The poverty of republican imaginationThe divisive 2015 constitution has almost foreclosed any chance of further reforming society and polity.
Controversial but defiant, author Salman Rushdie is a gritty survivor. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sued him for libel; her son and successor Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi banned his book, and so did the Pakistani military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq with his other work; the Iranian Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling Muslims to kill him, and he was grievously stabbed on the stage of a public programme in New York in August last year.
Rushdie lost an eye in the attack but came out recently to accept a prize for courage from PEN America. All literature is political, but political literature makes it a point to engage with social tensions and power relations of the time forthrightly. Rushdie excels in forcefully showing the readers what they have seen but pretend not to have seen it. In their heart of hearts, every Pakistani knows why their country has been lurching from crisis to crisis since its founding. Rushdie states the obvious without rancour, “Pakistan is fundamentally flawed and insufficiently imagined”!
The charge of having been “insufficiently imagined” is almost generic and holds true for most of the freshly decolonised and newly independent countries of the post-war era. Colonial authorities divvied up Asia, Africa and the Americas according to the balance of power in Europe. Lines on the map that separated their possessions had little congruence with the history, culture or economy of the land and their people.
The landmass of British India, for example, once stretched from the Hindu Kush mountains in the west to the Tenasserim hills in the east and from the Himalayan ranges in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south, with a couple of islands thrown in between. It would have been impossible to imagine a community of Benedict Anderson’s formulation with so much diversity. After having syphoned off the resources of the subcontinent for almost two centuries, the Raj left South Asia in a bigger mess than they had found upon their arrival in the mid-eighteenth century.
Flawed imagination is the rule rather than the exception in post-colonial South Asia. India envisions itself as “a union of states”, a sovereign, secular and democratic republic with a parliamentary system of government. It has maintained its unity only due to the ever-evolving concept of federalism. The one-party dominance has repeatedly undercut the foundations of the democratic republic, and secularism risks being a victim of naked majoritarianism.
Sir Allama Muhammad Iqbal conceptualised Pakistan at the Lincoln’s Inn in London; Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan fed political details into the dream at Aligarh Muslim University; Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy of Calcutta helped create conditions for the Partition, and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, domiciled in Bombay, spearheaded the movement for the realisation of Iqbal’s dream. None of them had any idea about what to do with a political geography without a historical identity.
Though fundamentally flawed and structurally insufficient—“two Wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God…” in the poignant prose of Rushdie—Pakistan at least had the imagination to envision a future. So different and yet so much alike, Nepal failed to learn from the criticism of the Basic Principle Committee Interim Report (1950) in Pakistan and come up with an outline for the transformation of the Shah-Rana fiefdom into a modern country.
Once Jung Bahadur Kunwar succeeded in eliminating almost the entire line-up of competing courtiers in the Kot Massacre in 1846, he lost no time throwing away the Gorkhali king’s conceptualisation of the domain as a “yam between two stones”. He chose to clutch the coattails of the East India Company as its most loyal minion in the Indian subcontinent and enrich himself beyond belief through the “Lucknow Loot”. Jung, however, retained the “Asli Hindustan” description to entrench himself in power. Unflinching loyalty to the British Empire for well over a century remained the defining feature of the Ranarchy in Nepal.
The Shah kings after 1951 embraced SuDhaPa’s [Surya Bikram Gyawali, Dharanidhar Koirala and Parasmani Pradhan] construction of the “Nepali Nation” that revolved around the personalities of King Prithvi Narayan and pioneering poet Bhanubhakta. Post-1951 politicos failed to realise that such a formulation was antithetical to the very idea of parliamentary democracy. Parliaments are meant to restrain the ruler—be it a hereditary monarch or an elected president—and provide representational rights to the diversities within a country.
Geopolitical dimensions aside, the 1960 royal-military coup was a logical outcome of an inappropriate formulation of the nascent nation as the king was the natural inheritor of King Prithvi’s history and poet Bhanubhakta’s Ramayan-based Hindu culture. For all his struggles, sacrifices and virtues—they are indeed stupendous by any standards—it needs to be accepted that even the legendary BP Koirala failed to come up with a fresh perspective on the definition of the “Nepalese nation” during his long years in the royal prison.
Any comparison between historic personalities is fraught with perils. Indian historian Jawaharlal Nehru and Nepali litterateur BP Koirala were both Brahmins, were trained as lawyers and emerged as statesmen of their respective countries. Strikingly, while Nehru wrote scholarly tomes from the British jails, such as Glimpses of World History and The Discovery of India, to reframe the past of an emergent multinational state, Koirala bought the “SuDhaPa” formulation of the nation lock, stock and barrel and concentrated on producing literary works apart from penning some reminisces from the royal prison.
Erupted in the post-Soviet euphoria of early-1990s, when the “end of history” had been declared—even though somewhat prematurely, as it would later turn out—the People’s Movement of 1990 was an opportune moment to revisit the exclusionary past of Nepal, redesign a transitional present, and imagine its inclusive future. The problem was that the movement had a steely leadership in Ganeshman Singh but no thinker to work with him to reimagine the future.
The reformation of the 1990s in Nepal turned out to be merely a restoration of the parliamentary system. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why we began to totter within half a decade, with the rise of the Maoists in 1996: Parliamentary system doesn’t work if the head of state harbours the ambition of overruling the head of government in the name of national interest.
In the aftermath of the April Uprising, Nepal got a second chance after 2008 to correct the mistakes of the 1990s. But the ghosts of the 1960s were still around the presidential palace. The then head of state Ram Baran Yadav exercised an authority he didn’t have in the name of national interest, which prompted the then Head of Government, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, to bow out of office in utter humiliation. The transformation of fierce and uncompromising Maoist supremo Prachanda into a docile but scheming Pushpa Kamal began in 2009 when he was made to realise that PEON [permanent establishment of Nepal] power was supreme in the country.
The third chance was squandered in 2015, with the promulgation of a divisive constitution that has almost foreclosed any chance of further reforming society and polity. The narrowest possible definition of national interest in the 16-point conspiracy resulted in the complete failure of constitutional imagination. Its only saving grace is the stated aim of institutionalising a federal, democratic and secular republic. On that positive note, Happy Republic Day 2023! It is indeed the truest National Day of the country.