In this all-pervasive gloom, it is getting increasingly difficult to keep the memory of March 1990 alive. But we must remember that Springtime of the People. It was a season of hope, an extraordinary time when Nepalis rose up spontaneously to express their determination to build a new future for themselves and their children.
On 16 March 1990 (3 Chaitra), Nepali litterateurs wore black bands over their mouths, marched through the streets and were hauled away in police trucks. A movement led by students was snowballing into a wider protest. Poets, novelists, artists, singers, theatre personalities breathed new life into the Jan Andolan. Those were the days when every little action mattered and even minor protests sent out powerful symbolic messages. Then the engineers, teachers, lawyers, medics, journalists, airline pilots, bankers, traders, industrialists, government employees, and even some members of the police took to the streets. In these jaded days of democratic decay when street protests have become so commonplace that people don't even notice them anymore, it takes some effort to recall how daring and heady those protests were.
Then on 20 March (7 Chaitra) a professional solidarity group organised a seminar in Kirtipur, another in a series of protests that were becoming routine in the Kathmandu Spring of 1990. It was in fact an assembly of techno-dissidents-legal eagles, academics, engineers, career consultants, physicians and journalists. They were there at Tribhuvan University not just to protest, but examine the possibility of alternatives. Those exhilarating discussions were disrupted as the regime panicked. The Kirtipur Seminar has now come to be remembered merely as one of numerous protests of the pro-democracy movement. But to my mind, it was a seminal event-the first to look beyond protests at possibilities, the first to discuss hope, not desperation. Even in those difficult times, people talked about the inevitable dawn that follows the night.
It's yesterday once more. This time, a crucial difference-instead of hope we have foreboding. There is ominous talk of the Ides of March. Everyone is protesting something, some are protesting everything, but the common denominator is that they are all 'against' something, not 'for' anything. The fundamentalists of Balkhu have issued a fatwa that the prime minister must resign, and these Stalinists think democracy means holding parliament to ransom to oust a legitimately elected government. When asked about the alternative to Girija Prasad, his opponents in parliament say evasively: "Well, anyone else from Nepali Congress." Can you get any more desperate than that? An opposition party running a mindless campaign for the express purpose of replacing one leader of the ruling party with another? Isn't that a problem for the ruling party: who it selects to head the government? Let the Nepali Congress sort out its own mess (and what a mess it is). The Lefts needn't paralyse the House, unless they are trying to bring it down, and parliamentary democracy with it.
Despair is not the monopoly of the main opposition. Their comrades-in-arms are in hot pursuit of utopia with a "Peoples' War" which has consumed nearly 2,000 lives, spread misery and brought development to a standstill. It's like a suicide bomber, this terror. The sacrifice is there, but it is meaningless. To die for a pie in the sky is fanaticism born out of a sense of rejection. The Taliban blow up the Giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, Maoists burn a village in Saptari to punish it-both are acts of outrage caused by deep despair. The Prachanda Path may prove to be the knife that will cut the self-tightening noose around the neck of the Maoist movement, but only if the blade doesn't cut off its neck first. The Maoists are trying to offer an alternative, but it is a mirage of utopia that recedes the nearer we get to it.
The despair and recklessness of our political class (all erstwhile freedom fighters who offered us so much promise in 1990) is something we the people can force them to overcome. Politicians are experts at taking their cue from the political windsock, and if the mood of society changes from dejection to anticipation, leaders will once again come back to the fore to be what Napoleon called "dealers in hope".
Our intellectuals have turned into prophets of doom, but that does not dismay me either. To keep crying wolf is a part of their calling, they are expected to show us which way not to go, raising a red flag when society does so. Public intellectuals are expected to preach Camus' neither/nor. Neither the socialism of the gallows, nor the capitalist order riddled with inequalities. Ivory towers are not places to start digging new roads, it's good enough that they are just watch-posts.
What we should really worry about is the apathy of the intelligentsia. Wealth according to the gospel of Adam Smith is created primarily by capital. Marx said that it was labour that made and multiplied wealth. To those two factors of production, social democrats added the dimension of communication. It is communication that synthesises capital with labour, inspires innovation, and establishes harmony for the well being of the society.
Members of the intelligentsia perform that very crucial function of communication. They don't merely add, but multiply value. All of us have motives that makes us do what we do. For the ruling class, it is grandiose dreams of power. Fear fuels intellectuals, that is why they agonise so much. For the petty bourgeoisie, pretension-keeping up with the Koiralas. For the masses, the challenge of survival is so urgent that nothing else matters. But the motive that keeps intelligentsia 'productive' is hope. Snuff out hope, and it loses its light.
It is the death of hope that has immobilised the Nepali intelligentsia today. It must be resurrected if social democracy is to have a future. Where are you, all you doctors, engineers, artists and authors of the 1990 Kathmandu Spring? Where are you when the country needs you again? It is easy to curse politics and politicians, but show us the path of reform. Show us, and rekindle hope.