30 April, 2018

Story of My Homeopathic Cure

April 25, 2018
My Republica (http://www.myrepublica.com/news/40504/)

We should broaden our minds to alternative concepts of disease
and healing, not rely exclusively on big pharmacological solutions


A few days ago, The Guardian ran an article about Prince Charles and his belief in homeopathy. The writer expressed scorn at the Prince’s beliefs in homeopathy. The tone of the article struck me with its scientific smugness and condescension—an attitude which has been very effective in blocking inquiry into broader conceptions of disease and healing. In this op-ed, I want to share my own experience with homeopathy. I was also healed by a homeopathic doctor—rather to my surprise. I share the story with you so you can make up your mind about the intangibles that make up the process of healing.
In 2007, I attended the Berlinale Film Festival. I was part of a contingent of filmmakers which had been accepted to the Talent Campus. The campus aimed to bring together young filmmakers and provide them with access to mentors from different cinematic disciplines. We saw Gael Garcia Bernal, Frederick Wiseman and Wim Wenders. We heard the composer who’d done the music for Peter Pan, and the cinematographer of  Red, Blue and White. The time I spent in Berlin was fun, and took my mind away somewhat from an incomprehensible accident that had killed a close friend of mine from college on New Year’s Eve.

On the way back from Berlin, I stopped over at Thailand for one night. I paid $30 to spend one night in a room that felt like an enclosed box. It was hot and stifling, and I seem to have caught dry cold there. On return to Kathmandu, I came down with severe fever, cough and cold. When I recovered, I could hear a wheezing deep inside my throat and lungs that didn’t seem to go away. The asthma may have been triggered by the extreme cold of Berlin, transition to abrupt tropical heat of Bangkok, then back to a colder Kathmandu. Underlying it all was the loss caused by my friend’s death. I could hear a rattle in the throat that was so loud it woke me at night.

Running into a healer 
I talked to my doctor, who prescribed an inhaler. The spray of chemicals in my system made me feel worse. I felt a sense of despair at the thought I would be forever dependent on this medication. During college, I had a friend who also had childhood asthma, and who had overcome it as an adult, so I knew asthma was not a lifelong affliction. It appeared to me there was a cure. But where was it?
Then I ran into a German musician who lived in Bhaktapur. Gert Wegner was known to me through two of my friends. Sarina Rai, the most well-known punk rocker of Nepal, had started her musical career by taking guitar and drum lessons at the Bhaktapur School of Music, which had been started by Gert.

On one memorable occasion, Sara Shneiderman, a friend who was then managing a study-abroad program for American students, had invited me for a program at the Bhaktapur School of Music, and I had seen Gert in his element, in an old garden with wooden pavilions, encouraging girls to take up the big dhimmay baja drums, which traditionally were only played by men. So I knew Gert to be a kind, capable and thoughtful man, who had not just started an institution of great repute, but was also well-respected in Newari community where he lived.

Bhaktapur retains its medieval culture, and Gert was discreetly embedded in this town. His home was an old crumbling Newari home that looks like any other house from the outside. During one festival at Dashain, I learnt that Gert had been given the status of an elder, respected guru by the community of butchers he’d worked with for many years, and that he was in charge of leading a team of musicians to honor Nasa Deo. During that Dashain, we watched as team after team of highly drunk, out-of-tune, rollicking musicians went past—following by the ramrod straight, disciplined military march of Gert’s men, all playing their music in harmony. Needless to say, they won the competition that year.

I can’t remember how or when I ran into Gert again in 2007, but sometimes during these asthmatic days, I happened to visit Bhaktapur, and I ran into Gert at the yogurt shop. As to how I told him I had asthma I don’t remember, but I wasn’t feeling good, and if he asked me how I was, perhaps I mentioned the asthma to him. Then, perhaps in that same conversation, or perhaps in another, he mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that he too knew homeopathy. I was curious now, and requested him for a diagnosis. He agreed.

That same day, I walked with him through winding lanes and a little garden with flowers to the entrance of his old interconnected house. This is the kind of strange thing that looking back Hindus call “karma”—Gert is someone I have met perhaps five times in 10 years, but that moment, when I was most in need of a cure, I happened to run into him.

Gert had rented one of the floors of this old house. It still had its mud floor and walls, and on the floor on a straw mat I could see his tablas. We went up to his beautiful kitchen, and he offered me some tea. I admired the old kitchen utensils that he had placed around as objects of decoration. We had a nice conversation as he told me about his teaching at the Free University of Berlin. He explained to me he himself was not trained as a homeopathic doctor, but his former wife had been, and she had been the one to teach him.

After I’d drunk the tea, we went down again into another room. This had a cabinet full of small vial-like bottles, with the small white homeopathic medicine in them. They were all neatly labeled. I wanted to go closer and look, but didn’t want to appear too inquisitive, lest he think I was being invasive. I got the sense he didn’t want me to go too close to those neat bottles. I sat and watched him as he opened some big books, and started to read them.

Then he took up a little metal instrument which was like a little metal pendulum. He swung this back and forth a few times, looking very intent. It looked like he was testing something, perhaps the magnetic direction of the poles—or perhaps the energy my body was putting out in the room. This looked like some wacky, New Age cure—not at all the rational, Germanic pharmaceutical solution I thought I was getting. I thought about Ouija boards. I felt an urge to laugh. But because he was an elder man who clearly had earned his respect, I maintained my composure. I sat there, curious but willing to see what he had to say.

 “Do you feel the sorrows of other people deeply?”

Rather surprised, I said that indeed I did feel the sorrows of other people deeply. He rifled the pages of his big encyclopedia-like book again, searching for something. Looking at the book, he asked me a few other questions that seem to me to be equally out of range of what a doctor asks a patient who has just told you they need a cure for asthma. It appeared he was trying to place me into a certain category. I felt slightly discomfited, wondering what that category was.

Then he said: “I think you are a causticum type. I am fairly certain you are a causticum type.”

He then rifled around in his closets till he found a small bottle. He put a tiny white ball in a small piece of paper. “All you need is one,” he said. I must have looked disappointed to see the tiny white ball. After the long process of diagnosis, the medication appeared incredibly small and token. Seeing the look in my face, he said: “But I will give you three, just in case you need it.”

I was grateful for this medicine, and eager to try it out. That night, I took one pill of causticum. The white sugar taste vanished on the tip of my tongue.

Miracle happened 
The next day, my asthma, which had been troubling me for a few months, vanished. And it did not return. This was too good to be true. Just to be sure, I took the other two white sugar pills as well, even though I didn’t need it.

I have no idea how, or why. I have no idea why irradiating my throat with a broth of pharmaceutical chemicals didn’t help, and why a tiny white sugar pill did. That’s the mystery of healing. You can’t tell me I didn’t have asthma, because I know I did, and I was suffering from it. Perhaps it was the presence of this elder man who exuded an aura of wise healer energy. Perhaps it was his old adobe house, full of objects that seem to exude magical power. Perhaps it was the time and place of Bhaktapur, and the episodes of music. All I know is that homeopathy worked for me, and I was grateful towards it.

Healing is a magical act, in many ways. Germ theory may explain one part of disease and healing, but it doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain how our body is connected to our mind. Which is why homeopathy, and other systems like it, find increasing adherents all over the world.

This story is not aimed to make you “believe” in homeopathy. This story is only aimed to make you take a closer look at what makes people ill, and what heals them again. This story is also aimed at those policymakers who design healthcare programs in which pharmaceutical companies are given great importance, but who ignore alternative systems of healing. The Nepali Times recently ran an article claiming one-third of Nepalis suffer from mental health disorders.

Many people’s anxiety and depression have been exacerbated by the earthquake, amongst other reasons. In a world with these many people affected by mental health disorders, we should broaden our minds to alternative concepts of disease and healing, and not just rely exclusively on big pharmacological solutions.

Sushma Joshi is a writer and filmmaker from Kathmandu, Nepal

(You can also find an older version of this article posted in my blog.)

