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Democracy, people and some burning questions

This paper is prepared as a country-keynote to South Asian People’s Assembly 2008 (People SAARC 2000), July 18-20, 2008, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Democracy, people and some burning questions

Mathura P Shrestha
President, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Nepal (PSRN), and
Coordinator, People’s Health Movement, Nepal

In spite of decades of development programs, the people of SAARC in general remain largely deprived of a fair or even just share. The gaps within and between peoples and cultures are rising alarmingly. What are the ways out? I propose to examine the some interrelated issues – democracy, peace, development, role of UN systems and international cooperation critically.

1.      Democracy and Empowered People versus ‘Conditioned’ Democracy

Everyone talks democracy. Unfortunately, democracy at present and everywhere is severely restricted either in terms of understanding or scope. People are forced to keep on expecting and imagining democracy out of the maze of myths and misinterpretations around it and its relations, as many self-proclaimed ‘stakeholders of democracy’ are engaged subtly in ‘programming peoples into conformity to the logic of a system they perceived and desired’ and into ‘sectarian and domesticated dialectics’ of a rightist or a leftist in order to turn them into docile pawns. These stakeholders have in their superficial vows of committing themselves to democracy and human liberation become themselves prisoners of a ‘circle of certainty’ (of their self-centered roadmaps) within which they also imprison reality and the people into old or new variants of a ‘culture of silence[1]. Today in our region, the so-called ‘upper social strata’, comprising the ruling and exploiting class and their hangers-ons, hype democracy with many adjectives but few verbs in order to continue their traditional dominance in politics, socio-cultural spheres, and economics by coercing the people to become submissive to the status quo or to a ‘fear of change’ or ‘fear of freedom’. The people are covertly encouraged to become virtually dependent on the system as dummy subjects to fatalism, to obligate hunger, conformism, passivism, consumption, obesity, and even escapism. They are forced into a rat-race – one against the other – in an attempt to eke out their living; or struggle constantly to ascend ‘higher in social strata’, with little understanding of the real nature of content, purposes, context or impacts. For this the exploiting class prescribes many ‘dos and don’ts’ to them for their domestication. They are conditioned to hate politics and to shun participation in it.

Colonialism is said to be dead and countries are labeled independent. Nepal is proud to have been never colonized. Nevertheless, colonialism persists among or haunts us all, and it continues to erode ourselves, our countries and the region like a persistent virus. Our people continue to loose political and economic initiative and independence. Colonial culture was thrust upon us for centuries to dissociate soul, mind and body. As Ngûgî wa Thing’o puts it,

Two forms of colonial alienation: … an active (or passive) distancing of oneself from the reality around; or an active (or passive) identification with that which is most external to one’s environment. It starts with a deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualization, of thinking, of formal education, of mental development, from language of daily interaction in the home and the community. It is like separating the mind from the body so that they are occupying two unrelated linguistic spheres in the same person. On a larger social scale it is like producing a society of bodiless heads or headless bodies.

He further elaborates, ‘The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed; to control, in other words, the entire realm of the language of real life. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth … But the most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonized, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete or effective without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tool of self-determination in relationship to others[2]. We have thus yet to defeat colonial mentality and culturally to transform our countries and societies as free and liberated.

In spite of promised prosperity with globalization and ‘new-style liberalism’, and of peace following the end of cold war, the world instead is in ‘the crisis of accumulation’ with ‘worsening social conditions for the great majority of nations and working classes’. ‘Militarism of the world order’ has been thrust upon us all along with the gulf war raging since 1991. ‘Democracy is either marking time or in retreat; it is everywhere under threat’[3].

Globalization and neoliberalism have eroded the very essence of democracy everywhere, with ever widening gaps within and between nations, cultures and peoples. These make the rich richer and disproportionately powerful and the poor poorer and powerless. ‘Globalization is a mere episode in the history of dominance of the rich industrialized countries over the poor ones; its parentage extends right up to the days of colonialism and imperialism’[4]. Even today, multinationals are profiting immensely in spite of the current global food and energy crisis, leaving the poor severely disempowered and deprived, and poor countries in serious crisis.

