From The Kathmandu Post (20 December, 2013)
The passing of Nelson Mandela was greeted with grief in Nepal as it was the world over, accompanied by despair for the absence of a personality of his stature walking our trails and terraces. While the grief is natural, the despair is misplaced. To begin with, it is not only Nepalis who wish that someone like Mandela may have been born in our society—that is a universal yearning.
One can also add: Let the situation in Nepal never reach such a nadir that it requires a Mandela to come forth to the rescue. Howsoever much we may decry the national waywardness and poor governance, the situation is salvageable with the available leaders. The Constituent Assembly (CA) election of November 19 was a case in point, showing how the people themselves, given the right conditions, will spring to save the situation even if the politicians are unable or unwilling.
There is no sense waiting for a Mandela to be come forth from the womb of a Nepali household; it could be a rather long wait. As this writer has written before, you cannot buy Nelson Mandela off a supermarket shelf, so let us not waste time waiting for his coming. Better each of us try and emulate the humanitarian spirit and democratic commitment espoused by the great man—we would then generate a hundred thousand Mandelas at one go.
But this is nevertheless a world that needs icons, and we are massively bereaved with the death of Mandela. Looking around at who we have left, no one quite fits the bill in terms of: fortitude in extended suffering; willingness to come to a practical compromise (rather than faking it) for the sake of peace; ability to keep one’s own counsel despite Great Power positioning (eg Mandela on Palestine and Cuba); and, willingness to challenge not only the autocrat or dictator, but also ‘Killer Populism’, the scourge that has the intelligentsia running for cover rather than defend democratic principle and practice.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was Southasia’s gift to the world, who gave the term satyagraha to peaceful protest. It was Gandhi who ignited the fire in Martin Luther King, Jr. Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic understood the ‘power of the powerless’ and helped rid his society of the Soviet juggernaut. Nepal’s Bisweshwor Prasad Koirala is of Havel’s ilk, an internationalist and social democrat who first fought the Ranas, then the British colonists in India and who died fighting the royal autocracy at home.
The Mandelas of the world struggle in darkness, before the fight is considered chic, when victory is far from certain. The vast majority never get recognised simply because the galaxy of variables does not allow their campaigns to succeed, and many die in anonymity. Most of the Mandelas who have fought harsh regimes and dreadful exploiters never come close to celebrity. Besides Mandela’s battle for rights and identity and his suffering, it was that the time of apartheid was up, and racial equality had finally become a cause celebre in West, that helped him achieve iconic status. The same person, in another time and/or place, would have failed to achieve public recognition.
Upon the departure of Mandela, one had expected the world media, ever in search of a story angle, to zero in on the heir(s) to don his mantle. But there has been an interesting silence, without articles, radio broadcasts or television programmes. One reason could be respect for the departed soul but more likely is the fact that Mandela was an icon beyond compare—both because of his personal
history and attributes and the fact that his fight against the apartheid regime saw total victory.
It was not at all difficult for everyone to rally behind Mandela (even Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapakse attended the memorial ceremony on December 10), because the system of constitutionally sanctioned racism was so reprehensible that all could come together to applaud the man who saw to its demise. It would rarely be so black-and-white for others, who may have fought with equal vigour and élan, but against regimes or ideologies in a grey zone.
Looking to who might have caught the world’s imagination as a whole, certainly it would not be Pope Francis, even though named Man of the Year by Time, because his profile is limited to Roman Catholicism. Desmond Tutu has the conscience and the verve but coming from the self-same country as Mandela and not having spent significant time in incarceration, he cannot be a global icon at the same level.
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, has been in exile for more than half a century, never letting go of the good cheer and straightforward logic that seems to drive his spirit. He calls for compassion in the world, for interfaith dialogue and is conscience-keeper on a host of issues from the environment, peace to non-violence. Indeed, the Dalai Lama has a near-irreproachable record (though he did welcome India’s Pokhran-II thermonuclear tests in 1998, and there is the matter of his banning the propitiation of the deity Dorje Shugden). It is the Beijing factor rather than some flaw in personality that prevents the Dalai Lama from gaining global recognition—not even the large economies of the West today want to arouse the ire of the Beijing rulers by coming in all out support and this impacts the media coverage.
Aung San Suu Kyi could have been the anointed celebrity to give continuing hope of liberty to humanity. Her long years of incarceration, the tragedies of her father’s assassination and separations from husband and sons, the refusal to bend before the generals, gave Suu Kyi a cachet that could rally tens of millions. But since her release from house arrest in August 2010, Suu Kyi has had to turn politician and been elected to parliament. She has had to pull back from issues, as she grapples with issues that range from armed ethnic insurgencies to the demands of the Buddhist clergy and still-very-powerful military. We seem to be witnessing a pull-back from global celebrity to national politics and Suu Kyi’s image has been affected by her technical and aloof response to the tragedy that has overtaken the Muslim Rohingya community of the Rakhine province.
By the looks of it, we will have to live without a Mandela heir. We will have to make do with his memory, trying to emulate him in our individual countries and spheres. And as we do so, we might shed a tear for those who fought evil systems with the same spirit as Nelson Mandela only to die unrecognised in the gulags of history.