16 April, 2018

Beyond Patriarchy

April 16th, 2018 
My Republica (http://www.myrepublica.com/news/39954/) 

In a culture of patriarchy where the girl or woman belongs to the family unit, the “ownership” of the girl by the family can often be lethal

A little girl who loved grazing her ponies was raped and killed in the Indian state of Jammu in January. She belonged to the tribe of nomadic Bakerwals, Muslims who grazed their horses and moved around, possibly across state and national boundaries. Who wasn’t moved by the photograph of the lively little girl with the big eyes in the little purple outfit—the same purple outfit her corpse is shown wearing at the moment of death? Who wasn’t sickened by the story of the drugging, the rapes and the murder? Who didn’t feel a sense of loss hearing the story of how she loved to graze her ponies in the forest, how she was the light of her community?
We know a lot about the case from various news sources. That Asifa Bano had been adopted by her family, because they had previously lost two girls to an accident. Her biological mother gave her up after her brother came and begged for a child, after he lost both his daughters to an accident. Her mother was reluctant, but eventually succumbed to his pleas. That she had been the darling of her tribe for daring to go out and graze the ponies in territory which had already exhibited discord and conflict, and that surely her clan knew was dangerous for children, especially a little girl. But still they had sent her—not a young boy in his teens, not an older man. They had sent an eight-year-old adoptee in the fraught, conflict-ridden landscape of Jammu to graze their ponies.
We know she had been lured and killed in a plot by a Hindu farmer who noticed she was grazing her ponies too close to his lands, and who surely noticed her vulnerability.  Surely he must have known that she was marginal, not tied by the strong ties of genetics and biology to the family who sent her out. Surely she, like any little girl, craved for the love of people around her, and this led her to the risky and daring act of going out in the forests alone, which brought her the attention and love she craved.
Government response 
And yet the response from the Narendra Modi government to all these incidents of violent rapes against little girls is still Beti Bachao—save your daughters. The Indian government cajoles and promises, as if the family, sacred institution, holy cow of faith, would somehow act as a barrier against rapists and murderers. As if a girl, by being a daughter, is somehow entitled to a special lakshman rekha of protection which will keep her inviolate from dangers of life. Have they failed to notice that family is often the most violent and terrifying institution which a little girl can find herself in? Let’s face it: the family can often be the worst institution to take care of children, and the nation, by extension, even less so. The state as a benevolent parent is laid bare in this narrative.
“Beti Bachao” is a good slogan for elections, but it hardly deals with systematic issues, including how paternalism is often at the root of violence against women. If daughters are kin to be protected by the family and nation, what happens to the little girl who is only half a daughter? What happens to the trafficked girl who has moved across borders to find herself in sex work and lost contact with her family, either because of circumstance, or because the family decides she has besmeared their honor? She’s no longer a daughter now. What now? Is she—eight years old—alone and at the mercy of traffickers, also entitled to the protection given to daughters alone? Is the nation to take up the role of the benevolent but absent parent—one who can hardly be trusted to feed a child, let alone ensure her safety?
Systemic problem 
India has a systematic problem with rape which won’t change until it acknowledges that girls and women are individuals with rights and freedoms, entitled to the right to life, the right to live a life without fear, and the right to dignity. It won’t change until the state stops its paternalistic discourse of kinship and protection, and moves towards the discourse of rights and responsibilities. It won’t stop until the justice system treats each victim as a citizen with the same set of rights as the elderly male politicians who are deciding her destiny.
But of course this story is so much more complicated: there is the historical conflict between Hindu and Muslim in Kashmir, between the settled and the nomadic, and the rising demographic pressures on smaller and smaller amounts of land. There is the vague, ominous unease in social media that Assam is being besieged by Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Myanmar.
There are the troubling photographs of women raped in Assam by Muslim men and boys, and which the Hindus are outraged about, but which the liberal press declines to cover. The outrage is fueled in part by how lopsided the public perceives the press to be. The Indian liberal press often clams up when it comes to issues that may be seen as communal or controversial, as in the case of Kairana, a community in UP where 346 families of a Hindu community fled, leaving all their property behind, due to fear of Muslim criminals. Not to mention the large scale ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley by Muslims.
Surely these incidents were at the back of the mind of the farmer when he came up with his devilish plot to murder the little girl, in order to scare the Bakerwals away from his neighborhood. Women’s bodies have always been a way to settle scores and disputes. India’s rape culture makes this permissible, and as the appalling Hindu Ekta Manch’s support for the rapists showed, even defensible.
How to change this culture of violence upon women’s bodies as the subcontinent gets even more fraught with changing and shifting demographics will be the challenge of the next century. There are 172 million Muslims in India, about 14.2 percent. This is not a small number. In the upcoming years, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will have to work out a culture of living in harmony with minority populations which focuses on the rights of individuals to life with safety, and not fall back upon the old historical ways of using women’s bodies as sites of war.
The Indian government could start off by designing a campaign which shows girls are full citizens with rights to life, safety and dignity. To do this, they need to move away from the discourse of “Save Our Daughters”, because the more they associate girls in filial roles, the more likely they are to tie them back into a small space where life is always at risk and where security is never certain. In a culture of patriarchy where the girl or woman belongs to the family unit, the “ownership” of the girl by the family can often be lethal.
Joshi is a writer and filmmaker. She lives in Kathmandu

13 February, 2018

The Night of Shiva

ECS Magazine, January 26, 2018 

Shivaratri, or the night of Shiva, in my mind, is always associated with the Pashupatinath Temple. The temple was set away from human settlement for a reason—in the midst of the forest, amongst the slightly dilapidated buildings and gently ruined structures of the past, the most perfect followers of Shiva, the sadhus, had an ideal sanctuary. Sadhus, ascetics who’d left behind the material world for more spiritual and transcendental concerns, seemed at home here, with the firewood they received gratis from the king, burning away the night in the flicker of bonfires and ash.

They started to arrive a fortnight before Shivaratri, and they piled up amongst the muths and the small shrines, smoking their ganja in blissful torpor, joking with the tourists in their own languages (one Shivaratri I chatted with an elderly and jovial French speaking Baba), holding up rocks with their penises, and in general adding to the madcap ambience of the already otherworldly place. One Shivaratri, we finally managed to enter the inner shrine of Pashupati along with a long line of other devotees, through the gate which leads into the labyrinth. In the main courtyard I waited breathlessly for a glimpse of the fabled Aghori Babas, who inspire awe and fear because they live in the cremation ghats. The Aghori are known to taste human flesh from the corpses in order to battle and transcend their deepest human feeling of revulsion, in order to achieve absolute mental detachment. I was met by the sight of a group of impassive unclothed ash-smeared sadhus who had monopolized the main courtyard for the night. A muscular sadhu stood on one leg in a dramatic posture, naked as the day he was born—with only a golden watch on his wrist as accoutrement. The troupe looked more theatrical than spiritual, but of course that was part of the teeming, heaving maya, or cosmic theatre, that constitutes this night of Shiva.

In the past ten years, Shivaratri has become unmanageable with large groups of young men smoking marihuana and partying it up on the sad and tawdry ashphalt roads surrounding the once awe-inspiring temple. The temple is no longer on the fringes of the urban chaos—it is in the midst of it, surrounded by people who nibbled away at the holy site to build concrete buildings, and from which houses sewage now flows into the holy Bagmati. Young couples seeking a few moments of privacy in this city throw condoms in the Sleshmantak forest, while adolescent boys use the heritage sites for their pot smoking initiation rites. The gentrified hordes jog through the forest, which no longer holds mystique, although the monkeys, thankfully, are still to be found there, causing minor havoc and bringing a level of unpredictability to the devotional experience.

The degradation of the holy temple complex itself seems to echo the ways in which Shivaratri has become a tawdry spectacle of glaring electric lights, uncontrolled crowds and a carnivalesque turnout of adolescence lost in its search for hedonistic experiences.

Which is why visiting the Kirateswor Temple complex on Shivaratri was a special joy. Up the steep steps of a hill and into an old courtyard where a baba sits tending his dhuni fire, the music flows like a river as we sit under the peepul tree. On Shivaratri, a group of musicians had assembled under the impeccable hospitality of tabla-player Sarita Mishra, as they did every full moon, where they met up for a “concert”—a few hours of devotional bhajans and kirtans sung on a tiny stage, and to which the audience listen to with rapt attention. Sarita has been organizing full moon concerts at Kirateswor for a long time, but it is in Shivaratri I experienced the full blessings of her beneficence. Sarita beckoned to me and I made my way to the back of the complex. Up the rickety wooden ladder behind the stage and into the attic we went, and up there was a long line of musicians, poets, writers and artists partaking of the prasad—halwa, puri—the usual fare of spiritual and religious events, but served with grace and simplicity. I remember a sense of time slowing down, of sensing beauty flickering in the shadows, and listening to the voices around me as if they added to the music from down below.

