Nepali Times Asian Paints
Southasia Beat
Denial of departure


What do you do when the immigration exit stamp is rescinded before you get to board the plane and your Jet Airways ticket is returned to you with a note 'Off-loaded by Nepal security'?

Collect one's baggage, get the airport tax reimbursed and go home to skulk and complain about the unfairness of life in autocratic regimes?

It is bizarre, this particular evolution of restricting personal liberty currently being carried out in the Nepali kingdom. Jurists, lawyers, activists, politicians and framers of constitution are refused entry into aircraft to fly to international or domestic destinations. There is no charge sheet, no prior notice, just a mysterious list (an original one, apparently updated twice since the royal takeover of 1 February) that is held close by someone in the maws of the terminal building and is referred to on walkie-talkie by hapless immigration officials and superintendents of police.

There are not a few politicians who, still waiting for a shower of goodwill from on high, will not even announce that their boarding cards have been snatched. They tiptoe home, hoping that their show of trust, patience and obeisance will register where it needs to register, and they will get 'the call'. That is how it is beginning to work, for ministerships, ambassadorships, corruption commissionerships, and perhaps even (in the days head) National Human Rights Commissionership.

So how does one get to Colombo from Kathmandu to attend a conference organised by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies? Does Nepal have roads? Yes. Does it have an open border with India? Yes. What is the nearest airport in India with regular air connections to Delhi? Lucknow.

Off-loaded at 2.30 PM, I was on the road by 5PM, Lucknow-Delhi-Colombo ticket in hand. The 'list' obviously had not made it to Nagdhunga at the Kathmandu Valley rim. A massive thunderstorm slows progress but no tigers and leopards were in evidence to make it a high adventure. A traffic jam of more than a hundred trucks and buses meant we can't make it into the town of Narayanghat before curfew. But a 'member of the security forces' in an extra jolly mood waves us through, and at 10PM we enter the busiest market hub of Nepal and find it looking like a ghost town.

After waiting out the curfew in Uncle's Lodge across the Narayani River at Gaidakot, we are on the road again at 4AM. Arriving at Butwal in the central tarai in two hours flat, it is time to head down to cross over into India at Sunauli. Nepal not being in an efficient state of repression, one is allowed to cross the border as a free citizen. It helps that the Nepal-India 'simana' is the ideal Southasian frontier, ie it is open.

At Sunauli, a Tata Sumo jeep is willing to take me through the backroads of eastern Uttar Pradesh to Lucknow. The vehicle is the regular hire of the Gorakhpur correspondent for the Dainik Jagaran (whose total circulation from 25 editions across northern India is over two million, with readership of 17.5 million, let that sink in). It is clear that the Sumo is used to having its way in these backwaters of erstwhile Avadh, and we make good time over the Rapti River on whose upper reaches lies the cradle of the Maobadi rebellion of Nepal.

There used to be a time when Nepalis feared travelling through these badlands of northern India. With Nepal converted into a playground of Maoists, bandits, highway robbers, gun-toting soldiers in plain clothes and state-supported vigilantes, it is the taxi drivers south of the border who now quake at the thought of entering the kingdom, by day or night.

Bypassing Gorakhpur, we take a short-cut through Basti, Ayodhya, Faizabad and arrive at the outskirts of Lucknow this side of the Gomti River. It is getting awfully close to the boarding time of Air Sahara's last flight to New Delhi and we are still on the other side of Lucknow's urban sprawl. Over the Gomti Bridge, past the stadium, downtown Hazratganj and the railway station, we do make it in time.

No, I didn't get offloaded in Lucknow, nor in New Delhi later that evening for the flight to Colombo.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)