. Failure of a company to win a contract for a construction means a termination of the job for hundreds of Nepali workers.

Secondly the jobs as ‘helpers’ paying a mere lakh rupees annually are not taking us anywhere higher than this so long as the jobs paying a lakh rupees monthly keep going to others. In the open and the competitive world what helps us getting higher and keeps there is the innovation that comes from the qualification and skill. The role of a strong foundation of education producing a spectrum of ‘genius’ in various fields can never be over emphasized. Indeed in this open world we have two-fold challenge of producing a skilled manpower and retaining even a proportion of it from evading in face of the global competition to lure them. As already in practice a qualified Nepali who has got a degree in Physics, Medicine or Engineering meets with no problem in an attempt to reach the US where the ‘opportunity’ awaits.

Third, the lifestyle change that ventures ahead of the positive change in the economy is going to lead us to trouble. So long the foundations of the nation’s economy are week, any momentary boom can easily give away to a bust.

In the history those who could timely exploit their human resources in a well-planned manner have done better than those who exploited their natural resources and incomparably better than those who could exploit neither. Fortunately we have the potential of exploiting both of them , though nothing much is done till date. Diversion of our unemployed youth outside the country is merely distracting our attention of the really serious issues of our resource management.

The way out
Discouraging foreign employment at this time is the worst option available, though continuing the same is not the best. As pointed by another university graduate, the state should do everything to bring education in the priority not only in the cities but also in the villages to revitalize its lost fascination. The means to ease the immediate difficulties of the workers like regulating the manpowers to prevent forgery, training the workers before sending them, co-ordinating with the host countries to deal with individual cases of damages to the workers can be a way to help them.

In the long run there is no alternative to building a sustainable economy where the problem of unemployment can be solved from within. Making ourselves ready to fight in the global field with help of the knowledge and skill is the only way to safeguard our existence in the competitive world. Though full of challenges the future is not, after all, devoid of the opportunities.

( This is the first part of the article ‘The Forces Changing the Face of Nepal’, to be continued.)

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