Nepali Times
Moving Target


INTERLOPERS: Sometimes, the passage of time is as much an invasion as outsiders.

The recent promulgation of the Citizenship Act has the country lunging forward to within a half-century or so of real-world time. Unprecedented vision was evident in conceding to women the status of human beings, and granting their offspring the right to citizenship, even if the father is absconding, a foreigner, or both.

The enfranchisement of millions in the tarai defuses a time bomb and reverses deeply-ingrained traditional policies of exclusion. Such change would be truly revolutionary if it weren't long overdue and didn't expose the latent fears of hill Bahuns and Chhetris.

The Hand, foreign by birth, alien by nature, disenfranchised by choice, observed with increasing mirth as panels of distinguished lawyers and intellectuals minutely dissected the Act. Such a liberal document might allow people from another country to acquire Nepali citizenship (gasp), which had the budhijibis frothing indignantly in eloquent legalese.

This all highlights the comical disparity between the effusive hospitality of Nepali people and the government-sanctioned policy of paranoia towards outsiders so evident in the bureaucracy.

State-endorsed xenophobia in Nepal dates back to the Mughal incursions across North India in the 14th century. Rajputs and others fleeing the invaders settled many Himalayan valleys and firmly closed the passes behind them. The next reason to shut away the country came a few centuries later, as the British started conquering up the Ganga from Calcutta. The brief war that resulted in 1816 forced Nepal's government to permit a Resident in Kathmandu. This first foreign representative was placed far from the city gates (in what is now the British embassy, Lazimpat), and had to get written permission-which could take months-to even visit town. Still, the Resident made close friends in the court during his decades-long stay.

The only foreigners permitted to enter Nepal under the Rana prime ministers were Hindu Indians on their way to Pashupatinath for Shivaratri. Bonafide pilgrims were granted three months stay at the frontier, and those who lingered were forcibly escorted back to the plains.

The modern era in Nepal's foreign relations began with the issuing of tourist visas and the hippy influx in the 1960s. This tribe sought enlightenment and cheap hashish, not trade concessions and territory. But the idea that outlandishly-garbed crazies wanted to stay on in the kingdom made immigration department bureaucrats the latest line of defence against invasion from the world outside.

In a career spanning three decades as an interloper-cum-meddler, your eternal stranger recalls the hoops jumped through to satisfy paranoid officials, and countless ignorant questions fielded as to his real reason for being here (meddling, for some reason, was never considered reason enough, nor was making a buck).

Today, the Maoists stand out for their jingoistic rhetoric and self portrayal as nationalist heroes. Despite having bought into a foreign ideology, their knee-jerk xenophobia is tragically apparent every time they target the Indian business community or launch another diatribe against imagined American Imperialism.

The Hand takes his amusement where he finds it. When local friends wax darkly about giant neighbours coveting their motherland, he points out that no one sane would annex a country bereft of oil, assets, and honest civil servants. Xenophobia is a pointless, dated exercise when the liability of absorbing your illiterate, impoverished masses outweighs any possible strategic advantages.

As Nepal is dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century (sic) through such leaps of faith as the Citizenship Act, we must allow chauvinist, feudalist, communist, royalist, maoist, and running dogist ideological nonsense to play out, with attendant death throe convulsions. Common sense long lost, your Hand (Foreign) has thrown his lot in with the only Marx still making sense (Groucho), and adheres to the maxim of never joining any club that would have him. Life as an outcaste by predilection looks better than ever.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)