Two years after the people-power movement that restored elected governance here, Nepalis are keenly aware of their rights but seem to have lost sight of the rights of others. Opposition politicians block the Assembly from meeting to press their demands, pressure groups close national highways to promote parochial platforms, and government-affiliated activists bolster their freedom to speak by trying to silence other voices.
It’s the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of what citizenship is: all privilege and no duty, where each person is a little monarch.
Of course that doesn’t work, as evidenced every day here. Democracy is a social contract, and every contract is an exchange. For citizens, the deal is that rights come with responsibilities. Nepalis may be excused to a degree for missing that, since the interim constitution slights the issue. Part three of the document enumerates 13 ‘fundamental rights’ but only three duties: to obey the law, to protect State property, and to be subject to conscription.
Other countries require more of their nationals.
Canada’s constitution states explicitly that freedom of expression means respecting the rights and freedoms of others, and India’s requires citizens to promote peace, brotherhood, and non-violence despite diversity. China’s constitution says that citizens’ exercise “of their freedoms and rights may not infringe upon … the lawful freedoms and rights of other citizens.” Sri Lanka’s also requires citizens “to respect the rights and freedoms of others.”
Nepal’s constitution drafters should include a similar provision. Civility and respect are essential to the sort of society that can guarantee the freedoms everyone wants. Being reminded at a personal level that my rights end where yours begin would be a good step towards civil discussion of the country’s big, polarizing issues.
Compromise can be a bitter pill. After years of feeling oppressed and then taking hope that in a New Nepal one’s goal – regional autonomy, social mobility, cultural expression, linguistic freedom, or whatever – might finally be attainable, no one wants to compromise. But in a multi-cultural free society, no group ever gets everything it wants. That’s the worst thing about democracy and also the best thing.
John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.