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Civic Education for the Young Generation

Organised by Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies (NEFAS)

2 August 2008, Pharping


The first in the series of seminars on "Civic Education for the Young Generation" in 2008 was organized by Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies, in cooperation with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, in Pharping, a quiet hamlet just outside Kathmandu Valley on 2 August, 2008. The venue for the one-day seminar was one of the oldest boarding high schools in the country and attended by youths from the cross-section of Pharping society, teachers, political workers and different prominent personalities of the tiny town.

The quiet setting in the midst of the monsoon season did not just provoke comments from participants, but the Q&A session turned into an interesting debate between the audience and the presenters on several occasions. In more urban settings, the general trend is that the floor session turns into a dull moment with commentators making their comments and the presenter coming up with their replies at the end. In Pharping, the interesting part was that questioners would get up, ask the question, seek the answer and then re-pose questions after questions until all doubts were cleared. It was a lively event, indeed.

The Pharping seminar departed from its earlier versions elsewhere in other ways too. Here, the cooperation of a local social organization was sought in not only choosing the venue but also composing the mix of participants to be invited to join the discussions. Also, bearing in mind the fluid political situation in the country and an anxious atmosphere regarding the constitution drafting process, Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies had to seek a presenter who could explain the various aspects of a democracy at a time when there is the absence of a constitution, political parties are trumpeting tall promises, sky-rocketing popular aspirations and an insecure environment which sees the fabric of society being pulled from every direction that the Nepalese did not even know existed.

Well-noted constitutional expert Kashi Raj Dahal was invited to make his presentation on democracy and the rule of law in the country after Shivaraj Dahal read out his paper on the importance of civic education to the younger generation. Usually, in similar discussions, it is the political scientist who explains the issue of political awareness, about one's rights and responsibilities, in making a democracy vibrant or an economist who supplements the views through the economic perspective and lays bare the economic foundations of a sustainable democracy. But in Pharping, it was the legal expert's role on describing the constitutional roots of a democracy.

The seminar kicked off with NEFAS Executive Director Ananda Srestha introducing his organization and its activities to the audience and the way the function was going to be structured. This was followed by Shiva Raj Dahal's presentation on civic education to the youth. Kashiraj Dahal's presentation wound up the function on the presenter's side, or so it was thought. When the floor session turned into a Q&A session with questions being shot at the presenter seeking immediate answers, the formalities of the floor and the dais disappeared and a symphony of sorts emerged when the two sides began debating the relevant issues one-on-one. The presenter himself capitalized the event with his easy-to-understand style and providing true legal case stories as analogies to drive his point through. The audience loved it.

The function came to its conclusion with Maharjan of Green Tara Trust thanked the participants and others.

Ananda Srestha: NEFAS has been organizing discussions on contemporary topics ever since its inception. Civic education has been a theme for these discussions for the past decade or so. We hope that the discussions will generate some feedback that will be useful in updating a book on civic education that we have published. In that sense, the paper that will shortly be presented by providing relevant comments so that the contents get enriched.

About two dozen books have been published by NEFAS since its inception on contemporary topics that are aimed at contributing towards the strengtheninbg of democracy in the country. The current paper includes feedback from different parts of the country. Your comments will no doubt enrich it further.

We do not subscribe to the view that students should not indulge in politics. Not that they should be going around carrying party flags, but that they must remain alert about political goings-on. The younger generation is the nation's future and they must remain alert. It is necessary that students are made aware about civic education from their school days. Only then can the future of the nation can find proper guidance.

I want to thank FES for their continued cooperation and Green Tara Trust in their contribution to the organize this seminar.

Shiva Raj Dahal's presentation.

Kashi Raj Dahal: One might wonder why both the presenters are Dahals. My relation with the earlier Dahal is not an issue that brought me here. And, although we may belong to the same clan somewhere in the lineage, I hail from a different part of the country than he does. It is just a coincidence that two Dahals are making their presentation today.

