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East side story

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

First posted on on 27 APRIL 2009

Here in Itahari, an important junction where the East-West Highway intersects the Biratnagar-Dhankuta road, there is no sign that anyone remembers the anniversary. For the past two months, Itahari has been crippled by continuous bandas, few vehicles have been plying on a major national road artery.

First, it was the three-week Tharuhat banda in late February. The highway had opened for a few days when the Kosi flood victims closed it again in Sunsari for two weeks. After the cabinet approved a Rs 1.6 billion relief package for them last week, the blockade was lifted, but the very next day the Tharus are back with another “indefinite” Tarai-wide Tharuhat banda. The highway remains closed for the fifth straight day.

Rickshaws are having a field day, ferrying passengers and luggage for 10km to catch buses going east, north or west from here. A rickshaw will even take you 15km to Biratnagar airport for Rs 300. An IOM convoy with buses bearing blue plates zooms past carrying a new batch of Bhutani refugees from Jhapa being resettled in the US towards Biratnagar airport. The Bhutanis look out of the bus, bemused and excited about their new future. “Lucky fellows,” says one local.

Back at the Pathibhara Hotel we watch the live transmission from the ex-Shahi Sainik Manch of the ceremony marking the third anniversary of the 24 April, 2006. There is a lackluster karate show by Ganatantrik Khelkood with white-robed sensei brandishing sickles and khukuris, and the prime minister delivers a toned down speech in which he reiterates his commitment to federalism and democracy. He reads from a text and doesn’t call anyone names this time. The ceremony is perfunctory and token. There they are in Kathmandu, yawning away and watching a mediocre martial arts performance, when the region where half the country’s population lives is reeling under prolonged shutdown. Luckily we don’t have to watch the entire uninspiring and dreary ceremony because the power goes off, and the tv goes dead.

Yet, everywhere we have gone on this tour launching nepa-laya’s book ‘Never Again’ and Kesang Tseten and Prem BK’s documentary ‘Frames of War’, we have witnessed how intensely the Nepali people desire peace, stability and development. They are fed up with the road blockades, the endless bickering in Kathmandu between the political forces and the lack of development in the last eight months. Never in recent Nepali history has the gap between the people’s expectations and the preoccupation of its rulers been as wide as it is now.

People have thronged to the screenings, even though they know it is not a Bollywood musical. Inside the hall, there is pin drop silence as even grown men wipe away tears. Unlike the cinemas, no one gets up when the film finishes?they stay right till the end of the rushes. In Dhankuta yesterday and Ilam before that five shows were not enough and 2,500 people watched the documentary in each venue.

“Thank you for showing us the film,” one teacher came to tell me afterwards, “you have articulated our desire for peace and reconciliation. But why don’t you show it to the politicians in Kathmandu?” A community worker said he couldn’t stop his tears, was embarrassed and looked around, only to see that his friends on either side were also crying. “Everyone in the audience understood the message in the film,” he told me, “the war may have ended but there isn’t peace yet, and the suffering of the families of the victims continues. The lesson is that we must prevent a repeat of such violence.”

But how are we going to explain that violence is not just war, a banda enforced by setting buses on fire and preventing mothers from getting hospital are also forms of violence? Near here yesterday, a young woman with a complicated pregnancy died because she couldn’t get to the hospital in Dharan in time because cars were being stopped, and a truck driver was killed when a bus was stoned.

One group thinks it has all the answers and it is always right, and uses threats to intimidate those who don’t agree with them. That is also violence. We hear on the news that Maoist students rubbed kalo moso on the faces of the vice chancellor and rector of TU in Kathmandu yesterday because they weren’t consulted about the raising of exam fees. The chancellor, who is the prime minister, hasn’t uttered a word of apology. Krantikari student Lekhnath Neupane justified it saying the university administration was “feudal”. In the New Nepal the use of this word “feudal” has become the recourse of scoundrels.

Other violence: last week the Kosi Teen contest in Biratnagar had to be cancelled when local police couldn’t guarantee security after the YCL and YF invaded the function and started smashing the stage and ramp. The CDO, who was present, was roughed up. In Ilam, the organisers of fashion show with girls dressed in ethnic clothing was threatened by the Maoist-affiliated Nepal Women’s Organisation for “commodifying womens”. Also against the show was the Janjati Mahasang which said it violated the ILO 196! “They can’t display our ethnic dresses without asking us,” the local Mahasang chapter told the organisers. The show went ahead, but towards the evening a gang war erupted and a 20-year-old local toughie was killed by a rival wielding a sword, and three others injured. The resemblance to West Side Story was even stronger when we learnt that the two gangs had fought before over a girl.

From here on, the Yuddha Chitra Yatra starts heading west to Gaighat, Janakpur, Birganj and beyond. There have been highway blockades every step of the way since we left Kathmandu on 10 April, and one can be sure that the road ahead is going to be anything but smooth.

First posted on on 27 APRIL 2009

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