Another trend against democracy is the overbearing mentality of the middle-class, including intellectuals, human rights defenders and civil society leaders, who tend think of them as custodians of the revolution and social transformation. They believed that ‘they (middle strata) could guide the “lower social strata” in an “orderly revolution”. (This is a prescriptive mentality with a belief-system of trickle-down effects or spin-off benefits to those in lower strata). ‘At least they did not shrink from mobilizing the masses at the grassroots when agitating for the revolution; and on several occasions managed to mobilize them. The courage they (the people) displayed in launching a revolution was another characteristic which put them (the people) a cut above the bourgeois constitutionalists’[5].

Bhagat Singh, the legendry revolutionary, and martyr of India, envisaged democracy as ‘a social order from which violence in all forms will be eliminated, in which reason and justice will prevail and all questions will be settled by argument and education… We must make it clear that revolution does not merely mean an upheaval or a sanguinary strife. Revolution necessarily implies the program of systematic reconstruction of society on new and better adapted basis, after complete destruction of the existing affairs. … In the future society …, the communist society that we want to build, we are not going to establish charitable institutions, but there shall be no needy and poor, and no alms-giving and alms-taking’[6].

Some tend to interpret democracy in a limited sense of electoral process with periodic bouts of ‘people’s verdict’. No denying that electoral process is important. But democracy means, more than that, an active, conscious and responsible participation of all peoples, at all times, in all political, social, cultural, economic and ecological (from harmony in nature to human relations) processes from respective localities upwards to national, regional and world arena to transform these dynamically, according to need-based philosophy, and to construct by and with the people themselves. Without this electoral process becomes susceptible to corruption, rigging and criminalization of all sorts. Democracy is all about by the people and of the people. The tendency to prescribe democracy for the people, as passive or lay mass, must be discouraged as the word for indirectly justifies different levels among the people – the providers and receivers.

That way the concept of so called ‘Welfare State’ becomes a logical mismatch in democracy, as all basic human goods or needs are inalienable human rights of all, the peoples, and all should have them without any sort of discrimination or exclution. These are:

  1. Food security, including nutrition, food-safety and food-culture
  2. Shelter
  3. Clothing, including rights to related cultural identity
  4. Education, including knowledge, information, talent development and creativity
  5. Health including safe water, sanitation and healthy lifestyles
  6. Social security including right to respectful living with social justice and identity all through a life cycle every one
  7. Clean and unpolluted environment
  8. Productive employment including work- and workplace-safety
  9. Transportation including rights to travel without borders
  10. Participation in political, social, cultural, economic, developmental and ecological activities
  11. Entertainment and recreation including imagining and dreaming rights, and
  12. Human rights according to international humanitarian laws.

‘Health for All’ or ‘Education for All’ should be as simple as the quoted words. The governing strategy should focus on all political commitments and social or moral responsibilities by all in the governments, including politicians, planners, service personnel, and people in UN systems and aiding agencies. Attempts to seek alternative definition amount to denial of these rights by deception. Human goods or public goods are owned by peoples for distribution according to justifiable needs without profit. The above mentioned twelve basic needs are the elements of twelve essential levels of human living; and are therefore public goods, and not items subject to welfare or charity.

Day in and day out, the agents of exploiting class continuously campaign to depoliticize the people in order to monopolize the politics and governing structures for themselves and for their perpetual dominance in these. The politics is also the life-blood of the people, determining or even shaping all aspects of humans and humanity, including lives and living, and including the environment and non-human life. That way, politics is a common human good with broad responsibilities encompassing all creation, with a need to constant and dynamic development by the people themselves in ever more encompassing frameworks. In order to save democracy, we thus have to advocate the people to love politics. Politics, however, need to be spared of all trickery, conspiracy, manipulation and deception by exploiters, even if these are perpetuated in the name of politics itself, or of county or people. The practice of defaming politics, or alternatively, naming politics as attributes of conspiracies or foul plays, should be condemned, no matter from what quarter these deceptions comes. Politics is not a pack of gaming cards. It is the eyes, ears and voices of people, all inclusive, and the objective reflections of their minds and hearts, and of the communities they live in, both human and natural. It is high time for the people to take the initiative in politics.

2.       Peace and demilitarization

Conflict is understood differently by different persons. Each individual tends to perceive a conflict differently at different times, depending upon their mood, situation and condition. Understanding of conflict moreover shapes an individual’s decision and behavior. Thus frequent dialogues and interactions on conflict are necessary to bring a more or less common and collective understanding of a conflict, its origin, root causes, historical trends, temporal development, existing and long-term impacts, and future perspectives to facilitate conflict transformations.

