When enough is never enoughThe success of an ethical appeal requires that the moral principles of the respondent be equally proper.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has shown its concern over the deteriorating health condition of Ishan Adhikari, popularly known as Iih. The rights body has advised concerned stakeholders to resolve the problem through dialogue and negotiation. That, however, is easier said than done in a country with a stagnant government, static opposition, subservient civil society and sanguine media.
The young activist shot to fame in the aftermath of the promulgation of the controversial constitution when he splashed the front gate of Singha Durbar with red paint, presumably symbolising the blood of innocent victims of state atrocities in Madhes, and was detained for his expressive protest. Predictably, his remonstrations were washed away in the flood of xenophobic jingoism and demagogic populism that the ethnonational chieftain of the Khas-Arya community had unleashed to the cheer of the media and intelligentsia.
The choice of Ishan's nom de plume is dissent in itself. The word Iih in Nepali stands for 'this' and it's Sanskrit meaning implies the deity of desire. His satyagraha, literally resolution for truth, as the form of peaceful protest is meant to improve the condition of the reality that exists and the desire to create a better alternative. However, a mischievous interpretation of Iih in Nepali is akin to showing the middle finger, probably to the established order of the state and society.
Unlike in 2016, when Iih's aims were nothing less than withstanding the wave of ethnonationalism of the dominant majority, all that he wants this time is that the government handle the raging pandemic in a responsible manner. It is avowedly an apolitical movement. Perhaps that's the reason Supremo KP Sharma Oli found it expedient to grace the hospital where protestors were being treated with his extraordinary visit. An agreement was promptly signed, which the government had neither the moral intention nor the political obligation of honouring.
After the inevitable collapse of the agreement, the second round of satyagraha seems to be drawing more political support. From Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel to Prakash Man Singh and Shekhar Koirala, the entire Nepali Congress leadership has been lining up to express their solidarity. Even though the media has chosen to downplay the peaceful protest—choosing instead to highlight prolonged contestation for leadership in the ruling dispensation—Iih has slowly begun to acquire social legitimacy.
In the short-term, the outcome of the ongoing campaign is unlikely to be very encouraging. The movement is hamstrung by its political ambiguity. There is a bipartisan consensus in the country over politics of prosperity and the paramountcy of nationalist posturing. For Oli, authority of the Indian emblem and authenticity of the birthplace of Ram are more important issues. Meanwhile, he is convinced that Covid-19 is not worse than the flu—that it can be kept in check with home remedies such as ginger and turmeric followed by frequent gulps of warm water.
Mass movements result from widespread discontent at a certain point of time in history. Such a condition doesn't exist in Nepal as a significant section of society seems to be quite happy holding a map that has little or no significance in everyday life. Popular uprisings occur when a ruler becomes so detested that he or she has to be overthrown by the show and use of collective force. Due to his ethnonational convictions, Supremo Oli continues to enjoy the cross-party support of the dominant majority.
Constructive movements require material and human resources of an organisation that can sustain such a mobilisation for prolonged periods. Inspirational leadership, competent management, committed cadres and resourceful support base are necessary ingredients of all successful oppositional movements. Political parties are often the most appropriate vehicles of channelising discontent against the regime and coming up with more promising alternatives. Nepali Congress doesn't even seem to have such ambitions anymore.
That leaves the alternative: a conscientious individual taking the initiative. The message of a morally upright person taking a stand for truth may not be as powerful as the propaganda of the deed, but it definitely helps in questioning the legitimacy of the regime. The consciousness of an apathetic population is raised in the process. The success of an ethical appeal, however, requires that the moral principles of the respondent be equally proper.
The Nepal Communist Party is wedded to the ideology of panch devata of communists—Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. In this neo-religion, 'bourgeois morality' of truth and non-violence has little or no place. ‘The man who repudiates terrorism in principle—i.e., repudiates measures of suppression and intimidation towards determined and armed counter-revolution’, wrote Leon Trotsky, ‘must reject all idea of the political supremacy of the working class and its revolutionary dictatorship’.
It's extremely difficult to hold despots of any kind to account. But it's almost impossible to make a regressive regime that rules in the name of the people, or a supposedly progressive one that idolises proletarian dictatorship, be answerable to its critics. The ruling dispensation in Nepal seems to combine the worst of all systems: culturally regressive, economically oligarchic and socially conservative; the regime swears by proletarian ideology and sells socialistic dreams.
The fate of peaceful protestors under totalitarian regimes is perhaps best symbolised by the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square or Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Such activists fare slightly better under democratic authoritarianism, but dissenters have to live under constant fear when rulers use the legitimacy of the majority to establish new rules of political morality. Nationalist calls can turn law enforcement agencies into ruthless oppressors, as the 9/11 in Madhes showed with deadly finality.
Mahatma Gandhi had called the Holocaust ‘the greatest crime of our time’ and had sympathised greatly with the plight of the Jews. But by way of remedy, he had nothing to offer save the suggestion that the victims of Nazi atrocities should have suffered in silence to arouse the conscience of their oppressors. While the intentions of the Mahatma were beyond reproach, his approach works only when the oppressed and oppressor share similar moral convictions. Many Jews listened in silence but found their own ways of getting back at their tormentors.
Though not exactly similar, the problem with most protest movements over the last decade has been that they have all tried to ape the Tea Party movement of the US, which prepared the ground for the rise of Trumpism. It inspired the first White Shirt peace rally in Kathmandu that infused new life to regressive politics in Nepal. Anna Hazare's hunger strike against corruption in India was another copycat movement that ended up providing popular legitimacy to the politics of Hindutva.
The leaderless Occupy movement and anguished Black Lives Matter have provided frameworks for Occupy Baluwatar and Dalit Lives Matter with comparable results: steep climb and slow but inevitable decline over a period of time. The intentions of Iih and his cohort are impeccable, but the 'enough is enough' slogan echoes the same being vocalised worldwide—with almost no similarity on the ground.
With an Oli-garchy in power and Oliars carrying the palanquin of the ruler, apolitical should be a slur rather than a badge of honour for every conscientious protestor. Public protests are political acts by definition. All power to Iih in his political struggles ahead.
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