The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, October 24, 2013

Is democracy discriminatory?

Buddhist scholar says yes, with respect to religious personalities and (non-graduate) villagers

Politics: Depriving religious personalities from the electoral process is a “total slap” in the face of Bhutanese tradition, Constitution and the dignity of a human being.

Challenging what is perhaps the most controversial clause in the country’s electoral law, an eminent scholar of Buddhism and Bhutan, Dr Karma Phuentsho said such exclusion of religious persons was “atrocious”.

“One can at least understand disallowing religious personalities to be non-partisan, just as civil servants, but depriving them of fundamental right to vote is ridiculous,” he said.

Speaking to students at the Royal Thimphu College yesterday on Buddhism and Democracy, Dr Karma Phuntsho, who is also the founder of Shejuen and Loden foundations, said article 7, clause 6 of the Constitution stated “a Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to vote”.

“Why have we not practised it?” he said, and proceeded to present the argument from different angles.

From the historical perspective, he said, Bhutan was founded by Zhabdrung, a religious person, and ruled by monks and religions personalities for 60 percent of the country’s history.

He said, to a great extent, Bhutanese always attributed religious persons for doing the rituals to ward off invaders, and believed in the power of deities on the side of Bhutan.

“Even now, whenever we talk about kings, we refer to them as choegyap or religious kings,” he said.

“It’s ridiculous that religious persons should be excluded from such important role of nation building, of protecting sovereignty of country and of electing leaders that will run the country for at least five years,” he said.

Culturally, he said, people consulted religious figures to start anything new, like starting business or constructing house.

“But on one very important matter, we keep religious persons out and decide to make decisions without them, let alone seek advice,” Dr Karma Phuntsho said.

From the social lens, citing examples of villages like Gangtoe and Ura, he said half the households comprise gomchens, which means half the decision-making villagers aregomchens.

“You exclude them from making a decision that is vital for the welfare of village, what do you expect?” he said. “Of course, a very partial decision, a decision that isn’t informed by the needs and realities of the community.”

The particular clause, he said, was totally counter-productive from the political perspective.

He said exclusion of religious persons meant narrowing down the choice of leaders.

The other electoral clause that invited criticism, requiring of university degree to seek candidature in politics, he said, also did the same.

“Regulations such as these only add to the problem of voter apathy and, as such, instead of building a vibrant, participatory democracy, we stifle it right from the start,” Dr Karma Phuntsho said.

Countering the arguments stated in the past for having the law, which was to keep religion above politics and that “democracy was about discrimination” and monks should not get into it, he said that was a very “artificial segregation of human life”.

He said an individual played religious, political and social roles and duties, basically a cluster of so many identities and to draw a artificial line on how religion was above politics was “nonsensical”.

“We don’t normally put religion up somewhere, removed from our lives,” he said. “The whole purpose of religion is lost then. It’s something we need to live by every moment of life. Religious principles ought to inspire us.”

He said, in segregating religious life from a person’s political life, in case of a Parliament member, for instance, would mean ruthless, immoral politicians, “because to a large extent, people are made good through spiritual and religious interventions.”

He said there was a fundamental misconception about discrimination and democracy.

But democracy was about going beyond electoral process and having it in all aspects of life, but in thinking so, he said it was not just about one’s right but responsibility as well.

In that, being able to discriminate good from bad, right from wrong, was good.

“It’s fundamental for proper, smooth running of society,” he said. “It is basically our faculty, capability to discern good from bad. Democracy is about such discrimination.”

On the university degree requirement, he said, it was sad the whole educational system was biased against the traditional form of education, gone in favour of modern, secular and scientific system.

He argued on how a university graduate, trained through mass education, was preferred to one tutored with great deal of attention from a master, how it was considered a token to stand for election, while a villager, who spent all his life, knowing the ground reality and problems, does not.

By Kesang Dema

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