Saturday, March 29, 2008

Enlightenment in the Himalayas

Article published in The Post
Two predominantly mountainous nations in South Asia are creating late history. While Nepal is poised to shred any remaining dalliance with monarchy (even the constitutional variety), Bhutan recently embarked upon its first democratic experiment adding itself to the burgeoning numbers of nations that treat people as the chief sovereign instead of a monarch. It is the route that these nations have taken that is worth pondering and that forms the crucial difference.

In Nepal, monarchy was a sine qua non just two years ago. Observers outside the country suggest that the rapid decline in the status and popularity of the ‘kingdom’ in Nepal owes to the inter-royal squabbles that resulted in the death of several members of the royal family and the succession of Gyanendra after his brother Birendra’s death. Such a simplistic explanation is not enough to understand how the entire polity (except for a few sycophants of the royal family) united against the monarchy despite irreconcilable differences and formed a working alliance that retained power after an emergency called by the king was rescinded.

Nepal enjoyed absolute monarchy till the early 1990s when a constitutional form of royal suzerainty was structured. The main political parties, however, failed to provide stability and the king usurped total power, before being stripped of all power by the eight-party alliance that is ruling Nepal today. The yeoman struggle of anti-establishment forces of all kinds: extremists – represented by the Maoists – and civil society was responsible for the gradual withering of the hold of autocratic power, which legitimised itself on the basis of abstract concepts of ‘divinity’ and enjoyed vulgar privileges of pelf, power and privilege in a nation primarily of the poor. In merely two years the tide has changed so much that Nepal is no longer a Hindu kingdom and owing to the Maoists’ tenacity in calling for a republic, is to set to announce itself as a constitutional republic.

Bhutan, on the other hand, has had a different story. The current monarch came to power after his father abdicated in favour of this son, his eldest offspring (from his third wife). Bhutan had a treaty with India that allowed India to guide its external affairs relations, but over time Bhutan’s independence in foreign policy has been de jure, accepted by the Indians in a new treaty signed in 2007. Still Bhutan’s economy is heavily dependent upon trading with India. Bhutan’s king is supposed to enjoy a great degree of popularity. Even the fact that the living indicators in Bhutan are quite low has not meant that there is enough dissatisfaction against the ruling regime. The regime introduced a concept called, ‘Gross National Happiness’ to describe content and ‘spiritual’ progress and to justify the path of progress that had been charted by the monarchy in the kingdom. The current monarch, educated in public policy in England, has ‘guided’ democratic reforms in the state, by calling in for elections and ensuring good participation. The ‘democratic revolution’, however, is limited, as royalist parties have won all seats and have promised continuity in the impoverished Buddhist state.

For someone in the developing world, inured to modernity and exposed to the values of enlightenment, however, such fallacies such as ‘spiritual development’ is a farce and a euphemism for a false consciousness that privileges obligations of the public toward an anointed abstract authority (the king) over rights of the public itself. Surely, in today’s world, the ascription of divinity to the ruler and the suggestion that the public perform their duties and obligations in furtherance of the aims proclaimed by a ruler, who is certainly not accountable to the public in any form or fashion, is a sure-fire case of egregious regression and must be confined to the dustbin of history.

Considering this, it is encouraging that hidebound tradition and ‘false consciousness’ has given way to rationality in Nepal, which is on the cusp of becoming a constitutional republic with an elected constituent assembly to rewrite the norms of governance, and structures of political economy for the nation. In Bhutan, on the other hand, the guiding hand of the ‘renouncing’ monarch in developing democratic consciousness is welcome, but it is no substitute to peoples’ agency in deciding their collective destiny for themselves. One, therefore, hopes that the Bhutanese people also get to enjoy the virtues of freedom and civic rights instead of being hobbled by obligations and abstract duties, while holding on to their distinctive progressive cultural practices.

Meanwhile, yet another section of people are also demanding independence (and some others ‘real autonomy’). Tibetan protestors are now in the news for having staged demonstrations across several capitals obviously trying to use the backdrop of the soon-to-be-held Beijing Olympics to bring international attention to their ‘cause’. Commentators, particularly from the West, have tended to support this agitation for ‘independence’ from Chinese rule. Many have sympathised with the ‘spiritual’ head of the Tibetans, Tenzing Gyatso, named the Dalai Lama, who himself suggests a middle way to achieve ‘real autonomy’ as part of China. Yet, the commentators are not asking the most important question. How could one individual enjoy both temporal and spiritual suzerainty over an entire people? Was the Dalai Lama not ruling over a feudal order with ordinary Tibetans serving as serfs tied by the same obligations and iniquitous norms that are termed as regressive by Western countries, which themselves had gone through the phase of modern enlightenment? These are controversial questions that are skirted simply because the issue is made out to be a binary: that of so-called ‘Chinese communist occupation’ versus ‘Tibetan self-determination’.

In this author’s opinion, Tibetans should as much be children of enlightenment and beneficiaries of human progress as much as any other citizen of this world. The primary criteria is to judge whether China is fulfilling its own constitutional duty (as prescribed in the socialist constitution of China) to provide autonomy to Tibet and to preserve its cultural heritage within the framework of a socialist republic. This is consistent with the Dalai Lama’s pronunciations that Tibet is an autonomous part of China, but inconsistent with the fact that the Dalai Lama himself heads a ‘Tibetan-government-in-exile’ and thus has a temporal existence that cohabits his ‘spiritual’ image.

Thus while the Nepalis and the Bhutanese get to become masters of their own destiny in the material world without having to partake their rights for obligations to a nominal authority on the basis of divinity, the world including the West appreciates this as a step ahead in progression. Yet, as Tibetans couch their struggle against Chinese indirect rule in the language of independence and protest for the return of divine rule by the Dalai Lama in both temporal and spiritual matters, the support provided by the West to this endeavour reeks of hypocrisy.

The Tibetans should and must protest against the Chinese rulers if there is a violation of enunciated norms as provided by the Chinese constitution. And the world must put pressure on the Chinese (through the aegis of multilateral bodies) to respect its own sovereign constitution and treat its republic’s autonomous citizens with equanimity as ensured in the constitution and not to foist Han Chinese populations in the region. But the world cannot and must not take the inhabitants of Tibet back to an era that was reminiscent of the feudal dark ages of the medieval world. And to that extent, the Dalai Lama has to conform to the separation of the temporal and the spiritual. And that would be correct progressive thinking in these muddled times.

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