15 November, 2003

Blueprints of Democracy

Sushma Joshi

Ancient Greece is known as the birthplace of democracy. Their ideas and practice does not correspond exactly to the various different forms of democracies that we are familiar with in the contemporary moment. Their political and intellectual achievements, however, were clearly instrumental in shaping the foundations. What did democracy mean to the ancient Greeks, and how did it get started in that part of the world, and not any other? The Egyptians and the Persians were ruling far more civilized and wealthier civilizations, but their empires did not give birth to ideals of democracy. Even in the Greek isles, mountainous areas and areas lacking communications did not develop democracy, an interesting historical fact that might shed some light on the turmoil of our own nation.

The Greeks distinguished themselves from the “barbarous”, or people who said “bar-bar” when they talked. According to classic scholar H.D.F Kitto, the barbarians were not denigrated, and the word did not have the contemptuous connotations that it does today. Indeed, the Greeks admired the moral code of the Persians and the wisdom of the Egyptians, and appropriated many ideas for these civilized neighbours. The difference between the Greeks and the barbarians was simple: the Greeks considered themselves free men. “The barbarians are slaves, we Hellenes are free men,” Demosthenes says. Unlike the ancient Hebrews, whose identity were formed along racial and religious lines, the Greeks perceived themselves as a group distinguished by an ideal - freedom.

“Eleutheria” - the word that stood for freedom, meant much more than that. Homer says: “Zeus takes away from a man half of his manhood if the day of enslavement lays hold of him.” Slavery and despotism were perceived to maim the soul. The ancient Greek was ruled by a known law which respected justice. He was a “member” of a political system which incorporated all adult men (women were still excluded) into a public assembly.

“Arbitrary government offended the Greek in his very soul”, writes Kitto. The ancient Greeks had monarchies and rulers ruling the state, but his polity respected his rights. State affairs were public affairs, not the private concern of a despot. The wealthier and more civilized countries of the East had palace-government and the rule of a King who was absolute: governing by his own private will, and responsible to neither the gods nor to law. The subject of such a master was seen to be a slave by the ancient Greeks. The Oriental custom of obeisance struck the Greek as not “eleutheron”, and as an affront to human dignity.

The second aspect of ancient Greek democracies was the polis. The polis, which was the administrative and cultural centre of the community, was like the capital of contemporary nation-states, except on a noticeably reduced scale (5000-20,000 citizens was the norm). But unlike modern nation-states, the people of ancient Greek often got their citizenship status via their polis, rather than through the larger region in which it was based.

This made the people of Attica, where the polis of Athens was based, into Atheneans, not Attics. This model, if reapplied, would make all Americans into citizens of New York, not the other way around. Ironically, this aspect of ancient Greek societies still arguably operates in Nepal - the oft-repeated complaint of rural Nepalis that Kathmandu dominates the political and economic landscape, and that people are often forced to be de-facto citizens of Kathmandu, rather than of Nepal. “Kathmandu is Nepal, but Nepal is not Kathmandu” is a piece of wisdom that seemed to have escaped the notice of most of our administrative and governing bodies, and which remains an underlying grievance of the current bloody war.

The Greeks thought of the polis as a space which trained citizens into thoughtful, productive individuals with highly developed moral, spiritual and political faculties. The mature polis, to Aeschylus, was a means by which the law was satisfied without producing chaos. Public justice superceded private vengeance.

The process of educating citizens was done through drama, both tragic and comic, an art form that the Greeks perfected. The dramas, staged in public, were open to everybody, including foreigners. Literature, in all its forms (except the novel) was practised and perfected. Epic poetry, history and drama, philosophy, metaphysics, economics, mathematics, the natural sciences - all these forms of art and knowledge became the vehicles through which a citizen’s moral, intellectual, aesthetic and social life was enriched at all levels in a way no other society had done before. By consciously striving to make the life of the community more excellent than it was before, the Greeks created a way of life that has had a lasting impact on uncountable generations. We continue to experience and be enriched by their ideas today.

The word “democracy” gets thrown around carelessly to describe all shapes and forms of political processes. Lets stop for a moment to create a checklist - free citizens, a public assembly, a state and rulers accountable to its laws, as well as a vibrant and thriving arts and cultural life - that made up the foundation of democracy. Perhaps next time we ask ourselves why democracy doesn’t seem to be working, we can go back to the checklist and see if we got all of it.

