Culture of silenceCommon people’s ability to speak out against injustices has qualitatively declined over the years
Nepal’s political system and constitution guarantee all fundamental freedoms—be it of speech or assembly or press. In fact, the abundance and unregulated use of freedom has given birth to chaotic and anarchic conditions, which have severely impeded development and order. However, while mafia-like political and business groups and guerrilla-like terror groups have taken undue advantage of the freedom, common people’s ability to speak out has qualitatively declined over the years. People are being more and more
selective, both in ‘what’ and ‘whom’ to speak out against. They only criticise and protest when they are certain that their life, well-being or property is not in danger.
For example, ‘civil society leaders’, who freely censure the government, fear to criticise the anti-corruption body for its apparently unethical behaviour and witch-hunt. Why risk its reprisal when parliamentarians and powerful politicians choose, for whatever reason, to underplay its excesses. People in this country freely criticise the elected Parliament; but even those plaintiffs who know they lost their court case because they could not offer a bribe will not speak out against the injustice in fear of retaliation such as being jailed on the charge of contempt of court. People fear not only powerful state bodies but also non-state bodies and individuals. There are countless examples that reveal a new sorry state of affairs of our democracy.
People do not fear Army generals in uniform like in many totalitarian regimes; they are not afraid to slap political leaders either, even in public. But they are afraid to speak against or defy the call of banda even by small groups. Every now and then Biplav-led Maoists or similarly small or hitherto unknown political or ethnic outfits call a banda, just to make their presence felt. People know that they are small, politically insignificant groups and may even vent their anger in private. But they will not complain openly. They would rather comply because, to enforce a banda, the organisers use violence and terror tactics such as arson attacks on vehicles and thrashing of people who resist, and still go scot-free. So when the state cannot guarantee their safety and security, people are forced to think why they should put themselves in harm’s way through an act of defiance.
Thanks to the greedy transport operators in this country, passengers travelling in old, poorly maintained and overcrowded buses have to pray to god to save their life, especially when the reckless and often drunk driver is going too fast in busy city roads or dangerous hilly tracks. But they will not dare ask the driver to drive slowly and safely. They know the might of the transport syndicates and their equally powerful trade unions whose operatives will insult or beat the complaining passenger or force her to leave the bus in the middle of the journey. People also know that they enjoy political connections and patronage, so nobody including the police will help them, should such a situation occur and they complain.
Corruption is rampant in most government offices, especially the ones that deliver services to the public directly. Despite the ‘citizen’s charters’ displayed in huge hoarding boards in all such offices that guarantee clean, transparent and efficient working, bribery and sluggishness are the order of the day. Although annoyed, people quietly pay some extra money—preferably through some middle men—to receive the service in time. They know that any complaint to the higher authorities or report to the media, the effectiveness of which will at best be momentary and inadequate, can even be counterproductive. The officers there may, under one pretext or another, make them pay even more or wait even longer. And nobody will likely help them.
Expatriates and donor communities praise the freedom of speech Nepali people enjoy. They seem to believe that despite setbacks in other spheres of political, social and economic life, the courage Nepali people have shown by speaking out against injustices during the last two decades is outstanding. It may be true in the eyes of those who look inside from outside. For insiders, however, it is a different story. Beneath the surface of freedom of speech, a culture of silence is taking root.
Prolonged political instability that produces a series of short-lived, weak and mostly coalition governments, coupled with unbridled freedom, has made Nepal an anarchic state. The weak state has constantly turned a blind eye to every wrongdoing of the political class. More and more criminals, fanatics and vested interest groups have jumped on the political bandwagon, for protection and impunity. A brutal, decade-long Maoist insurgency, which targeted not only the state but also their opponents including the cadres and supporters of other parties, was the one that first sowed the seeds of fear in Nepali society. Even after the Maoists joined the peace process, a series of regional and ethnic agitations helped perpetuate the fear psychosis. During the first and second Madhes uprisings, thousands of non-Madhesi families had to flee for safety leaving their homeland in the Madhes. So did many Bahun-Chhetri families from the eastern hills, following ethnocentric agitations there.
In a democracy, the only thing people need to fear is the law. But in Nepal, only common people without any clout have to fear the law; the powerful ones do not give a damn. And the political class lacks the political will to counter them. Public administration officials and security forces are too poorly manned, motivated, trained and equipped to contain anarchic activities effectively. Besides, they do not want to take risks involved in curbing such activities. They also fear that the right activists—both domestic and foreign—and the media will blow even trivial and unintended mistakes during an action out of proportion, which may adversely affect their career and personal safety. So if ‘do not speak out and forbear’ is people’s safety mantra, ‘do not act and remain on the safe side’ is the authorities’.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org