26 September, 2010

A house divided | Oped | :: The Kathmandu Post ::

A house divided | Oped | :: The Kathmandu Post ::
A house divided The global and the local
Sushma Joshi SEP 25, 2010 -
Yesterday, as I watched live on television President Obama give his speech in front of the UN General Assembly, one thing struck me: this man knows how to create consensus. Unlike his predecessor ex-President Bush, who seemed to specialise in dividing the world and creating mass panic (Muslims versus non-Muslims, Terrorists versus the Good Guys, Green Coded Time versus Orange Coded Time etc), President Obama creates a sense of a world united for the same peaceful purpose.
In his speech, Obama went back to human rights, the foundation that created the United Nations. He talked about how each nation on earth could aspire towards this ideal of democracy by protecting human rights. He talked about nations’ willingness to engage with open government and open society—from India, the biggest democracy on earth, to North Korea, which remained an imprisoned island.
Obama talked about government that enables, rather than impedes, the abilities of individuals to create opportunities.
Obama did not back down from giving a warning to the bad guys—he gave a stern warning to Iran about its nuclear programme. Rights, he said, came with responsibilities. And yet, despite warnings about consequences if Iran failed to show peaceful intent, Obama (unlike his predecessor) left the door open. He said: “Now let me be clear once more: the United States and the international community seek a resolution to our differences with Iran, and the door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it. “And in his 33 minute speech, he spent a great deal of time talking about a Middle Eastern peace deal. He gave the example of a girl in Gaza who couldn’t attend school, along with a boy in Israel who feared rocket attacks—both, he said, deserved better. The Israeli chairs remained unoccupied, and yet what Obama was saying about a two state solution was so pragmatic, and so equitable, that no doubt even dissenting hawks of the Israeli administration could not but agree that this man made sense.
Perhaps the difference between Obama and our own politicians is the difference of one key aspect: statesmanship. Obama engages with every issue as if it matters. He believes in his own power as a leader to bring about social and political change, not just in his own country, but also the whole world. He believes his speech at the UN is one that will be heard by people far and wide, and that his words will have consequences. Do our politicians believe their words have the same kind of power? Do they engage with issues with the same depth of belief?
Of course, I am not saying our politicians are disengaged. Increasingly, as the house divided continues to fall, the quarrel seems to be taken elsewhere. The Congress, UML and the Royalists seem to favour tattling to Mommy (Mother India), while the Maoists run to Daddy (otherwise known as Papa China.) All win brownie points and a pat on the back each time they tell tales.
This state of affairs made me think of an old Vedic tale. According to the old scriptures, the gods were engaged one day in the process of churning nectar from the seas. A clever serpent-demon realised that only the Gods were getting the good stuff, so he sneaked in and started to take a sip. The Sun and the Moon, realising that the serpent was getting into their nectar, winked to Vishnu. Lord Vishnu, using his disc, sent it whirling off into space and cut the serpent into two. The top half was Rahu, the demon-god that’s never satisfied with his own desires. And the bottom is Ketu, the disembodied half that always seeks to unite with the head, but is never successful.
In terms of chronology, Ketu rules seven years of each individual’s life. In our own nation state, it appears our own disembodied, headless body of the state has tried for almost six years now to reunite, feebly, with some sort of a government with authority, but alas!, failing spectacularly each time.
Is the answer Mommy and Daddy? Or is it time to head back to an old statesman who despite his war crimes now strikes admiration in our hearts for pulling this quarrelling nation together? I’m talking about no other than Prithivi Narayan Shah, that figure who fell out of favour a while back due to his war crimes. Kirtipur had surrendered, and the torture he imposed on this captive population amounted to a war crime. The twenty-first century sees this as a great violation of human rights.
At the same time, despite his egregious behaviour, Prithivi Narayan Shah also pulled a houseful of quarrelling tribes to bring together a united nation. And in these strange times, more and more this appears to be an incredible and farsighted achievement. That man, like Obama, knew how to unite, rather than divide, a large constituency.
Like the Founding Fathers of America, whose crimes, including slavery, are catalogued by the contemporary generation, but who retain their status as farsighted statesmen who cobbled together a new nation, perhaps its time for Nepalis also to re-evaluate the contributions of Prithivi Narayan Shah. If 600 individuals from all parts of the country can’t do (with the help of all donors, multinationals and helpful neighbours) what he did with one upraised finger, maybe its time to listen to that man’s advice. If I remember the Divya Upadesh correctly, the one big principle for Nepalis is not to take their quarrels outside. Perhaps we should not throw out wholesale the advice of a hoary old warrior who knew how to bring the squabbling tribes together, and reminded us: a house divided can only fall.
Back to the twenty first century, Obama’s words continue to echo with me long after his speech. In particular, these words rung true: “This Assembly’s Charter commits each of us, and I quote—‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women.’ Among those rights is the freedom to speak your mind and worship as you please; the promise of equality of the races, and the opportunity for women and girls to pursue their own potential; the ability of citizens to have a say in how you are governed, and to have confidence in the administration of justice. For just as no nation should be forced to accept the tyranny of another nation, no individual should be forced to accept the tyranny of their own government.”

Link to article in Ekantipur here.