A few years later, when I decided I just couldn’t brave the crowds, I happened to pass by a sweetshop in New Road that was selling bhang burfi a day before Shivaratri. The young proprietor had left the sweets out for display, so obviously there was no fear of legal repercussions—which, in my mind, are problematic anyways since bhang has for centuries been associated with Shiva worship in the subcontinent. Eaten in very small quantities and with respect to tradition, it doesn’t do any harm. Which is how I ended up spending another Shivaratri—in much the way as Shiva, I ended up eating the bhang. The sweet-seller must have used a magic recipe, because all that happened to me was a very deep, relaxing sleep. There were no awful side effects, although with any mind-altering substance this is always a possibility. That sleep seems to get rid of all my tiredness of the past few years, as if I’d repaired all the damage wrought by insomnia on my system. I felt a very deep sense of relaxation, as if all my worries and anxieties had melted away.  You could say that for a few days I felt a connection with the entire cosmos, like a fish swimming in the cosmic ocean, in the vastness of the depths. While the effect melted away after a few days, I felt an expansiveness and opening which I hadn’t felt before—a broadening of consciousness towards a larger cosmos than the one we take for granted. 

Before eating the bhang, though, I’d also lit a fire with the branches of my jackaranda tree, and sat there watching the fire for a few hours in the night. As I sat there, thoughts of the Green Tara had entered my mind. There was no religious disconnect in my mind, no thoughts about the theological and sectarian divides of Hinduism versus Buddhism. All I could think about was the Green Tara, and all I could see was a green flame dancing on the fire. No wonder then that that green flame that started to dance around the edges seem to become a manifestation of the female Buddha. The more I stared at the fire, the more the green flame leapt and danced, hovering inches over the embers, seemingly not tied to the burning mass, as if it had a life of its own. The more Buddha and Shiva melded into One.

In February 2011, I ended up spending Shivaratri in a more adventurous fashion than I had envisioned. I was in Burma, conducting research on the Nepalese diaspora in Myanmar, and immediately I was surrounded by the buzz of Shivaratri. I was in Lashio and the people let me know that most of the Nepalese had gone down to Sankhai for the festival. In Pwe Oo Lin, I visited the Pashupatinath Temple (which has a replica of the shivalinga labyrinth and an inscription from King Mahendra who had visited the temple in the 1960s), and while visiting there I was told I couldn’t meet the priests because they’d gone to Sankhai for the festival. Also in Pwe Oo Lin, I met and interviewed a sprightly Tamang lady from Darjeeling who told me that I had to get on the train and go to Shankhai for Shivaratri. And not only was it Shivaratri, but also the 108th year of the founding of the Shiva Temple in Shankhai. Obviously, Shankhai was the place to be.

 So on Shivaratri, I made my way, rather late in the morning, from Hsipaw to Sankhai on the back of a truck carrying people and goods. I was let go at the edge of a highway. Within a few minutes of inquiry with the volunteers posted at the small shacks, I was able to get a ride with a jovial Punjabi family driving a three wheeled tempo. The temple was a ten minute ride away from the main road. The bubbly Punjabi woman instantly made me feel comfortable—she explained they were carrying kilos of cauliflowers as their family’s contribution to feed the devotees who came from many towns to the festival. The Shivaratri festival was obviously a major community event, involving many subcontinental communities, and with the local Burmese showing up to take part in the festivities.

I went around with the kind Punjabi family, who took me under their wing, and made my way around the various shrines and temples inside the complex. Next we stood in line for the prasad—it was obvious the prasad was a major part of the festivities, and one for which communities from far and near had contributed money, food and labor. Some people had gone to the site a month before the event to organize and prepare. So it was a meal made with a labor of dedication and love, with large ladles turning the curry in giant vats. I enjoyed the chatter of large families sitting side the cavernous, newly built hall, enjoying their most important festival.

The Punjabi family soon found an uncle who spoke Nepali fluently and could tell me a lot more about what was going on. He told me the origin of the Shiva temple. According to the rather mysterious story, the British were building a railway track through the area when red blood sprouted out of the ground. The workers refused to move, and demanded that a temple be built in the location to appease the spiritual force that had manifested. The railway track had to be diverted to a new location, and the Shiva temple was built. Perhaps the “red blood” was a mineral deposit, I suggested, but the Punjabi uncle, who said he had mined rubies and red diamonds in different locations in Burma, said there were no gems in this area. Perhaps the workers knew that the rock was going to be quite hard to break through, and they had planted some blood as an excuse to divert the track—once it became holy ground, it couldn’t be broken apart. Or perhaps blood had in reality manifested from the ground. Whatever the answer, it was clear that despite its short origins, the temple was seen as an ancient locus of spiritual power where Shiva had manifested.

The Punjabi uncle told me that a famous Muslim musician always played at the festival. Not only that, but Muslim families also came during the event, put tika and ate the prasad. This seemed like an unusual level of engagement with each other’s religious activities, especially in light of the conflictual relationship between Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan, but sitting there in the table talking to a Nepali-speaking Punjabi from Burma, it all seemed to make perfect common sense. Of course the sub-continental Muslims would also come and enjoy this local festival, because community ties were central to life in Myanmar. The food was a central part of the celebration, so everyone, Hindu, Muslim and otherwise, were welcome to eat. As I walked around, I could see Burmese monks in their robes walking around and enjoying the fair-like atmosphere.

Later, Mr. Karki, a community leader from the Gorkhali community, told me a young man he considered his son from the Shan ethnic group had shown up en masse, with about 200 men, and pledged his support towards the Gorkhali community. Clearly, Shivaratri was an eagerly anticipated space and site where community ties were renewed, alliances amongst the complicated ethnic tapestry of Burma were pledged and reinforced, and a deep sense of communal sharing was enacted through the Shivaratri Prasad/meals.

One of the organizers I interviewed noted that those who volunteered at the festival saw great harmony in their family lives and their levels of prosperity rose after their volunteering experience. This sort of miracle could be attributed more to crafty public relations by a festival organizer than to divine intervention—yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if those who engaged deeply with these religious events did not, in fact, see a change in their social and familial circumstances. In Nepal, we have lost the Hindu ideas of working for the common good. We no longer remember that building wells and crematoriums, and contributing to the communal good, was once a part of the duties of a practitioner of Sanatan dharma.

The Shivaratri in Burma was also a small miracle for me, personally. In 2002, I’d applied for a fellowship to study the Nepalese diaspora in Burma, and been rejected. I’d been flown to Delhi from New York for an interview with the Ford Foundation. Then I’d flown back to New York within 24 hours. After I had sent off my application in 2010, I received a response from the program administrator in India. He reminded me: “We still have your other application on file.” Human memory is such—or perhaps my memory is such—that I had forgotten I had sent the same application, to do the same research project, to the very same Foundation, a full eight years ago. Perhaps the disappointment of rejection, or perhaps the jet-lag of that transatlantic flight, had been so powerful that all memories of that interview had been erased from my mind. So when I did receive the fellowship, it seemed divinely ordained, in some ways—I was in Shiva’s temple at Shivaratri on the 108th anniversary of its founding. What could be more auspicious? If I had received the fellowship in 2002, I would have missed this most auspicious date by eight years.



Click on the link to follow the story. 






07 February, 2018

Bibliography of late Saubhagya Shah’s Academic Writings

A bibliography of the late Saubhagya Shah's academic writings have been compiled by Pratyoush Onta (with help from his Martin Chautari colleagues).

Saubhagya Shah, a sociologist/anthropologist trained at Tribhuvan University, Nepal (MA in Sociology, 1991) and Harvard University, US (PhD in Anthropology, 2004) died suddenly on 16 December 2009 from a suspected heart attack. At the time of his death, he was a Reader in Sociology at Tribhuvan University (TU) and the Program Coordinator of TU’s Central Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies (CPDS). A moving tribute to Saubhagya has been penned by the writer Sushma Joshi (2017). 

