After a long history of isolated stagnation, Nepali society is entering ‘times of trouble’. The stress of change is everywhere—the economy, the environment, religious practices, relations among ethnic and linguistic groups, managing political affairs, educating the new generation, caring for the sick and needy, and building and operating modern infrastructure. The list is long, and traditional institutions of feudalism—such as organised Hinduism at the state level trusted to interpret national values, or kinship guthis at the local level responsible for organising Kathmandu’s urban space—which should have been managing this stress, are sadly helpless to influence change. They may seethe in fundamentalist or obscurantist rage but the seductive charm of modernisation is relentlessly undercutting tradition.
For such a body social, where is its head, if it has one, and what is it thinking? Has it got some fixity of purpose, if not clarity of vision, or is it disturbed, schizophrenic, perhaps autistic?
In the past, to pose these questions would have been merely to indulge in intellectual titillation. Rana rule required only scholastic priests who were keepers of an old and moribund tradition, not seekers of new truths requiring, besides analytical acumen, a boldness that could warn of impending dangers to the social fabric and speak truth to power.
The brief flicker of democracy in the 1950s saw a small measure of intellectual awakening, but one which was concentrated in literature and not so much in other spheres of national life. Society’s hopes, kindled by flights of poetic imagery such as those of Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s, could not be met in the absence of Nepali bankers, lawyers, industrial managers or modern administrators armed with the intellectual tools to remake the management of social affairs.
The Panchayat rule, imposed in December 1960, was but a reassertion of the old feudal order alarmed by the pace of modernisation. The system needed intellectuals, mostly keepers of tradition, but also some managers of new truths that emerged discomfittingly with the entry of modern technology. Engineers and doctors therefore had a field day in the Panchayat years, but those seeking new truths in social, political and economic affairs were either discouraged, went into exile in expatriate donor agencies, or were co-opted and shackled with privileges so as to rein in free-wheeling questioning.
Today, with democracy, a long-slumbering society has already given notice that it intends to leap into the future, riding the waves of mass culture and popular will. It is a future where everything will be mercilessly questioned, especially by those prevented from doing so in the past. Under assault from pent up fury of ages, only such aspects of tradition and culture will remain standing which can be rationalised to suit a new day and age.
What will that future be like, or what should it be like? Is that leap going to be performed in a state of groggy muddleheadedness? Or will it be a calculated effort towards clearly articulated goals? Nepal is today a society searching for its head, and about to run amok in fear and desperation as its searching hands find nothing but vacuous hot air where something more substantive and reassuring should be.
A buddhijibi—the Nepali term for intellectuals which literally means “one who makes a living by exercising his brains”—is someone other than a sramajibi, one who lives by his brawn. But by its very reference to physical sustenance, ‘buddhijibi’ is more befitting of a compliant keeper of tradition than a bold seeker of the unknown. To encompass the latter category, a species that is admittedly rare in the Nepali social firmament, several adjectives are attached to buddhijibi, such a sswatantra (independent or not employed by government), nispakshya (non-partisan or, at times, bold enough to go against established views), and sometimes even the English word ‘frank’.
This linguistic anomaly is symptomatic of a social undercurrent: the intellectual as understood by the European Renaissance does not exist because Nepal has not had the historical experience of a reawakening. It has its share of ossified Oriental literati of the type that were to be found in the vast state bureaucracies of Mesopotamia, but very few capable of looking ahead and warning society in time about the impending dangers.
To hold up the intellectual as the very subject of inquiry is no easy task, and certainly one in which little unanimity can be expected. Fortunately, the intellectual as a social category has been insightfully examined by many thinkers. The state of the nation’s intellectuals can be fruitfully analysed against the backdrop of what these thinkers have written.
Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, feels that the intelligentsia is a class that appears in a society that is facing the threat of external intrusion by an alien civilisation which is powerful, more creative and dominant. This class functions as a middleman, not only interpreting and applying the tricks and tools of the dominant power, but also putting up a vigorous civilisational response. In India, at the mundane level, they were the Bengali ‘babus’ who held the quills of the Raj. At the more sublime level, they were the reformers of Hinduism who felt the need to adapt and adjust if they were not to be swamped by alien values—Ram Mohan Roy (anti-suttee), Kesab Chandra Sen (anti-child marriage), and Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Tagore…
Mere collection of learned people does not make for an intelligentsia unless the historical threat and a parallel collective move to adapt and survive is there, according to Toynbee. Brahmin pundits placating the gods and maintaining purity would not form a class of intelligentsia, but Brahmin Marxists negating the caste system and calling for a new proletarian order would. So would Nepali thinkers who felt a need to preserve the Nepaliness of society even while analysing, adapting or countering alien values.
Unfortunately, Kathmandu society has not been given to intellectually vigorous confrontation. Retreat and isolation have prevented reformation and renewal. Attempts to introduce Hindu reform movements, for example the Arya Samaj, were crushed. Madhav Raj Joshi, an early Arya Samajist, was exiled to India by the Ranas. His son, Vedanta scholar Sukra Raj Shastri was hanged in January 1941 on sedition charges. Similarly, Newari Buddhist reformers were exiled to Darjeeling; and even today, Nepal is one of the few countries without a reformist Ramakrishna Mission.
From Toynbee’s grand historical panorama, one can move to Paul Baran, an American neo-Marxist professor able to hold his own even at the height of the McCarthy era witch hunts, who makes a sharp distinction between intellectuals and intellect workers. By his reckoning, a buddhijibi would not qualify as an intellectual unless he is able to systematically relate the significance of his work to the entire framework of social activity and the historical process at work.
Nepal today abounds in ‘intellect workers’ safely ensconced in ministries, state corporations and even private consultancy services, awash in privileges compared to their less fortunate brethren, but intellectually pusillanimous and politically irrelevant except as a reactionary force out to protect their fiefdoms. Intellect workers cannot function as a much needed social conscience in times of trouble.
Closer to today’s scholarly concerns is Ahmed Sadri, a sociologist steeped in both Iranian and Western intellectual traditions. It was he who categorised intellectuals into “seekers of truth” and “keepers of tradition”. Sadri differentiates between exemplary prophets and emissary prophets, those committed to ideas (pure rationalisers) and those committed to the masses (practical agents of ideas). Such a categorisation helps us to tease out the finer nuances between buddhijibis of various hues.
A priest, a librarian, a bureaucrat, a run-of-the-mill doctor, engineer or lawyer, would be practical agents of ideas, committed to the masses and keeping alive a handed-down tradition. A monk, a critic, an expert researcher or consultant would be a systematiser, that is, intellectuals re-interpreting and routinising ideas but without commitment to the masses.
Mystics, top theorists, and men of letters and arts, those propelled by the search of pure truth and having little reverence for tradition or the masses, become the exemplary prophets of their ages. When those engaged in high intellectual pursuit simultaneously show a strong commitment to the masses, they become emissary prophets, leading reformers, philosopher kings, liberators and revolutionaries. Going by Sadri’s classification, the former would be a Buddha, a Jesus, an Einstein, an Adam Smith or a Marx, while the latter would be a Padmasambhava, a St. Paul, an Edward Teller, a Margaret Thatcher or a Mao. It might be asking too much for contemporary Nepal to produce another such, but then it is in muddy waters, the times of troubles, that the lotus blooms.
In this scheme of categories, Nepal’s intellectual world today is weighted heavily in favour of the keepers of tradition: there are too few dedicated to discovering new truths and ideas. To borrow from Baran, the situation is weighted in favour of intellect workers; and to see things from a Toynbeean perspective, modern Nepali society has been so enticed and absorbed into the process of Westernisation, that it has hardly noticed the slow obliteration of its soul, nor been able to produce a vigorous counter response through an intelligentsia. What exist are not the reformers such as Vivekananda but merely the clerical babus of the Raj’ variety, who facilitate mass modernisation but are ineffective at adaptation and reinterpretation.
