BEHIND THE SMOKE SCREEN
Despite Nepal’s stiff resistance, the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva last week issued a binding statement, asking Nepal to accept international monitoring of its human rights situation. But the bigger question is whether Nepal is keen about improving its poor human rights record
BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, April 26, 2004
26 April, 2004
A LABORATORY KNOWN AS EVEREST
BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, April 26, 2004
|On The Road With The Red God |
Kesang Tseten’s new film captures both the Rato Machhindranath festival and the preprations accompanying the grand event in a blow-by-blow rendition
BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, August 26, 2004
The sight of a priest proudly display- ing a tiny vest at the Rato Machhindranath festival has been etched into our national consciousness. “On the road with the Red God: Machhindranath” is a film recently made by Kesang Tseten. Tseten takes 110 hours of footage of various acts of human ingenuity and devotion to what seems like a lost cause—namely, the construction of an unwieldy 100 foot chariot that gets tangled up in the electric wires of Patan and tilts drunkenly as it is dragged and pushed and pulled by enthusiasts across flood-washed roads every 12 years, and where men get roaring drunk and get into fights all the way from Bungmati to Patan, and then repeat the process all the way back.
Behind the vest rests a red god, known as the Rato Machhindranath. This is the divinity worthy of all that work—painters, artisans, rope-makers and carpenters donate days of working hours to build him that sky-high vehicle. Thought to be a manifestation of Avalokiteswor, the Buddha of Compassion by some, and Shiva by others, the Rato Machhindranath enjoy a popular following. While we have all seen this god in one form or another—postcard, photograph, television appearance—what is not clear to most Valley residents is why this god in general, and his festival in particular, took on such national significance.
Tseten’s film, by carefully documenting the entire process from the beginning, brings us a rare behind-the-scene glimpse of a production involving uncountable actors and decision-makers, from the guthis of Bungmati and Patan to the hundreds of people who materialize to drag the chariot back and forth between the two cities.
The festival can appear, on first sight, to be a classic excuse to get drunk and get into a good fight. Buff young men fight each other to get on the prow-shaped steering brake. The ousted men are unceremoniously pulled off. Acrimonious exchanges involving everything from the division of meat to the dogs to assigning blame for the tilting of the chariot is apparent. Scenes of conflict abound, and after a while you begin to wonder how people even manage to get that goddamn chariot upright, let alone drag it all the way from Bungmati to Patan.
If the chariot falls down and touches the ground, bad things happen. Kings can die, royal families can get massacred, and the guthi people can mysteriously get sick and die in mass numbers. The chariot has to be rebuilt anew in the event of such a calamity. So there rests a level of national responsibility amongst all the people involved in the venture. Some measure of co-operation amongst all the different people—from the men who run alongside and swiftly put a piece of wood in between the wooden wheels to brake the momentum, to the men perched on top who give the navigational directions, to the buff young men doing the steering, to the hundreds of volunteers who pull the ropes—has to exist. And don’t forget the women who brew all that potent alcohol.
After a while, the seeming chaos and loose organization take on a logic of their own. In spite of the overt conflict, which gets hashed out at every level, it’s apparent that the co-operative nature of Newari society remains the core spirit that guides the enterprise. While it started out as a local Newari festival, the discourse on the streets makes it clear that all Nepalis think of the festival as their own. When the chariot finally makes it into Jawalakhel, the level of mass participation and work involved in the process comes to fruition. When the priest takes out that tiny vest and displays it so proudly to the country, he is not just taking out a medieval garment—he is also taking out the symbol of a process in which, in spite of the conflict that exists at every level of society, the spirit of co-operation has again triumphed over small differences and created a structure in which such a mind-bogglingly complicated event could take place.
In both a literal and a symbolic level, the festival is an analogy of any large structure, i.e., our nation-state. Conflict exists at all levels in every organization. The trick is to find a way to resolve it without major calamity. Tseten, by actively editing footage to show the reality of conflict and its day-to-day resolution, follows more than a chariot. He is following the god behind that vest—the god of compassion that can allow a society made up of diverse and heterogeneous groups of people to come together and work on a national project without getting crushed.
(Writers note: This review was written after watching the first or second edit of "Red God". The documentary was then edited several times since then, and has taken a completely new form. Apologies if it misleads the reader and documentary watcher--but as with all works of art, I think its interesting to see all steps of the creation.)
05 April, 2004
One hundred and fifty-five teachers have died at the hands of Maoists and Royal Nepal Army since the conflict began, a recent estimate by the Nepal Teachers Association states. Ganesh Chiluwal, head of the Maoist Victims’ Association, recently killed by Maoists in retaliation for his activism against their violence, reported 250 deaths of teachers. The numbers are probably much higher, according to observers.
On February 23, Maoist rebels abducted 44 teachers from Triveni Secondary School in Kailali district, according to the Rajdhani Dainik. The teachers were from 11 different schools, and were attending a training conducted by the District Education Office. “No one knows where the teachers are now…,” a resident said. The District Police Office has denied knowledge of the incident. Bir Bahadur Rana, District Superintendent of Police, said as late as Monday evening, “We do not know anything about the incident yet.”
The abductions may have been done to retaliate against the agreement the teachers signed with the Ministry of Education (MoE) on the same day. Five teachers’ organizations stopped their 11 month long agitation after signing a 12 point agreement with the Ministry of Education and Sports in which the government agreed to provide compensation to teachers who have been victimized, injured or killed due to the insurgency.