You can find that tribute online at Setopati:
http://archive.setopati.net/blog/22684/

13 December, 2017

When the gods descend

Published in ECS Magazine, 2017

Recently the young woman who was helping me to cook and clean started to receive a spate of phone calls at work. “Come over immediately, your work is nothing, your son is everything,” the relatives at the other end would announce. This went on for a while, and she herself said to me: “What is this? I get more phonecalls than the Prime Minister.” I tried to contain my irritation at these very loud phonecalls, but eventually at one point I had to ask her to put her phone on silent. She couldn’t do that, she announced, because a very serious medical emergency was going on at her house. Her son, she said, had “deuta lagyo.”

The gods have gotten hold of him.  

I asked her what was going on with her son. She said that she did not know the specifics because it never happened while she was around, but her relatives had told her had had several episodes in which her son had started to talk deliriously by himself, and also shown symptoms of a physical fit. He has started to beat his relatives, she said. Is it epilepsy? I asked. She shook her head. “No,” she said. “Deuta lagyo.”

As an urbanized woman whose family never ever went to a dhami or a jhankri, I was at a loss as to how to interpret this. But before the symptoms were recognized as a titular deity descending on the young child, Rama had told me her son had “bokshi lagyo” (the witch has caught hold of him.) As soon as she said the word “bokshi lagyo,” I warned her: “Don’t accuse anyone of being a witch. The Nepal government has outlawed that. You could go to jail.”

Rama was nothing if not a quick learner. Immediately the next morning, she told me she’d been mistaken about the bokshi, and nobody had put the evil eye on him. She said that he’d gone with some other children to a Kali temple at midnight, where a young man had committed suicide. The spirit of the young man, she implied, must be disturbing her son.

She recruited a dhami to cure her son. “He’s asked for sixty thousand rupees,” she said, “to cure the two children.” Her niece was also exhibiting the same symptoms, she said. I was shocked. The dhami however, had given her a “guarantee” that he would cure her son, she said, so therefore the money was worth it. “Money is nothing, if my son gets cured,” she said. “The doctor cannot guarantee to cure my son, but the dhami can. He’s already showed up at our house at all times of the day and night, when we’ve called him. He has to, until the children are cured.”

The dhami diagnosed the disease: it was not “bokshi lagyo” but “deuta lagyo,” and they needed to do some protracted pooja to cure the children, he’d said. The next step was a pooja at Pashupatinath, at the labyrinth of the shivalingam, the dhami had told her. The labyrinth is an interesting, disorienting maze, and everyone from the Celts to the Christian mystics have used this device to shake the mind out of its trauma.

After this ceremony, Rama told me her son’s disease was now clear—he’d been seized by the gods, who had aroused themselves within the child and announced this: They had not done the proper pooja required for the family kuldeuta (lineage gods) in a few years, and the gods were angry. Therefore, said the deuta, this dashain the entire family had to gather in the family home and do the requisite pooja in the proper and correct manner, or else very bad things would happen. Nobody was allowed to drink alcohol. “The pujari cannot drink his tea before the ceremony is over, or else I’ll kill him,” the deity within the ten year old boy announced.

I was incredulous, but Rama assured me that not only her son, but also his cousin, a young girl, had been singing and dancing all night long because the Bhairav and seven Seto-devi (the seven white goddesses) had entered them, respectively, and were speaking through them. “It is impossible for young children to make it up for hours and hours,” She said. “When my sister-in-law laughed, my son said to her angrily: Don’t laugh! We had to shut up, even though we felt like laughing,” she says. And this had been going on for days. “I wish I had a video to show you,” she said. “They speak in this voice all night long.”

The gods within the children then got creative. Because it was close to exam time, the gods announced that the children should not be sent to school, but kept home, till they were cured. “Oh, that’s convenient,” I said. “How’s your son’s studies?” She assured me he was doing very well at school, but because of the illness she had heeded the voice of the deity and wasn’t sending him to school. The school administration had kindly agreed to allow him to sit for the next at a later date, once he was feeling better.

“The deuta knows things that my son can’t know about, that we don’t know about,” she said. “Like what?” I asked her, wondering if his mother’s credulity was egging on the child. “He said that his uncle had gone out again last night, drinking.” This seemed to me something a child would be aware of from family gossip, not just precognition or clairsentience, but it was impossible to argue. It was clear that Rama believed her son had indeed been seized by the gods, who were asking for a very serious change in behavior from the family: a commitment to give up drinking (forbidden for Brahmins), a return to a more pure way of propitiation (no lazy pujaris drinking tea before the goddess), and a bringing together of the family when everyone was scattered between Qatar, Kathmandu and the village.

Talking to Liana Chase, an anthropology graduate student who is doing her research in Sindhupalchowk on this topic, I wondered if these incidents weren’t a way for children to express their fears and get attention in families torn by migration. Were these also the only way children could draw attention towards their mental health? Rama’s husband works in Qatar—he’s had to sell his donut shop and go to Qatar after the blockade destroyed his business. From a prosperous small business, the family have suddenly been thrust into economic uncertainty and looming loan repayments. Just before these happenings, Rama had also told me her ten-year old had complained about having to take care of his six year old sister, who’d call him to wipe her ass after going to the toilet. I knew the sister was the spoilt star of the family, and both her father and mother prioritized her needs because she was the smallest, and because she had several health problems. Might not the boy have exhibited these behaviors because he was now being asked to be the head of the household way before he was ready for these responsibilites—and were these symptoms the only way to get attention in a family caught up in other more pressing concerns?

Liana told me about her research, including ways in which these psychosomatic illnesses are being treated in the villages—through government sponsored mental health care clinics, recently set up by the Nepal government; through temples and through churches. She also told me there was an organization in Kathmandu which counseled children who exhibited these symptoms, and they’d gotten better after counseling. 

I shared with Liana some of my concerns about Westernized and medicalized models of mental health care, including a story of a very good friend of mine from Brown University who committed suicide in NYC. She had been going to a psychiatrist since she was 8 years old, and heavily medicated on several drugs, including lithium and Prozac. “To me, these psychiatrists are the dhami-jhankri of the Western world. They are unregulated in their mumbo-jumbo and nobody checks to see if their very expensive drugs actually work,” I said.

What kind of safety net we now set up to deal with mental health care of vulnerable children like these two will be a test of the Nepal Government’s commitment to universal health care.

 I don’t think dhami-jhankri will ever go away, and their presence are a reminder that people need more than Western science to cure their spiritual ailments. During this Tihar, let us remember this: that the older dai is as vulnerable as the younger bahini, and that if the parents cannot distribute their attention equally, the children often get seized by spiritual forces beyond their control.




15 September, 2017

The Prashant Jha-CK.Lal Intellectual Industrial Complex

May 10, 2016

Prashant Jha, noted journalist who spends most of his time in Delhi, is often suspected by Nepali readers to be too close to India’s RAW, India’s external intelligence agency. This is not based on suspicion and paranoia but from intelligence gleaned from some of his columns, in which he’s written about the change of guards at RAW and shown an all too close familiarity with its upper echelons.

Mr. Jha, who regularly makes appearances at Nepali events in the USA, was a fellow at the Asia Society of New York, a visiting fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India (UPenn), and is a 2016 Poynter Fellow at Yale, recently put out an op-ed from the esteemed Hindusthan Times, in which he claimed several Chinamen were seen approaching various members of the Nepali political world, including Maoist leader Prachanda, telling them to desist from regime change, and to support Oli’s government. His May 10, 2016 article, titled “Chinese advice behind Prachanda’s U-turn on support to Nepal govt?”, seemed to be based on speculation and heresay more than facts, but this has never stopped the esteemed Mr. Jha from putting out an article from his newspaper, where he is now associate editor. Now this sort of interference would be a very unusual move indeed for the Chinese, who play no part in Nepal’s domestic politics, unlike the Indians who have been breathing down the necks of the Nepali politicians every hour and every minute since King Tribhuwan took refuge in their embassy in 2007 bikram sambat.

The ostensible reason for this alarmist P.Jha article, it appeared, was the fact the Chinese finally opened a train-link from China to Nepal. The train, carrying household goods, made its way to Nepal in 10 days—unlike the 45 days it took for Nepalese goods to reach the Indian seaport, according to the Chinese newspaper reports. This is the first time a train has linked China and Nepal, and it promises to open up the much delayed routes of trade and transit between the two countries.

To Mr. P Jha, who specializes in creating ripples of alarm in India’s South Block and uses that as his major modus operandi, the bogus Chinamen was a way of proving greater Chinese influence in Nepal’s politics, when in fact the event in question was less Machiavellian—a greater trade and transit linkage between Nepal and China, much delayed and much needed.

