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.

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13 May, 2016

Unbalanced Acts: Robert Penner and his acrimonious activism

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Rob Penner, Canadian national, who noted his position as “chief scientist” at the outsourcing company Cloud Factory, has become the faultline of a bitter public divide on Nepal. The Nepal government deported him in early May, giving him two days notice to pack up. The ostensible reason was immigration violation, and disturbing social harmony.
A slew of international op-eds in support of Mr. Penner immediately followed from the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, as well as Human Rights Watch. He became a bit of a hero on social media, although there were also equal numbers of detractors noting that he went from “Zero to Hero,” in the manner of C.K Raut and Angkaaji Sherpa, two other individuals who’d come to prominence after advocating for radical solutions to Nepali problems.
His supporters say he was a great advocate of the Madheshi movement and therefore of human rights, his actions online were impeccable and only shows good judgment, and that all of his detractors are ugly right-wing Ann Coulters and Trumps of Nepal. His detractors say he was an online troll, and that he heavily pursued high profile reporters, journalists and editors online and behaved in a way that crossed the barrier from free speech to harassment.
The two sides accuse each other of horrible crimes—the former accusing the latter of being repressive to freedom of speech and reverting back to old style Panchayat politics, the latter accuse the former of being liberals who supported unbalanced reporters of international media who pushed the country into a bitter conflagration between Pahad-Madesh that eventually led to the Indian blockade on Nepal.
The facts stand like this: Mr. Penner, who’d been in Nepal for three and a half years, seems to have developed a great sympathy for the Madhesh movement. He took pride in his ability to respond in fluent colloquial Nepali on Twitter (with some suspicions that his colleagues at Cloud Factory were the ones who were giving him that fluency.) As the Madhesh movement became more heated, Mr. Penner started to become more vocal and started to pursue journalists and human rights activists more relentlessly, asking them to clarify what they meant when they posted on their Twitter timeline.
At a certain point, his exercise of free speech then turned into an exercise in online harassment, with multiple journalists blocking him from their accounts. A female journalist was pursued in this manner for months, not just by Mr. Penner but also his sympathizers, who also put up a false account to mock her.
Here’s a simple example: Mr. Penner, who did not seem immune to his multiple privileges as a white man, demanded to know why only one, and not both, of his comments had been posted on an article on the Nepali Times website. His outrage about his deleted comment turned into a tirade that was witnessed by many people on Twitter. When he did not get an answer, he then contacted Kunda Dixit, editor, directly, demanding an answer.
While this in itself is not illegal, it gives a hint to the level at which he felt entitled to speaking his mind—overlooking house rules and basic norms of courtesy. Perhaps the Nepali Times edits comments for clarity, or it doesn’t allow more than one comment per responder. Whatever the case might have been, for Mr. Penner this event turned into a major opportunity to question the professionalism of the newspaper itself. Would Mr. Penner have felt at ease doing this to the New York Times or the Globe and Mail?
(Full disclosure: in the above mentioned incident, Mr. Penner then got into a conflict with me and blocked me, saying I was a troll. I had since that moment also blocked him and had no more notice of his escapades till the deportation notice caught my eye.)
But Mr. Penner magnum opus—the “factchecking” of the Human Rights Report-- was yet to come. Around September 2015, Human Rights Watch put out a report about the violence in the Madesh, titled: “Like we are not Nepalis”. Many human rights activists within Nepal felt the report was poorly researched and biased, and that it had been written up with two (or perhaps more likely only one) high profile and politicized journalist acting as its primary source.
Mr. Subodh Pyakurel, head of INSEC, a well respected human rights organization that was one of the few organizations to be active in the Terai during the 1996-2006 civil conflict, was one of the responders who commented on this report. Mr. Penner, in the manner of a computer programmer checking errors in code, then went on a line-by-line factchecking spree in which he attacked all comments which said the report was unfair. Instead of trying to find out why people thought it was unfair, he systematically took apart their words, and went into the report to find instances where they could be contradicted.
Just one example: Mr. Pyakurel notes the violence against the police, which led to the backlash and subsequent state violence against protesters, seemed to be poorly documented. He cites the case of a policeman who gets concussion, and says this has been erased from the report. Robert Penner points out that in fact the concussion is well documented—in a footnote that links to the Kathmandu Post article about concussion. Did you not read the footnote? He asks. This is just one example of the kind of nitty-gritty fact-checking which only served to obfuscate the larger debate, which was whether the Human Rights Report was biased or not.