Teachers nationwide were on strike for 11 months, threatening not to take part in the SLC examinations if their demands were not taken into account. Security was their second-most urgent demand. All violence, murders, abductions, arrests and disappearances of teachers must cease immediately, the second point of their list of demands stated.
Bishnuprasad Adhikari, chairman of the Nepal Teachers Association from the central region, says: “The government compensates for accidental death, but not for murder. This is ridiculous. We ask that families of teachers who have been killed get compensated the same as other national workers. A tenured teacher gets insurance, plus health benefits and money for educating up to two children. These benefits should continue for the families of teachers killed in the conflict.”
The families of teachers murdered inside their homes have a difficult time certifying that their relatives were killed in the conflict. Police are often unavailable to record these deaths.
“Teachers like us need a visa to go from one village to another,” says Gehendra Raj Bista, a former headmaster of Bhawani Higher Secondary School, Paluntar, Gorkha. Mr. Bista, who taught math and science for thirty years, has dark shadows under his eyes, and looks on edge as he talks. “The Maoists came in and asked me to give fifty percent of my teachers’ salary to them. I might be able to give them fifty percent of my salary, but the entire staff’s would be around fifty thousand. So I left the village.”
Mr. Bista, who lives in the Terai now, says his brother, who was a VDC chairman, was also killed, along with a science teacher, in retaliation for three Maoists killed by the Army in the same village. The headmaster was injured in the same attack, but escaped with light wounds.
Why are teachers, public servants who usually command the highest respect, getting targeted by both sides? As the most literate and intellectual members of a village, they are suspected of being spies by Maoists, and of sympathizing with the Maoists by the Army. Schools, the location where knowledge and ideology are transmitted, often become the battleground.
Maoists recently abducted an entire schoolful of students and teachers to attend their program in Rolpa. Maoists also ask that the schools be run according to their own schedules and curricula, overriding government ones. They also ask for donations, taxes and levies, all of which can often add up to 60% of the teachers’ modest salaries. Teachers, caught in areas where there is no government presence, are forced to follow the Maoist guidelines, leaving them vulnerable to action by security forces.
Many teachers, forced out of their villages, have become internal refugees working in the capital or district centers. According to the NTA, there are 45 such teachers in Kathmandu. That number, again, is probably much higher than recorded.
Surprisingly, security was only the second-most urgent demand on the teachers’ list. The first asked that teachers working on a temporary contract for the last four years be hired as permanent teachers.
There are 28,000 teachers on a temporary contract in Nepal. Their appointment, renewed every six months, entitles them to a lower salary than the permanent hires, and none of the benefits. The process to get hired permanently requires passing an exam given by the Sichak Seva Aayog. The last exam for this purpose was held 8 years ago in 2052. The results were only announced this year.
Why are so many teachers being kept on a temporary contract? Some of it has to do with teaching qualifications. A man with a B.Sc degree is now asked to get certified. “If this continues, there will be a crisis in science teaching,” warns Bista, who says the unnecessarily beaureacratic procedure of asking teachers for teaching certificates hampers the recruitment of qualified people. Teachers who are retiring are finding out they might not get their hard-earned pensions because they are missing this certification.
Kesav Prasad Bhattarai, chairman of the Nepal Teachers Association, disagrees. “All teachers should be trained in the methodology of teaching.”
The government has also asked teachers’ to stop their political activities within the school. “Why can’t teachers have a political party for whom they vote for? That’s their right,” argues Bhattarai. There’s another side to this story, however. Teaching has come to known as a training ground for future politicians. “In Tanahun, people say that teaching for a year is the best way to get into politics. Teachers will get the support of all their students, and will be sure to win an election,” says a source. Prominent leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel and Govinda Raj Joshi all started out as teachers.
Politics rears its head again in the debate about handing schools over to communities. Even the teachers themselves admit that handing over schools to communities, as a possibility being considered by the government, would be a disaster. Schools would get taken over by the political faction currently in power, turning schools into mini-political battlefields where teachers would get hired and fired at the will of the ruling party. “If the Congress are in a majority, the Communists would not participate,” Adhikari says.
“Schools are a national responsibility,” says Gehendra Raj Bista. “Its okay to have community and private schools in Kathmandu, but you can’t have the same in Rukum and Rolpa.”
“The government said: Education for all. It committed to a free education for all till class 8. Now it’s trying to renege on its commitment,” says Bishnuprasad Adhikari. Adhikari is headmaster of Gyanodaya Public School, one of the most well-respected public schools in Kathmandu.
“There’s a lot of weaknesses in our public institutions,” says Bhattarai. “There are weaknesses in teachers, schools and our nation itself. But this does not mean we should let go of them.” Pointing to academic institutions like Pashupati, Shivapuri and Gyanodaya schools, along with the famed engineering campus in Pulchowk, which continue to attract top students, Bhattarai says, “We should strengthen our public institutions, not give up on them.”
The government, rather surprisingly, unconditionally agreed to meet all of the teachers’ demands. Teacher unions and the MoE have agreed to fill 50 percent of vacancies in schools through competition among temporary teachers, and the rest through open competition. This prompt response from the government may have to do with the upcoming SLC exams, which would be postponed indefinitely if the strike were to continue. Whether the government intends to keep fast on its promises remains to be seen. In the meantime, the 44 teachers from Kailali are still unaccounted for. If and when they return, there will not be welcomed with arches but by interrogation from the security forces.