Of course this event would be cause for celebration for any Nepali who’d suffered the six month blockade in which India brutally cut off all gasoline supplies and other trade goods to Nepal. Coming shortly after the earthquake, the blockade brought Nepal to its economic knees, made inflation soar, and severely affected the 400,000 people who’d lost their homes but could not reconstruct due to lack of building supplies. The elderly and sick were also severely affected. Medicines, normally imported from India, ran out in the marketplace, and the lack of gas meant people not only had to live through 14 hour electrical loadshedding but also had no way to cook their meals. Nepali business have had to pay thousands of dollars in demurrage charges to the ports of Calcutta to hold their goods, adding to their losses. Surely any sane nation would try to ensure their citizens would never have to go through such a moment, ever again?

But to another scion of the Nepali intellectual world, this doesn’t even seemed to have registered on the radar. Noted journalist CK Lal, writing for Catch News, titles his article: “Nepal:India's emasculated responses have emboldened KP Oli.” In this article, seems to imply Nepal is only making ties with Beijing to pique India: no mention of the six-month Indian blockade that crippled the economy and devastated the process of recovery; no mention of the fact that India controls most of Nepal’s trade by holding its transit routes over Nepal’s head as a Sword of Damocles; no mention of why landlocked Nepal may want a second route other than India to the sea.

The distinguished and much revered journalist, who’s also done a stint at Yale University, chooses to use the word “emasculate,” usually used as a means of provocation and an incitement to violence, to describe India’s response to KP Oli’s government. Surely a more masculine response would entail more crushing force, in the same mode as the blockade? Is this what the noted journalist CK Lal is calling for?

And why would he assume that ties with Beijing would undermine Indo-Nepal bond? Why the sudden anxiety on the part of both Prashant Jha and CK Lal to bring up the “China bogeyman” to scare India, when its perfectly obvious to any neutral outsider that Nepal as a nation-state has to seek a second trade route, or perish from Indian suffocation? 

Here’s CK Lal’s understanding of Nepal’s Beijing ties:
Indians are perhaps correct in their assessment that the government under Premier Oli has taken up the task left incomplete by the ousted monarchy, which is to render the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, on which Indo-Nepal special relationship is based, superfluous. This can only be achieved through a slew of agreements and understanding with Beijing that look perfectly normal on surface but succeeds in undermining the spirit of longstanding Indo-Nepal bond.

Why would CK Lal assume that ties with Beijing would undermine the Indo-Nepal bond? Surely those are two bilateral relationships that are unrelated to each other? If India goes to Sri Lanka and makes some bilateral agreements on trade and transit, Nepal will not throw a fit of hysteria because its undermining the Indo-Nepal bond. So why should India act in this manner? 

Unfortunately there’s an army of people out there who subscribe to CK Lal’s absurd PEON theory, and who are willing to fight to prove this man, whose writings are very elegant but who often verges on the extremist spectrum, right.

Prashant Jha’s greatest contribution to Nepali history may not be his noted book on federalism, but his call in the Hindusthan Times for “overt and covert action” against Nepal, which was subsequently and coincidentally followed by the devastating blockade. While its hard to pin all blame on a single journalist for what may have been a geo-political event, I think its time for the intelligensia of both countries to examine how far journalism, in all its ethics-free form, may have incited a major breakdown of Nepal-India relations, one from which the two countries will take a very long time to recover.


03 January, 2017

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Nation Weekly magazine, Oct 17, 2004

Check out my article "Between A Rock and a Hard Place" about civilians caught in Nepal's conflict, from the 26th issue of Nation Weekly magazine. The magazine is archived at Digital Himalaya in Cambridge University.


23 October, 2016

Navaratri and Navagraha

The Annapurna Post asked me to contribute an article this Dashain. And since it was a day or so away from Navami, I decided to write this article. 

                                                                          ***

Navaratri is dedicated to nine forms of Goddess Durga, consort of Lord Shiva. She appears in different forms: as Shailaputri or daughter of the Himalayas on the first day of ghatasthapana; as virginal Brahmacharini on the second day; as Chandraghanta, wearing a crown made of the moon in the shape of a bell on her head on the third; as Kusmanda, the one who embodies the universe, on the fourth; as Skandamata, mother of Kartikya who slays demon Tarkasur, on the fifth day; as Katyayani, who slays the demon Mahisasur, on the sixth; as Kaalratri, who reminds us of the inevitability of time and death, on the seventh;  as Mahagauri, who removes all sins, on the eighth; and as Siddhidatri, or the one who bestows 26 forms of siddhi powers to her devotees, on the ninth. 

Siddhi powers are suprahuman powers acquired after sadhana, including meditation and yoga. According to the Bhagvata Purana, the five siddhis are: knowing the past, present and future; tolerance of heat, cold and other dualities; knowing the minds of others; being able to resist the influence of fire, poison, water etc; and remaining unconquered. Other secondary siddhis include: hearing things from far away; seeing things from far away; moving the body to a desired place; taking any form desired; entering the body of others; dying when one desires; and perfect accomplishment of one’s determination. 

 For modern Hindus whose practice of yoga takes place during an hour in the gym, and whose practice of meditation is confined to 10 days of vipassana with work colleagues in fancy locations, these siddhi powers can appear absurd, perhaps even juvenile.

The myths of Durga can also feel difficult to relate to, and without a clear connection to everyday life.  A theme does run through the nine stories—the Goddess doesn’t like those who oppress and torment, and she is ever ready to go out on her lion and tiger and bull to slay demons with her multiple arms. But how do we relate these fantastic events to our everyday lives, and how are her exploits relevant to this contemporary age and time?

Hindu texts and mantras, but most importantly ritual practice, give multiple answers. Just as worship of the Goddess can take different forms, from elementary daily puja, to advanced sadhana in which devotees chant complex mantras to transmute goddess energy into their own bodies, so to the meanings behind these various practices.

 For the jyotish amongst us (I happen to be a scholarly one), Navaratri is also associated with Navagrahas, or the nine astrological planets. Each Navaratri night, people worship one planet. So the puja may also propitiate Mars or Saturn, and not just awaken the Durgas or the chakras, as another bhakta, yogi or sadhak might be doing in another location.

As I walked through my neighborhood and noticed a young man polishing his sword outside the Dakshinkali Temple, it occurred to me the literal meanings—ritually slaughtering a goat to represent slaughter of demons—could obscure higher forms of practice. I admit meat, which I love, has become less palatable to me in recent days. Perhaps it’s antibiotics pumped into industrial factory animal carcasses, or perhaps it’s the hormones, but lately each time I eat meat I get horrific nightmares. This moving away from the gore-laden and stomach oriented aspect of Dashain has also forced me to think about what inner processes the slaughter could represent.

The most important process, I would guess, is the “killing” of negative qualities. Working outward from my jyotish knowledge, I correlate that each Navaratri night is associated with their own planetary negative qualities, and the Goddess would surely help to slay each one. When malefic, Mars stands for anger and violence, Saturn stands for breaking of niyama (because it is Saturn who helps with discipline, when well disposed), Jupiter can stand for both greed and wastefulness (because he is generosity personified when benefic), Mercury represents ignorance, Venus could mean excessive zeal and fanaticism towards ideology (when well disposed, Venus helps with devotion and bhakti), Sun could denote pride and ego, Moon could denote excessive attachment, Rahu is obsessiveness and insatiable ambition, and Ketu represents darker, underhand sides of life.

As a modern Hindu living in a globalized city like Kathmandu, I tend to think this reading of the Nine Nights makes the most sense to me: that we evoke the Goddess on each of these days and ask her to help slay these imbalances and bring our mind into equilibrium. Admittedly, my reading is colored by my Buddhist practice, where the balance of the mind is of primary importance. But in the absence of literal demons, perhaps this might be a good way to understand Navaratri, and the inner wars we have to go through with ourselves in life.

