Alex Gabbay's A Man Called Nomad was premiered at the opening ceremony of the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival last Thursday. The film adroitly explores the dilemma of Tibetan nomads caught between conflicting demands of herding yaks in diminishing pastures even while schooling their children in a small town.
The pathos of living with unfulfilled expectations shine through the film's haunting dialogue. "The rich have ambitions. Poor have needs. So nobody is free."
The fetters of un-freedom are even stronger among the middle class-most of us are prisoners of our own aspirations. The urge to keep up with the Janardans is universal, and the predicament of an urban Nepali aren't much different from those of the nomads in the film.
Middle class frustrations are mainly the result of "upscale emulation": the life we aspire for keeps getting out of reach, leaving us even more miserable once we win what we had hoped for. So we become the victims of our own perceptions, forgetting that wants aren't needs, and higher prices do not always guarantee better quality.
As long as the logic of the market was confined to the market place, those outside it were largely immune to the disease of ever-spiralling aspirations. But free-market fundamentalism has pushed the notion that social services need to be handed over to the market to improve efficiency. So we, too, introduced this divine wisdom of free enterprise in education and health in the early eighties.
Results have been mixed. The market has given urban yuppies more and better schools for their male progenies, but all the rest still have to make do with government schools. Fancy nursing homes compete with each other at urban centres for better market-share, but large areas in rural Nepal continue to be bereft of even basic health services.
The business of business is business, so it's not at all surprising that it has neither the time nor the inclination to cater to the needs of non-economic persons. Hasty retreat of the government from service delivery was perhaps one of the main causes of wildfire insurgency in the mid-western region of the country.
As long as the insurgents confined themselves to destroying public schools and government hospitals in remote areas, the power elite of Kathmandu chose not to notice the chaos. Ex-prime ministers send their children to international schools, and even Nepali communists have no qualms sending their children to private schools, thus participating in the process of institutionalising inequality.
It's difficult to sustain such a skewed social structure where the excluded have an overwhelming majority. Ever since the government abjured its responsibility of providing free and compulsory basic education to the entire citizenry, it lost the moral authority of claiming their loyalty towards the state. A direct confrontation between the market and the Maoists was thus inevitable. That it took so long in coming is more of a reflection of the weak support base of the insurgents than of the capacity of the government in preventing conflict.
Faced with the threats of an indefinite forced closure, private enterprises of the free-market in education have shut shop. The Maoists must be gloating-they have succeeded exceedingly well in showing the irrelevance of the government. School entrepreneurs have been hinting that they are willing to hold direct talks with the insurgents at any time. A mutually acceptable settlement between the market and the militia can't be ruled out, for wherever there is a give and take, the market invariably triumphs in the end.
But who will compensate the students for the time that they have lost? Even government schools have been caught in the crossfire for no fault of their own. What does Durbar High School have to do with the commercialisation of education?
The revolutionary students must realise that their current agitation is an exercise in futility. Politically, the action further alienates the middle-class by keeping schools closed. Socially, their agitation fails to address the need of institutionalising an egalitarian education system. Economically, it is sure to cause an even bigger exodus of rich Nepali kids to Indian cities.
Ivan Illich, 76, the philosopher who questioned the institutionalisation of learning in his book "De-Schooling Society" died on 2 December. Not many seem to have noticed his passing. His ideas, however, seem to survive in a particularly perverse form in the minds of Nepali Maoists. The agitation has very little to do with education per se-it's power politics at its worst.
There is a need to ideologically fight the commodification of education, but "de-schooling" the entire society in the process is too high a price to pay. Perhaps the Maoist leadership itself needs re-education in the land of the Great Helmsman to realise that there can be no liberation without education. And maybe there should also be a private screening of Alex Gabbay's film for the benefit of our revolutionaries.