Nepali Times
State Of The State
Look back in sadness


My storehouse having burnt down
Nothing obscures the view
Of the bright moon -Masahide

Down through history, Kathmandu evolved as an important entrepot for Tibeto-Gangetic commerce. For a trader, tolerance and humility come with the territory, which is why the world over mercantile sophistication makes for an urbane and cultured citizenry. No wonder, even high-caste Newars are generally bereft of what Prof Dor Bahadur Bishta chose to call bahunistic bigotry.

And this is why the old towns of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur remained relatively calm during December-end display of mob fury in the Valley. If a Dhoti-clad Madhesi and a wool-capped Pahadi could warm themselves from the same tyre-fire (see photograph in this column last week) it could happen only in Asan or Mangalbazar or Chyamasingh.

Such a culture of accommodation is increasingly being challenged by the venality of politicians, the vacuity of the intelligentsia, and the vulgarity of the media. Most of the members of today's Nepali power-elite have brought the baggage of biases from their rural backgrounds.

Our politicians certainly share more of the blame for the conflagration. Not one of them stood up to be counted when adversity paid a call on Kathmandu society on 27 December. The minister for 'communications' chose to follow street rumours and asked for an apology from a Hindi film actor! While Kathmandu burnt, Nepali Congress dissidents marched on Singha Darbar to register their lack of confidence in Girija Prasad Koirala. Comrade Madhav Kumar Nepal did ask us to beware of those who would fish in muddy waters, but what of his party's student wing, which was actively involved in roiling the waters in the first place?

The self-proclaimed Maoists too failed to rise to the occasion. In characteristic display of Marx's "rural idiocy", Dr Baburam Bhattarai and Comrade Prachanda allowed the peasant's pettiness and parochialism prevail over the politics of social accommodation. How do they expect to take the whole nation ahead?

The very professionals and 'intellectuals' who now piously join rallies and carry sombre banners calling for social harmony remained firmly indoors the whole week that the capital was taken over by the lumpen brigade. None, not even one to cite as an exception, came out against the insane jingoism of the day.

It turned out writers had not outgrown their Panchayat-infused knee-jerk hatred of India and Indians. The wonder of it all was to see Kishor Nepal and Khagendra Sangraula-two gifted penmen of the right and left, respectively-condoning the Hrithik-bashing and its dark fallout. The eminences were celebrating lawlessness and vandalism, no less. Mr Nepal saw in the mob violence "an awakening of national pride", while Mr Sangraula saluted the vandals who set fire to a cinema hall as "flag-bearers of Nepali pride and honour". One was left wondering, looking at the pyrotechnics of the (pahadi Bahun-dominated) national press, whether bahunism and bigotry go together. The belief that Nepal's media scene had advanced in the last decade of democracy turns out to have been misplaced.

Through its incendiary coverage, the press poured generous quantities of ghiu into the fire started by politicians, encouraging under-educated youth to wreak mayhem. It was the private sector media that disappointed most, for the broadsheet dailies and FM stations fell upon the post-Hrithik scenario like flies upon a dung pile. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr of the US Supreme Court once wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing panic." But that was what the Kathmandu press did, and it needs to be condemned for that.

The editors shouted fire, all right. They gave prominence to a patent plant, printed coloured reportage, and were unwilling to qualify the false Hrithik quote with a simple 'alleged'. By playing jingoistic songs non-stop, the fledgling FM stations ratcheted up the insane rage of the goondas. As a result, anyone who 'looked' Indian was fair game. A dark-hued fellow journalist, whose surname itself is 'Newar', was chased down the main thoroughfare by a mob that took him for an Indian. A Bahun milkman was nearly burnt alive in Baneswar for the same reason.

The lesson to be learnt from the disaster of end-December is clear. Evidently, the foundation of Nepali nationalism is still shallow. Our much-vaunted tolerance is fragile. The social harmony of the surface is wafer-thin. Deep down, we still harbour shards of hatred for each other. If that is so, then it was perhaps to the good that the pus was allowed to flow. If we are indeed shaken out of our complacency, then perhaps the scars on the psyche of Nepalis of Tarai-origin will have been worth it.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)