The strange case of Kanak Dixit

Mr Dixit and lawyer Shambhu Thapa were the most vocal among those opposing it.

Nepalese journalist-activist Kanak Mani Dixit, who was arrested on April 22 and released on May 2 on the orders of that country’s Supreme Court, is now free, and it is in the nature of the media to think that he thus no longer needs to be the centre of attention. That is unfair to Mr Dixit; and it also indicates a shallow understanding of the politics of Nepal and of South Asia as a whole.

Mr Dixit is in many ways a man who has fought for an imaginative rethinking of Southeast Asia. He knows a vitalised South Asia and a resurgent democracy in Nepal are organically connected. To the third part of a triangle, he wants an India that goes beyond the clerical nationalism of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), to think of a South Asia that is pluralist, with a non-hegemonic India carrying with it new notions of democracy and development.

Years ago Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes described the situation in his country as “Poor Mexico, too far from God and too close to the US”.

Mr Dixit feels an equivalent angst and has been outspoken about it. Given this, many in India and in foreign policy circles must be secretly, even openly, delighted with the arrest of the Nepalese gadfly.

Incidentally, the Commission for Investigation of the Abuse of Authority (CIAA), the watchdog vigilance body that arrested him, was quick to point out it had not arrested him for his journalistic activities. It claimed he was arrested as chair of a cooperative bus service that is virtually owned by the state.

But the circumstances of the arrest were worrying. Mr Dixit was arrested on a Friday night to prevent him from having legal access for 72 hours across the weekend. Second, he was kept in detention with ordinary prisoners, and denied his entitlements.

Sadly, both the Nepalese journalists’ association and the bar association mumbled a whispered protest. They must have known the arrest was a part of a vendetta as Mr Dixit was one of the principal dissenters against royal misrule.

More urgently, as a democrat, he was among the first to protest against the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki as CIAA commissioner. As Nepal struggles towards democracy and a normative process of institution-building, the biggest danger is from the forces of counter-revolution conniving their way through the bureaucracy.

The appointment of Lokman Singh Karki, a former secretary and monarchist, as chief ombudsman was a cynical act. Mr Dixit and lawyer Shambhu Thapa were the most vocal among those opposing it. Mr Thapa was immediately harassed and Mr Dixit’s arrest followed soon after.

What is sad is that Mr Karki used one of the most hallowed institutions established to guarantee the norms of institution-building for a personal vendetta. His acts were so blatant that he did not even recuse himself from the task, given his personal stake. An act of objective investigation merely masked a personal witchhunt as Mr Karki attempted to arrest Mr Dixit as a recalcitrant witness.

However, institutions produce their own surprises, partly as a karma of past maturity and intelligence. The Supreme Court struck again this time, through Nepal’s first woman Chief Justice. C.J.N. Sushila Karki, who distinguished between the rule of law and the rule of fear to give Mr Dixit back his liberty. He is recovering at a civil hospital penning articles on his protest while wife Shanta and brother Kunda take care of him.

What is remarkable about Mr Dixit is his humour. His sense of the corruption around him is real. He showed how the “India boycott”, while harming ordinary citizens, became a win-win situation for the Nepalese elite and for India. The Army and police became suppliers of petrol, and corruption in essential goods became a source of quick profit. Mr Dixit claimed Nepal was not just landlocked but locked into a set of bad ideas about politics and development. As a Saarc nation, Nepal, he claimed, had only two choices.

Firstly, to be bled by World Bank consultants, savage in the pursuit of consultations and development, or the mediocrity of playing constant second fiddle to a big bully India. He suggested many of us work together to create a new template for South Asia where Saarc is dead, so that the idea of South Asia as a region, as a sacred place, and as a conversation of civilisations could be born again.

Arresting him was like literally arresting a whole stream of life-giving process — the rituals of democracy in Nepal, a critical view of development, a new dream of South Asia and touch of laughter to the very processes of politics.

Mr Dixit’s arrest finds an echo in India. One saw a similar pattern in the arrest and harassment of Teesta Setalvad. In both events, the act of arrest, the piety of the discussion, becomes a diversion. In Ms Setalvad’s case, one of the key witnesses to the killings of 2002 was harassed.

Ms Setalvad’s was a Cassandra-like voice, but Cassandras are not exiled or buried today, they are harassed for their tax returns. They have to be delegitimised into the corruption of everydayness so that their presence can be erased from memory.

The tactics against Mr Dixit follow a similar pattern. He is shown as a reluctant citizen, unwilling to cooperate with the authorities. Every act of transparency on Mr Dixit’s part was discounted and every act of resistance read as recalcitrance. When Mr Dixit sought clarifications, he was condemned as obstructionist.

The Nepalese government realises there is lethal pedagogy to its politics. It wants to teach dissenters a lesson, and sends a message to all in the intelligentsia that they could be next. Silencing Mr Dixit was an act of triumph for tyranny, as its impact would be stark and wide.

Many Indians might ask: “Why bother about Nepal, which many of us treat as a failed state trapped between the monarchy and the Maoists?”

But at a deeper level, Nepal’s evolving democracy threatens our static democratic imagination that makes a fetish of the electoral ritual. One could almost say India suffers from democratic envy when it comes to Nepal. Nepal’s return to democracy demands India rethink its politics, both domestic and international, in many ways. Mr Dixit’s presence is a constant reminder that the pomposity of Indian democracy is almost as dangerous as its fetish of majoritarianism.

Both create a bullyboy politics India could do well without. Mr Dixit’s presence is a reminder that the reinvention of democracy is long overdue both in Nepal and India. One only hopes the forces of reaction don’t destroy this. India and Nepal owe Mr Dixit and other courageous dissenters at least that much.

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