Nepali Times
Guest Column
Jatra of arson


On 1 September, marauding mobs attacked three of the most fundamental freedoms of people in a democratic society: the freedom to practice religion (and have a different religious identity), the freedom to express and transmit opinion (however radical or regressive they may be) and the freedom to earn a livelihood and own property. In targeting these freedoms, the rule of law was also attacked.

These freedoms were literally and figuratively burnt in public rituals. They burnt mosques, airlines owned by 'Muslim' countries and even a beauty parlour with a Muslim name. They burnt and vandalised the office buildings, equipment and vehicles of two media houses and journalists. They destroyed the offices and documents of recruitment agencies ostensibly to protest the treachery of these companies, but really against the right to practice one's business. They burnt cars on the road and stopped traffic.

These and other freedoms, such as rights to education and to life, have been assaulted for many years by different groups and by different means. But September First was probably the first time in Nepali history that they have been simultaneously targeted.

Why were these materials symbols of freedoms burnt? Someone in one of the furious mobs was heard shouting that anyone who was against the vandalism were anti-nationalists. In burning, were they performing nationalistic rituals, which in Nepal's case (the only Hindu kingdom in the world) were Hindu ones?

Fire is an important medium in Hinduism, used for purification and the central element of the fire sacrifice (hom or yagya), where offerings of food grains and other items are made to the fire god, Agni, to be transmitted to all deities and in which ghiu is used to stoke the fire and purify the offerings. Burning is a form of violence often practiced in their rituals and transferred to secular purposes.

There is another more violent form of sacrifice, known as bali, where animals are slaughtered as offerings to fierce deities, to appease them and ask for boons. Such sacrifices are practiced by many Hindus but also by practitioners of other religions, such as Muslims and animists. The victims are true scapegoats, representing all anger and evil forces in society and thus are to be ritually killed to vanquish them.

Extremists in Iraq and elsewhere seem to have transferred this form of sacrifice to human beings, by slicing off the heads of enemies. Back at home, our own Maoists have been doing the same. These actions parody and inverse the meaning of ritual sacrifices. In burning the symbols of citizen's freedoms, it seemed as if the mobs were combining elements and signifiers from these two major forms of sacrifices. And they parodied mahayagya (the great fire sacrifice), which are usually performed for cosmic and social good.

Mahayagyas are performed in various places to collect donations to construct hospitals, schools and a women's university. But the high priests and patrons (yajamanas) of the forces of darkness made offerings of the symbols of freedom in their profane fire, stoked with petrol. Or were they cremating our freedoms and rights?

Were these participants of the secular fire sacrifice implying that the freedoms in a democratic society are evil and hence the material symbols were to be burnt in profane homs to purify the country just as the heads scapegoats are sliced to rid the community of evil forces? This was a macabre jatra of arson, celebrating the destruction of people's freedoms and thus of democracy.

It is worth reflecting that the central ritual of Buddhism is the gift (dan) and not sacrifice. If we are proud to be called the land of Buddha, we should speak the language of ahimsa (non-violence) and gift each other freedoms and rights instead of burning them in symbolic fires. There should be a new jatra celebrating our freedoms and rights that stress dan and ahimsa.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)