There was a time when I regularly visited conservative media news sites. In fact, I still do although the frequency has considerably decreased these days. I consume conservative media not only because I like listening to and reading all viewpoints and challenging my own opinions, but also because I genuinely think that the conservative thinkers have got a lot of things right—especially about the human nature and the nature of society—that has been proven to be true time and again in history.
Contrary to common misconception, conservative thinkers are not a monolithic block of people who think alike in all situations. The nuances that go into forming their ideologies is as intricate and thoughtful as any; and is based on a deep realism about history, culture, society, and human psychology. Take the case of Edmund Burke, the patron saint and founder of modern-day conservatism from the eighteenth century, for example. While Burke adamantly stood against any kind of revolution à la the French Revolution from taking place in England, he also stood against the English monarchy when it came to the treatment of the colonized people. He supported the sovereignty of the colonized based on the recognition of their rights and led the impeachment trial against Warren Hastings, the erstwhile Governor-General of Bengal, who was accused of corruption and maltreatment of the Indian people. He was a Whig who regularly voiced his opposition against King George III’s government and advocated against England’s policies in support of the revolutionaries in America for which the Americans feel indebted to this day.
In Reflections on the Revolution in France published in 1790, a year after the fall of Bastille, Burke urged caution against any radical changes and declared that the “society is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”—a quote that is invoked ad nauseam by many conservative thinkers, often without full realization of its meaning. Burke doubted the efficacy of the changes brought by “social engineering” and argued in favor of change that was gradual and organic. The spiral of violence that lasted for generations in post-revolutionary France in fact vindicated Burke, who slowly but surely, was put on a pedestal by thinkers of conservative persuasion who later followed in his footsteps. Burke wasn’t only suspicious of radical changes, but also questioned whether reason and human rationality alone could solve human afflictions. Given Burke’s skepticism about the efficacy of social engineering via radical change and his pessimism about human nature, I have often wondered what Burke would think of the changes in Nepal.
In his book The Conservative Mind, the American political thinker Russell Kirk, writes: “Burke has no expectation that men can be kept from social change; neither is rigidity of form desirable. Change is inevitable and is designed providentially for the larger conservation of society; properly guided, change is a process of renewal.” In other words, Burke supports social change as long as it is properly guided and done in a piecemeal manner because change leads to renewal of our societies and an even greater bonding in our communities. “A state without the means of some change,” Burke contends, “is without the means of its conservation.” Further, with respect to equality, Burke writes:
Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things.
Burke was indeed not an egalitarian and did believe in social hierarchies; however, he did also strongly believe that equal justice is a natural right while equal dividend is not. He anticipated the follies and violence of communism—which tries to level societies in the name of distributing equal dividend—way ahead than most and was again proved correct by what transpired in the USSR and China in the early- and mid-twentieth century. Burke also supported the civil rights of Catholics, a religious minority, in England which cost him his parliamentary seat and stood staunchly against the practice of slavery. In replying to an anti-Catholic demagogue in the British parliament, Burke once proclaimed, “The only religion I profess is that of universal humanity and benevolence.”
Now, if we compare the general idea of Burke’s notion of equality and social change against the backdrop of the Nepali context, it compels us to take stock of several facts still prevalent in our society. First thing that comes to mind is the notion of human dignity: whereas conservatism, in its modern iteration, has, if only reluctantly, come to accept the individual as a sovereign and human dignity as inherent in all men and women; Nepali conservatism, on the other hand, has hardly budged from its centuries-old mindset. A large section of the population is still treated as less than human simply because they were born in the wrong caste, or the wrong geographical region, or in the wrong religion. In so far as the conservatives alienate and find excuses to exclude these groups of people from a shared transcendental national identity, conservatism, as a social and political power, Burke would argue, is bound to atrophy by the day.
Second fact that would most likely rile Burke would be the way religion is practiced in our country. Whether we admit it or not, a lot of the social ills stem from the way our religion is conceived. Religion, no doubt, provides an anchor to our lives and guides us through both psychological and materialistic deficiencies; it inspires us to appreciate the beauty and the sublime. Hence, there is no point in fighting back religion for it will remain so long as the mankind survives, and it is a glue that holds our culture together. However, there is an urgent need to reimagine our religion so that it incorporates and responds to modern sensibilities. Mere lip-service will not suffice, people need to seriously change the way they think to regain the trust of the minorities—for starters, questioning your own privileges that have no ties to science and reason would be an essential first step. Accepting secularism as one of our national creeds would be another: a nation where more than eighty percent of the population follow Hinduism doesn’t need to cry wolf when secularism might in fact enlarge the tent and attract more followers.
Third, Burke would say that we need to reimagine our nationality identity such that Nepalis from every geographical region feel included and heard in the decision-making mechanism of the country. If monarchy and religion were something that propped up our national identity in the past, we now need to foster a new identity, perhaps something along the lines of what Francis Fukuyama calls the “creedal identity,” based on political principles such as constitutionalism, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. Any more strain on the national identity can prove fatal for our country, so the more inclusive we become, the stronger our national identity becomes. As a country we need to work toward bringing the disillusioned into the fold and that should be done by enlarging our hearts and minds, not by turning inward and cocooning ourselves.
Among other things Burke would also probably take issue with runaway consumerism, the destruction of the environment, and a civil society which is destructively divided along party lines. Our civil society is in urgent need of a renewal where interpersonal relations are not just built on a political basis but also in various other ways such as community service, sports, reading clubs etc. We need to find ways other than party politics to establish bonds among fellow citizens and create trust among each other.
Conservatives can play a constructive role in the remaking of a modern Nepal that is open, free, democratic, tolerant, and just. Conservatives can no longer support an edifice of governance that perpetuates structural discrimination, and still believe to be relevant in modern day politics. Thankfully, the chasms we see in our country are not irreconcilable, not at least anywhere near what we see in the US or even in India, where communal violence is often stoked for political gains. Conservatism is a necessary force; it’s just that the conservatives need to find the right ideas to conserve.