Conflicts and contradictions are inherent in any place, condition, society, group and time. The so-called times of peace or conflict are relative to a dynamic equilibrium determined by an ever-changing scenario in these. Hence, the logic of addressing or solving a conflict, face to face, with dialogue and communication of understandings! A conflict can’t be eliminated by force or wishful thinking. Peace, rather than confrontation or violence, is preferred by all, even by those engaged as parties to the conflict.

Many believe that peace is a precondition to sense of security, development, happiness and well-being. But inert or dead peace out of fear psychosis or forced conditions is no less injurious to people and society. Forced peace breeds fatalism, individual or social inertia, general discontent and even crisis. People tend to loose interest in their political and social responsibilities. The clever and powerful persons quickly occupy the resulting void. Such peace is detrimental to individual or social progress and development. Such peace provides better spaces and opportunity only to those who rule, who exploit and who are socially better placed to divert resources at the expense of the majority, which is forced to become poorer and displaced. The inertia forces people to submit as more or less willing slaves of the ruling or exploiting classes. The cult of male dominance and other socio-cultural anomalies are the result of such inert peace. Inert peace ultimately breeds more violent forms of conflict. On the other hand, conflict, especially the armed conflict, is viewed as disrupting all benefits of peace and development. There may be too much loss of life, property, and physical, social and cultural infrastructure. As the conflict grows, peace recedes farther and further away from the lives and hopes of people in conflict. The losses may be too painful to measure. However, a suppressed conflict is not synonymous to a resolved conflict. If root causes are not addressed, they will be reborn in complicated and violent reincarnations that are rarely predictable and usually far wider in their destructive power and impact. Peace requires not simply ending conflict but confronting it as thoroughly as possible, particularly the conflict that underlies the ruling class’s conception of peace. Aspect-blindness and inflexibility are deep rooted among the parties in conflict.

Conflict, if properly perceived and managed, brings about much needed revolution or transformation in political, social, economic, cultural and mental interfaces of peoples. These changes facilitate overall well being of a nation and its peoples, especially the poor, deprived, socially excluded, women and disabled. It gives fresh impetus to develop and progress, as most of the edifices generating inertia and inaction will be demolished. People will have opportunity to understand their failures and to think and react afresh as better informed and empowered persons.

Nepal’s experiment with peace might appear tortuous and tiring on the surface. The people in all spheres, ages, geographic areas and cultures are actively and openly engaged in public debates and continue to participate in sociopolitical transformations. The transition period is often painful for many. But people of Nepal are confident in what they themselves are constructing with hope and belief that this is their time, won after optimal sacrifices. They are also confident in neutralizing any possible ploys coming from internal and external reactions.

I believe that gun culture is bad for peoples and countries. Some holders of guns continue to glorify their exploits and parts then and now. Gun makes the holders headless demons. But in Nepal, people were prime movers in both the First and the Second People’s Struggle for Democracy of 1990 and 2006. People from all cultures, areas, professions and ages rallied actively for the call to change and make peace with sociopolitical transformations. Real credit goes to the people in forcing all major parties to align themselves for dialogue and to forever do away with monarchy and feudalism. It is because of such participation of people in all spheres of political and social life of the country, that the gun culture in Nepal has become more or less irrelevant. Voices of peoples are beginning to become more powerful than guns and bombs. We call this in Nepali ‘janataka boli golibhanda shaktishali hunchhan‘. But for sure the course ahead will not be smooth. The people are ready for all challenges.

3.       Development paradigm

The Russian anthropologist and world authority on peasantry Teodor Shanin wrote, ‘The strategy of progress/development/growth, has been offering blank cheques to repressive bureaucracies, national and international, to act on behalf of science and to disguise as objective, matters which are essentially political, taking away choice from those influenced most by such decisions’.

‘As often happens with overarching conceptualization on retreat, they are not necessarily replaced at once by a new vision. What has been coming instead … were various forms of capitulation of intellectuals – a view that nothing can be made comprehensive any more. … Those who find the unmasked result of the idea of progress reprehensible depart into private lives, while “the masses” can proceed with life of a consumer society of goods and entertainments, of fears of incomprehensible global “markets” and global “unemployments” while society’s centre becomes increasingly empty of human content’[7].

