Of politics and teachersThe history of overt and covert allegiances of teachers to political groups spans many decades.
Recently, a debate about the participation of teachers in active politics has emerged in earnest in Nepal. This subject has been triggered by the intervention of prominent leaders of different political parties. They were alarmed by the Election Commission's warning on November 23 and the High Court ruling that teachers cannot take an active role in politics, not least in the propaganda work of the parties to which they owe their allegiance. This is not as simple as it may sound, and this is not a new debate, either. This has come as a hot topic now because the parties that have entered a new phase of political rivalry after a series of splits, legal battles, national conferences and reorganisations realise that they are in dire need of educated people to create the party mechanism. For that, the role of teachers with their clout among students and their guardians is deemed to be necessary. Though the teachers have not come out in hordes to join the political parties, the number of involved parties is significant. The history of overt and covert allegiances of teachers to political groups spans many decades.
We should look back at the history of the political parties that are currently in dominant positions. The political parties did not find it easy to perform activities during the Panchayat times that lasted until 1990. They could not create contacts with the people and draw mass support for their activities. So, they always relied on teachers for the purpose of spreading their ideologies or their "isms" as it is commonly known in Nepal. The political parties espoused either communist or democratic values as the basis of their political activities. They needed both educated and free people to create forums for that purpose. But it was not easy to create such forums openly because of the Panchayat dictatorship in the country. So the parties tacitly created zones of influence outside the controlled spheres of the Panchayat system by using educational institutions. The people who carried out their missions were teachers.
Gradually, that turned into hegemony in terms of creating a tacit consensus among teachers who worked in tandem with those who opposed the Panchayat autocracy. This hegemony was a mode of resistance. The agencies that created this unique hegemony used the sphere of education, schools and colleges, and some popular support for that. The accoutrements that this hegemony used were cultural activities, progressive songs, poetry and some political rhetoric. Those who performed these activities were teachers, and for them, that was a double bind—they openly performed educational work and covertly performed political activities. The banned political parties found this double bind of school and college teachers useful to spread their influences. The parties, too, became quite successful in using the teachers' aspirations for democracy.
The hegemony used ideologies to create a space for activism in the sphere of education involving teachers and tertiary level students who espoused democratic political values. But the teachers also drew salaries paid from the state funds. That was a unique aspect of this double bind. The teachers did perform their pedagogic activities regularly, and that was their strength. At the same time, many teachers of that period became leaders of different political parties. If we ask active political leaders today, they would say they were either teachers or students or both in that system. This sphere expanded and became a power to reckon with and created a new strength to resist the Panchayat government's pressure to refrain from activities of a political nature.
People like me also became part of that hegemony at some moment in time. I experienced the power of that independent culture which never accepted the Panchayat polity. Student organisations were formed, maintaining their allegiances to the major political parties that were banned. That form of hegemony gradually inspired teachers to hold free political views. I spent nearly 25 years of my half-a-century-long teaching life within that hegemony, which was a good experience. As a student, I grew with the political ideas of freedom not warranted by the autocratic regime. Later I became an independent academic. But not all the colleagues did that. They continued to be either active members or fellow travellers of the political parties. After the political change of 1990, the political parties started creating student organisations directly under their umbrellas. Today it is common to read news about the student wings affiliated to different political parties coming out in demonstrations, forming alliances and opposing measures taken by educational institutions.
However, during the crucial phase of making the constitution, the political parties stated clearly that the teachers who are in service and are paid by state-funded educational institutions should not dabble in politics and become active members of political parties. That was a highly practical and insightful provision. The reason is that the Nepali educational system is on the verge of collapse because of the uncanny political interventions that could soon dethrone educational values. Politicians become alarmed at suggestions that the teachers in service should refrain from becoming political cadres. Educationists fear that political activism will lure teachers away from their roles as teachers whose responsibilities are clearly defined in their code of conduct as teachers.
But the intriguing question is whether political parties, especially the leaders, will create conditions for a free educational environment where teachers will fulfil their responsibilities as educators who could be called the harbingers of a culture of free and creative education in Nepal. The answer to this question is not easy. It is again a Catch-22 situation. But the constitution of Nepal has guaranteed free spaces for education to function independently. The political parties and their governments cannot ignore that because Nepal's greatest hope and force in education, and it is necessary to create the condition for that to flourish.
It is very easy to understand that the political parties would like to see everybody, people from all walks of life, become their party workers because they are now vying to make their groups strong. For that, they need people who are educated and have influence in the community. Teachers are the best candidates for that. But as Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher in his oeuvre about power, says one mantra, "If you are guided by dictatorial power ambitions, you create members who are 'cogs in the machine', but if democratic values guide you, you create free people." Such free people will decide what they want to do. They will choose what is best for them and for society and culture. The political leaders should have the courage to choose the latter in education.