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Sophists united

Publication Date : 09-10-2012


There’s a legend of a sophist. In ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy and Western philosophy in present-day Greece, there lived a group of people versed in philosophy and politics willing to debate on both sides of any topic. They were the sophists, people who used rhetoric and the power of arguments to defend anything desired of them, for a little money. A particularly talented sophist in Athens was once called to Rome. It was a time when Rome often looked up to Athens for guidance on important topics like what form of government to adopt. The sophist went to Rome and gave a speech at a public square arguing Rome should become a republic. Such was his impeccable use of rhetoric and logic that everyone assembled there clapped and cheered when he was finished.

But the sophist was not finished. In order to impress the barbaric Romans further, he asked them to come to the same spot the following morning where he was going to give another speech. This speech, in contrast to the last one, was on why republicanism was the worst possible government the Romans could imagine. The sophist was so good with his arguments that the praises showered on him were twice louder than the previous morning. This deeply disturbed the Roman rulers. Considering him dangerous, they immediately arrested and hanged him.

Most sophists did not meet such tragic ends. They made a decent living teaching rhetoric to sons of the ruling class. Being cynics, they didn’t mind the disdain of the Platos and the Socrates of the time, and went around calling themselves philosophers.

The career of the sophists has become progressively better over the centuries. In these modern times, sophists have left the dusty classrooms and libraries and taken up politics, and many have done unbelievably well. For example, the greatest sophists of our own generation -- Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal -- have both succeeded in becoming prime ministers, and the former’s uses of unprincipled arguments to sideline issues he and his party raised, on the back of which they launched a violent insurgency, keeps rising with the number of days he’s spent in power.

As long as he was a rebel leader, Bhattarai used to pontificate on land reform, economic inequality, injustice and oppressive feudalism. As soon as he became the prime minister, Bhattarai has time for none of this, instead, the cause he’s spent most effort championing is the need for foreign direct investment. For a communist, he speaks precious little about inequality, economic injustice and redistribution of wealth.

The U-turn is apparent when one looks at the Maoists adherence to the agreement that ended the war, for example. He may be the “ideologue” responsible for the mainstreaming of the Maoists that led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), but Bhattarai and his comarade-in-arms Pushpa Kamal Dahal have abandoned the radical transformation of the society envisioned in the CPA. When it suited them, it was great. Now that they have completely, utterly sold out to the establishment, the CPA may as well bite the dust.

Nothing proves this point better than the Maoist stance on human rights and the Army, for according to the CPA:

The Interim Council of Ministers shall prepare and implement the detailed action plan of democratisation of the Nepal Army by taking suggestions from the concerned committee of the Interim Parliament. This shall include tasks such as determining the right number of the Nepali Army, preparing the democratic structure reflecting the national and inclusive character and training them as per the democratic principles and values of the human rights.

The CPA also calls for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and a Commission on the Disappeared Persons. Not only have the Maoists, and all the major parties, and the Madhesi Front, forgotten the commitment because Army has become an all-too-powerful institution to risk alienating.

Bhattarai’s sycophancy of the Army hit a new low last week when he promoted Col Raju Basnet to be a Brigadier General. Banset’s crimes against human rights have been well documented by both by the National Human Rights Commission, which asked the government on Aug 24, 2009 to prosecute Basnet; and the United Nations, which has recommended further investigation and prosecution.

Grand sophistry

Bhattarai has said that human rights abuses should be dealt with a TRC. He has conveniently forgotten to add that whatever recommendations a future TRC makes, it is the state’s responsibility to implement them, ie, the state will have to take action against one of its own. That means that the organs of the state would have to be strong and independent enough to punish the criminals within. But Bhattarai’s action has done exactly the opposite. The state’s constitutional body, the NHRC, recommended that the government prosecute Basnet. By promoting him instead, Bhattarai has weakened the justice mechanisms of the state.

To make matters worse, as the TRC bills remain forever in limbo, Bhattarai has been advocating a “forgive and forget” approach to justice. It’s an approach that serves the

interest of the powerful like him at the expense of the voiceless victims and their families. It is easy to wonder if the approach would have been the same had it been a relative, in place of, say, Maina Sunuwar, who suffered. Would he still go on television to urge people to “forgive and forget”?

The bad news for human rights today is that Bhattarai is not the only sophist among us. Neither Nepali Congress, Madhesi Morcha or Unified Marxist Leninist has spoken out against Bhattarai’s decision to reward a person implicated in crimes ranging from rape and murder to torture and disappearances with a promotion. But it’s not a permanent silence; they will be back with the human rights slogan, like true sophists, when it suits them.


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