Mr. Penner’s tactics to shut-up the criticism of the human rights community against a general and broad sense the Human Rights Watch report was biased only worked to fuel more conflict. What Mr. Penner missed in this evangelical mission to prove the elites of Kathmandu wrong is that many major human rights institutions which have a presence in the Terai and will continue to work long after he’s gone come from Kathmandu based Pahadi individuals like Mr. Subodh Pyakurel, and that far from being the malevolent and right-wing institutions he was trying to prove them to be, they are instrumental in keeping the norms of human rights alive all over the country.
Mr. Penner's goals seem to be simple—to get justice for Madeshis who suffered during the violence in 2015. But, not only did he try to ratchet up the tension between the two communities, and lead to more conflict, he also seems to have given the Black Flag supporters a sense of international immunity which emboldened them to ask for Indian support for a blockade—a five month long blockade whose severity and economic effects on the country was devastating, especially since it came directly after an earthquake that has destroyed 400,000 homes and injured 22,000 people. The blockade’s effect on Nepal, including collateral deaths from the cold and shortages, cannot be computed with the methods used by Mr. Penner, because he was using quantitative methods to deal with qualitative issues.
Mr. Penner did leave under a blaze of glory (which, one suspects, was always one of his aims). Dipendra Jha, his lawyer, then tried to get the Supreme Court to overrule the decision to deport him—the Supreme Court responded within 24 hours, unheard of in the case of any other Nepali citizen. Obviously he had more access to the elite institutions of justice than any Nepali could ever dream of.
The Supreme Court, to its credit, eventually postponed this meeting. Mr. Penner did leave the country (And Canada did not threaten to pull out its aid, either). What was interesting was the speed with which Mr. Dipendra Jha, his lawyer, was able to mobilize the Supreme Court on this case—my research tells me the Supreme Court is heavily backlogged for years on end, and most Nepalis end up dying before the SC notice comes to them.
The fact that Mr. Penner was able to access the highest court of justice in the nation within 24 hours shows that he wasn’t removed from the corridors of power (photographs have surfaced showing Mr. Penner with Rambaran Yadav, the President of Nepal), and that indeed his supporters’ laments that he was not treated like a Nepali national, and that he did not have access to the same freedom of speech as a Nepali, is disingenuous. Not to mention the fact his drinking buddies have all been up in arms in social media in defense of him—no doubt in person Mr. Penner is a rather sweet and gentle soul, judging from his photograph.
Should Mr. Penner have been deported? I cannot answer this question. What worries me is how polarized the supposedly democratic discourse in this country has become, in the manner of the American hemisphere. There seems to be a substantive group of people who’ve returned from the USA or other Western countries, well versed in the latest lingo, very willing to play the kind of hair-trigger, lets-take-offense leftist politics which is all very well in America, but doesn’t work as well in Nepal where that sort of active polarization could lead to real civil war and multiple deaths. The Oli Government nearly mobilized the army during November 2015, when the violence appeared to be out of control—if that had happened, Nepal would have slid into a low intensity conflict and the death count in the Terai would have been in the thousands.
What shocked me was how high profile commentators of Nepal, well regarded and with big followings on social media, seemed willing to egg people onto this trigger-point of mass conflict, using provocative words and language, using ethnicity and regionalism as divisive methods, instead of getting them to pull back. I could not wonder if these expat Nepalis were more concerned about their public profiles, careers and their salaries, which is dependent upon their liberal credentials, than they were about the possibility of immediate conflict in Nepal. High profile journalists working in international media and reporting on Nepal have also upped this sort of polarizing debates, which is in part (if not in full) responsible for the eventual blockade that India put on Nepal.
More than whether the free speech of a Canadian with uber privileges and multiple media connections was violated by the Nepali state, I think the question is more about how the human rights community is developing in contemporary Nepal. Should journalists and human rights organizations like HRW be held more to account if they bring out unbalanced reports? Should they be asked to go back and analyze their actions—and whether those actions led to more conflict? Did unbalanced journalism lead to the blockade? Do the Kathmandu dailies only give voice to the extremists and not the moderates of the Terai?
At present, the more shrill you are in liberal discourse, the more likely you are to be rewarded by institutions of higher learning with accolades and distinctions. But nobody is willing to analyze whether those actions in fact had real consequences on real people—including 30 million Nepalese who suffered during the blockade.
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