Nepali Times
Enter the monster


If we had a government, the outpouring of grief and rage on the streets of Kathmandu on Wednesday would have been controlled. Histrorians will tell us whether the paralysis had links to impasse within the cabinet of Sher Bahadur Deuba or a tussle between the prime minister and the royal palace.

Starting from the highest positions in the land, the power play of actors large and small has won the country a place in the hall of international infamy. Not only are we one of the poorest countries in the world which sends its proud young men to do the dirtiest jobs that the world has to offer, not only do innocents die here at the hands of brutal insurgents and badly-trained security forces, but this is now a land where communal hatred is suddenly a widely perceived reality.

Religious bigotry actively implemented has entered the national scene. In the absence of government and with civil society converted into a site of programmed reactions and a medium for organising workshops on conflict resolution, there was no one at the watchtower to forecast the doomsday scenario on Tuesday night when rage first began its mutation into violence.

It is probable that some of this wrath would have been diverted into peaceful demonstrations had rallies and prayers been organised immediately in order to mourn the deaths in Iraq, or if those who purport to command our collective conscience had earlier made vociferous calls for the government to be (and to be seen to be) more proactive in efforts to release the Twelve. In the absence of the most natural reactions of sensible society the streets were left in the command of hoodlums and goondas.

The mayhem born of Nepali political confusion has led straight to the release of the communal demon. The killings of the hostages by ungodly and brutal militants in Iraq resulted in attacks on Nepali Muslims' places of worship, as well as on storefronts, shutters, airline offices, shacks and shanties-on anything bearing a signboard that implied ownership by someone of the Islamic faith.

Amidst the ethnic, dalit and tarai-based assertion that has gained strong voice since the advent of democracy in 1990, the Nepali Muslims--as possibly the most downtrodden community of all --have kept a low profile in keeping with their sense of vulnerability. It did not matter that Muslims make up more than four percent of Nepal's population. Nevertheless, Nepal's Muslims felt a sense of security within Nepal. Despite the open border with India, communal violence had remained isolated on the other side.

Commentators and media now need to recognise the communal demon for what it is. The morning after the riots, the newspapers still focused mostly on the attacks on the manpower agencies, the communal face of the riots was underplayed.

The social education of our society has lagged behind in our rush to modernity, and today's hoodlums have perhaps never been sensitised to the fact that their country's Muslims are Nepalis from the hills and plains. The very people vandalising Muslim property in the name of predatory nationalism do not realise that religious harmony as well as our immense demographic diversity have long been part of Nepal's national treasure.

One can imagine that had there been certainty in government and not the bewildering political confusion of today, the mayhem would never have erupted. In such times, the Central District Officer would have had the police act, the fire trucks would have arrived on the scenes of crime, and the army would not only have been called out but would have moved in to control the mob.

Instead, Muslim places of worship and airlines of Arab countries within a stone's throw of the royal palace main gate were attacked. Kathmandu's two mosques, barely a kilometer away, were vandalised in full view of everyone including a handful of riot police. Mid-morning, soldiers stationed at King Mahendra's statue were evidently not instructed to protect the mosques down the street.

In addition to a communal disaster that is a humanitarian outrage and a stab at the very heart of Nepal's national self-worth, there exists the practical matter of how the attacks here on Muslim establishments are going to affect the fortunes of Nepalis overseas. Over the last decade, Nepal has been an attractive source country for menial manpower, and at present there are up to 700,000 of our citizens in the Gulf countries and another 150,000 in Malaysia.

How will the largely Muslim populations of these host countries react to what has happened in Nepal? Certainly the personal insecurity and economic vulnerability of Nepalis will increase. At a time when the Nepali economy is being propped up by massive cumulative remittances of ill-paid, hapless Nepali labourers toiling in the sands of Arabia and the sweatshops of Kuala Lumpur, will the actions of a misguided few hundred in Kathmandu and the blind certitude of those who would govern us destroy the precarious existence of our own abroad? What will happen when the jobs begin to dry up overseas, and the economic and demographic safety valve of migrant labour begins to close? Where will we have left to turn?

It is time to begin to wake up. The recruitment agencies exist because of pressures felt by Nepalis at home, and that they contribute significantly to the economy in these unstable economic times. But above all, let us put a balm on the lacerated consciousness of Nepali Muslims. Let us stop the monster of communalism in its tracks. Let us have a government, we deserve one. And let us have more democracy rather than less, for in the responsiveness of those in authority lies the humane approach to governance that we need more than ever before.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)