If the search for the real Nepali intellectual is not to be as elusive as that for the abominable snowman or as banal as that for the marketed Shangri La, the defining features of such a search must be the intellectual’s ability to squarely face the impending change instead of hiding in comfortable bureaucratic niches, to think one intellectual step further than one’s fellow countrymen, to explain today using the past, and to see the consequences of today’s actions a couple of decades further into the future.
What small intelligentsia Nepal does have, has been produced in the process of modernisation over the last 50 years. They have either been the modern professionals, such as doctors, engineers and lawyers educated abroad and with exposure to English and the West, or Sanskrit-educated (mostly) village Bahun forced into confrontation with the English language and the ways of the West.
The latter classicists have nowhere to escape, and have therefore adapted themselves to the stress arising from the encounter of civilizations by planting their feet firmly in their own soil. They are found as school masters in schools all over village Nepal, in the Nepali civil service, in political parties, and they even formed a substantial block in the now dissolved Lower House of Parliament. By one count, 52 Chief District Officers out of the country’s 75 were Sanskritists.
The Sanskrit-educated thus form the true intelligentsia in the Toynbeean or Baranian sense of the word, even though in Nepal they seem to suffer from some diffidence. Much of the world of science would be outside their reach unless they master English. (The only cheaply and widely available reading matter in Nepali in the villages is often either Christian missionary literature or Comrade Kim II Sung’s Juche ideas together with China Reconstructs.)
On the other hand, the commitment of the former group (of the Western sophisticate and professional) to the society of birth has been diluted by job opportunities abroad or in donor agencies that may geographically be in Nepal but culturally in Europe or North America. The products of some of the best “boarding schools” man the lobbies of five-star hotels as highly paid social misfits of the tourism industry. Rarely are they found in the corridors of power, or debating the gut social issues. It is the failure of this set of modern intellectuals to effectively contribute to defining the larger national life and its debates that makes the Nepali intelligentsia naked in the eyes of the people and the world.
This professional intelligentsia was born out of the need to develop and maintain modern infrastructure such as roads, hospitals, banks, electrical system, etc. Many of these items were introduced by foreigners; and it remained quite an irony—and a telling commentary on Nepal’s intelligentsia—that in the world’s only “Hindu kingdom” for much of the post-Rana period from the 1950s to the 1980s the best schools and hospitals were run by Christian missionaries. Even in the much vaunted water resources sector, the only Nepali organisation capable of actually building medium-sized hydroelectric power plants today is one initially set up by missionaries in the private sector.
In contrast, the engineering profession backed by the Nepali state practically stopped doing engineering since the mid-1970’s, choosing instead to be managers of global contracts. Linguistic hierarchy in the Nepal Electricity Authority is a good example. It runs thus: managing director, directors in chief, directors, deputy directors, managers, deputy managers, and so on. It does not go as: chief engineer, superintending engineer, divisional engineer… What this reveals is that there is no position of an engineer in the country’s premier technical institution. The agency mostly manages contracts since it adopted the expensive, large-scale Kulekhani path of power development in 1974, leaving down-to-earth engineering to expatriate consultants and contractors. The situation repeats itself in the road, irrigation, telecommunications, and water supply sectors.
The professionals have also inhabited sectoral organisations in health, education, finance, social welfare, etc.,but have failed to lead the national debate or to project a vision in any one of them. Part of the reason must go to foreign aid, which has so thoroughly come to dominate the modern sector that the- professional intellectuals, whether as civil servants or as private consultants, are cravenly beholden to the real paymasters of the country’s political masters.
Stable of Docility
Many of today’s ills, from education to engineering, diplomacy to social service, can be traced to the early 1970s when decisions on a large-scale, foreign contractor-led pattern of development—whether it be Kulekhani, the infamous World Bank-funded urban water supply projects or the New Education System Plan—were taken up by a Panchayat system that had lost creativity.
In fact, the creativity of the Panchayat system (implying the use of the intellect to reign and rule) was already a spent force by the time King Birendra inherited it. The intelligentsia which should have been challenging this decline into inevitable stagnation, in every sector, chose to play it safe.
