11 December, 2004

The Crossroads of our National Imagination

The state of conflict has become, for the nation, a state of mind
Nation Weekly Magazine, 2004

Nepalgunj has palm trees. It has good sekuwa, thought to be perfected with MSG. It has a “New Road” that is being constructed; massive concrete buildings going up within the space of a few years, occupied by people fleeing the conflict in the mid- and far-western districts. It has mosques with elaborate minarets next to gurudwaras and temples. It has businesses, from law firms to tire stores, named after Bageshwori, the patron goddess. It has a list of ethnic groups, not all of whom drink water from the homes of other groups. It has Abadi speakers and Urdu speakers. It has a pluralistic, multi-lingual, vibrant border culture that does not, by any stretch of the imagination, fit the confines of Nepal’s limited Constitution.

For a city that is so close and yet so excluded from the presently limited imaginings of the Nepali nation, Nepalgunj has a special fondness for national figures. Specifically, it has an embarrassingly rich series of “chowks”—an intersection with a statue in the middle—named after national figures past and present. The list goes like this: Tribhuwan Chowk, Mahendra Chowk, Birendra Chowk, Gyanendra Chowk, B.P Chowk, Ganeshman Chowk, Pushpalal Chowk. Gyanendra Chowk and Ganeshman Chowk are under construction. The rest are surrounded by stacks of sandbags against potential ambushes.

The first sight of the conflict is not the exodus of Nepalis who cross the border every day at Rupadiya—their numbers sometimes rising to 2,000 migrants a day as they flee the “one man from every home” rule of the Maoists—but the fortified statues.

The Nepalgunj resident skirts this fortified reminder of war every day as he goes to work in his horse-driven tonga and his bicycle. The statues are a little misshapen. Rumours claim that the Birendra statue-maker got scolded for making the statue a little smaller than life-size. Pushpalal’s statue looks like it’s made of plaster by an artist used to making Saraswoti statues that are submerged in the river during Saraswoti Puja. His fist is upraised in the traditional comrade salute, but apparently he’s not immune to violence: He receives the same sandbag protection as figures of other political persuasion. During the day, a bevy of soldiers lounge behind the sandbags, staring at each passing car with curious eyes. At other times, they chat with each other to pass time. Their helmets are tossed carelessly on the bags. Any passing rebel with a grenade could blow up the edifice within a few tragic seconds.

An intelligent observer might wonder why so much resource is being used to protect some rather poorly made statues. After all, should not those thousands of rupees be better served if they were directed towards the refugees living under plastic in nearby Kohalpur or to the Badi community that has yet to produce a member with a Bachelor’s degree? Would those funds be better served going to educate the children of two farmers whose wives were raped and drowned by security forces dressed up as Maoists or to the Mangta community that still, to this day, goes to Kathmandu and to other places in India to beg for a living six months of the year?

But the argument of this observer would be wrong. All nations need icons, national or otherwise. They need the signs and symbols of national integration. If integration has been suspended, and national disintegration has taken over, the need to construct iconic symbols becomes even more urgent. In Nepalgunj, one gets the feeling that every long-dead king, and every martyred leader, will soon have chowks constructed and named after him. From the speed at which the chowks are being constructed, there appears to be competition between different political forces to ensure that their particular history graces the streets. Never mind if the chowks already disorient traffic and cause confusion.

Nepalgunj’s crossroads allow a traveller to make multiple choices. Directly beyond the city boundaries are roads which do not provide the same choices and which are not as navigable. A few days ago, passenger buses carrying pilgrims were shot at by the Maoists, reported a newspaper. Helicopters hovered over the city all afternoon long. Children are reported to be laying landmines on the Mahendra Highway. Black lines of defused ambushes cut through the roads. Travellers go through India to get to other border districts like Kailali to avoid blockades and crossfire.

Government employees cluster within the city and fear to go beyond the Rapti River. Beyond the river is unknown territory controlled by the Maoists. Everybody from the CDO’s office to the police, from the land revenue office to the forestry office, has not crossed the river in a few years. The void left by the abrupt departure of all elected officials and state agencies is felt most keenly by those who were receiving benefits, no matter how small, from the government and non-governmental offices. Programs from education to childcare have stopped as INGOs withdraw. Birth and death have become impossible to register as all grassroots-elected representatives withdraw to the city or flee to India. Marriage certificates and citizenship papers, registered at the CDO’s office, are in arrears as people disappear into India for months and sometimes years, often coming back to claim their papers after a period of time has elapsed. The buying and selling of land has also stalled. Land disputes are now settled at the local levels, increasingly by the Maoist “People’s Court,” the Jana Adalat.

For some actors within the most marginalized communities, conflict has sometimes brought odd windfalls. Take the Magta, traditional supplicants from Banke who put a big earthen container of rice in front of their windowless huts to “lock” it up and leave for six months every year to beg for a living. Both security forces and Maoists avoid their village, although the Maoists did blow up the police post as they passed through. For the men, the removal of the police force is a blessed relief. They no longer get beaten up. Dispute resolution has gone back to a traditional system. Men get together, fine the perpetrator of petty quarrels Rs. 10, and then spend the money collected on an all-male feast with drinks and pork. The women mourn those rosy, long gone days when a marital dispute involving domestic violence could be reported at the police station. They complain that they are not heard by the traditional council. It’s not all a big party, however: The men, who used to work as rickshaw drivers and worked till 10 at night, now have to leave by 7 p.m. The number of working hours has lessened, and so have their earnings.

The Badi too face pressure. Considered the lowest of the 23 dalit groups, the Badi fail to feature in most government policies and literature. They are outside the national imagination. At the local level, however, the police are all too aware of their presence. All Badi women are perceived to be involved in the sex trade, even though 60 percent of them now work in other areas. Police harassment and torture, along with police patronage of the sex trade, is common. The Maoists have also told them to get out of the sex trade. Caught in the crossfire, many Badi women from rural areas have fled to India, where nobody stigmatizes them for their caste or occupation.

This state of conflict has become, for the nation, a state of mind. For a tailor living in Nepalgunj, this state of mind is omnipresent. After the Maoists made him and his family leave their home in a mid-western hill district (one of his sons was a policeman, and this did not please the rebels), he migrated to Tarai. A loan from a kind clothes-seller, and 10 years of work, allowed him to build another home on ailani (government) land in Nepalgunj. A few years later, his younger son was taken by the security forces as a Maoist. The irony here is that the same son had run away from the Maoists, who had abducted him and made him do forced labor for six months. The tailor, for the second time, was told to leave his home by the Maoists—this time because they thought the detained son might give out information. The family is currently in hiding. The couple do not sleep at night—one of them always remains awake to keep guard. Sleep is a small sacrifice for these two who have seen their lives broken up too many times.

Keeping guard has become our national burden as Nepal tries to steer her way out of two armed forces. As we return to the city from the village in the gathering dusk, we notice that the statues and the chowks have been abandoned to the protection of the sandbags. All the young security guards are gone. Thankfully, some responsible leader in the Unified Command has decided the life of a human being is more important than a statue. In these times, night could mean potential death for a young man left alone to protect an icon of stone. Our car swerves to avoid a madman squatting and throwing stones from the middle of an empty road. A ghostly—and in the darkness, unidentifiable—statue rises behind him.

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