The CPN (UML) is believed to be the most complex party in the country with an interconnected web of interests in commercial cartels, credit and saving enterprises, private hospitals, and for-profit schools, employees’ unions of state corporations, NGO networks and trade outlets of various kinds.
It is not easy to manage such a multifaceted organization in a competitive and largely lawless environment. The Youth Federation (better known as Youth Force) is the strong-arm unit of the party. It was formed with much fanfare, ostensibly to counter Young Communist League (the once-dreaded YCL) of UCPN (Maoist). Maoists have since fragmented. The breakaway group—the Dash Maoists—seems to have taken away the more militant section of former insurgents with them.
The Dash Maoist youths gave a glimpse of their arsonist past recently when they set a school bus afire. No reason was given for what was a deliberate act of vandalism. It is not known whether the government has taken any action against the perpetrators of the crime. The Dash Maoists claim to be nationalists. Perhaps the bus that was set on fire was imported from India. Presumably, the patriotic cadres of nationalist Maoists want that Nepal rely only on bullock carts because the country of Mt. Everest and Lord Buddha doesn’t make its own buses and petroleum products too have to be imported from ‘imperialist-expansionist’ powers.
The original YCL is not often in the news. The last time they hit the headlines was when some of the former insurgents in its ranks wanted demobilization benefits at par with their comrades retiring from temporary camps set up for armed combatants. It was a tacit assumption of guilt. Apparently, the suspicion that the Maoists had diverted their ace fighters to YCL and filled camps meant for former combatants with new recruits was not baseless. Almost disowned by the party, dispirited youths of UCPN (Maoists) vent their ire these days upon their own leaders.
Youths affiliated to Nepali Congress have little time for any political activity. Having lost all faith in the future of their party, many of them spend their time and energy in finding ways and means of migrating out of the country. The rest idles away hours humoring patrons of whichever coterie they find more convenient. The best thing that can be said about NC youths is that they contribute to peace by not retaliating whenever attacked by UML or Maoist hoodlums. Valorous withdrawal can then easily be justified in the name of tolerance and non-violence. After being punched around by Mandale-MaLe combine for over three decades and getting the Maoist thrashing for a dozen years, all that remains with the surviving organizations like Tarun Dal and Nepal Students’ Union is their ability to swallow self-esteem with multiple glasses of pompous words.
Youth organizations of most Madheshbadi parties still retain their political character. Despite allegations against some associates of Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar, Madheshi youths of violent temperament have gone over to various armed groups operating primarily in Tarai-Madhesh; the ones that remain with parliamentary forces have either not been able to penetrate or have been spurned by criminal gangs that compete with each other in manipulating youth wings of more established political parties in the Kathmandu Valley.
Judging by the size of motorcycle rallies that Kamal Thapa’s outfit can take out at urban centers, it appears that the monarchist party has no dearth of youthful supporters. However, their influence in the Permanent Establishment seems to have waned considerably ever since UML apparatchiks appropriated the agenda of soft Hindutva, medium democracy, and hard nationalism. When political programs are so similar, it makes more sense for yuppies to go along with faux-revolutionary rhetoric of a party that can spout slogans of Marxism-Leninism and still claim that it’s only a brand—‘like Coca-Cola,’ in the immortal words of the late Manmohan Adhikari—that helps to sell itself commercially to the hoi polloi.
Then there are small groups of tablet-totting youths and youngsters with GPRS-enabled phones that hold a very high opinion about itself. Claiming to be non-partisan, Faboos and twitterati become indignant against the political class at the slightest pretext. Their reach and influence, however, is still limited to the westernized section of bureaucrats, businesspersons, bankers, media personalities, socialites, and entrepreneurs of the NGO-industry.
The divide between ‘actorivists’ addicted to social media—the creamy layer of Nepali society—and the rest of the country is still too wide for the White Shirts to be significant players of competitive politics any time soon. The mod crowd can wave the Double Triangle with gusto; paint its Facebook walls in the color of crossness; twit witty comments to express its irritation but can’t even hold a dharna at Balkhu Palace to show its disgust with the hooliganism of UML toughies.
Illustration: Sworup Nhasiju
Where are the rest?
The frenzied young men and women from the mofussil with well-worn backpacks slinging to their shoulders and who figuratively stormed the Bastille during the Rhododendron Revolution and helped Nepal become a republic seem to have disappeared without a trace. Boys and girls barely out of their teens who poured out into the streets during the Madhesh Uprisings and made the political class accept the inevitability of federalism are nowhere to be seen, either. Sadly, they have been running away in droves towards foreign shores in search of work. Last year alone, almost half a million prospective workers—most of them in the most productive years of their life—are estimated to have left the country.
