Where has Nepal’s once active civil society gone?While professional groups have been raising voices against moves to curtail individual and press freedoms, citizens-led movement is conspicuous by its absence
In the ongoing opposition over the proposed Media Council bill, one group, which has often been at the forefront of anti-authoritarian movements in the past, has been conspicuous by its absence—civil society.
Even as political parties and a number of professional organisations are increasingly mounting protests against the controversial bill, which many say is aimed at stifling press freedom, civil society has largely remained in the backdrop.
“This is largely because civil society itself is politically divided,” said Sundar Mani Dixit, a medical doctor who has been a vocal member of Kathmandu’s civil society. “Those who were involved during the 2006 people’s movement as civil society members have managed to get political appointments. Now they only tend to come to the streets when it suits their personal interests.”
Dixit was one of the few non-partisan civil society members present at a protest programme organised by journalists against the Media Council bill on May 17 in Kathmandu.
A number of rights activists and civil society leaders agree with Dixit’s assessment because they too believe that the omnipresence of political parties in various forms and across society is one of the major reasons behind the absence of civil society.
The ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) has at least 22 sister organisations—ranging from party-affiliated journalists to doctors and civil servants.
“The government has been using its sister wings at various professional organisations to influence others,” said Krishna Pahadi, founding chairperson of the Human Rights and Peace Society Nepal.
In the past, when governments attempted to curtail rights by restricting individual and press freedoms, civil society — ordinary citizens linked by common interests and collective activity — often took to the streets in protest. But now that political parties have penetrated every facet of society, it is harder for people to mobilise, said experts.
“The media, intellectuals, employees, police, ethnic groups, regional organisations, and the political parties have their people there, so how can you expect the voice of civil society?” asked Surendra KC, a Tribhuvan University professor of history who is popular on YouTube for his candid views on politics and corruption. “There is nothing in Nepal that is beyond the reach of political parties.”
Members of civil society have formed organisations and are themselves seeking power, said KC. Therefore, there is no one to speak for the people in a true sense.
Civil society made up a crucial segment of the 2006 Janaandolan against king Gyanendra’s autocracy. Earlier, during the 1990 popular movement, too, civil society members participated in and led protest programmes, providing the uprising with a broad mandate, as ordinary citizens, not merely political party-affiliated cadres, were involved.
However, even as the KP Sharma Oli administration continues to weaken institutions and make attempts to trample on civil liberties, gag the media and silence dissenting voices, civil society as such has either largely remained quiet or been limited to social media.
“For me, Twitter is civil society at this point in time,” said Devendra Raj Pandey, a former finance minister and an active civil society member during past citizen-led political movements. Pandey is active on Twitter, often posting critical commentaries on contemporary social, political and economic issues.
But many political analysts say that it’s not that professional groups, or loose groups of professionals, have not voiced their discontent at the Oli administration. Former vice-chancellors of universities have been protesting against the government’s attempt to amend acts related to education, saying that such a move will entrench political interference in academic institutions.
Meanwhile, rights activists have been putting pressure on the government to not amend the National Human Rights Act to include provisions that will curtail the authority of the rights watchdog.
But the ‘civil society’ that Nepalis knew in the past has largely been silent, said some prominent members of society.
Charan Prasain, a human rights activist, said that it’s high time civil society members came together to fight the incumbent government’s moves.
“A joint movement is needed to ensure rule of law, human rights, freedom of expression and press freedom,” Prasain told the Post.
But things are not so simple, said Dixit. Civil society is a loose group of people with no secretariat or funding, he said. And so citizens need to come forward voluntarily if civil liberty, press freedoms and human rights are at stake.
Shambhu Thapa, former president of the Nepal Bar Association, echoed Dixit on the nature of civil society, in that it is a leaderless, non-organisation, loose coalition of people with their own lives, professions and interests. There is little to bind them together, except for a shared stance in the larger interest of the society and the country. Someone needs to take charge, said Thapa.
“Since it is a loose forum, someone must take the lead, which is not happening now,” he said.
For someone to take the lead, there needs to be a build-up of resistance, and people must feel the compulsion to take to the streets, said political commentator CK Lal.
“I think civil society members have not yet felt the urge to come to the streets,” Lal said.
Most people are still making up their minds about whether this democratically elected government would curb civil liberties, according to Daman Nath Dhungana, a former Speaker of the House. They still seem to believe that this elected government won't take away their freedom, said Dhungana.
“The media has been raising the issue while journalists have taken to the streets as the first stakeholder,” he said. “The people will rise up only when they feel that vital freedoms are being challenged.”
But for Pahadi and Dixit, the time has already come. More bills aimed at curtailing freedoms are in the offing and a number of these bills omit the word ‘autonomy’, which does not bode well, said Pahadi.
“We are on the brink of a national crisis. We need to fight every move that is against democratic values,” Dixit said. “The media is the main pillar of democracy, but the information minister has vowed not to withdraw the Media Council bill. This is sad.”
But old hands like Dhungana and Pandey, who are both in their 70s, seem to believe that their role is over and now it is time for a younger generation to take up the mantle of civil society.
“We should not expect people of the older generation all the time,” said Dhungana.
Pandey, too, believes that his time at the forefront of Nepal’s civil society is a thing of the past.
“I did my best, for what it was worth,” Pandey told the Post. “Now it’s time for the younger generation with greater energy to join the movement as their future is at stake.”