Development is imprisoned within the parameters of a few indices of economic growth, per capita GNP, CPI, etc. for the convenience of a few in ruling classes. Too little is done or talked about appropriateness of the development programs in relation to real needs, affordable access to all, including distribution, related social justice, environmental impacts, social values and cohesion, and meaningful human livings. In turn, along with the development, common human and natural goods including knowledge, information, wisdom, nature and lives, human and non-human, are increasingly imprisoned or restricted for profit. For the same reason, basic human needs are commoditized and biological attributes like tastes, sex, preferences etc. are commercialized using aggressive marketing practices aimed at undermining critical and rational thought and embanking on misinformation or disinformation without a social or ethical responsibility.

Taking lessons from other countries is good, but trying to these lessons, as it is, without heeding sociopolitical and cultural conditions has been suicidal. Our course of action is to be determined by the needs of our peoples, their social and natural environments, and the country, for which ongoing research with active participation and final say of the people and their communities becomes mandatory.

The governments and the peoples in the region should learn that our development needs are our own; that these should be solved by ourselves (that is, by governments taking the people in confidence and people taking their governments into hand); and that we can solve our problems ourselves.

4.       The UN Systems  

The UN systems in its attempts to appease global superpower centers, International Financial Institutions (IFIs), and other forces of capitalist globalization have drifted far away from the spirit of their constitutions and responsibilities. These are subtly prescribing a formula of private-public mix to promote the agenda of IFIs including WTO, WB, IMF and the later work in tandem with transnational corporations for profits at the expense of the people. This way disparity between the poor and rich in every country, including the so-called developed countries, and between international power centers and local communities, human and natural, is increasing with devastating rapidity. Their attempt to deny the poor and poorer countries scientific information and technology and to tear communities from their natural and social heritage, through a maze of patents and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) is criminal, with the robbers making themselves into policemen and magistrates. The attempt tends to imprison sciences, knowledge, civilization and nature – the products of human endeavor and natural evolution. These however can never be imprisoned[8]. UN systems at present are severely restricted due to the illusion, they managed to harvest, of correlation between income growth, development, health and quality of life. ‘In the developed world, it is not the richest countries which have the best health’. Richard Wilkinson, the renowned researcher, found that ‘the scale of income difference (including disparity in material wealth) and the condition of a society’s social fabric are crucially important determinants of the real subjective quality of life among the modern populations’. Disparities (relative or absolute) precipitate different degrees of breakdown in ‘social cohesion’, and resulting ‘stressful social hierarchies predispose to poor health among the troops of baboons as well as human societies’. In addition to disrupted psychosocial pathways there is increasing evidence … that ‘chronic stress can affect endocrine and immunological processes’ grossly afflicting health and well-being of populations[9].

‘Back in 1942, (John Maynard) Keynes argued that the War (the Second WW) itself was partly a result of unregulated free trade and insufficiently regulated cut-throat competition for the same markets, and that it was therefore imperative that a more carefully internationally monitored trading system be established’. He was the chief architect of the original concept of World Bank (previously, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), IMF and WTO in Breton Woods in the US state of New Hampshire, and he wanted these institutions to be UN bodies to ensure equity in international trade with international currency (Bancor currency). Roosevelt, the then US president, eventually vetoed the idea ‘in order to protect US trade interests’. The WTO was eventually set up in 1995, in such a way as to embrace US control over global trade[10]. Susan George critiqued the historical background and wrote, ‘If we could resurrect Keynes, another world really might be possible[11].

5.       International Cooperation

International aid or assistance should not, in any way, force donor-driven culture at the expense of development of the people in a real sense. One part of an interlinked planet cannot be healthy, developed or affluent if other parts are forced to remain sick, poor, hungry and underdeveloped. Thus international aid is, in a way, a public resource, or public good. Hence it is to be used according to a need-based development philosophy, again taking the people into confidence to stimulate their informed participation, initiative and action.

Unfortunately foreign aid is often used consciously or unconsciously to subvert the sovereign rights of people, communities and independence, and to colonize minds and the intellectual sphere, along with cultural, social and economic dominance. If foreign aid is not taken as a token of friendship to the peoples of our Region by the peoples of donor countries for holistic and real socio-cultural and economic development and independence in a transparent and accountable manner, then it will only breed corruption of all kinds and forms, with syndromes of perpetual dominance of some and dependency of many. Here, I appeal to peoples of donor countries and those in UN system to ponder the real objectives and intricacies of aid or development assistance and to study seriously the impacts and short or long term consequences of making judgmental prescriptions based upon experiences of developed or other countries for the Region’s peace, development, and transformations in political, social, cultural, economic and ecological aspects of peoples and the country.