In the country’s only university till of late, the intellectuals mandated to produce new thinkers for the future have been a Toynbeean internal proletariat of modernisation, a stable of docility that has not goaded the nation with new vision or ideas. A few who had some vision used the university as a stepping stone to higher bureaucratic assignments, never to return to enrich its intellectual milieu.
One of the implicit purposes of Tribhuvan University under the Panchayat was to sequester free thinkers and rein in their propensity to challenge the existing order. Its mater was the Trichandra College, whose foundation stone was laid in 1918 by a reluctant Rana Prime Minister fearful that he had just dug the regime’s grave. The legacy lived on after the feudal restoration of 1960 and the University could not rise above being a certificate-churning unit producing ‘babus’ for the Panchayati Raj.
All this is now history; what is galling is that the University has not been able to galvanise its cerebral crucible even in this, the fifth year into democracy. The soul of a university—its lively post-graduate colloquiums and cutting-edge faculty research—is lost in the banality of form over substance.
Economists and sociologists are the tribe of intellectuals whose profession should have made a dent in defining a new order,but has not. Despite democracy and a change in the political system, the 1985 Structural Adjustment Programme of the World Bank or the macro-economically damaging Arun III project (conceived around the same time) have been swallowed whole without questioning or public debate by a majority of the professionals, secure in their bureaucratic cocoons. Sociologists have been enmeshed in kinship and gender analysis of exotic tribes rather than facing the problems of civil society in the burgeoning cities and other potential hotspots. Many who are sustained by the donor-backed consultancy business have chosen the easy route of simplistic “baseline studies”, leaving the rarefied heights of policy distillation to expatriate greenhorns.
A rugged mountain economy could be run in central planning style only at great cost to its efficiency, especially in harnessing local creativity; but decentralisation of economic power remain s a matter of lip-service by the new political masters. Despite democracy, devolution of power to alternative chains of command, to local government or outside-of-government bodies is not proceeding by an effort of will but only through the obvious, but sporadic, reality of electoral politics: the votes are mostly outside Kathmandu and the need to move money there is an inbuilt pressure of democracy—not an enlightened management choice of Kathmandu’s rulers. Intellectuals advising these rulers are unable to coalesce into effective think tanks, mulling over matters of good governance.
When Nepal gave up survival through conquest in 1816 in the aftermath of the Anglo-Nepal wars, it had no choice but to develop diplomatic skills and intellectual firepower. Although Rana rule was a retreat into isolation, it had in Chandra Sumshere one of the most astute diplomat-rulers in Nepali history. In the modern era, King Mahendra was another such figure, despite his anti-democratic predilections. Bisweswor Prasad Koirala was one commoner who matched and surpassed Mahendra, and it was ill luck that the enlightened autocrat and the intellectual democrat appeared at the same juncture, eclipsing each other. Nepal is still suffering from this tragedy of historical spacing.
The collapse of the Second World in Eastern Europe means for the Third World that the Age of Foreign Aid is coming to a close. Where are the Nepali diplomats skilled in international economics who can lure investments this way? In the entire Himalayan belt from Afghanistan and Kashmir through Uttarakhand, Darjeeling, Bhutan and Nagaland, populations are seething with pent-up dissatisfactions of epic proportions. In this cauldron, where are the statesmen who can negotiate an elbow-room “zone of peace” for this country? And how well has Nepal’s truly historical ties with Tibet been forgotten by an intelligentsia which should be free of the geopolitical concerns that shackle the ruler and bureaucrat.
Intellectuals manning the barricades of political and legal studies have been quite ineffective in defining and interpreting the new political order. A new constitution was drafted, amidst domestic euphoria and hosannas from abroad, imitating Westminster and idealistically envisaging over-riding judicial supremacy. Today political and ideological forces find the constitution so restrictive, or unreflective of historical ground realities in Nepal, that protest has to be heard outside of the Parliament, and a party with a majority cannot run a government.
