On 26-27 December, Nepal had no government. Legitimate political parties cowered, citizens were afraid to speak out, the capital sank into an anarchic limbo. It was all the more shocking because we had been brought up to believe that things like this weren't supposed to happen in peaceful Nepal.
It won't be the same again: Nepalis of all castes, class and ethnicity will hereon be aware of their physical appearance. Our multi-ethnic land which prided itself on "unity in diversity" suddenly descended into politically-inspired tribalism. For the first time, Nepalis in the hills who look like they are from the tarai, or Nepalis in the tarai who look like they are from the hills were forced to feel like foreigners in their own land.
The government, when it did act, made things worse. We had an Information Minister who went on air demanding an apology from the actor without confirming whether the statement attributed to him was true. The leader of the Marxist-Leninist party refused to believe the actor's denial. Five young Nepalis were dead, and then the unseemly scramble began to capitalise on the fallout.
"Last week was one of those times in the history of nations when many latent issues converge," explains Chaitanya Mishra, professor of sociology at Tribhuvan University. "The government was not there at a critical moment." It was only on Wednesday afternoon, after things began to get really out of control that the Prime Minister's office began taking stock. The only party that showed some sanity was the main opposition UML, which began drafting its now-famous statement warning people "not to fish in muddy waters". Everyone else-Congress factions, the Nine Left, the nationalist Right, the Maoists-were more interested in bending the violence to suit their agenda.
Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai had fulsome praise for those who took to the streets to protest "Indian expansionism, capitalism and the fascist Koirala clique". But even he seemed worried about the spectre of communal violence: "It is the Indian government that is expansionist, not the Indian working class [i.e. the vegetable vendors, etc, in Nepal]."
As in any post-mortem of a riot of this type, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories. But there are linkages, and one can work backwards by analysing motive. The first anti-Hrithik protest occurred in Bharatpur and was reported by the Chitwan Post. It spread to Biratnagar, still tense after student-police clashes. Kathmandu papers did not start reporting on it till 22 December. And despite the government's attempts to pin the blame on Spacetime Dainik, that paper's coverage was mild compared to the vituperative headlines in the other newspapers.
By this time, all kinds of left and right fringe groups were ready in Kathmandu with banners, pamphlets, and mobs wound up into a frenzy. All government targets were fair game, and businesses were stoned. But the most organised and vicious attacks were on Indian interests. There was an outpouring of pent-up anti-Indian feeling accumulated over the years. The conflagration lit the fuse of Pahadi-Madhesi discord. The shockwaves from Kathmandu reached the tarai towns where there was some retaliatory violence.
There were underlying causes that made the frustrations of the Nepali people fertile ground for various power centres to cash in on. Aside from joblessness, inflation and shortages, ten years of democracy have also made Nepalis aware of their rights. Without policies that address the need of the people to be heard, grievances pile up. Says another TU sociologist Krishna Bahadur Bhattachan: "Our rulers have always used power for repression, discrimination, domination, exclusion and domination of the weak. But with growing awareness in the masses and the Maoists politicising them, we could be heading towards worse problems unless the rulers mend their ways."
The public had high expectations that democracy would solve some of these issues with time, but after a decade of waiting patience is running out. And there comes a point when all it needs is a seemingly harmless rumour to set off a chain reaction. Political scientist Dev Raj Dahal sees a crisis of confidence between the rulers and the ruled. "There is a large gap between what political parties say their policy is, and what they actually do," he says. To the social problems add power centres that focus public frustration on scape-goats and you have a recipe for disaster.