This week last year Kathmandu was burning. Expressing rage against the brutal killings of 12 Nepali migrant labourers-who have since been forgotten-in far-away Iraq, roving vandals ransacked mosques and Muslim-owned small businesses all over the city. Hundreds of offices of overseas labour suppliers were destroyed in a matter of hours. By the time a curfew was slapped in place at two in the afternoon, many looters had made off with computers and other valuables.
Though civil society pundits blamed intolerant Hindu fervour and misplaced nationalism, victimised businessmen I spoke with at the time said that what they witnessed were not mobs imbued with religious hatred and insular Nepali nationalism but crowds of people who, once they figured out police would not come, turned their ostensible grief into an opportunity to loot. One businessman who saw his 10-year-old motorcycle spare parts business go up in smoke on Kantipath was Tulsi Tuladhar (see Strictly Business, #214). Recently, I caught up with Tulsi.
On the present: "I have learnt to move on but with great effort. Last December, I borrowed money from relatives, friends and a bank. I now run a spare-parts shop, much smaller than the one that was destroyed, in a new location on Kantipath. Sometimes I am very busy. Often I feel disappointed, hopeless and lost."
On his losses: "I lost an inventory worth over one crore. Furniture, software, contact books, manuals-all were lost. My three employees lost their jobs. When you lose your thriving business on one fine Wednesday morning for no reason, it's hard to live with the whys and the hows. I was devastated for months. I still have difficulty controlling my emotions. These days I have to make a real effort to get excited about work."
On the government's efforts: "The government set up an investigation committee. I visited all the committee members and pleaded with them to do something. The Nepal Chamber of Commerce helped some of us meet with the appropriate government officials. Initially they were all sympathetic. But over time they saw that they had to deal with the owners of hundreds of businesses and the task appeared to have overwhelmed them. Later they started making excuses to avoid us. In the meantime, the government fell and the committee got lost in the shuffle. I don't know whether they ever came up with an investigative report of any sort."
On the culprits: "The police reported that they did arrest a few looters. Looking back, that announcement seems to have happened because of the pressure put on them by a high-profile victim-Kantipur Publications. But no one contacted any of us on Kantipath for identifications and follow-ups. There were no trials. No one was sent to jail for widespread arson, vandalism and looting. The events of 9/1 have pretty much been forgotten, except by people like me who have to live with the memories every day."
On his future: "I take heart from the story that Min Bahadur Gurung (Strictly Business, #178) was able to start afresh to build his Bhatbhateni Supermarket after he lost his small shop to fire. Sometimes it's that kind of hope for something better that gets me going."
Would we be able to cope better if the 9/1 riots were to reoccur? No. The police haven't shown any further competence in crowd management. Civil society refuses to do the unglamorous work of bringing the truth to light, long after the stories have fallen off the headlines. And the government, continuously operating on a crisis mode, remains unable to be accountable to any section of society, let alone to individuals such as Tulsi.