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Words as weapons

Publication Date : 23-05-2012


A spectre of violence once again hangs over Nepal. Polarisations along different fault lines that have mirrored the inequalities in Nepali society are becoming more pronounced in the form of protests and counter-protests.  This is leading to an escalation of claims followed by a demonstration of muscle power to back up those claims. A clear danger of this escalation is that it could potentially lead to violent confrontations. This is a fear in hearts of Nepalis today.

This fear is not irrational. There are signs that current antagonism will sharpen and cause outbreaks of mass violence unless the grievances are addressed and violence curtailed. Beyond the vandalisms and assaults associated with demonstrations, there are more fundamental early warning signs of violence. One of them is inflammatory public speech used by protestors, politicians and media including Twitter and Facebook.

Susan Benesch, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute defines inflammatory public speech or what she calls Dangerous Speech as speech that denigrates people on the basis of their membership to a group be it ethnic, religious or others. It directly or indirectly motivates people to take violent actions against the other group. Benesch, in her analysis, points out that there are five variables that contribute to the dangerousness of speech—the speaker’s power and influence; an audience with strong grievances; the speech act intended to incite violence; social and historical context of inequality and competition; and the mode of dissemination.

So far, inflammatory speech in Nepal has not reached the point where people in leadership positions incite their followers on an all out attack, at least not in public. But the way the ethnic debate is presented and framed could reach those depths. Early warning signs of such framing include the frequent mentioning of Rwanda and Yugoslavia in public discourse, and more recently, the equating of Bahuns and Chhetris as KhasKhus Klan by Pramod Mishra in the Post article Blood Lines published on May 27, implying that Bahun Chhetris are equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan of the US, a racist group that terrorised the Black people there. Slogans on the streets coming from opposing camps are something to watch out for.  Some of the slogans used in Pokhara and Kathmandu valley by indigenous protesters, for example Bahunlai Kashi, Chhetrilai phashi (Kashi for Bahuns and hanging for Chhetris), are clearly meant to incite violence and hatred. The organisers of these protests, and all protests for that matter, must ensure that these hateful slogans are abandoned.

We also need to closely watch the role of media especially radio stations.  On Day 2 of the Bandas called by NEFIN, Mountain TV had a reporter leading a mob of counter-protesters, excitedly encouraging the sticks-wielding protesters, who, according to the TV anchor, were participating in a goodwill rally.

After Jana Aandolan II, a second media boom took place in Nepal. A BBC reporter told me in 2008 that almost every ethnic group had its own radio station. External development partners financially supported the expansion of radio (then for peacebuilding) which usually began as community FMs and later converted to for-profit companies. While it would be nonsensical to argue against expansion of radio and other mass media, it ought to be kept in mind that media can become a double-edged sword. It can be used for democratic purposes, it can also be misused to emphasise on the differences, expand social fissures, and sometimes to incite and legitimise violence.

It is apparent that the media is drawn quite deeply into the current protests and is becoming polarised, as evidenced by the confrontation between the General Secretary of NEFIN and reporters who were there to cover his speech at the Reporter’s club. In another example, yesterday, radio stations in Dang and Butwal refrained from broadcasting any news to protest their treatment by the protesters.  There are also reports that Limbuwan protesters have threatened to shut down Tamu FM, a radio stations they apparently perceive to be unsympathetic to their demands. With the coming strikes by Bahun, Chhetris, Madhesis and other groups, the polarization and perceived biases are bound to increase.

Detection the early warning signs such as the use of dangerous speech means that the government and other influential actors have time to interfere to prevent violence. Preventive actions will do much to diminish the risk at this hour when emotions are running high and could quite easily escalate.

There are ways to minimise the risk of inflammatory or dangerous speech. According to Benesch, Inhibiting the speech, limiting its dissemination, undermining the credibility of the speaker, or ‘inoculating’ the audience against the speech so that is less influential or dangerous” are some ways to prevent the act of inflammatory speech leading to acts of violence.

It can be argued that the above measures encroach on the right to free speech.  However, with freedom comes responsibility and the latter tends to be easily forgotten. Speech that is a catalyst to violence should be curtailed to avoid graver situations. The above measures, if taken by the current Maoist-led government might lead to backlash. Therefore, the UN, with all its experiences and a warehouse of best practices, should step in and turn its radars on. On the streets, protesters and their leaders must choose their words and slogans with sensitivity to avoid inciting legitimising (in their supporters’ eyes) any violent action against their perceived enemies.

Suwal is a researcher on gender and social inclusion


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