The descriptions of siddhi is from Wikipedia. You can read more here:

*Joshi is an Anthropologist and Writer

01 June, 2016

Forefront: A Network of Human Rights Advocates (2005 newsletter)

I spent a year in New York in 2001 interning with Forefront: A Network of Human Rights Advocates, an advocacy organization that was supported human rights advocates from developing countries. BASE, the organization at the forefront of eliminating bonded labor in Nepal, was one of their partners, and while I was there my job was to support its work. When Khum Bahadur Khadga, the then Home Minister, tried to strip BASE of its NGO status, I was the little intern behind the scenes who drafted the advocacy letter that was eventually signed by Jimmy Carter and sent via the Carter Center, asking the Nepal Government to restore BASE's legal status.

I put out this little bit of history in response to Diwakar Zha's article in Setopati, in which he seems to suggest I must be in favor of bonded labor because I critique the Human Rights Watch's biased report, in which they selective edit information to make it appear all those who oppose the "One Madhesh, One Pradesh" and support the Akhanda movement must be somehow in favor of bonded labor. This, I have pointed out, is wrong, and there are plenty of people who oppose the One Madhesh, One Pradesh and who support the Akhanda movement--and who also oppose bonded labor.

Here is the PDF of the 2005 Forefront newsletter. It also features an interview with the young Dilli Chowdhary.





23 May, 2016

The Constitution is Not a Magic Elixir



This is a followup to my previous article titled “Was the Human Rights Watch biased?” I’d like to thank Mr. Rob Penner for factchecking that article. And indeed there are factual errors: After watching Youtube videos and reading up on past articles, it appears the Andolan was in full force in August, most of the killings (47 killed according to commentators) occurred from August 10th onwards and was over by September, the Constitution was promulgated on September 20, and the blockade started September 23. So there were factual errors in my article, for which I take full responsibility. In my defense, I’d like to say I haven’t had access to a TV or even newspapers since April 25, 2015, and that I’ve been in and out of hospitals from multiple operations from a fractured foot and arm caused by the earthquake, and that my access to information is not as linear as it should be. I was wrong and I apologize for the confusion. 

However, the major points of my previous article still stands: the HRW report was biased in its language and perspective. It did not adequately reflect all the historical complexities of the conflict between the two sides. Most notably, it has erased the concerns of those who object to federalism with ethnic states, and it also fails to note that such a concern is valid, looking at it from the historical perspective in which Pahadis were asked to leave, through threats and intimidation, during the 2007 Madhesh Andolan. The Madhesh had already implemented a period of “ethnic cleansing” on the Pahahis. So it would make sense for those of Pahadi origins not to support an ethnic state dominated by Madeshi identity. Yet the HRW report pushes this idea favorably, selectively making it appear those who oppose this and propose a more integrated state are slaveholders, as evidenced in its paragraph saying Akhanda supporters are landlords holding bonded laborers.

In addition, it also uses biased language to describe the reactions of the two sides, potentially laying the ground for more conflict. Its graphic descriptions of what the police said to the protesters doesn’t give context that the police in Nepal have been documented to use verbal violence in the past, and continue to do so on all people, not just the Madhesis. After watching videos, I am not sure the protesters were not themselves using verbal violence on the police as well—the body language of the protesters is threatening, and there’s enough invective going around against the hill people (especially on social media, which Ms. Thapa fails to note) that the verbal violence probably went both ways. Policemen are often under resourced and at the forefront of violence: and there’s been enough mass attacks against the police in Nepal from 1996-2006, and now in 2015, for policemen to know their lives could be in danger at any instance. Youtube videos show chaotic crowds throwing stones at the police, who appear at times to be overwhelmed by the crowds of protesters. In other documentation, the police killings appear to be extrajudicial, with fleeing people shot in the back and one man shot while he was on the ground.  One is the need to ensure police don’t use violent force on demonstrators. But the other side of that is peaceful protest—protesters too should not attack policemen. Hundreds of young men throwing stones, and although I didn’t see this on video, there are some Tweets to suggest they were carrying burning sticks--is a time honored tradition of protest in Nepal, but perhaps in the era of peaceful protest the Nepal Government (and organizations like HRW) need to lay down terms for what “peaceful” actually means.

My main thesis still stands—I believe a report of this nature, brought out by an important international organization, can and most probably created more conflict by giving the protesters the moral legitimacy to continue on a violent course of action that severely impacted the humanitarian situation of the entire country for around six or seven months. An article about the earthquake in The Atlantic quotes one commentator who says 16 people of his village died of the cold in the winter of 2015, and it also notes that because of the blockade, building materials were in short supply. The link is pretty clear, and if this is the death toll of one village, added up the death toll due to the blockade must be in the hundreds across all the earthquake hit hill districts. I deliberately say seven months because even after India lifted the blockade, goods, including petrol and cooking gas, could not be found in Kathmandu, and no doubt the shortages persisted in the hills as well. In addition, it has also help close the door for any further discussion on ethnic-based states, making it appear that that’s the only officially sanctioned option.

The Oli Government has been clear on its stance on ethnic states. In an interview with the BBC, Oli himself says Nepal has 123 ethnicities, and its not possible to make a state for each one. The Madheshi activists, who are currently in Kathmandu, refuse whatever the Oli Government is offering, and the government keeps inviting them for talks, which do not occur, since both sides seem to refuse the other’s offer. The stalemate has been ongoing for a while, and doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Since federalism is a demand so closely tied to the new Constitution, this is not something both sides seem willing to give up on. Neither, however, do they seem to be able to come up with a mutually satisfactory solution. Nepali politics is adept at stonewalling, and this is something that could potentially continue for the next half century, in the manner of Burma, which is dealing with the exact same promise made of federalism to ethnic minorities, but which never came to fruition. It did, however, lay fertile ground for conflict for the next half century. The ethnic state federalism was dreamt up and promised by Maoists, who are currently not in power—Mr. Oli is from the UML party, and he seems happy enough to rise on the unexpected good fortune brought by both the earthquake and the blockade, which has allowed him to negotiate with China and open that border into Nepal for the first time. Mr. Oli also seems to have cooled towards India, and is engaging in major diplomacy with China, dreaming of big energy, infrastructure and trade exchanges with it. With China’s potential investment in the wings, India has been pushed out of the picture, which means the Madhesh and its politics have also slid into the background, for now.

With conflict exacerbating organizations like International Crisis Group insisting donors should not support local elections in Nepal, there’s now been a void in local administration and politics for almost 14 years. Prashant Jha, famous writer, is another advocate of nixing local elections, vocally insisting it should not happen. It seems to be, however, that a solution—and definitely more engaged community sense of ownership over government-- may arise if there is democractic elections and representation at the grassroots level, which at present doesn’t exist.

It is clear the opening up of democratic norms and values, but most notably migration to Gulf states, has really changed the socio-economic conditions of poor people in the Terai. Caste, gender and ethnic relations are all changing. There is no doubt there will be more vocal political engagement from young people at all levels. The Madhesh continues to be mired in old forms of social exploitations, however, including severe violations against women. There’s a resistance by Madhesi activists to look at how their own internal systems of discrimination and oppression might be holding them down, alongside Pahadi state domination. I do not necessarily think—I’m being hypothetical here—removing all the Pahadis from regional government and replacing them with Madhesis would solve all of the Terai’s issues (not advisable in a multi-ethnic community anyways). In fact, it might even make it worse for those of lower castes and for women, as the example of adjoining Bihar, whose ethnic composition the Madhesi community in Nepal mirrors closely, and where poverty and crime is at an all time high, shows.

I remember going to a lecture organized by Saubhagya Shah, a wonderful scholar and teacher who passed away a few years ago. Saubhagya had invited me to teach at the program on conflict, peace and development which he had started at Tribhuwan University. The speaker in question had come from a Northern European country—he was a famous peace advocate (if someone can remind me of his name again, I’d be most delighted). What I remember most clearly about that lecture is how the soft-spoken white haired gentleman warned the people in the audience not to put all their hopes and faith on the Constitution itself, as if it’s a magic elixir that cures all problems. The Constitution is just one single document, which democracy is bigger, a wide set of practices, institutions and behaviors that cannot be delivered through a single document. I remember this lecture very clearly, not only because it has proved prophetic over the years, but also because I think it remains relevant to this day. 

21 May, 2016

Was the Human Rights Watch report biased?


