Nepali Times

An Indian actor doesn't say something and five people are dead. What would have happened if he had actually said what he is supposed to have said? What does it say about the state of our polity, the psychological state of this country that a harmless rumour which should have been laughed off as a joke, turns deadly serious and picks up a communal flavour? As someone said: "All you need is an 'ass' to turn laughter into slaughter." How fickle is our national pride, how volatile has our society become, that something like this can light the fuse of conflagration.

Unknown to most of us, we seem to have imported the insecurity and paranoia that we used to observe south of the border. How rumours of Ayodhya set off carnage across India, how Indira Gandhi's assassination triggered a pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi. These things weren't supposed to happen in peaceful Nepal. The explanation isn't that Nepalis or Nepali society has changed. (It has. Our value systems and traditional tolerance have been replaced with selfishness, greed and materialism.) But last week's violence was also an indication of what happens when you mix prejudice with politics. There is latent bigotry and an undercurrent of racism and intolerance in every society, but it is not until some cold-blooded and calculating politician comes along that society's hidden vice manifests itself as overt violence. Someone has to stoke the embers, fan the flames, and finally pour oil on it for it to spread. And this looks like what happened in Kathmandu.

If you look around there is no shortage of those who would have benefited by cashing in on the frustration of the public over the incompetence of successive elected governments in the past ten years. Democracy hasn't just been unable to deliver development, it has also institutionalised corruption, law and order has become an everyday problem, joblessness and inflation has gone out of control. The environment was tinder dry, waiting for a spark. And as the flames spread, there was no shortage of those who wanted to cash in: the Congress factions, the nine leftists, the ultra-right, the Maoists, communal chauvinists.

This week we see that ultimately it was never about Hrithik Roshan, it was not even about India-Nepal relations, and it threatened to degenerate as we had warned last week into a hill-plains rupture within Nepal. If anyone is doing a post-mortem on last week, there is an easy way to figure out who the architects of the anarchy were. Just ask: who had a motive, who benefited? Those who want to roll back parliamentary democracy. And who were the losers? The Nepali people.

One step forward

If the Bhutanese refugee groups in Nepal welcomed the agreement of the Tenth Round of the Ministerial Talks last week in Kathmandu, then who are we to be sceptical about it. At first glance, it does look like a breakthrough. Bhutan and Nepal agreed that they would examine documents belonging to the head of families to verify who is a true refugee, and consider anyone below 25 years old as a member of a refugee family. There is now a faint hope that many of the 100,000 refugees languishing in camps in eastern Nepal for the past ten years (17,000 of them were born there in the past decade and have never been to Bhutan) may be able to go back to their homes. As Rakesh Chhetri argues on p3, the sudden mellowing on the part of the Bhutanese government is directly related to recent international pressure from the EU, the United States, and Bhutan's donor consortium. There could also be an added element: the slaying last month of ten Bhutanese in Assam by militants has shocked the country. This is potentially a much more serious crisis for Thimpu, and has sensitive ramifications for its relations with India as well. Best to get the refugee thing sorted out once and for all before it becomes entangled in India's dangerous northeast. Now the real question is how smoothly and quickly will verification happen? It should happen ASAP. It is in the interest of neither Himalayan monarchy that the refugee crisis drag on.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)