Nowhere is the dereliction of intellect more evident than in the recent political wranglings in Kathmandu, to which “constitutional crisis” would be too genteel a term to apply. Mundane matters of parliamentary democracy—the right of a prime minister to call for midterm polls—is challenged in court; and when the court decides in favour of the prime minister, national leaders such as Ganesh Man Singh of the Nepali Congress and Man Mohan Adhikary of the United Marxist-Leninists, opine that “the Supreme Court should have given its verdict as per the popular feelings”.
Granted that you might not like Girija Prasad Koirala, but that is no reason to ask that a civilised seat of justice behave as a kangaroo court. The Supreme Court, on its part, inexplicably went ahead deputing judges as election officers even while the case challenging the legality of the dissolution of the House and the elections was subjudice before it. Where are the political intellectuals and human rights activists who should have spoken truth to power, both the Government and Opposition, these past four years? Underlying the political bankruptcy of both the Nepali Congress and the Left is the intellectual bankruptcy of its adherents who choose loyalty to personalties over fidelity to reason. After performing such a “sacrifice of the intellect”, it is impossible for them not to be afraid of diving deep below the surface of issues to address the structural anomalies of the recent crisis in democracy and the Constitution which upholds it. A Communist leader dies when a jeep plunges into a river along a highway where busloads of people have died similarly earlier. Before investigations had even begun, supposedly responsible leaders of the Left were already using the word “assassination”, and subsequently took the nation to the brink. Meanwhile, nobody dares speak for the driver of the jeep—by all accounts a loyal party hand—languishing in jail. Other than the exception of Rishikesh Shaha, “human rights activists” of all hues scurry for cover rather than defend the most hallowed of all principles—”not guilty until proven”. Earlier, in 1990, as King Birendra conceded sovereignty to the people, rampaging mobs outnumbered a handful of menial policemen and conducted an excruciatingly cruel eight-hour lynching in broad daylight along Kathmandu bylanes. No one came to the rescue, and who remembers them now? No academic felt the need to study the sociological and psychological implications of an incredible event. A year later, when demonstrators once again took to the streets, nervous and ill-trained policemen with good memories are unwilling to go in for hand-to-hand crowd control. They shoot into the crowd and several civilians die. All the public hears thereafter from human rights watch groups and opposition politicians is of conspiracy theories and police brutality. But where were the scholars whose job it is to put such incidents in context, and to try and explain and learn from wrenching events? The social scientists twiddle their fingers and look skywards when confronted with tough, unpopular conclusions, while human rights intellectuals huddle in their safe escapist havens.
Today’s new rulers of the Right and the Left, despite being mandated by a popular democracy, are showing as little creativity as the Panchayat in its dying throes. They are still culturally bound to the time-honoured system of chakari, rent-seeking and feudocratic entitlement to power, without renewing their mandate either through popular or party elections. The new pandits who whisper in their ears have not managed, worse, do not seem to want, to create new and effective for a where reasoned debates are conducted and conclusions heard. Not yet for Nepal the famous salons and parlours of an intellectually vibrant Europe where a Voltaire or a Carlyle could be heard.
Is there hope? Despite the pessimism and cynicism, the answer is a resounding Yes! Those who would light a candle rather than curse the darkness can, under democracy’s umbrella, act and organise. All we require is a handful of motivated professionals in each sphere of national life, and you have the stage for a medium-sized renaissance. There will be self-confident women and men, exposed to the wider world of modern ideas, but with their feet firmly on Nepali soil.
Such a long-term view may not be of much solace to those suffering the yoke of everyday inflation and service breakdowns,but renaissance is not instant coffee. It must be preceded by hard and grinding rationalisation. One inter-generational hope is that the fight for a better order begun by the homegrown “vernacular intelligentsia” will be joined by at least a few of the younger set in the Nepali diaspora abroad who, armed with the intellectual tools of the West, will return to strive in their country, and, if Nepal is too small, as South Asian intellectuals grappling with the titanic problems of the region. They will find more satisfaction becoming socially relevant in the region than as materially well-off internal proletarians abroad. Essential is demonstrable commitment to a troubled society.