Saturday, 12 January 2013

Afraid of people

Since the dissolution of Constituent Assembly (CA), identity has emerged as a critical issue in the Nepali political discourse. The media, political meetings and social networks like Facebook, twitter are flooded with views identity politics. It is praiseworthy that people have started critical discussions on identity issues. However, these discourses also reflect one disturbing ideology—us v them—leading to the polarisation of society and politics in terms of ethnicity. As we see, historically marginalised communities, especially Janajatis, are interpreting identity from the socio-historical perspective while the mainstream political parties are reducing this issue to a narrow sense of ethnicity. 
One consequence of this polarisation is ethnophobia as seen currently in sections of our society. At face value, ethnophobia refers to the irrational hatred of others in terms of their personal backgrounds like caste and ethnicity, religion, nationality, language, social class and gender. In a broader sense it refers to the illogical discomfort and fear of people. However, different types of ethnophobia are not separable because personal backgrounds are concrete manifestations of people. Let me exemplify these ethnophobias with some remarks I collected from different social media. Being a member of many social media groups, I often see an interesting dohori among people on the issue of identity, federalism, language and ethnicity. One group in the dohori is composed of Janajatis while another group represents the high-caste non-Janajatis.

Words and phrases like “anapadh ra murkha Janajatis” (uneducated and stupid Janajatis), “pakhe” (uncivilised), and “sankuchit sochaka manche” (narrow-minded people) are often used to address the Janajatis while terms like “janaibadi” (wearer of the holy cord), “saranarthi” (refugees), and “jali” (dishonest) are some examples of the words and phrases that Janajatis use the other way around. Although these words and phrases cannot be essentially linked with any caste and ethnicity, it is apparent that Facebook users are highly influenced by the type of language being used by our leaders who unknowingly seem to ignore the unsettled identity discourse now. For example, a member in a Facebook group reacted: “ekkaisau satabdi ma pani jatjati ko kura garne” (Are you talking about ethnicity in the 21st century?), when one Janajati person wanted to know why political parties are not able to forge consensus on the identity issue. Accordingly, in response to his question, many Janajatis commented about the non-Janajati as being “ekatmakbadi” (unitarist), “Hindu-atibadi” (pro-Hindu extremist), and “bhrastachari” (corrupt).
We see that such discourses reflect ingrained socio-political ideologies dominating the current Nepali society and politics. If we analyse the political discourses one clear theme emerges: while the Janajatis are considered “jatiyatabadis” (ethnocentrists) just because they are raising identity issues, high-caste people are described as “sanghiyata birodhi” (anti-federalist), anti-Janajatis and “pahichan birodhi” (anti identity). Both views are at once true and false. 

It is not true that all high-caste people are anti-federalists, anti-Janajatis and pro-Hindu extremists. Critical writers have eloquently argued that political parties’ inability to build a consensus on identity issues, as demanded mainly by the Janajati leaders, stems from the pro-Hindu and mon-oethnic, hegemonic mindset—the reluctance to accept multiculturalism, multilingual and multi-ethnicity as the country’s identity. But what is true is that the way identity is interpreted (by the mainstream political parties and their leaders as well as some extremist Janajatis) as synonymous to ethnicity and vice versa is traditionally a racist interpretation. 

Reducing identity to an ethnic agenda reflects not only a lack of our leaders’ understanding about what identity means and how it operates in different spaces, places, time and scales, but also their unwillingness to listen to the people’s voices and unravel what makes identity salient in the country’s changed political context. Rather, our leaders are more entangled with essentialist ideas that see the world as a dichotomous objective entity as seen in the Facebook conversations mentioned above. Interpreting that raising the issue of identity will lead to ethnic cleansing, civil war, and national disintegration, as seen in our leaders’ public remarks, is rather naive, illogical and ideologically reductionist. It reflects nothing short of political schizophrenia. The way Janajatis are not able to make people understand what identity means for them and how it ensures the co-construction of ethnic lived spaces clear is another factor leading to the polarisation of the whole society. One way to understand this complexity is to look at how identity intersects with other factors like history, class, language, culture, place and social exclusion. However, in absence of serious scholarly and political debates on the complexity of politics-identity-ethnicity nexus for state restructuring, the fissure between high-caste people and Janajatis is increasing at the ideological level, if not at the lived level. 