Let me tell you several interesting stories. I was an engineer by profession, but a friend told me that literature and law were more interesting. Today I am involved in law. But law is a complex subject and hard to understand. I do not want to make a written presentation as it would be difficult to understand. So I want to explain these complicated issues with simple stories.

When the United States found out that about 40 per cent voters were disinterested in politics during elections, it raised concern. They have found that the larger portion of that mass is from the younger generation. They appear more interested in rock music and so on. So, the US government began working to attract them to politics through civic education. This campaign sought ways to include the youth in democracy by explaining them the history and their forefather's contribution to democracy and nation building. In the following elections they saw that 55 per cent voters voted. The increase was attributed to that campaign. In western countries, we see that even private houses put up national flags on their premises. In Nepal, we rather see party flags donning the homes. And, there are cases where people have even burnt national flags.

In every country, we see patriotic people. I have seen that even in tropical countries people wearing warm clothes if only to express their national sentiments through national attire. It would naturally have been more comfortable to wear jeans and T-shirts. But they stick to their traditions. In Nepal, the scene is different. We are not talking about the nation, but regions or ethnic groups. If there is no nation, how can there be regions, classes or even ethnic groups?

It is people who should be the watchdogs who should be monitoring the representatives and their activities. People have begun to say that we have a one-day democracy in Nepal, which gets activated only on the election day. But we should be aware all the 365 days to upkeep democracy. The youth have a very important role here.

A mother was charged with killing a child. When I asked why she did so, she said that a tantrik had told her that if the first born is ugly, it should be thrown into the fire. Only then can a beautiful child would be born to her. Not that she did not love that child, but that she did so because of ignorance. There are also cases where a mother and child jump into the Trishuli River to kill themselves. The mother later finds out that she survives and the child drowns. This happens because of ignorance or fear.

We are drafting the constitution, at the moment. And, we should own it, just like a mother owns a child, and does not abandon it just because someone else does it. We should understand what a constitution is, what democracy is.

Constitution is the fundamental law of the land. There are 195 countries that have drafted constitutions and not all of them have been democratic and according to popular aspiration. The countries are just a laboratories for constitution-making. We should stop ourselves from being a lab. We should stop being roused up in revolution for a constitution. We should be made aware through civic education so that we are capable of that.

Ever since, 2007, we have been fighting for terms. Yesterday, it was prajatantra, today loktantra. The Panchayat was here since the Lichhibi period. But when the Panchayat System went down we began wiping out the word from existence, we did not allow it to exist even in the dictionary. After 1990, they wanted to rename the village panchayats, so we opted for municipalities and village development committees. This has resulted in misunderstandings. For example, in another country, there was a case where the official examining the birth certificate thought that all Nepalese had to go to a committee to be born. And it had to be explained to him that a committee was an administrative area in the villages.

Similarly, we are fed up with the word prajantra and have opted for loktantra. I wanted to find the difference. Some said that praja denotes a king's subjects. Others said that prajatantra had geographic limitations while a lok does not have such limits. Now, we are trying to explain everything once again saying that loktantra is grassroots democracy. We have not run out of options, we still have janatantra and the like for future dates. This is not wise. The younger generation should not be entangled in terms and phrases, but the meaning behind them.

All the positive aspects of democracy have made it popular among different countries in the world. The content of the constitution must be scanned to see if they contain democratic elements. The elements are:

human rights protection. There are people who want to protect not just human rights but even animal rights. There are various aspects of human rights- the rights of women, children and the like. But if the state does not have the capacity to enforce it and preserve it, there is no use of talking about human rights. For example, we find that helpless women are to be given allowance in accordance with law. That is the provision. But the hitch is that there is no law that provides for the allowance. The law will never be drafted because the state does not have the capacity.

I had visited a Korean jail once. The inmates were on a strike to demand a larger television screen for the World Cup football. The authorities had to give in to uphold human rights there. In a similar tour of a Nepalese jail, I saw that the jail was called Bhadragol and which was stretched to overcapacity. It was supposed to hold 600 inmates, and I saw 1800 living there. I asked them how they were managing space. The inmate I asked said that he would take up the space of someone else when he or she went to the toilet.

