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A state of lawlessness

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

First posted on on 11 July, 2009

After traversing Nepal for more than two months, passing 40 districts, braving highway blockades, curfews and indefinite bandas we were stopped dead in our tracks outside Pokhara.

There was no way we could get past a barricade of rocks, logs and the burnt out hulk of a bus lying across the road. Two people in a motorcycle had been killed by a Birganj-Baglung bus three days previously. The driver had been driving all night, and hit the two as he drove through Hyangja.

Angry locals immediately set the bus on fire, and as is the custom in the New Nepal, put up a demand for compensation. Their starting price was 50 lakhs for each of the victims. Meanwhile, the Dhaulagiri Transporters Association lodged a counter-demand for 20 lakhs for the burnt bus and shut down Baglung, Parbat, Myagdi and parts of Kaski with their own indefinite highway blockade. Negotiations dragged on for four days, thousands of passengers were stranded. Local journalists mediated until the matter was finally resolved. There are so many of these blockades, that the news didn’t even make it to the national media.

We were stuck in Pokhara, unable to go to Baglung. But we couldn’t return to Kathmandu either because the Prithvi Highway was blocked by locals in Damauli when the promised compensation for two victims of an accident last month was not paid. Two Indian tourists driving from Kathmandu to Pokhara were stranded in Abu Khaireni, and decided to use the time to walk to a nearby village and took pictures of kids. Villagers thought they were kidnappers and beat them up. The police rescued the Indians, but locked them up for two days. Even by the standards of the badlands of northern India, they must have thought, the state of Nepal’s lawlessness exceeded all expectations.

This was nepa-laya’s nationwide tour of Frames of War, the documentary by Kesang Tseten and Prem BK and the launch of the book of war testimonies, Never Again. But the journey itself became a metaphor for the state of the country. The tour brought us face-to-face with the hardships the Nepali people face because of unresolved post-conflict issues in Kathmandu. Everytime someone quarrels over power in the capital, the people are made to suffer.

Prime Minsiter Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned on 4 May while we were in Banke. We had got to Syangja two weeks later when Madhav Nepal was finally elected prime minister by parliament. It’s been two months since then, we are back in Kathmandu, and there are still two more ministries that have no takers. No one wants the Environment Ministry because it is perceived to have no scope for major hankypanky.

Nepalis from Mechi to Mahakali look at Kathmandu and shake their heads. They are fed up with the endless bickering and blame throwing they hear and watch on the media every day. They are convinced the leaders they elected are taking the country back to violent conflict.

The war may have ended, they say, but it’s just the shape of violence has changed. The army and the Maoists may not be fighting each other, but there are kidnappings, murders, extortion, threats everywhere, everyday. Thefts and armed robbers holding up buses on the highways don’t even make breaking news on tv anymore.

In all 30 venues where we screened the film, people were overcome. Many wept quietly in the darkness. The film reminded them of the brutality they had witnessed during the war, and the perhaps the horrors to come. There was fear that the class war of the Maoists was turning into ethnic and communal violence.

Ethnic tensions are rising across Nepal. There is a growing feeling of “us” and “them” not just between the Pahad and Madhes, but between hill ethnicities, language groups and religions. The challenge will be to channel grievances into constructive debate in the Constituent Assembly as sensitive issues like the boundaries of possible new ethnic federal units are decided in the new constitution. The exclusion of Nepal’s marginalised communities needs to be addressed, but the politics of identity should not boil over into the streets, like they did in Banepa and Kathmandu last month.

Impunity, the breakdown of law and order and the complete absence of the state are spreading anarchy and confusion across the country. It is difficult to tell the difference between a politician and a criminal, as politicians foment anarchy to exhibit their power. At the popular highway stop at Daunne, the scenic pass connecting two sides of Nawalparasi, a group of raucous local politicians and businessmen in the adjoining table were talking loudly about the multi-crore contract they had bagged. They were obviously celebrating because there were four empty bottles of gin on the table, even though it was lunchtime. Suddenly a fight broke out between the partners, one threatened to kill another. Tables were overturned, glasses broken.

In Tansen, a local NC leader had been beaten up by the YCL and left for dead by a river. He was helicoptered out and is still in hospital. In Phidim, two journalists (one of them the Kantipur correspondent for Panchthar) were abducted and beaten up by the YCL because they dared write about the Maoists bagging a DDC contract through threats. In Syangja a doctor was manhandled because he couldn’t save the mother in a complicated pregnancy. People are taking the law into their own hands because they don’t trust the police, they think the state can’t protect them, and they think they can get away with getting even.

With the power vacuum in Kathmandu and the resignation of the Maoists, there is a mafia-style competition for district level contracts. If they can agree, the Maoists, UML and NC divide up unspent district budget supposed to be for development among themselves. If they can’t (and this is more often) there are inevitable fights.

From the whole trip, there is one enduring memory of a district development officer in Charikot who said in a dejected voice: “So this is why we fought a 10 year war in which 14,000 people were killed: for thekka patta?” Indeed, revolutionaries have degenerated into criminals. The people they were supposed to liberate are being cheated yet again.

At the start of the tour in mid-April, Nepal was reeling under a severe drought. Chitwan hadn’t seen rain for eight months. As we travelled the East-West Highway by night, removing huge trees chopped down by Tharu activists to block the road and enforce their banda, we saw huge tracts of forests on fire. The whole country looked like it was in flames.

The delayed monsoon finally caught up with us in Gulmi. You could smell the rain before it arrived. The flashes of lightning silhouetted the pyramid-shaped peak of Resunga and by late evening in scenic Tamghas, the rain was coming down like a waterfall. It poured all night and into next morning. Driving back through thick clouds, the mountains of central Nepal suddenly looked different. The wispy mist glided through emerald mountains draped in forest. There was a scented freshness in the air, and the hope of a new beginning.

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3 Responses to “A state of lawlessness”

  1. Bijuli Maiya on Says:

    A bit too long for a blog posting. :-(
    But interesting nonetheless. :-)
    Please put foto of places, people too. :-)
    Do not let a blog posting end with “more” on which readers have to click.
    Let the blog site serve a complete posting at one go, without there be a need to click on “more”.

  2. aawartan on Says:

    We only beg to make this a regular feature. Looking forward to much more.

  3. elif köksal on Says:

    not too long at all! thanks, keep writing please. this is all precious information.

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