The Facebook conversations further show that the way people comment on each other’s posts is determined by their surnames. Even if issues are genuine, certain people do not like them just because they are not raised by a person from their own caste or ethnicity. We see that social discourses are dominated by superficial ethnic talks while genuine socio-political agendas that ethnicity and caste carry in the historical and socio-cultural context of Nepal are sidelined. Such escapism reflects the dwindling civic and political culture of our society. Critiquing someone’s value and ideology in terms of his or her caste and ethnicity is racist. Such ideological fragility is the main factor behind our leaders’ inability to agree on national political issues. They are afraid of each other’s backgrounds and as a result, they are afraid of people.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Fatalistic Chakari

Dor Bahadur Bista, also known as the ‘father of Nepalese anthropology’, unravels some critical socio-cultural aspects of Nepal’s endeavor to modernization and development in his groundbreaking book ‘Fatalism and Development: Nepal’s Struggle for Modernization’ (1991). Although controversial, his views that bifurcate why Nepal’s efforts to development fail are worth contemplating.  
His view on how chakari, as a fatal culture, obstructs Nepal’s development endeavor still carries a huge currency in the country’s transitional political context.  Bista argues that chakari (literally ‘sycophancy’) ‘as a social activity, is simply being close to or in the presence of the person whose favor is desired.’  During my informal discussions with the people from all walks of life after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA) in May, a common issue that I found was their frustration toward the accountability of political parties, increasing corruption and abuse of power and authority.  I had also got an opportunity to talk to some young cadres of three big political parties, Maoists, NC and UML. They were very anxious about their political future because, as they have argued, the leadership in their respective parties seems to be more undemocratic in their ways of functioning. They strongly criticized that the political parties, mostly led by old leaders, have to be more transparent on what, why and how they are making every decision for the benefit of the country at large. Most interestingly, they also shared that the CA was dissolved because the discussions on the issues of national restructuring was limited to the top leaders of major political parties.
 I also had a series of profound discussions with villagers on the relevance of education for their children’s upward social mobility and development.  Crucially, most of them contemplated that education their children are receiving may not contribute to their personal and social development. They said that even if their children are qualified they do not get job opportunities. For them, a job refers to sarkari jagir (jobs in the government offices).  They have developed such a belief because they have seen that many qualified people (even with Masters Degree) are not employed yet and youth have been flying to the gulf countries for jobs.  It is unfortunate that youth population in villages is disappearing rapidly. Due to this, it is becoming tougher for the elderly people to cultivate farm lands, which are left barren in many places.
The villagers also said that they did not have a close relationship with any people (especially political leaders) with certain kind of power. They strongly believe that without having afno manche (relatives), as argued my Bista, there is a little chance of being employed in Nepal. General people accept as true that one’s merit is judged on the basis of whether or not he or she is close to the people with power especially to the top party leaders. A middle-aged farmer from Ilam contended that although his son is qualified and experienced he was denied a job in an NGO in which another person who was less qualified was offered the job because the NGO was run by the friend of latter’s brother.  
These voices indicate that Nepalese society is guided by the chakari system in which meritocracy is considered less important than personal relationship. One of the most crucial manifestations of the system is the ‘taken-for-granted-culture’ that is seen in almost all institutions (e.g. politics, NGOs, schools and universities). We see that most of the present political leaders from the big parties are not ideologically indoctrinated with their respective political camps rather they have sympathy from the top leaderships. There are very few leaders who have developed themselves by raising critical issues against their party leaderships.  As the cadres are always afraid of being penalized by the leadership they do not elevate their voices although they know that the leadership is doing right things.
Another form of chakari  is chukli, the way one plays a double role.  Generally, Nepalese spend their most of times talking about others. They do not really discuss a particular agenda or issue rather gossip on other’s personal matter for hours. In order to please the leadership of any institution, an employee or cadre reports him what other people (from the same institution or outside) was talking (or not even talking) about him. Such chukli system not only weakens the leadership skill but also ruins the integrity of any institution. There are many cases of increased enmity among people including family break-ups due to chukli.
This is applicable to the political parties as well. Those leaders who do not have a vision and leadership skill spend most of their times criticizing each other. Rather than talking about the issues of national development, our leaders have confined themselves in grumbling each other. This tradition has not only promoted the chakari system but also weakened their political spirit.  Rather than promoting fair and free democratic system, our leaders are engaging themselves in fostering nepotism promoted by chakari and chukli. For them the best person is one who can be around them every moment than the one who is critical to them.
The chakari-produced leaders have very little idea of leadership and negotiation skills. They cannot contribute to strengthen democracy and do not even think of national development. Chakari not only makes a leader resistant to diverse ideas and workforces but also increases dependency. The lack of our leaders’ productivity at critical moments is the result of their mind-set grounded on the chakari.  What is urgent for our political leaders, at this moment,  is to put chakari and chukli (can be external and internal) aside and discuss agendas for the national development. They must promote critical dialogues in their own parties that lead us to build a free, fair and harmonious Nepalese society.     

