Oped

Library for life and community

  • Only access to books and the consequent salutary effects can help us free ourselves from the shackles of our circumstance.
- PRAMOD MISHRA, Kathmandu

Apr 11, 2019-

The admirable work done by the Deputy Inspector General of Police, Karnali Province, Mahesh Bikram Shah caught my eye a few days ago.  Not because he had cracked an impossible criminal case, but for no less significant a work—his attempt to reform prison inmates by establishing libraries in each of the prisons in the province.  This news raised a number of questions, and possibilities, in my mind. What is the work of law enforcement?  Who is qualified to be a police official?  What can a police official do to catch criminals and prevent crime?  At a time when murder, rape and the mafia have tarnished the country’s image, what should the country’s leaders do besides help corner the criminals?  At a time when the central government under Mr KP Oli has failed in solving heinous crimes like Nirmala Pant’s rape and murder, the remote and economically challenged province under its DIG has embarked on a campaign of changing prisoners’ lives by establishing libraries.

DIG Shah is a writer himself.  A writer of several books, he won the country’s highest literary prize, Madan Purashkar, in BS 2063 for his Chapamarko Chora about the Maoist war. It was reported that Mr Shah got inspired for his library work by prisoners who told him how reading Mr Shah’s books changed their lives.  

At a time when the humanities have come under assault all over the world for their purported uselessness in comparison to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, this act by a writer-police head of a province once again reaffirms the Sanskrit verse—Sahitya, sangit, kalabihina/ Sakshat pashu puchcha vishan hina (without literature, music and the arts, a human being is little better than an animal without a tail or horn).  One is reminded of a similar act carried out by India’s Lady Super Cop, Kiran Bedi, in Delhi’s maximum security prison, Tihar, decades ago.  But Bedi’s work was confined to one prison. And she was a super cop, but not a prize-winning author.

DIG Shah’s work in the country’s geographically remote province also reaffirms Nepal’s federalism.  The central government is firmly ensconced in its centrality and is busy finding ways to maintain and sustain the unitary structure of the Nepali state. The provinces in the meantime have been given short shrift in the allocation of resources, including rights and officials.  Despite the foot-dragging tendencies of the Oli government, and Chief Ministers’ airing of public frustration, provinces have been doing some good work, such as Karnali’s prison library campaign or Province 2’s Beti Bachau, Beti Padhau (Save a girl, teach a girl) campaign.  Provincial leaders love their provinces because they are from the province.  They are connected to the people both geographically and emotionally.  No wonder then that even a police official thinks of the ways he can do good for the prisoners who he is tasked to punish and keep under tight surveillance.

But this gesture of benevolence towards the prisoners in Karnali raises an interesting question.  If those who are guarded by the concrete prison walls receive opportunities for reform and enlightenment through reading and books, what about those who are prisoners without concrete walls?  I am talking about those who imprison themselves in the invisible walls of ignorance, prejudice and superstition.  One can find such people in every town and village—good hearted people otherwise, but who lack the resources to feed and broaden the mind.  Even if the old, book-deprived generation dies out, what about the revolutionary generation of the country that made such momentous changes as republicanism, secularism and federalism possible?  How can they strengthen and sustain these big global concepts and institutions in their country, stuck in a feudal mindset, when the dormant forces of regression have become active?

And, then, the question of unskilled migrants also makes one think of a different kind of prison.  Lack of skill, lack of knowledge, of health and of the wider world—hygiene, history, geography, literature—have been causing havoc on their lives.

Then the country’s sovereignty, too, has been a source of constant worry not only for the virulent nationalists but even those who are moderates.  The Maoists at one time spoke of mandatory military training for the youth of a certain age, as in Israel, to defend the country in times of external threat. Without access to serious books, universal military training coupled with accessibility to smart phones can easily turn such combat-trained youth into brigands and gangsters.

In his Republic, Plato through Socrates likens education to bringing the allegorical prisoners out of the cave into the broad daylight of knowledge and wisdom so that the republic could be well-governed by enlightened rulers.  Only then can the republic be safeguarded and sustained.  Plato says that true education, by which he means the liberal arts, acts as a hammer on human souls to rid them of the “leaden weight of birth and becoming.”  In one sense or another, all of us are prisoners of the limitations of our birth (class, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, geography, etc.) and upbringing.  Only access to books and the consequent salutary effects can help us free ourselves from the shackles of our circumstances, as some prisoners in DIG Shah’s province have realised.  

But how can each village and city municipality, and more than one in bigger municipalities, have a library?  In Nepal, foreign governments, universities and colleges, and special trusts and private efforts have made some libraries possible, mostly in Kathmandu.  But library as part of a community’s organic life, much like the municipality office or school, has not caught on yet.  One hopes that federalism along with the explosion in book writing and book buying in the past decade will soon usher in a culture of libraries all over Nepal under the leadership of provincial governments.  

Mishra is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.

Published: 11-04-2019 08:33

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