Friday, May 07, 2010

Nepal: Descent into Chaos

This piece, written a few days before the Maoist strike paralyzed the country, was published at the Seattle Post Globe.

KATHMANDU, Nepal – On the afternoon of April 16, I was driving back from my 94-year-old grandma’s house on the outskirts of Kathmandu to my office in the downtown. Driving on the dusty road on the edge of Nepal’s only international airport, I came upon an unusually high number of vehicles. The hitherto empty road was busy with traffic.

My wife, Kabita, who was riding behind me, suspected that something was wrong, saying maybe there’s a strike (called bandh in the local dialect). I dismissed her comment. But as we entered the newly constructed six-lane highway, the situation began to get clearer. The road was a picture of chaos – a blockade had caused a huge back up of traffic. Several vehicles were turning around and many passengers were stranded. In a situation like this, no one can tell you what’s going on. Everyone seems in a hurry either to get beyond the barricade or return to safety.

My office was just a few blocks away. So, I decided to go ahead. Leaving behind other vehicles, I drove on. When I was about to reach the intersection at Koteshwar, a bustling neighborhood in this suburb, a middle aged man who was followed by a bevy of youngsters, stopped my motorcycle and snatched the keys. Within seconds, I grabbed the keys back and asked him why the traffic was stopped. He told me they were protesting the death of a child in a road accident a couple of days back. The dead baby boy's father had driven a motorcycle while his mother and baby on the back when a truck hit the motorcycle. The couple was seriously injured; the infant died on the spot.

I displayed my press ID and explained to him that it was media people like me who often risked their lives to support their cause. It was merely my trick to persuade him to let me go through, though I am always a supporter of peaceful protests against injustice. But I never approve such unruly acts that create disarray for hundreds of travelers. He did allow me to go forward, but, sensing that the unrest could get worse farther ahead, I asked my wife to get off the bike.  

An intersection ahead looked like a battlefield, with stone carrying, and visibly angry protesters on the one side and baton wielding policemen on the other. I was sure from my previous experiences that if I could convince one of the protesters, I would be able to safely cross the tense area. But as I drove my bike, a group of protesters started to throw stones at me. Luckily, a police inspector came to rescue me from the attack and escorted me for a few minutes. I left the area unhurt. But the incident shook me in a way I had never experienced.

I’m narrating the incident in detail not only because impromptu protests like these have become common occurrences in Nepal, but also because it shows how angry and frustrated Nepalese are. Also, my hunch is that the fury was directed less at the law enforcement agency that was unable to punish the guilty (in this case the driver) and more at the way the country is (mal) functioning. Indeed, the country is gradually sliding towards anarchy and lawlessness.

Everyone agrees that it’s not easy being Nepal these days. It has a herculean task ahead. In less than a month, the deadline to draft a constitution ends. A 601 member constituent assembly that was elected two years ago is tasked with writing the constitution. A decade-long Maoist insurgency and government counterinsurgency has claimed 13,000 lives with thousands injured and hundreds disappeared. Not a single person (neither from the Army nor from the Maoists) has been punished for numerous wartime crimes. Transitional justice is still only in words not in deeds and a culture of impunity has and is likely to prevail. 

Thus, Nepalese have paid a heavy price. And peace seems ever elusive with the former rebels threatening to carry out revolt and the political party leaders upon whom the people have placed high hopes have fallen back on their role of bickering and infighting. Corruption is rampant and unemployment is rising.

The largely mountainous country which is bordered in the north by China and elsewhere by India, both emerging Asian powers, has lagged far behind the rest of the world. It still is one of the poorest countries in the world.  While the citizens of our neighboring countries are having what seems like a party (with double digit growth and rapid development), we feel like poor cousins who were uninvited.

But it’s our own making. In Nepal, the hereditary Rana family ruled the country with an iron fist for over a century while India’s infrastructure was laid by the British. Even the end of Rana rule in 1950 could not ensure freedom and democracy, a prerequisite for inclusive growth and overall development. King Mahendra snatched power from a democratically elected government and introduced a party less and autocratic Panchayat system that ruled Nepal for the next 30 years until 1990.

The ruling elite and the Kathmandu bourgeois were the ones who took maximum advantage of those three decades of tyranny. During this period, I grew up in the eastern hills of Nepal, on the margins, reading the regime’s propaganda in the name of text books.

With the reinstitution of democracy in the spring of 1990 came the promise of a new Nepal. But a ‘People’s War’ waged by Maoists in mid-1990s dashed those hopes. The hope was revived after the mass protests in the spring of 2006 that was instrumental in ending both the Maoist insurgency and the 240-year-old monarchy, thereby paving the way for the world’s youngest republic.

But like everything else in Nepal, uncertainty looms large vis-à-vis the dramatic decisions taken during the crucial and transitional period that have had far reaching consequences. The changes have taken place have occurred only as part of negotiations among the various political parties. Therefore, the likelihood of these transformations being retracted (due to lack of commitment and institutionalizing) cannot be fully ruled out. Also, some of the changes are seemingly cosmetic.

And it’s not like Nepal’s lack of social and economic growth can be blamed on a lack of resources. It is, in fact, endowed with immense resources – hydropower, tourism, the export business and agriculture are some of the many untapped sectors. But this is a country whose main exports are human beings. Two million of Nepal’s 28 million people are working on foreign shores. Nepalese migrant workers toil in often sub-human conditions in the Gulf countries and the country’s fragile economy hinges on the remittances they send.

For a country that prides itself in never being colonized when the entire Indian sub-continent was in the grip of the British, its dependence on the international community and the southern neighbor India is an unpleasant fact. So is the fact that one of world’s oldest nation states is grappling with issues like drafting a constitution, restructuring the state and ensuring their deserved place in the new state apparatus to the hitherto marginalized communities.

On that April afternoon, after I arrived at my company office which is the publisher of one of Nepal’s leading dailies, I sat at my desk and gave the incident a hard thought. After a while, I shared my experience – where else? – on my facebook page. Several comments soon popped up with my friends suggesting to me to be careful and play it safe.

Indeed, these are apt suggestions for our leaders and common people alike, in whose hands remain the future of the struggling nation.

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