Monday, 6 August 2012

Country without people

The centrality of ‘people’ in a democratic polity is undeniable. People’s voices are the most significant aspect of any democratic country. People are an invisible yet powerful center for the sustainability of democracy. However, how and to what extent are their voices heard by the political parties that tend to represent them? Why do political parties often forget people’s mandates? These are some critical issues to be discussed in the changed political context of the country.   
Just before and after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly (CA), I am having a series of informal discussions with people from different walks of life. I went to my birthplace to meet my parents earlier this month. During my informal discussions, the villagers expressed their strong discontent with ‘Rajnitikaran’ (politicalisation) in all sectors, especially in schools. One of my seniors said there was likely a fight among Maoists, CPN-UML, Nepali Congress and Limbuwan cadres regarding a controversial recruitment of a new ‘Rahat’ (relief) quota teacher in a local school where I finished my primary education. He criticised that, in the name of consensus, political parties are recruiting their cadres in different committees and activities related to development in the village. Jokingly, he said that he was offered some opportunities by different political parties if he would join their parties. During another talk, a teacher from a neighbouring village said, “I was challenged by the cadres of political parties when I raised questions regarding the decision of the ‘sarbadaliya samyantra’ [all party mechanism] to allocate the budget haphazardly in the village.” He further shared that his query about the sovereignty of people is simply ignored by the ‘samyantra’. He said the members of the ‘samyantra’ turned a deaf ear when he asked them whose voices—the people’s or party leaders’—should receive attention in democracy. 
These two anecdotes are examples only. The contentions shown by the common people during my visit to eastern Nepal reflect two issues. First, there are many cases of abuse of authority and misuse of the budget allocated for the village development committees (VDC). Although political parties fight each other over agendas, they make consensus on sharing budgets equally. It is apparent that almost all developmental budgets are handled by the cadres of different parties, as they have their hold in the consumers’ committee. Second, in the guise of development, political parties are free to impose their worldviews through the ‘samyantra’. Surely, this is not good for democracy. But there are two fundamental reasons behind the emergence of this situation. First, all political parties know—even in each ward of a VDC—the number of party cadres. They not only distribute memberships to the people, but also appease them financially (not ideologically). Through unions, political parties also know the number of teachers, professors, doctors, students, engineers, pilots and so on who are affiliated with their parties. It seems that through politicalisation of all sectors, Nepali society is fragmented in accordance with the number of political parties. This fragmentation has already weakened the integrity of civil society. Due to this, political parties are not really worried about their accountability to the people. They often break their promises for nation building, as they are confident that their cadres must vote for them again. If party cadres do not vote for their leaders, they are penalized. They cannot be critical about their leaders and the agendas of parties. This leads to the imposition of central and top leaders’ ideology to the cadres at the bottom. 
Second, indirectly, people are forced to become a member of a political party. For example, all teachers should be affiliated with a political party for their professional security. Without being affiliated with a party, it seems that people are not able to get jobs, because being a member of a political party is the first criterion to be qualified for employment. This may be good for the political parties to win elections, but due to lack of neutral and critical mass, political parties not only become weaker, but also tend to be less accountable to the people.  
Present political chaos results from a lack of a critical population. We have developed a unique culture where people are not ready to accept the mistakes of the parties they are affiliated with. Everything that is accomplished by their party is right, and whatever is accomplished by others’ parties is wrong. Why are our political parties not able to forge consensus even if they sit for a series of talks? It is because they are part of a political culture where whatever other parties say is always wrong. This indicates that our parties need to revamp the way they are functioning. 
First, they have to develop a culture of listening to others, critically assessing their own agendas and seeing how they can develop a common ground to forge consensus with other parties. Second, they have to rethink their organisational structures. Rather than forcing people to take membership, political parties have to take their agendas to the grassroots level and educate people about their vision for national development. They have to let people decide which parties’ agendas are better. This will ultimately foster a culture of political harmony and respect for other people’s sovereignty. Last but not least, political parties, as a key agency to foster democracy, should think of increasing the critical mass of people who can closely assess their ideologies and activities. In the absence of ‘people’, as it is happening currently, political parties cannot develop their ability to govern the nation and contribute to social transformation and nation-building. 