06 November, 2003


People read newspapers and magazines expecting to believe what they read. They do not usually wonder whether what they are reading is partially or entirely fabricated. In countries where there are only a few media companies controlling entire conglomerates of television and print media, the independent newspaper and magazine becomes even more of a vital source of information. The United States, for instance, where four or five major corporations control the majority of news media in the entire continent, is often cited as a nation where the quality of news suffers as a consequence of the consolidation of media outlets. So its independent news sources are often elevated to a higher status.

The New Republic is a policy magazine published out of Washington DC that boasts of being the "inflight magazine of Airforce 1" - Airforce 1 being the airforce of the president. Started in 1914, the magazine has enjoyed respectable influence in the upper echelons of policy and politics. So it was more than unusually devastating when a young reporter by the name of Steven Glass was found to have fabricated 27 out of the 41 articles he had written for various different issues of this magazine in the 1980s.

"Shattered Glass", a film about this young, driven reporter who was hell-bent on fabricating entertaining stories in order to further his career, is premiering in New York this week. The movie raises interesting questions about the standards of journalism, the relationship between the writer and the editor, as well as the responsibility of the publication in checking facts and sources before publishing. Predictably, it is getting a lot of press coverage.

"Shattered Glass" comes hot on the heels of the Jayson Blair scandal. Jayson Blair, an up and coming journalist in the New York Times, was exposed to have fabricated many of the details of the stories he wrote about. The fabrications, including colorful descriptions of places he had never been, were noticed numerous times by other reporters and sources, but the editors continued to let him write his pieces without interruption. Then the shit hit the fan, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the case of Steven Glass, the shit only hit the fan after Forbes, an online publication, noticed that none of the sources cited on an article he had written about hackers existed in real life. "This guy is toast," mutters the journalist who exposes Glass's fictions during one of the scenes in which the editors of the two publications try to verify the existence of numerous non-existent people in his story. Glass tried to cover up his fabrication with an elaborate web of lies, including getting his brother to pose as one of the characters in his story and by putting up a fake website for a fake company. Surprisingly, many of his colleagues defended him even after he was exposed.

Billy Ray, screenwriter and director, was especially interested in this "cult of personality" aspect of the story. Charismatic people are often allowed to get away with things that most other people would not, he said. Glass, who was twenty-five, was very popular amongst his colleagues. Ray, who grew up in a household where the two journalists who caused the fall of the Nixon administration were idolized, said that he grew up thinking of journalists as truth-tellers, and the current rash of young and unscrupulous journalists was a fall from grace for the profession. His own attempt to make the film mirrors journalistic integrity, he said. Only stories that could be independently verified were used, and sources were scrupulous checked and cross-checked.

Asked why Glass's fictions went unremarked upon for so long, Ray said that the New Republic, as a magazine that catered to liberal democrats, was running the kind of stories its audience liked to hear. One of Glass's most famous fictional pieces was a purported reportage on a young Republicans get-together. Glass cooked up an elaborate piece about how the Republicans got drunk and harassed fat women. The story was exactly what the audience expected to hear, Ray said - to the point where they took it to be truth. Protests from the convention organizers were brushed aside by the magazine. Quoting one of the editors, Ray said: If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and then slowly put the heat up centigrade by centigrade, the frog will cook without noticing its being cooked. And that's what happened to the entire staff of the New Republic.

The force of cold cash is stronger than any ethical considerations in a market economy - and this is none more clearer than in the book deals that both Steven Glass and Jayson Blair have received from the publishing industry to write their respective stories. The industry clearly hopes to cash in on the sensational and totally free publicity. Glass, who went on to get a law degree from Georgetown - that factoid's for real, I am not fabricating it solely for your amusement - has written a novel called "The Fabulist". It is about a young journalist called Steven Glass who fabricates stories to further his career. Go figure.

02 November, 2003

Bonded to Labor: The Contemporary Situation in Nepal

Bonded to Labor
The Contemporary Situation in Nepal
By Sushma Joshi

This piece originally appeared in Samar 16: Fall/Winter, 2003

Bonded labor, or debt bondage, is the least known form of slavery that exists today, yet it is the most widely used method of enslaving people. At least 20 million people throughout the world are bonded laborers: whole families of agricultural laborers in India; Togolese girls sold as maids in Gabon; eastern European women tricked into prostitution in western Europe. A complete mixture of people who have one thing in common: a debt they are forced to repay with their labor.