As no other country of the world can be like Nepal, Nepal too can’t be like any other country as such. Before the inflow of foreign aid Nepal began in the 1950s, Nepal had already begun to experience a great upsurge of dynamism and internal initiative, all of which were squashed, dissipated and terribly twisted and distorted with the onset of foreign aid. Thus all of us should save ourselves from becoming prey to ‘aspect blindness’ that tends to imprison us into our preferred belief systems or narrow horizons, and turn blind eyes to other’s culture, resources and potentialities. The economic or capitalist globalization is essentially a product of such aspect blindness. That is why the globalization accelerated gaps between and within countries and peoples; undermined sustainable and meaningful development and freedom of peoples and nations; deteriorated global environment making the peoples and countries slaves to consumption and wasteful energy use (‘energy-slaves’ in the words of Ivan Illich); compromised standards for national independence; and tainted social responsibilities of users and professional servers.

6.       Conclusion

The current and main task of the People’s SAARC is to advocate strongly, or even force government machineries, political parties, bureaucracies, professionals and professional bodies to learn to speak the languages in the hearts and minds of the peoples and behave accordingly, and according to the principle of ‘One for all, and all for one’. They also need to think and behave according to the principles of ‘one really has none to be partial to and at the same time one has all as one’s own including one’s foes and adversaries’ to move ahead.

Lastly, we all need to recognize and appreciate the new way of inauguration of this South Asian Peoples Assembly with drumbeats by Dalits of Sri Lanka and Kerala, all dressed in black. In Nepal too ta, the central theme of the beat, is called ‘soul of music and mood’. The black color is auspicious in Nepal too. Black is the color of our soul and of the space which holds our universe and our planets, and along with that all human and other biotic community, and non-biotic world. It also absorbs all colors. Thus, the color black contains in it all colors. We thus have to reject Western notion of incriminating black as bad or wrong color. Hence we should not use black flag of black bands as symbol of bad or of what we want to reject. Black is really beautiful and inclusive. I wish that I could bring a troupe of Nepali Jyapoo (Indigenous Newa ethnic community in Nepal with rich history, culture and tradition of Nepal) women drummers, all in black, in this and in coming assemblies of future.

Yen, Thursday, July 18, 2008


[1] Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Penguin Books, 1972.

[2] Ngûgî wa Thing’o. Decolonizing the Mind – The politics of language in African Literature. London: James Curry, or Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1986, Reprinted 1987: 28.

[3] Samir Amin. Obsolescent Capitalism, Contemporary Politics and Global Disorder (Translated by Patric Camiller).London:Rainbow Publishers Ltd, 2004: 9.

[4] See Editorials by Debabar Banerji (as Guest editor). Primacy of the People over Medical Technology; Impact of Globalizatio on the Access of the Poor to the Health Services; and Struggle between Memory and Forgetfulness. Khoj-Bin: Journal of Nepal Health Research Council 1998, Kathmandu; 2(1): 2-5.

[5] Hu Sheng. Anti-imperialism, democracyand industrialization in the 1911 revolution. (In) Hu Sheng, Liu Danian (Eds). The 1911 Revolution – A Retrospective after 70 Years. Beijing: New World Press, 1983: 17.

[6] Bhagat Singh. Why I am an Atheist. With an introduction by Bipin Chandra. New Delhi: National Book Trust India, (Saka 1929). Reprint: 2008, first published in June 1931, in The People, the Weekly, established by Lala Lajpat Rai and editor, Lala Faqir Chnd.

[7] Teodor Shanin. The Idea of Progress, November 1995, http://old.msses.ru/shanin/idea.html as retrieved on 26 May 2008

[8] Mathura P Shrestha. Our Lives are not for Sale! Human Values and Wisdom can never be Imprisoned. Pijuano PHA2 Daily Alert, Cuenca- Ecuador, No 5, 21 July 2005: 1-2.

[9] Richard G Wilkinson. Unhealthy Societies – The Afflictions of Inequality. London and New York: Routledge, 1997 Reprint.

[10] Thódore H MacDonald. Sacrificing the WHO to the Highest Bidder. Oxford and New York: Radcliffe Publishing, 2008. See Chapter 1, The UN: its Origins, Problems and Contradictions. Pp 1-39; and Chapter 2, Selling Off the UN to Neoliberalism, Pp 40-64.

[11] Susan George. Alternative Finances: The World Trade Organization we could have had. Le Monde Diplomatique, 17 January 2007: 6-7.

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