Monday, 9 July 2012

Globalization, neoliberalism and commodification of English in Nepal


Nepal never had an English colonial history nor has it recognised English as an official language in its constitutions until now. Yet, the English language has already become a principal component of the Nepali education system. Two key forces—globalisation and neoliberalism—have contributed in this regard. When Nepal opened its door to foreigners after the end of the Rana regime in 1950, the flow of foreigners for tourism, business, research, development, religion and education increased briskly in Nepal. The number of multinational companies and international non-governmental organisations is increasing these days due to Nepal's membership in various international organisations such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the United Nations. With their arrival, foreign languages (like English) and cultures have also made their visible space in the country, especially in big cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara. Cinemas, cafes and English medium schools now proliferate these cities.
With the tourist industry booming, English has reached rural places like Jomsom, Muktinath and Dhorpatan. We see illiterate people who sell flowers, Nepali arts, clothes and other gift items in various tourist spots like Dakshin Kali, Thamel, Pashupati, and Pokhara speaking survival English to communicate with
foreign tourists. Realising the importance of English in tourist areas, public schools are gradually shifting their medium of instruction from Nepali to English, as has been the case in Ilam district as reported by The Post (25/01/2009). Quoting a fifth grader, Sandhya Rai, The Post reported, “Hundreds of children in this tourist destination are unable to realise their dream of speaking fluent English. Taking into account the need of English medium education in this remote village of Meghma, Saraswoti Primary School has begun teaching English from the very beginning'. English speaking tourists who visit this area mainly for trekking respond to their use of English and encourage them by providing books and stationery.
With the arrival of foreign tourists, major cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara have already become global cities marked by hybrid languages and cultures. Places like Thamel and Lake Side (Pokhara) are full of restaurants, cafes, hotels, bars,
and recreation centres. Even a rickshaw-puller communicates in broken English with foreigners in these places. Major cities are full of shopping malls where foreign goods are sold.
Technology is also contributing significantly to the expansion of English in Nepal. Although we have only had mobile technology in this country for the past 12 years, according to Nepal Telecom (NTC), the total number of mobile phone users in Nepal reached 14,104,011 in January 2011. Recent statistics from the Nepal Telecom Authority (NTA) shows that 4.78 million mobile subscribers use Ncell whereas 4.71 million use NTC mobile services. The International Telecom Union (ITU) estimates that more than 811,780 (2.8 percent) Nepalis use the Internet (March 2011). Facebook and Twitter are already famous social networking tools. The ITU estimates that 685,280 Nepalis use Facebook (December 2010), which is significantly less than the number 1,221,040  (4.22 percent of the total population), as reported by Socialbakers, one of the biggest Facebook statistics portals in the world. Whatever the exact number of users may be, Facebook now isn’t merely a popular tool for communication in English but equally important for various social and political campaigns. 

Neoliberalism and commodification 
Since its democratic journey began in 1990, Nepal has adopted a neoliberal economic policy—an unregulated free market in which the private sector and donor agencies have received a notable space in the nation building process. Owing to the state's mantra of private-public partnership, private investment has become a key source of the national economy.
Neoliberalism has not only legitimised the role of English as a global language but also projected it as a 'commodity' to be sold especially in education. It has paved the way for the opening of private schools (English medium), many of which are exploiting parents by using English as a key selling point. Generally, as private schools are primarily opened with a business purpose first; they are concerned with earning money in the guise of quality education.
Many private schools are successful in propagating this ideology: namely, learning English means receiving quality education. Innocent parents uphold the view that children will get better job opportunities if they are educated in private schools. The School Leaving Certificate Examinations (SLC) results seem to support this ideology in that, every year, the top ten students are mostly from
private schools. For example, the SLC results (2010/2011), which were published on 20 June, 2011, show enormous disparity between public and private schools in terms of pass percentage, a 90 percent pass rate in private schools and only 46 percent in public ones.
But how many students who graduate from private English medium schools get better jobs? Are they really competent for jobs available within the country and beyond? Do better SLC results equal a better education? These questions require further research and more discussion.
Phyak is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He is also Secretary of the Nepal English Language Teachers’ Association (NELTA)

Monday, 7 May 2012

Towards multilingual education

I am one of the panelists in this video This program was  Nepal Television's (NTV) telecast 'Samabeshi Bahas' (meaning Inclusive Advocay). I and my senior Professors from Central Department of Education, Tribhuvan University were invited as panelists for the program. I enjoyed the discussion though a bit hesitant as it was my first appearance on TV screen.  We have discussed various issues of inclusive education. My focus was on how language issues are critical in education of minority groups especially of those whose first languages are rarely used in schools. Please watch the video and leave your comments. 