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One of the big arguments in Nepal recently has been whether a certain Mr. Rob Penner had been right in questioning a wide array of human rights activists, journalists and others about their observations that the Human Rights Watch’s 2015 report on Nepal was biased. In the view of his supporters, Mr. Rob Penner is above all criticism because he was on the side of human rights, and therefore it followed that everybody who questioned his methods must be on the wrong side of history.
But let's look at this a little bit more indepth.
Mr. Penner, “Chief Scientist” of Cloud Factory, an outsourcing company, took it upon himself to factcheck the logic and veracity of people questioning the neutrality of the Human Rights Watch Report. Titled “Like we are not Nepali,” the report at first hand is a well-written and well-researched report of human rights abuses by the security forces in the Southern part of Nepal, where a conflict started to emerge around August-September 2015, a few months after the big earthquake had hit Nepal and devastated many of the hill districts. It does what human rights reports are supposed to do – it interviews people and finds out the facts of each incident in which a violation occurred. Note this is not what the Pahadi observers had issues with—I think human rights defenders would be the first one to say this was absolutely necessary.
I think their reservations came from this: that in any conflict, there are two sides of the story. When the state goes in and starts to beat up innocent people and kill them, as happened in the Terai, they are often not doing that because they’ve gone beserk, but something else has triggered this action. That something else—which was the Madheshi Morcha leading a blockade which very soon turned into a very long and destructive blockade which completely shut down the country’s economic life for six months, including its access to cooking gas and medicines – should have received equal attention in the HRW report. And this, unfortunately, did not happen.
Tejashree Thapa, one of the lead writers of the report, answers in a Tweet to the query why HRW hasn’t dealt with the blockade: “We deal with rights violations, not politics. Blockade political issue.”
In every situation of human rights violations, there is a conflict between two or more parties which causes the violations to occur—these abuses are rarely one-sided. How can a report on a conflict which is spiraling out of control claim to do due justice to the situation without reporting on what the triggers and causes may be? And if that report only exhaustively and chillingly described those incidents which is suffered by one party, making it appear that the Nepali state had gone beserk for reasons more to do with Khas-Arya domination than anything else, could it potentially have acted to heighten tensions and lead to the Madeshi Morcha and Black Flag protesters the moral legitimacy to lengthen the blockade for six months? In other words, did the Human Rights Watch report exacerbate conflict—and were the Pahadi observers right in their statements that it was biased?
I’m not sure if I would violate UN confidentiality by sharing this story, but I felt the story below would illustrate what I’m trying to say.
In 2010, I was working for OHCHR in Nepal. My job was to write the narrative for the civil conflict violations report that was being compiled by the organization. The report itself was a mammoth task, and a team of us had been at work on this for a while, going through more than 15,000 human rights violations. Much of the primary data of abuse against individual cases had been collected by INSEC, the only NGO active in multiple districts, including Terai districts, at that time (INSEC is headed by Subodh Pyakurel, a human rights defender whose perception that the HRW report was biased Mr. Penner relentlessly tried to “Factcheck”.) My colleagues then entered them into a database, painstakingly, one by one. It was a wearying task, and I commend my colleagues who were in charge of going through each gruesome violation for months and months on end without losing their mental equilibrium. My task was to write the opening chapter, a historical overview of the conflict. I had a hard drive full of folders and files, with publications from various sources. I spent a great deal of time pouring over the available printed materials, despairing that I would ever be able to pull out a sparing narrative of how the conflict had unfolded. When I thought it was done, I handed it to my supervisor. I was sitting at my desk when he appeared and said sharply: “This is absolutely unacceptable!”
I looked at him in confusion. “Why?”
“It is completely biased!” he said, throwing down the file on my desk. I tried to think back to how he might have read it as a biased narrative. As far as I could tell, I’d done an absolutely neutral job of reportage.
“Biased? Biased towards who?” I asked. I thought he was accusing me of being soft on the state.
“Biased towards the Maoists, of course!” he said, then marched off.
I was confused. I tried to think back to why my report, carefully balanced, to the point where I was allocating one paragraph for each conflicting party, might have come across as biased. Then I realized that a researcher is only as good as his or her primary source material. In my case, almost all of the materials I had used in research had come from the Maoists, who had documented their People’s War in rich detail. Every single battle, every single ideological argument and policy, was documented in journals and publications. In addition, there were reportage from the field from insiders like Comrade Parvati and reporters like Li Onesto, who followed the Maoists to the battlefield and reported from there. In contrast, the state had almost nothing from its side—the Army did not put out detailed public information about its actions, and campaigns like Kilo Sera 2 are better known from the critiques done by the public than by the actual information from within the army. The police did not have public information about its campaigns during the conflict, or why it took decisions that it did. Since we were not doing primary interviews but working from printed materials already available, it meant my report had to be collated from already existing sources, which were heavily in favor of the Maoists.
Might this not have been the case of the Human Rights Watch report as well? It appears to me there is graphic detail of what happened to the innocent bystanders and protesters, but little information on why the state may have been compelled to take the action that it did. This seems to be due less to the availability of information from the state—Nepal has much easier access to state officials than during the conflict, and an interview could probably have been arranged with the police and government officials, upon request—than to the fact HRW simply didn’t think this was within its mandate.
So why did the state act in the way that it did? The action of the protesters, which seriously blocked the pipeline of food, cooking gas and medicine for the entire country, was a criminal act. But somehow the Nepali state could not or would not think of prosecuting those who were conducting the blockade. Why?  Was the state so weak it couldn’t enforce the law? Or is it that the blockades have been a time honored part of Nepali politics, and politicians have always been above the law in Nepal? Was Mr. Oli’s government simply too weak to enforce the rule of law on Mr Rajendra Mahato of the Madeshi Morcha—preferring instead to slide into extrajudicial police action to scare the protesters by killing innocent villagers and teenagers?
No analysis was done on how the killings in the Terai were triggered by the political action of the Morcha, including its decision to impose a destructive, human rights violating blockade on the entire country. But without this analysis, we are fated to repeat history. HRW reports selectively: the political context which led to the killings is explained as a result of the protests triggered against the Constitution, and demands for federalism, but it is mostly silent on the blockade. Its one paragraph on the blockade doesn’t examine how the shutdown of the border was a very deliberate strategy used as a pressure tactic by the Morcha to make their political demands on federalism met, putting the government in a very difficult situation as they tried to grapple with a law-and-order situation that didn’t have an easy solution.
Reading the report, one can come away thinking the state’s violent killings may be simply due to systematic racial discrimination of the Madheshis. If racial discrimination was the motive for state persecution, surely the state would have been doing that persistently and over a period of time (as in Sri Lanka or Palestine), not just in that specific timeframe? It is unquestionable that racial discrimination against Madeshis exist—but was that the reason why these specific killings occurred?
The HRW itself admits:
The first serious violence occurred on August 24, when Tharu protesters in Kailali attacked and killed eight police officers. An eighteen-month-old child was also killed. Violence then spread east to Madhesi-dominated areas, but in that ensuing violence almost all of the victims were members of the public killed by police.
This incident, which eeirely mirrored Maoist attacks on police during the civil conflict days, was obviously the trigger. Law and order had broken down, and the out-of-control police action that followed was a response to this attack. Clearly the police feared more attacks of this nature, and they systematically went about shooting citizens in a random manner, designed to evoke fear in the populace. But this rather critical point—that the state was responding to an attack on police that appeared to be co-ordinated and organized in a manner recognizable from the 1996-2006 civil conflict is not elaborated upon. The HRW report could be accused of the same “nebulousness” its critics were accused of.
Below is a paragraph from the HRW report:
The Kathmandu-based media has sometimes represented the current protests as animated by Madhesi communal anger toward people of hill origin.[11] Commentators have noted an outpouring of racial hostility toward Madhesis in the Kathmandu-centric social media since September 2015, partly focusing on alleged anti-Pahadi communal violence in the Terai.[12]
