Chautari guff at 32

- Pratyoush Onta | 2023-11-09

There is demand for discussions not just in the Valley but outside as well.

The Tuesday discussion series of Martin Chautari—affectionately called Mangalbare—completed 32 years of continuous operation last month. It was started in October 1991 by a group of individuals that included the Nepali energy expert Bikash Pandey, the Norwegian electric engineer Odd Hoftun (1927-2023) and his social scientist son Martin Hoftun (who died in an aircraft accident in 1992). The objective of these founders was to create a forum to allow development professionals, social activists, journalists and academics to hold informed dialogue about development and democracy in Nepal. Coming after the end of the 30-year King-led Panchayat regime, they wanted to open up Nepali public life in ways that were not possible earlier.

Initially, Mangalbare used to be held every other Tuesday in an office in Kamaladi, Kathmandu. During the first year, the number of participants would be between five and ten individuals. By 1994, the discussion venue had moved to the Thapathali area of Kathmandu, and it has been held there ever since. In 1997, Mangalbare became a weekly series. Also important to note is that even after Martin Chautari got registered as a separate organisation in 2002, Mangalbare series per se has not been a directly funded activity of the organisation.

What has been achieved in these 32 years? Speaking for myself, the learnings involved in organising and attending a guff series have been invaluable. For someone who grew up in Kathmandu and cannot claim great familiarity with many parts of the country, I have learnt a lot from the various speakers who have come to talk about something about which they know a lot more than I do. I assume the other participants have probably felt the same way over the years. I would also suggest that the continuous exchange of ideas has probably contributed to the emergence of a public sphere beyond the patronage of the Nepali state and the development industry.

Lessons for elsewhere

I consider such guff series very important for the daily life of any society with democratic aspirations. In particular, such conversations should be at the core of anyone’s definition of what a loktantrik society should or can be. But I am not an expert on the theory of democracy. Hence, I will keep it simple by asking a basic question: After 32 years of operation, what have we learned that might be useful for others who want to run similar discussion series elsewhere in Nepal?

First, there is “demand” for such a forum as a public resource; if that was not the case, we, the organisers, might have continued to run the series, but no one else would have shown up. While the attendance tends to vary a lot (anywhere from 5 to 70 people), on most occasions, more than 20 people come to listen to the speaker(s). There is no reason to believe that such a demand exists only in the Kathmandu Valley and not other parts of the country. Hence, it should be possible to run similar discussion series not only in the other large cities of the country but also in smaller towns and villages.

Second, the longevity of Mangalbare shows that even a moderate-sized group of individuals can keep a discussion series going for several decades. In the past 25 years, this series has been kept alive by a small set of relatively young individuals with energy, enthusiasm and commitment for guff. Hence, to run such a series in other parts of the country, you will need a small group of committed individuals willing to take turns to organise discussions. It would help if the group members like each other’s company and do not have egos that come in the way of organising. It would also help if new member organisers joined the group when one or more members retire or move on to do something else.

Third, there is no dearth of topics to talk about. It would be impossible to list the topics discussed in Mangalbare over the past 32 years, but even recalling the themes covered during this year alone would be instructive. Recent discussions have continued to explore themes related to democracy and development in Nepal. On democracy, recent presentations have focused on the possible dangers artificial intelligence might pose to democracy, on intra-party democracy and on the Madhesi struggle for recognition. Other discussions have focused on the preparations (or lack thereof) by our federal parliamentarians before they raise important issues, on the contradictions between the proportional representation principle and the results of the 2022 elections, on the stalled federal education act, on justice for survivors of trafficking and on the state of journalism in the country.

On the development front, there have been discussions on the ongoing water crisis in the Tarai and its links with the exploitation of the Chure Hills, on tourism, on the challenges of developing hydropower, on development projects among the Musahars, on the challenges of training school teachers, on the health care needs of menopausal women and on the consequences of privatisation of health care. Many other topics have also been covered, such as the challenges of organising a music archive in Kathmandu.

In past years, we have had many book discussions attended by authors, editors, critics and readers. Given the relatively large number of books being published by Nepali authors these days, organising such book discussions should be easier today (in terms of the richness of choices) than in the past. Discussion series organisers based in a specific city could also come up with a long list of local topics that might be of special interest to the residents of that city. Once the series gets going, simple curiosity would give birth to new topics.

Fourth, finding different speakers to lead these discussions is something doable. It is not always easy, but with some effort, speakers can be found and asked to lead discussions on themes about which they know more than most people. Their expertise might come from personal experiences or research. These people might be local residents, but they could also be visiting from other locations in the country and abroad. If the internet facilities are reliable, an occasional speaker might be asked to speak to the local discussion group via some virtual meeting platform. If the speaker is an academic, they might have to be told in advance to pitch his/her presentation to a non-specialist audience.

Finally, a physical meeting space is needed to host the discussion series. We have built a seminar hall in our office premises for this purpose, but in other cities, people can use meeting rooms of local clubs or libraries, classrooms of schools or colleges and similar rooms for this purpose. Such places do exist just about everywhere. If needed, local governments should facilitate the availability of such rooms by paying the necessary rent.

Let a hundred Mangalbares bloom.

Published at : November 9, 2023

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