Nothing revealed the state of Nepal’s politics more than the sight of a Madhesi leader and another from the opposition UML joking about taking a selfie on the sets of a tv studio after a fiery live interview in which the host had to intervene to separate them from breaking each other’s noses.
It was being broadcast on Monday just as police had begun firing at demonstrators protesting the arrival of the UML East-West roadshow in Saptari. Videos of the violence on social media are an eerie throwback to the killings in the summer of 2015 that left more than 60 dead, and resulted in India blockading the border for five-months. (Read harrowing accounts of survivors from nepalkhabar.com)
The political brinkmanship that led to this latest loss of lives also shows that there has been no progress in ending the political deadlock over the constitution. The Madhesi parties, quite openly backed by New Delhi, still want substantial changes in the constitution. The Kathmandu establishment, meanwhile, would rather push through with the statute and elections.
The killings in Maleth had striking similarities to the pre-meditated and deliberate way the Armed Police Force fired on protesters two years ago: most dead and wounded had bullet wounds above the waist. There are reports the same police officer in charge of Birganj in 2015 was in Saptari this week.
It is clear that politicisation of police appointments has led to a breakdown of discipline and the chain of command. The anger of the Madhesi activists last year was directed at Prime Minister Oli, and it is still against him, although he is now in the opposition. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is said to be annoyed with Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi and asked for an explanation about why he ordered the firing. In an interview with Setopati Nidhi denied this. Relations are therefore strained not just between the Tarai-centric groups and the mainstream parties, but also within the ruling coalition.
Prime Minister Dahal is bringing in the RPP and MJF-D into government to have the numbers to pass the amendment so elections can happen.
The immediate fallout of the latest violence is to throw local elections into doubt. The Madhesi parties have issued a one-week ultimatum to amend the constitution, but the UML is going ahead with its East-West campaign in the Tarai. The Madhesi parties were wrong in trying to stop the UML caravan, and the UML should have been smarter about gauging the anger in the Madhes.
The Kathmandu administration doesn’t seem to have learnt any lessons from the 2015 Madhes agitation, the police hasn’t corrected its procedures for riot control, the Madhesi parties seems to be going for broke because they are afraid of even greater electoral losses. This time bomb needs to be defused once and for all. Kathmandu has to address Madhesi grievances and treat them like Nepalis, and stop recklessly stoking pseudo-nationalism.
But all is not lost. The fact that Nepal’s politicians can still take selfies after nearly coming to blows means the channels of communication are still open. This offers a slim hope for the future.
Violence erupts in Saptari, Om Astha Rai
The day after
Plain speaking, Om Astha Rai and Jiyalal Sah