In this paragraph, the Kathmandu media is shown to have poured racial hostility towards Madeshis, but the “Communal anger” of the Madeshis is suggestively written up to be a fiction of the Kathmandu elite’s imagination. The anti-Pahadi communal violence is “alleged,” unlike the real violence experienced by the Madeshis. Perhaps Ms. Thapa wasn’t here long enough to document when Madeshi parties did hand out ultimatums to Pahadis to evacuate the Terai, nor was she there for the time when actual communities did get displaced from the Terai in a close approximation of ethnic cleansing of Pahadis. I remember leaflets handed out by these armed groups which ordered all Pahadis to leave the region. I remember relatives who did leave the Terai because the atmosphere of intimidation and threats had become all too common. Although this happened a few years ago when numerous armed groups were active in the Terai, yet this is part of the history of Pahadi-Madhesi relations—and one which I think would have been critical to include in the HRW report.
Ethnic cleansing is a loaded term—and before a legion of online activists start jumping on me questioning my veracity, I’d like to note it's not mine. HRW quotes a lot of impressive reports but fails to look up this one:
Nepal’s Terai: Constructing an Ethnic Conflict, by Jason Miklian. The report was published by the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO), Oslo.
Here is a quote from that report:
The anti-Pahadi fire stoked by the UDMF in grassroots supporters has manifested into action, resulting in calls for not only autonomy, but also secession and a Pahadi-free Terai. In response, ethnic cleansing of Pahadis by hardcore supporters has already begun in some parts of eastern Terai.39
The accompany footnote says:
39 Gellner, p. 1827, & Indo-Asian News Service, “400 Civil servants Quit in the Terai,” 7 November 2007.
The extent of this cleansing will be researched firsthand and reported in a forthcoming article.
This report also notes:
Madhesi leadership movement on structural issues in Nepal beyond identity and/or federalism will determine how serious they are about institutional change instead of their own legacies and coffers to consolidate personal power. Many Madhesi supporters were frustrated during the election, openly wondering why Madhesi parties seemed more interested in securing exclusive power in the Terai than ensuring a share of power in Kathmandu, lending credence to fears that secession is the final endgame of the UDMF.64 UDMF lionizing of the Madhesi brand threatensto increase violence and ethnic cleansing, and it will be tempting for UDMF leadership to scapegoat further to distract from a lack of real leadership or development in the area. At some point grassroots supporters may expect more than identity from their leadership, recognizing that the Madhes agenda is only a peripheral cover used to push personal and institutional goals. Further, demands of independence and cultural division can take a life of their own, as followers increasingly subscribe to the narratives politicians broadcast.
To return back to the HRW report’s reportage on the blockade:
Politicians in Kathmandu sought to blame India, claiming that India was unofficially imposing an economic blockade on Nepal in order to force constitutional change in line with the Madhesi demands. The Indian government denied this charge.
Politicians “Sought to blame India”? Isn’t the language rather tilted in favor of India, which undoubtedly had a significant hand in keeping the blockade in place for six months, despite its denial?
Penner’s army of supporters are convinced and vociferous that the Khas-Arya Kathmandu elites are nationalists against all freedom of speech and against all human rights. This narrative of evil Pahadis out to get the Madeshis hasn’t been effective in either furthering Madeshi rights or ending the “cold war” between the two sides. This narrative is also a bit of an irony, considering that individuals like Subodh Pyakurel spent a great part of their lives defending all victims of human rights violations, including the Madheshis, innocent bystander and leftist political activist alike, during the civil conflict and beyond. Incidentally, if it were not for people like Mr. Pyakurel, the violence of speech and verbal abuse noted by HRW about the Nepal Police would be much higher than it is now—unlike HRW, we’ve been around long enough to note that the Nepal Police (comprised of all hill ethnicities) uses verbal violence with racial connotations on not just Madeshis but the entire population, and this was a big part of the way they tried to control their opponents during the People’s War. In other words, HRW noted Madeshis felt targeted by the racist language used by the police, but failed to note this is a systematic problem—and not just one which singles out the Madeshis only—with the Nepal Police.
Oddly, for an organization that claims not to deal with political issues, HRW takes a very pronounced political stance on federalism. Those who demand a “Akhanda” state are depicted as landlords with bonded laborers—in other words, slaveholders.
The Tharus were opposed by the Akhanda Sudur Paschim (United Far West) movement, largely composed of people who live in Kailali and neighboring Kanchanpur district but whose origins lie in the hills to the north.[17] The Akhanda movement opposes dividing the hills from the plains in separate federal provinces. It enjoys powerful support from individual leaders in the largest three political parties, the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (UCPN-M) who come from the far west. Many leading members of the Akhanda movement are landlords, one of whom told Human Rights Watch that they are motivated by the fear that they may lose their property in Kailali if it is made part of a Tharu state.[18] The same Akhanda member also advocated for the reintroduction of the kamaiya system of hereditary debt bondage, a system frequently compared to slavery, in which many Tharus were constrained as bonded agricultural laborers until it was legally abolished in 2001.
To a casual reader of the HRW report who doesn’t know a lot about Nepal, the Akhandas might come across as very alarming right-wing bloc of slaveholders indeed. In fact, “Akhanda” just means “Undivided”, and it had mass support across the far-west, not just from those who were landlords and had bonded laborers, but also many ordinary and poor farmers who never held a bonded laborer in their life but feel strongly that the ethnic federalism, which would bring states like Tharuhat and the One Madhesh, One Pradhesh, would work to divide the country by dividing up the country along ethnic lines.
In the course of looking for justice, people demand the police involved be prosecuted. Should not the same demand apply also to the Morcha and its leaders for the blockade, for the very same reason we seek justice for the victims who were killed--that it may not happen again? The HRW report has a list of recommendations, which include 11 for the security forces and 2 for protesters, but it metes out different standards of accountability for the two parties.
These are the points for the government and security forces:
Issue clear instructions that anyone holding public office at any level who engages in hateful speech or incitement of serious crimes will face significant consequences, including investigations and dismissal from public office, and possible criminal prosecution if found to have incited crimes.
These are the points for protesters:
*Publicly call on all protesters to desist from violence and other crimes.
*Fully cooperate with the police and others in any criminal investigation into serious crimes.
HRW does not say: 
“Blockading food and medicine from a civil population of an entire country, especially during a humanitarian emergency, is a crime, and protesters should immediately cease all activities along the border which stop the flow of essential goods into the country.”
HRW does not say:
All protesters who blockaded the border and caused a humanitarian crisis immediately after the earthquake must be prosecuted and face significant consequences, including investigations and dismissal from public office, and possible criminal prosecution if found to have incited crimes.
Some NGOs like Human Rights Watch may feel conflict is an integral part of social change, and that it's not their job to end it. But I cannot help wondering if this logic is the twin of the American defense apparatus’s hegemonic need to create worldwide conflict. Whether this logic, in fact, is just another way to excuse a global industry of conflict, to which human rights organizations may be opportunitistically attached.
This also brings up the question of how fly-by-night human rights consultants may exacerbate conflict, not just in Nepal in this specific instance but also in other countries where a report of this nature, focusing on just one of the conflicting parties, could end up tilting a volatile situation, thereby fertilizing the field for more violations to occur.
I am urged by Twitter users to self-reflect on how wrong I was on Penner--but those people seem unwilling to engage in that same self-reflectivity. A blockade, especially when it targets an entire country and shuts off basics like food and medicine, is a grave and egregious human rights violation, whatever Human Rights Watch’s stance may be on it. While the Oli government was absolutely wrong in killing innocent bystanders in order to deal with the situation, this also doesn’t mean that those who imposed the blockade can escape their responsibility by claiming to be victims. If you look at the history of post-conflict justice, violators of human rights cannot escape justice simply by claiming they were marginalized and oppressed—if that were the case, most of the Maoists who are now regarded as candidates for war crimes would be able to go about their business as free men. The only reason why they (as well as those of state forces that participated in war crimes) always have to be on their guard, whether they migrate to Europe, USA or elsewhere, is that the arm of justice is long, and they could always be at risk of prosecution throughout their lives, as evidence from other countries where violators from half a century before have been prosecuted.
I am happy to report that the narrative of the civil conflict that I worked on at OHCHR was finished and edited by people more steeped in the culture of neutrality of the UN than myself, and I am convinced the report helped to end the conflict, and not to exacerbate it, in the future.
Without an open and honest debate on mistakes made on both sides, the conflict between the Pahad and the Madhesh will persist, and only get worse. 
RELATED DOCUMENTS: Like We Are Not Nepali, Human Rights Watch, October 2015: https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/10/16/we-are-not-nepali/protest-and-police-crackdown-terai-region-nepal
Nepal’s Terai: Constructing an Ethnic Conflict, by Jason Miklian.

- See more at: http://setopati.net/opinion/14166/Was-the-Human-Rights-Watch-report-biased?/#sthash.dmF4jw5u.dpufhttp://setopati.net/opinion/14166/Was-the-Human-Rights-Watch-report-biased?/