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Abnormal normality

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

First posted on on 08 May, 2009

Hours after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal submitted his resignation to President Ram Baran Yadav in Kathmandu on 4 May, highway blockades that had closed the country for two weeks were suddenly lifted. The Tharus called off their banda of the Tarai, the Limbuwans suspended their agitation in the east, and even the sukumbasis who had set up road blocks to demand land rights went back to playing carom.

It was like Moses had parted the Red Sea. The floodgates were open and literally thousands of trucks and buses stuck at the Indian border were moving up to Kathmandu. People stranded in the east were moving west, and those marooned in the west were moving east. The normalcy of everything was unnerving this week as we once more savoured the luxury of travelling unescorted across Nepal in the daytime.

For the past month that we have been on the road with nepa-laya’s ‘Yuddha Chitra’ documentary and ‘Never Again’ book tour, there have been bandas, chukka jams and curfews snapping at our heals. After a touch-and-go tour of eastern Nepal, we traversed the entire Tarai from east to west, from Bhadarpur to Mahendranagar. The government fell just in time, otherwise we were ready to fall back on our Plan B: to drive from Birganj to Nepalganj via Indian territory.

Which has got us all thinking: this country seems to run better when there is no government. Why else would everything get back to normal when the prime minister resigns? Answer: governments make lots of mistakes, so if there is no government there are fewer mistakes.

And we should finally start calling bandas by what they really are: acts of terrorism. There is nothing voluntary or spontaneous about a hartal, it has long lost Gandhi’s civil disobedience character. It is now enforced by a handful of lumpen hired goons who terrorise road-users. It is a form of political protest that works by punishing ordinary citizens to make one’s presence felt.

A banda is also suicidal, it hurts people from the very community that calls for it. A bicyclist is run over, villagers block the highway for three days demanding compensation. In those three days the village economy that depends on the highway loses much more than the compensation the family would get. But no one cares because in this free-for all democracy, freedom is all about rights and has nothing to do with a citizen’s responsibility.

In BBC’s Sajha Sabal in the west during the Tahruhat banda, locals grilled Laxman Tharu about his car and how come he was flying around the country, while people on the ground had to suffer the consequences of his shutdowns. He gave the usual platitude about how “the liberation of the people came at a cost”.

From Butwal, heading west towards Dang we pass Madhyabindu the midway milestone on the East-West highway that marks 507km in both directions to Kakarbhitta and Mahakali. All along this forested stretch for 100 km or more, trees have been chopped down to block the highway. The Tharuhat banda was a great time to log the Tarai’s remaining forest, it seems. Whoever felled these mighty trees must have made a killing selling it to saw mills.

Travelling by day, one sees the effect of the past three years of post-conflict lawlessness. On either side of the highway, there are kilometers upon kilometers of squatter shacks of sukumbasis. We felt bad for the abject living conditions of the landless until we find out that only a few of them are kamaiyas. Most are hill settlers brought down here before the elections last year by the Maoists to pad up their vote bank. They all have property in the mountains of Darchula, Baitadi, Dadeldhura and Doti to the north. This is sort of their winter home.

Seven thousand illegal settlers have occupied the eastern edge of the Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve, using a dispute between the 700 or so villagers that were evicted in 1999 to make way for park expansion. At the rate the Tarai’s land grab is going on there won’t be any forests left, and now even the national parks are being encroached upon.

The lifting of the bandas shows how quickly life springs back to normal. The fish restaurants at the Chisapani Bridge over the Karnali are full of bus passengers again, the trucks carrying boulder and sand to India are once more trying to get through the border without paying anything, the night buses from Attariya to Baitadi are back in service and passengers are sitting on the roof to avoid the stifiling heat inside.

In the end it will be the fabled resilience of Nepalis that will save us. Our capacity to withstand and adapt to any hardship. After the last screening of Kesang Tseten and Prem BK’s documentary ‘Frames of War’ in Mahendranagar on Thursday the audience made up of college students, civil servants and political leaders sat in silence for a moment before bursting into spontaneous applause.

Ever family here in the far west was affected in some way by the conflict. But the war was just another adversity people here had to grapple with, and they say that having survived that, highway closures are not so bad.

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