Nepali Times Asian Paints
Manjushree’s headache


My friend Manjushree Thapa has a headache. A big one. She also has severe back pains. Both of these newly acquired ailments come courtesy of the government.

My friend was participating in a peaceful democracy rally around Ratna Park on Sunday, when all of a sudden she found herself cornered by latthi-wielding riot police. With the rest of the defenseless crowd, she attempted to run away but was hit on the head by a policeman. Falling to the ground, blood pouring from the gash in her head, she was then subjected to further latthi blows to her body.

She was helped by strangers to enter Bir Hospital, into which police were lobbing teargas shells over the wall. In hospital, she lay with scores of injured awaiting treatment. At the end of the ordeal, she had three stitches on her head and several welts and bruises on her back. Manjushree is another statistic in the lengthening list of those with head injuries, broken bones and rubber bullet wounds in Kathmandu's post-2PM streetscape.

The Ratna Park area in the heart of the capital is now known not just for annoying traffic diversions. Here, the inhabitants of Kathmandu have been shown the nature of the excesses of state violence that they had heard were happening in faraway hills.

Particularly illuminating has been the state strategy of crowd control of unarmed people participating in peaceful democracy rallies, including aiming latthis straight at the skull of anyone within reach, throwing tear gas into hospital grounds, beating people, old and young, male and female, after they have already fallen to the ground, entering hospital premises to thrash the injured and using rubber bullets in ways that maximise injury. That these methods are not necessarily provoked by violence or even hints of potential violence was clear from the experience of many of us in the Ratna Park area this week.

Trapped in a situation of inexcusable Maoist violence and excess, serious economic decline, political stalemate and a lack of democratically functioning arenas, rallies for democracy seem the most positive of options. Participants are not ideologically brainwashed zombies. The political elites' public apologies and remorse may have brought thousands to the capital, but ill-will and distrust in political leaders remain. Yet the sheer numerical turnout and the palpable energy in the crowd testify to the thirst that exists for change, with the only current viable medium to demand for that change being political party-led rallies for democracy.

The ability to congregate as The People, to voice similar concerns and demands, ask for more accountability and say in the government, work together for peace and prosperity in the country, this is the fodder of donor 'good governance' and 'vibrant civil society' visions that so canvas our national development agenda. But these public displays of people power have been seen as a national threat by the state and dealt with accordingly.

In full view of international donors and the national elite, my friend was mercilessly beaten in the capital. That she is an internationally renowned writer and part of the national intelligentsia was irrelevant. Like so many of the injured and killed in the past couple of days, months and years of turmoil, she merged into the mass of the faceless and identity-less in those minutes of state sponsored violence.

In accordance with government statements justifying the force used in these rallies, if she was not my friend, perhaps I would have believed she provoked the police. If I did not know her personally, perhaps I would have believed she was affiliated to a violence-prone political wing. If I was just reading about her as an injury statistic, perhaps I would have believed she was a Maoist infiltrator.

But I know Manjushree Thapa well. If this is the level of violence happening in Kathmandu with only latthis, tear gas and rubber bullets, dare we think of what is going on in the name of the counter-insurgency war in areas populated by those whose identities and personalities remain blurred and in territories in which M16s and not latthis are the choice weapons of state control?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)