On January 13, 2000 the Nepali government, through the Local Self-Governance Act, established a minimum wage for agricultural laborers -- Rs. 74, or just over US$1 per 8-hour workday. On May 1, also International Labor Day, 19 Kamaiya (bonded labor) families filed a petition against their master, ex-minister Shiva Raj Pant, demanding minimum wages in compliance with the new regulation.

Shiva Raj Pant paid his bonded laborers seven quintals of rice each as annual pay. This was the equivalent of about Rs 14-16 a day. The amount was far below the minimum wage fixed by the government, which decrees Rs. 74 a day for adult workers, and Rs. 60 for children working on a daily basis.

When the former minister refused, eleven Kamaiyas headed for the District Administration Office to register a case against Shiva Raj Pant on May 11. The Chief District Officer, a Brahmin, refused to register their complaint.

In the next two months momentum gathered around the Kamaiya liberation movement. Human rights activists, NGOs, and INGOs came together in a concentrated effort to bring pressure on the Nepali government to end the practice of bonded labor. Strikes and mass rallies took place outside Singha Durbar, the seat of Parliament. On July 17, 2000 the practice of bonded labor was declared illegal by the government of Nepal. An estimated 200,000 bonded laborers were declared free of their ancestral debts. Ironically, and perhaps prophetically, Dilli Chaudhari, the leader of Backward Society Education (BASE), the largest grass roots organization working against bonded labor, was assaulted and arrested by the police along with other demonstrators outside Parliament on the very same day.

By July, thousands of liberated Kamaiyas had been driven out of former homes, and their possessions confiscated by landlords enraged by the decree. Entire families were dispossessed, and forced to leave their houses, leaving all their cooking utensils and meager possessions behind. The schizophrenic interests of the government became clear when they made an appeal to Kamaiyas a week after their liberation, to cooperate with their former landlords, and to return to work. The government put out this appeal due to its "unpreparedness" with regards to their rehabilitation.

The former Kamaiyas moved to refugee settlement camps in five districts in Western Nepal. Their most pressing demands included the enforcement of the minimum agricultural wage; 10 kattas of land for each displaced former bonded laborer family; identity cards for former bonded laborers; protection from police and former landlord harassment; food, health services, and education for people in the temporary settlements.

According to the government, there were, at the last count, at least 16,000 bonded laborers in the country. Human rights organizations said the figure could be as high as 40,000. According to a survey conducted in 1995 by BASE, there were about 35,874 Kamaiya scattered in five districts of Western Nepal -- Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang. Newspapers and organizational reports have used figures as high as 200,000. The Kamaiya system has been prevalent for decades in the five southwestern districts of the country -- Dang, Banke, Bardiya, Kailali and Kanchanpur. The practice of bonded labor also exists in Eastern Nepal.

After the restoration of democracy, a larger number of non-governmental organizations were allowed to register and work in Nepal. Among these was BASE, Backward Society Education, a Tharu grassroots organization that started a social mobilization program for bonded laborers. BASE works in 6 districts. According to their publications, they have 29,352 registered individual members (March 2000) and support from many more people. BASE was instrumental in starting the social movement that eventually led to the mass mobilization against bonded labor.

The proclamation of emancipation, and the surge of Kamaiya leaving their masters, brought a rush of initial funding from international donors that soon dried up. Kamaiyas, as internal refugees, fell outside the mandate of refugee funding agencies. By January of 1991, the camps, ill prepared to deal with the massive influx, were experiencing outbreak of diseases like pneumonia. Cold wave, common in the Terai area during winter, claimed nine lives. Children and older people were most vulnerable. Children remained without education and health care.

By January 1991, most families still had not received any of the land promised by the government. A few hundred families were provided with 10 kattas (3 hectares) of land. Most remained landless, or were only given 5 kattas, which was not enough to support a family for more than six months. On January 18th, frustrated by the government's lack of commitment to land reform, about 3,000 ex-Kamaiya families in Kailali and Kanchanpur districts moved peacefully from 51 different makeshift camps into 19 pieces of government-owned but non-forest land, occupying a total of almost 1,500 bighas of land. On February 17, thousands of dwellings occupied by former bonded laborers near forestland were destroyed by Forest Department authorities. This struggle between government and ex-Kamaiyas continues to this day, as authorities set fire to squatter dwellings. The authorities have periodically been setting fire to squatter settlements in Western Nepal, pointing to unresolved tensions. The Carter Center for Human Rights, started by former US President Jimmy Carter, has been active on this issue, issuing letters of protest to the Nepali government regarding the burnings. And yet the harassment has not stopped.