Since no one has had the capability to reform jails, they just form a commission to look into the matter and calm any likely protests. But this is also a way to see that the task is never completed. Every government forms its own commission and never completes the task. This is because the commitment is beyond the state's capacity to fulfill.

A woman near Kathmandu had a bottle of water with her. I asked her why she had it with her. She said that that water was the water that came from washing her husband's feet. She had kept it as a sign of respect to him until he returned from his errand in Kathmandu.

There are women who are sent to animal sheds to give birth to children. Such a woman died because a fire was not put down by men saying that they would not put it down as it was against the tradition to go near a woman at birth. Where is that woman's rights? How does the law protect such women. The law should make provisions to do so, but does the government have the capacity to enforce it? This story is from a case that we saw in the courts.

I know a case where the husband refused to collect his wife's clothes from the clothesline for fear of what the neighbours might say. This man was a learned person and well-read and understood the difference between tradition and superstition. This is the kind of society we live in.

There are many remote areas in the country where we see mobile phones, beer and other spirits easily available. They have reached the most difficult and rural areas. But they do not have any medical drugs to treat their sick.

Our fight should be for human rights as it is the main component of democracy.

Here is a puzzle for you. Please think over it and you can tell me later who won the case. There was a case in the Terai plains where a person stopped a dyke from being built along the river as it would wash his house away if the dyke was allowed to be built. But if the dyke was not built, a whole village was going to be washed away. Who won the case? Will the audience tell me?

rule of law. In the past in the United States, schools and other public places were segregated between whites and blacks. The government justified the system saying that the treatment of both kinds of schools is the same and that one was not favoured over the other. The courts said that it was not discrimination, only segregation. A hundred years later, the verdict was changed. Segregation too was defined as discrimination. In Nepal, we see girls' schools and boys' schools. In Nepal, we justify the separation saying that we have done so to bring them to equality and once they achieve that status, they will not be segregated.

New contexts are coming up to challenge rule of law and human rights protection. The old values are changing. There is the third sex, gay marriage, and separation of marriage and sex life, rape of wives etc. The courts are facing these challenges at the moment.

protection of the marginalized and minorities. Rights of all groups, the elderly, the youth, the children and everyone else need protection. Our education should teach these.

There is huge discrimination in law between men and women.

separation of powers: This particular point is not coming up with a loud voice at the moment to make its presence felt. We are talking about federalism, but there are questions about how seriously we have thought about it. There is a distinction between federalism and separatism.

There must be a balance of power among the executive, legislative and the judiciary, otherwise there will be dictatorship. Checks and balances must be maintained while devising laws. The interim constitution suffers from this lacuna and our new constitution must not be so weak so that dictatorship is allowed to born. Regarding federalism, there are benefits but also a lot of costs and complexities involved. There are technicalities and expertise involved from various sectors that need to be included in devising a federation.

transparency and accountability. There are cases where the Nepalese legislators do not know what they are passing while endorsing bills and laws. Right to information laws take care of a lot of accountability issues. This will ensure that everyone works with honest intentions.

While framing a constitution, one must look into the contents that usher in democracy rather than what pledges are made by politicians.

FLOOR

Ram Bahadur Basnet: Shivaraj Dahal talks about unholy alliances resulting in differences among the larger parties. Please tell me what unholy means.

Bikas [one name]: What are the rights to self-determination?

Kashiraj Dahal: A colony can decide to free itself through the right to self determination. Secondly, a region can have several special rights for the development of the communities. But right to secession cannot have legal legitimacy. This is what international law says. Right to self determination cannot be defined as a right to secede.

Sristi Maharjan: Costs and benefits of federalism?

Kashiraj Dahal: If the separation of power is vertical among provinces and the centre, then it is federalism. The benefits are: increased popular participation, proximity of all government offices within every federal unit and emotional ownership by local people. Identity of the community and region is also enhanced.

The costs: Dislocation and disintegration.

In federalism, the currency, military and foreign policy are the preserves of the centre while other powers will be enjoyed by the federal units.

Anita [one name]: Will the nation disintegrate after provinces are given the right to self determination?

