As Nepal is poised to begin a serious discussion over peace, war, the constitution, and monarchy, the significance of the debate over King Birendra's property and legacy is relevant. He presided over almost two decades of the autocratic Panchayat system, saw the rise of Maoist people's war over the issues of poverty and illiteracy, and lost his entire family in probably the most bizarre episode in all Nepali history. But Birendra will most likely be known as the king who gave Nepal peace, democracy, and education as his bequest.
Therefore, the question about King Birendra's property is not whether the new king would get it by the conventional law of inheritance. A more pertinent question is: how is this inheritance going to relate to King Birendra's legacy of peace, democracy, and education? Especially at a time when these three words are on everyone's lips.
Long-term peace for prosperity is not something that is going to come from the hocus-pocus wizardry of the Maoists and the government alone. In a land riven by illiteracy, ignorance, misinformation, where civil society is weak for want of empowering education, even the best attempt to herald peace through negotiation can only be a precursor. Peace and democracy cannot succeed when imposed from the top alone, they have to emerge from the grassroots. And unless people in Nepal's villages and towns do not feel empowered through resources available to them for education, independent from the failed, colonial school and college educational system, threats to peace and democracy will always be there. In today's globalized world, therefore, public education through a joint venture between public schools and public libraries is one of the major ways to empower people. The question of eastern or western, communist or capitalist values doesn't arise here.
Growing up in a Rajbanshi village in Morang, we never knew what books meant outside of Mahendra Mala, and such second-hand textbooks as were barely available to us. While the poor worked their hearts out in the fields from dawn to dusk, the landed gentry spent its leisure in drunken stupor or at card tables in the village bazaar. In our spare time, we just played in the village dirt and mud, if not pressed to work as field hands and cowherds. Later, the small library we put together with funds raised by the singing and dancing we staged in the fervent days of the 1979 referendum closed down.
How can democracy function in a society where people do no have access to knowledge? If peaceful prosperity is the ideal and democracy a means to achieve it, then the ability of common people to access knowledge is its fundamental prerequisite. Without systematic dissemination of evaluated knowledge and information, peace, democracy and healthy nationalism become mere rhetorical terms.
Political instability, violence, and illiteracy form a vicious circle that breeds an endless cycle of poverty. Only when people are able to make informed personal judgment to choose and evaluate public officials, can democracy be prevented from turning into a circular game of corrupt politicians and idle bureaucrats working overtime behind doors to grab and misuse power-and people can be dissuaded from voting in the name of caste, clan, uncritical party affiliation and personal loyalty rather than on policies and performance.
But how is Nepal going to educate its wards? While higher education reels under the mimicry of the Indian colonial model, producing and reproducing colonial subjects rather than critical thinkers and knowledge makers, the disaster of the secondary and primary level education has been irrefutably highlighted by two recent events: the failure of a large number of students to get through the SLC exams and the forced closure of private schools by the Maoists. Both these events are interrelated. If the majority middle class, alert and result-oriented, patronise private schools in South Asia's urban and semi-urban centers, government schools are bound to fail because these have neither the resources nor the driven manpower to produce results. Yet public schools constitute the backbone of democracies everywhere.
To offset these institutional vagaries of Nepal's educational infrastructure whose malaise is too deep to be cured through school reform alone, the formation of a public library system in the over 4000 Village Development Committees is the call of the hour. Associated with the administrative structures of the VDCs and schools, and funded both locally and centrally, these libraries would prove an independent source of learning for young and old alike. The young will go there to whet their appetite for learning, as I would have done if I had access, escaping from the limitations of their classrooms and teachers. The old will go there to fruitfully spend their leisure away from the card table and the bottle.
The equitable distribution of material wealth cannot be achieved without an equitable distribution of intellectual wealth, come communism or capitalism. If a nation has to remain ill-fed, it is worse off ill-read. King Birendra's property could be utilised, like the Carnegie Corporation in the US, to upgrade schools and form a network of public libraries all over Nepal. Nepalis then will be touched by King Birendra's legacy at every door and his presence in every library building and every book in ways that would truly help us honour him and his family. This will also bring together in one guaranteed institutional form his legacy of peace, democracy and education.
Pramod Mishra teaches English Literature at Duke University in the United States.