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Debunking a few myths

The government of Nepal has shown its commitment to ensure quality education for children from all the communities by 2015 as envisioned by Educational for All and the Millennium Development Goal programmes. The Ministry of Education (MoE) has also developed guidelines for implementing multilingual education (MLE) as an integral part of the Nepali education system. According to the plan, local mother tongues will be the medium of instruction for pre-primary education and for all subjects (except Nepali and English) up to Grade 3. Basic education in Grades 4 and 5 shall be bilingual (the mother tongue and a second language). The government aims to implement MLE in 7,500 schools by 2015.
Famous scholars like Carol Benson, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Pamela MacKenzie and Ajit Mohanty have argued that teaching in one’s mother tongue not only enhances the children’s overall educational attainment but also establishes a linkage between schools and the community. However, there are some major misconceptions that have to be removed for the sustainability of MLE.
Education in mother tongue is irrelevant
There is a strong belief among parents, children and policy makers that dominant languages like English and Nepali are the most important languages to access wider socio-economic opportunities at the national and international levels.
Indigenous people from the developing countries often believe that learning in the mother tongue has no any relevance for promoting quality education. There is also a belief that since children are already competent in their mother tongue before they go to school, there is no point in introducing it in school. This belief emerges from the ignorance and illiteracy of the indigenous people. They are not aware of and are not well informed about the fact that, in the early grades, learning in the mother tongue will help children learn better, creating a strong foundation for effective learning of other languages like English and Nepali.
Kids should be taught in the dominant languages
There is a view that children should be taught in the dominant language irrespective of their linguistic background. In different developing countries, the perceived value of English, for example, as the language that brings prosperity in one’s life is taken as granted. People from poor countries have a mindset that without teaching English from the early grades, their children will be unable to compete with other children. Of course, it is true that having knowledge of English is necessary as it is a global lingua franca. There is no doubt that command over English provides wider socio-economic opportunities. But it is not true that children can learn better English or any dominant language if they develop confidence in learning in general.
Introduction of English, for example, from the early grades does not guarantee children’s competence in English. Availability of competent teachers, materials and other sources has to be considered. The case of Ethiopia (one of the world’s poorest countries) shows that children learning in their mother tongue for the first eight years have performed better in all subjects including English than those who were not taught in their mother tongue. Similar findings have been reported from Orissa, India. This clearly indicates that learning in the mother tongue in the early grades not only promotes competence in the first language but also promotes better learning of other languages including English.
Multilingual education is anti-English
In educational discourse, we see that mother tongue-based education and English education are considered as enemies. Not only indigenous activists but also educationists have this kind of belief. Policy makers and educationists fear that use of the mother tongue may displace the use of English and vice versa. However, this is only a misconception.
Mother tongue-based education is not an anti-English education policy, rather it supports effective teaching and sustainable learning of English. It advocates teaching of English at the right time, by the right people and for the right purpose. MLE argues for enhancement of quality education through the mother tongue in the beginning with effective teaching of English and other languages after children develop a strong foundation in their first language. Likewise, right policies and effective implementation of English education helps to promote the world’s linguistic diversity.
Multilingual education is expensive
There is a belief that since MLE requires production of materials and teacher preparation in multiple languages, the state cannot afford the financial burden of implementing such a programme. Although sufficient funds are necessary to implement the programme, it is not impossible to find funds if there is strong political will. At the same time, it should be noted that we cannot compare the children’s educational attainment with money.
Minority Rights Group International reported in 2009 that the world’s 101 million children are still out of school, and that between 50 and 70 percent of them are from minority linguistic communities due to linguistic barriers. We see that even if states and donor agencies have spent huge amounts of money, there is no substantial progress in ensuring access and promoting the quality of basic education. The World Bank has reported that although mother tongue-based education programmes are costly in the initial phase, in the long run they are more cost-effective as they promote quality education.
The value of the programme that helps to promote social cohesion, bring ethno-linguistic minority children into school, enhances quality education and increases community participation in schools is priceless and incomparable with the investment of money. In this regard, Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and others have argued that rather than asking whether states can afford mother tongue-based education programmes, we have to ask whether states can afford not to implement them.

Published on 23 December, 2011, The Kathmandu Post