Tuesday, May 16, 2006

On Nepal

Envisioning a new Nepal

Can anyone define Nepal? Over the past two decades the country has shown me a myriad of faces. It has been the ‘Shangrila’ retreat to a generation of gawky tourists haggling over cheap jewelry in the Thamel area. Fascinating me as a teenager, for this indeed seemed for all purposes, ‘The ‘Lost Kingdom’, the clichéd ‘tourist paradise’ that the travel brochures promised. Then in early 2000 working in the field with the Tamang community I was exposed to the first rumblings of the ‘People’s War’, the Maoist uprising which at that time promised to be the voice of those previously disenfranchised in Nepal. My local hosts would caution me every time my colleague and I slung our back packs on our shoulders: “People will think you are a Maoist, all these blue jeans, this is the uniform of their guerillas,” they would say. Later, in the summer of 2001, like the rest of the world I was glued to my TV set. Transfixed by images of the gruesome murders in the Royal Palace, I shared my own take on the conspiracy theories circulating regarding these events. Over the years I have been confidante to friends in the Nepalese diaspora as they scrutinized and deliberated over news coverage of social and political affairs in their country. Whether they expressed their pleasure at King Gyanendra doing a ‘Musharraf’ (as they explain his action of clamping down on ‘sham democracy’), or their dissatisfaction at his highhandedness, they were disappointed and shared their dismay over the state of affairs in their country.

As the Nepali capital sees another day of ‘shoot-on-sight’ orders in the wake of the recent round of political protests, even those who have been previously jaded with the country’s experience with inept politicians and the endless merry-go-round of ‘nominated’ prime ministers, look towards King Gyanendra to patch up with his ‘antagonists’. They hope that the King does comprehend the enormity of the crisis on the streets and restores the people’s democratic rights. Though the Nepalese king is intent on giving the impression that he has all intentions of riding out the storm, it appears that perhaps this time around the Royal Palace is nervous. For instance, for the first time journalists and media persons have not been given ‘curfew permits’ to allow coverage of the street protests. Even though Nepal forms a significant feature of news reports filed from South Asia in the past year, for most of the time the situation in Nepal has bewildered many. It has been difficult to comprehend the current situation in Kathmandu’s streets, to understand the defiance on display, for few have tried to decipher the political turmoil in the country.

My bedside companion in recent days has been a very insightful book by Manjushree Thapa. Thapa’s Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, as the book jacket describes, is “a skilful mix of history, reportage, memoir and travel writing”, which has been very useful in comprehending the situation today. As Thapa explains, “It isn’t easy for a Nepali to trace what has gone wrong, because so much has. And those who live in the thick of events more easily experience than understand them…yet if we in Nepal have been unable to understand our present, so too has the rest of the world that have paid us any attention.”

Thapa, like many of us who have known and loved Nepal, criticizes the ‘breathless orientalist coverage’ of the country and its people. No more so as how the funeral and accompanying death ceremonies for the Nepalese royal family were portrayed and archived in public memory for my generation. For many watching the news coverage, the Nepalese appeared as superstition-ridden, as people caught up in pageantry and ceremonies rather than a people who at that time were analyzing the political implications of events. No one paid any attention to the angst on the streets as the people of Kathmandu negotiated the ploys of the Maoists and the government and their version of events. Thapa deplores how “we looked, suddenly, like the medieval kingdom that the outside world saw us as…people didn’t want Hindu rituals; they wanted scientific evidence for the truth about the massacre.”

Thapa’s discourse is familiar because of what many colleagues have explained of their growing-up years in Nepal. As they explain, they have veered between fears of India’s growing influence in their political and economic affairs (and the recent visit of Karan Singh, India’s envoy to caution the Nepalese king, hasn’t dispelled their fears of India’s intervention) and of the only other option that the system throws up — that of the Maoists and their reputation of violence. As we have seen in Pakistan the options, other than that of our ‘known enemies’, grow less and less every day.

The People’s War had a fascination for observers like me as we saw how it influenced the articulation of gender identity and roles in a traditionally patriarchal society. Though in most families in rural Nepal it were women who were running the household as men searched for employment in the cities or overseas, they were in their own words, just holding the fort. But with the Maoists asking for women to join their cadres, many wanted to know how that would translate for women. Shobha Gautam, Amrita Banskota, and Rita Manchanda analyzed just that, in their contribution to the Manchanda-edited volume on women’s empowerment in crisis situations (‘Where There Are No Men: Women in the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal’ in Manchanda, editor, Women, War and Peace: Beyond Victimhood to Agency, SAGE Publications, 2001). The group catalogued as they explain, “women’s transformative experiences”, especially when very capable women initially figured in the top echelons of Nepal’s Maoist movement. They quote Hisila Yami (the head of the Women’s Front): “…women have more to gain than men from the People’s War...that is why the women, especially the Tibeto-Burman and non-Aryan women constitute such an important part of the movement.” However, over time they were joined by their sisters from relatively upper caste groups who were tired of the rigid roles defined by their community and for whom the People’s War emerged as liberating. But over time, as Gautam, Banskota and Manchanda suggest, as the struggle grew more militarized, women disappeared from policy-making positions in the central leadership. The Nepalese security forces also lashed back with a wave of physical and sexual violence against the female cadre.

Though there had been a time amongst the Nepali middle class when there was a closet admiration of the Maoist agenda and many in the Nepalese intelligentsia felt that the movement was echoing their concerns, this support dwindled away due to the Maoists’ highhandedness. The people of Kathmandu feared threats to their way to life: for instance they did not look kindly towards the Maoist agenda of doing away with private and English medium schools. The Nepalese rural population in turn felt that they were being terrorized (strains of what the Kashmiri population goes through) by both Maoists and the security forces. And when the Maoists in a senseless round of tit-for-tat violence killed government and police officials, loyalties were divided. For many of the city residents, it is the government and the security forces that provide their families with employment. The politicians, on their part, did not fare kindly with the Nepalese as well, due to incessant political infighting, nepotism, and the spiralling rate of corruption. So perhaps the King had some sympathizers in the capital when he dismissed the political high command a year ago.

Even though there are some who still claim that the demonstrators on the streets today have been ‘trucked in’ by the political coalition from the region bordering the capital, and that Kathmandu residents are still preferring to stay non-aligned, even those apathetic to politics cannot ignore that it is time to look for alternatives. For so long has Nepal’s representation been ‘stuck’ in medieval times, perhaps it is time that one starts looking for a fresh equation. Or as Thapa explains, the time is ripe to “re-imagine Nepal.” And today I hear more and more Nepalis re-echoing her sentiments that if the re-imaging solutions show that “neither the monarchy nor our failed political leaders nor any national myths or relic need be kept” – so be it.

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