Problems in knowledge generation

October 31, 2008 at 12:17 pm Leave a comment

Problems in knowledge generation

Mahendra Lawoti

The academia and media’s failure to provide sound analyses resulted into several major surprises regarding momentous events in the last few years.  People were first surprised in 2007 by the ‘unexpected’ success of the Madhesi movement.  The year 2008 of course ‘shocked’ many when the Maoists, instead of trailing a distant third as predicted by many reputed commentators, went on to win the Constituent Assembly (CA) election, leaving its closest rival a distant second.  Why did the intelligentsia and media fail to enlighten the society?  If a society fails to understand itself, it will be less able to solve its problems.  Incongruence between reality and comprehension does not bode well for any society because it may end up planning on faulty assumptions.  This piece analyzes the problem in knowledge generation and dissemination system in Nepal with the case of the Madhesi movement. 

There was no reason to be surprised about the success of the 2007 Madhesi movement, especially in comparison to the movement of the indigenous nationalities. Some had expected that the latter would have been the ones to lead a successful identity movement.

However, an objective look at the mobilization of the two groups since 1951 demonstrates that, even though the activities of the indigenous nationalities, along with the movements of Dalits and women, received considerably more media attention since the 1990s, the Madhesi had almost always mobilized more actively than the others.  For instance, the Madhesi first demonstrated their mobilization capability in modern Nepal’s history in the mid-1950s when they protested against the imposition of Khas-Nepali by the state as medium of instruction in public schools.  The indigenous nationalities, on the other hand, were conspicuous by their absence.  Further, the Nepal Tarai Congress, a Madhesi party, received 2.1 percent of the popular vote in the first general election of 1959 even though it failed to elect a single representative.  The indigenous nationalities’ parties collectively have not received such a high proportion of the popular vote even in the 2008 CA election.  If the votes received by the two groups are to be considered as an indicator of mobilization, the indigenous nationalities in 2008 have not reached the 1959 level of Madhesi mobilization. 

Even during the Panchayat period the Madhesi were more active in resistance activities than other groups.  The late Gajendra Narayan Singh established the Nepal Sadhvawana Parishad in the eighties to organize and mobilize the Madhesi.  Similar indigenous nationalities’ organizations did not emerge during the period.  Some leftist leaders tried to establish a platform but it did not take off. 

Gajendra Narayan transformed the Parishad into a party in 1990.  The party went on to win votes and seats in all of the three general elections in the 1990s whereas several parties of the indigenous nationalities did not win a single seat in the entire decade. This also clearly shows that the Madhesi parties and people were clearly more organized and mobilized than the indigenous nationalities and Dalits even in the nineties.

The above discussion shows that the Madhesi were all along more mobilized than the Dalit, indigenous nationalities and women. The question is why was Nepali society so surprised when the Madhesi mobilized a successful movement in 2007?  A major factor is the refusal of the state, academia and media dominated by the hill group to recognize the Madhesi and their movement.  This is despite the Madhesi’s demand to be recognized as a group.  During the 1990s, the state formed development committees for the Dalit and indigenous nationalities that were later transformed into a commission and foundation but no similar policies were targeted toward the Madhesi.  Even publications of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank failed to recognize the Madhesi.  For instance, the UNDP has not treated the Madhesi group separately in any of its Nepal Human Development Reports published till date.  Likewise, even the well funded World Bank and Department for International Development (DFID) study missed the opportunity to recognize the Madhesi as a group, despite its focus on social exclusion.  These glaring gaps occurred probably because these organizations Nepali staff and consultants were dominated by members of the dominant group and influenced by the hegemonic dominant discourse that had consistently rejected the identity of the Madhesi group.    

This discourse that rejected the Madhesi as a separate group was provided and cemented by academia and media dominated by the caste hill Hindu elite.  The dominant group did not want to recognize the Madhesi as a separate group for various reasons, the discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.  On the other hand, in the absence of dissenting groups’ representation, alternate interpretation and analyses were either absent or ignored when they did rise occasionally.  This helped to create a hegemonic discourse that shut out the most mobilized group and its activities from the public eyes and mind. 

In the last decade some media outlets have begun to appoint occasional reporters and columnists from marginalized groups.  However, the tokenistic appointments cannot address the problem.  First, as long as the policy making positions like the editorship is dominated by a particular group, the appointments may co-opt but not transform the problematic structure.  Second, the few appointees from the marginalized groups may be constrained in expressing their ideas freely in an environment dominated and led by the dominant group.  Third, occasional ‘outbursts’ of a few writers, even if they are prominent, will not be able to counter the hegemonic discourse perpetuated by a large number of people with the dominant worldview.

The ‘surprise’ of society regarding the successful Madhesi movement is just a symptom of a larger problem of faulty knowledge generation and dissemination process in Nepal.  If this exclusionary knowledge generation and dissemination system is not rectified, robust and rigorous analyses about certain aspects of the society may still remain elusive and people may encounter more ‘surprises’ in the future. Some of the ‘surprises’ could become quite costly. 

(Dr. Lawoti is an Associate Professor at Western Michigan University)



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