The reality can then be expressed either way: Nepal in its current state is no country for youth, or there are no youths for the country. In essence, it all amounts to the same thing: Despite all the chest thumping, concern for the country is not an issue of priority for most Nepali youths.
Anxiety and individualism
The oft-repeated story sounds cruel and is almost certainly apocryphal, but the message inherent in the tale can’t be dismissed out of hand. It is said that a mother monkey was put into a tub of water with its baby. The tap that filled the container was left open. It was observed that the mother held her baby aloft until the water level reached her own nostrils. Then she pushed the baby down and stood over the body to protect herself. Nepali mothers would probably never do anything of that sort. The same, however, can’t be said about the patriarchs of the country with equal certainty.
The dread of submergence—Premier Baburam Bhattarai was once unnecessarily ridiculed for openly expressing his deep-rooted anxieties and lambasted unjustly in recent days for admitting to the journalists that the keys to governance of the country lay elsewhere—has remained a fixation with most Nepalis at least since the humiliating Treaty of Sugauli. Study of history helps one understand society and appreciate compulsions of circumstances at various stages of its evolution.
Falsification of history to glorify Gorkhali bravery was perhaps necessary to make the curse of compulsory mercenary duty in the service of the British Empire acceptable to the masses. The offshoot was that the deception cursed generations of Nepalis to live with the illusion of independence and fictitious fears of losing something that it had already surrendered to foreign masters.
The stress of coping with the duplicity has bred chronic schizophrenia. The inconsistency of loving one’s country but having no faith in its future has remained a consistent feature of the common Nepali psyche. That perhaps partly explains the behavior of those who queue up during the day for visa at some foreign embassy for the whole day and then go to Ratna Park on the way back home to shout nationalistic slogans.
History, however, doesn’t fully explain self-centeredness rampant among today’s Nepali youths who fall between 15-35 year age group. The educated ones of the cohorts are the product of privatization of education in the country. The purported quality of schooling apart, private education inculcates certain values that stay with its products for life. Since business transaction is the bedrock of private schooling, students begin to believe that everyone’s self-interest is in the best interest of everybody else. Commerce, rather than character, then becomes the mainstay of such a value system.
It’s not just the direct beneficiaries of private education who grow up with the belief of the centrality of self; the principle perpetuates itself through those left out of the loop but desirous of emulating the lifestyles of the privileged. After food and shelter, cost of commercial education for children at home gobbles up the third largest share of remittances from menial workers abroad who are barely literate themselves. Student unions are unnecessarily raising a ruckus over foreign names. A for-profit Manubadi Shishu Shiksha Sadan is unlikely to be very much different from Manchester Nursery and Kindergarten: Both would probably produce commercialized workers and covetous consumers rather than conscientious citizens.
Globalization has made assertive individualism fashionable. It’s cool to be fully absorbed with oneself and talk in terms of ‘I, me, myself’ and still claim that one is a ‘global citizen’ while missing the contradiction of the terms. The concept of citizenship is centered on the idea of a country. Unchallenged hegemony of the United States of America over the contemporary world has transformed the United Nations into a highly glorified but notoriously bureaucratic and profligate NGO. In the absence of the possibility of a global government, the idea of ‘global citizen’ is merely a cover for the self-centered individual who wants to hide his ambivalence towards the country of his birth or adoption.
Communicating primarily through the Internet with each other, every Cyberian essentially lives in a country of its own where markers of identity are individual idiosyncrasies, and solidarity can only be expressed through one’s prized possessions. In such a world iPad and i20—nothing against these seductive toys primarily meant for ‘boys’ of every gender—are more precious than community centers or public transport.
Post-privatization of education that began to gain momentum in the mid-eighties, a generation of bewildered urban middleclass has grown beyond age that knows everything about consumerism and almost nothing about citizenship, and cares much more for expediency than idealism. Even politics for these youths consist of cold calculations of cost and benefit. The rural youth find it difficult to relate with this class. Be it revolutionary or reformist, leadership often comes from the ranks of intellectual or entrepreneurial bourgeoisie. Bereft of voice in the corridors of power, the risk of alienated youths being drawn towards the lure of another savior on horseback has never been so high. Whether the new party of Janjati activists would be able to synchronize the idea of assertive communities with an accommodative country remains to be seen. However, the new enterprise does carry the promise of bringing idealism back into politics.
Lal contributes to The Week with his biweekly column Reflections. He is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.