Missing cues of history

  • Nepalis have forsaken the norm of evaluating public figures on the basis of their past

Jan 17, 2017-

Only one phrase of any write-up is likely to contain really new information, the rest is all background. It doesn’t matter whether the write-up is a news piece, research paper or journal article. That background builds history, which in turn becomes civilization. The civilization is the source of our civility and civil sense. Even the most revolutionary changes are not without backgrounds.” 

This rather loaded statement was made by one of the journalism instructors at the Thomson Foundation, UK during my brief training exposure at the institution in the early 1990s. Viewed through this particular lens, the so-called new Nepal’s predicaments appear to have multiplied primarily due to our tendency to completely delink historical background that was inevitably instrumental in shaping current leadership traits, decision-making or developments on all political, economic and social fronts.

Correcting past mistakes

Recently, there was a sort of national jubilation at the ouster by a court order of Lokman Singh Karki, former chief commissioner of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). But the political class that appointed this infamous figure to such a high constitutional position four years ago does not seem prepared to take responsibility for their mistake. The mainstream media and intelligentsia alike treated the incident like an isolated outcome, independent of history. It is ridiculous that nobody took responsibility for this historical blunder. Irresponsibility has become the political norm of the day, and impunity has dramatically increased.

Prithvi Jayanti, the birth anniversary of king Prithvi Narayan Shah who unified Nepal tentatively into its present shape, also fell last week. There was ‘national’ confusion whether to still recognise him as a national hero and declare the day a public holiday until the last hours of the previous working day. The state could have simply decided what was right according to the weight of his historical contribution. But it was not to be because it was an epic case of divorcing historical facts from the present. 

On a more serious note, the Nepali academic and media elite are not even prepared to redraw the rationale of the 40-point demand put forth by the CPN (Maoist) in 1996 before they went into the jungle to wage war. How and why has the stance of Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai vis-a-vis those demands deviated to such a great extent? If they were to take responsibility for that historical deception and the killing of common people, could they still be enjoying public life? It has become possible for them and other political leaders because we Nepalis have summarily forsaken the universal norm of evaluating public figures on the basis of their past.

Economic historians are unanimous in their belief that fact-based history reduces the cost of production of both goods and services. But Nepali policymakers are not ready to turn the pages of even Nepal’s recent economic history. The modern productive sector started by establishing an array of public enterprises (PEs), mainly during the Panchayat days. These PEs produced goods ranging from cigarettes to textiles and provided services ranging from trolley bus and airline to hospitals. Interestingly, none of these enterprises could earn enough even to sustain production. What went wrong? We have no clue. Can we rerun them without correcting those past mistakes?

Legends, myths, misconceptions

The first half of 1990 witnessed an all-time high economic growth rate of more than 6 percent in the country’s modern history. This coincided with an aggressive pursuit of a professed liberal economic policy. At present, we are faced with a sphinx-like enigma. Nepal was ruled by communist prime ministers for eight years in the past decade. All these governments were critical of liberal economic policies and advocated reinstating and revitalising the public sector. Sadly, the growth rate has slowed alarmingly, the trade deficit has ballooned, and the trade dependence on India has swelled from 47 percent in 1990 to almost 70 percent in 2016.

We must explore elements that propelled growth in the 1990s. Can that be replicated? We seem to be preoccupied with some impractical political dogma and not prepared to confront historical facts. The pervasive confusion over adopting an economic policy and an appropriate development model at the highest political level is costing the country its future. History can surely be a good guide. But who listens?

Nepal’s social history is made up of legends, myths and, largely, misconceptions. Very little socio-scientific research has been done into the evolution of Nepal’s ethnic structure, caste system, traditions and practices. Nepali politics now takes to accentuating ethnic identities for political objectives, reversing concepts of homogenising humanity and universalising the citizenry. It would also be equally inappropriate to argue that any community did not have the right to claim its due share in public decision-making. As such, the potential trade-off is sure to give rise to conflicts of a communal nature. The most contentious issue revolves around the very definition of groups like Madhesis and the categorisation of some ethnic communities.

Hard lessons 

In the absence of a credible and documented social history of migration, caste or religious conversion and the causes of geographical distribution of certain groups, the verification of claims and counterclaims for special rights and recognition has become virtually impossible. Only fact-based research into history can distinguish between primordial (originally different), instrumental (opportunity-based) and constructivist (forming a new identity for some objective) categories of ethnic groups. At present, pro-ethnic state advocates implicitly seem to be demanding a ‘blanket’ primordial status to assert their rights.

Therefore, without regenerating and reconstructing the missing cues of history in all spheres of national life, it looks increasingly impossible to meaningfully address the country’s political, economic or social problems. Without historical feedback in perspective, politicians and public servants can never be made responsible. Economic growth becomes impossible. And social identity remains constantly contestable, leaving the country at perennial risk of communal violence. Thus, some hard lessons from history always remain indispensable.


Wagle, a founding editor of the economic daily Arthik Abhiyan, is an eco-political analyst

Published: 17-01-2017 08:14

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