The Ex-Kamaiya Rehabilitation Coordination and Monitoring Committee, a government entity, started to distribute ID cards to all ex-Kamaiyas only on September 30, 2001. This process was very slow, and most people remain without this identity card. The lack of identity cards meant that most families who were ex-Kamaiyas were not recognized by the government as such, thereby making them ineligible for aid or land. This lack of documentation and national identity, a deep-rooted problem amongst marginalized communities within Nepal, is due to a lack of infrastructure and commitment on the government's part to provide citizenship rights to all people, especially ethnic minorities.

The failure of the government bureaucracy to address the ex-Kamaiyas’ situation, which could drag them back to their previous indebted status, has been strongly challenged by advocacy at the grassroots level. A host of NGOs have drawn attention of both international and national organizations to the urgent situation facing ex-Kamaiyas. In conjunction with other INGOs based in Nepal, including Danish MS Nepal and Danida, Save the Children US and Action Aid, community organizations have kept up the pressure to bring awareness to the urgent situation facing a community uprooted, displaced, and without support from national or international sources.

The foot-dragging of the government can be read in various ways. The government, constituted of high caste, Nepali-speaking men, has little interest in helping ethnic minorities get land rights which might potentially cut down their own landholdings. Caste is also very much an issue. The threat of Maoists, who denounce all forms of caste, have put the officials, mostly from high-caste backgrounds, under pressure. Already holding on to a beleaguered caste system, they do not want to jeopardize a comfortable system of social privilege and entitlement based on a naturalized division of land and labor, for the contemporary calls of human rights.

Within the caste system, the Chettris, Brahmins, and Newars have traditionally dominated the political, educational, and financial landscapes of Nepal. The system, which decrees that people are based on a hierarchy of labor, had allocated the most lucrative and profitable sectors -- politics, education, and finance -- to the three dominant groups. The Tharus, within this schema, would be forever bonded, not just to their monetary debts, but to their assigned roles as agricultural indentured laborers. The rage that was directed towards them after the decree of freedom reflects not just the loss of a profitable revenue for landlords, but also the loss of a system of social privilege which had come to be seen not just as natural, but also as a right.

At the current moment, the political upheaval caused by the Emergency, instituted to restore stability after the civil disruptions caused by the conflicts between the Maoist movement and the state, has been used as an effective excuse by political leaders to harass the bonded labor liberation movement. The process of legal registration, which allows BASE to be registered as a non-governmental organization, was recently threatened by a politician who has seized this opportunity to harass the bonded labor movement in the West. BASE's registration, required in order for it to function as a legitimate NGO, is still pending.

The challenges that face the Kamiaya liberation movement arise not just in providing food, education, healthcare, and land to an internally displaced community. They consist in recognizing that social change will never happen until the material basis of production, ie; land, exchanges hands and is owned by people themselves as private property. It also consists in changing attitudes about labor, and its meaning. It consists in shifting the Brahminic ideology that working with hands is "polluted", and to moving a shift in values where agricultural work is seen for what it is -- the backbone of a landlocked, agricultural economy. It consists in examining the hierarchy based around labor, and the internal codings of sacred versus profane that is deeply embedded in the cultural logic.

Labor, in all parts of South Asia, is an ideologically charged issue. The work that people have done have determined the course of their social ranking, the historical trajectories of their societies and their contemporary situations. To understand and untangle the threads of history of bonded labor in Nepal, one has to go back to the hegemonic imperatives of caste ideologies, and the long history of exploitation that surrounds it. We can contextualize the contemporary situation around land and labor only by looking at the complexities of caste, and the way it functions in contemporary institutions.

Any national and international attempts to provide funding and services to the ex-Kamaiyas, then, have to be done with a clear understanding of this social, political and economic history. National and international attempts at rehabilitation, which once again channel funds and services through organizations in Kathmandu, dominated by the upper caste elite, knowingly and unknowingly replicate the power structure that has kept the Kamaiya system in place for centuries. Only by recognizing the capacity of ex-Kamaiyas to be agents of their own future, and by supporting their own attempts at self-government and self-sufficiency, will any significant change occur.

Sushma Joshi grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal, and has a BA in International Relations from Brown University. She also writes fiction and directs documentaries.