Kashiraj Dahal: The law does not provide the right to secede, but there are nations where disintegration has taken place, nonetheless. The principle in itself does not allow disintegration.

[Unnamed questioner]: What about human rights?

Kashi Raj Dahal: We must begin by providing the fundamental rights; and additional rights must be included along with the development of state capacity. All international conventions may not be implementable for Nepal. There are declarations made by governments, but they are just ornamental in purpose, only conventions and commitments need to be implemented.

Kumar Balami: Please give the verdict of the puzzle-cases that you cited earlier. Secondly, you discourage party politics among youths. Please tell us the kind of politics we should be involved in.

Kashiraj Dahal: I did not say that youths should not be involved in party politics. That is the fundamental right of the youth. What I mean to say is that all politics is not necessarily party-based. In developed countries, I have found people who are very well versed in sports personalities and movie stars, but not politicians. In Nepal, even school children know the names of the parties and politicians, but not those in other sectors like the judiciary or other constitutional heads. Hence, I want to urge all to become more aware of their rights and responsibilities, and, for this, you do not need to be involved with one or the other party. We see that people are more interested about political news and views but not their political rights and responsibilities.

Ram Bahadur Basnet: You talk of sweet theories and principles, but who will teach us to practice them?

Kashiraj Dahal: Here are five conditions for a new nation. They are, a complete overhaul of the economy to make it production oriented. Secondly, education reform for quality and skills. Development of technology. Fourth, physical infrastructure and organizational structure of the government and institutions. Fifth, political sector reform to enable all this to happen. Political leadership must be strong to be able to carry it out.

Sanjeev Shrestha: Who ratifies the constitution, the people or the Constituent Assembly?

Kashiraj Dahal: Only a two-thirds majority in the House is enough to pass the constitution and popular ratification is not needed.

Finally, the verdict on the puzzle-cases I mentioned earlier. The right of one house is the same as the rights of the owners of the 500 houses, as everyone has equal rights. Therefore, the person who wanted to save his house by stopping the construction of the dyke has the same rights as those trying to construct it to save his. If one were to judge in favour of the 500 houses, it would not be compatible with human rights.

[Unnamed participant]: There were four members who wanted monarchy in the Constituent Assembly. Does it have any meaning?

Kashi Raj Dahal: The constitution talks about majority voices. Obviously, the views of the four have been recorded. If we are ready to think, and act, responsibly and to work diligently, we can build a new Nepal.

Shivaraj Dahal: If the objective is negative, things will not work out well. My focus was on the Madhesi parties that aim to secede from the nation. Such parties have been given recognition by the state; and I think mistakenly. Even while border encroachments were taking place and Indian policemen were assaulting Nepalese citizens in Nepalese territory, the Madhesi parties never spoke a word. The vice president took his oath in Hindi. This are not good tidings.

Ram Bahadur Basnet: When you talk of unholy alliance, I wanted to know whether you were talking of the procedural issues or parties.

Shivaraj Dahal: I am trying to make the younger generation aware of the issues involved and the way they are behaving. There is no doubt that it is the political sector that should resolve the problems they have created.

Mr. Maharjan's vote of thanks: I want to thank both the presenters, the NEFAS representatives, the school Headmaster Ram Bahadur Basnet and all the participants and the students present here. The whole function was short and I want to thank you for making it smooth through your participation.

Indeed, there is lack of youth participation in social issues in the past 15 years or so. The masses of the younger generation are disenchanted by political and social activities these days. But when a programme dedicated to this issue came here, we have been grateful.

We should develop our responsibility and accountability to the nation. The related issues must be discussed. We must be made aware of all activities, global and local, technological and otherwise. Kashiraj Sir made the presentation in a manner that was very encouraging to the younger generation. I want to thank NEFAS for doing so much for our youth. If we could make the function more participatory and more representative, it would be always welcome. Please remember us, social workers, while organizing such functions. This has informed our friends and made them more aware. And, this is how we can change the mindset of the people. Not just here in Pharping, but throughout the country.

 
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