The regime in Kathmandu will need to suspend its triumphalism and realise that fooling people isn’t a sound strategy of either governing the country or doing diplomacy. The constitution was “fast-tracked”. There is no reason why amendments can’t also be.
Kathmandu: It is going to be the grimmest Dashain in the memory of post-1990 generation. Powerful earthquakes earlier this year killed over 9,000 people and perhaps no lamps will be lit this Diwali in the grieving households. Chhath Pooja will be subdued in Madhes, where over 40 protestors were shot dead by the police during the ongoing mass movement for civil rights and social justice. It’s the disruption of the normal Dashain, however, that will remain in the popular lore of the capital city for years to come.
Like in much of Jambudwip and Bharatvarsha of yore, Hindu festivals in Nepal depict the power plays of different varnas.
In the hierarchy of ceremonies, Guru Poornima ranks highest and is considered to be the day of the Brahmans – when priests and preceptors change sacred threads, tie sanctified cotton yarn on the wrist of their clients, and bless believers in expectation of considerations.
Tihar celebrations last five days and include the Festival of Lights – Deepawali. Vaishya householders do elaborate poojas to appease the Goddess of Wealth; and then feast thereafter in the name of social ceremonies such as the Bhatri Dwitiya, that bring brothers and sisters together for festive reunion.
During Chhath Pooja, everybody turns into a Shudra to worship the Mother of Life – Chhaith Maiya. It’s a festival of five eternal elements of nature – earth, fire, water, sky and ether – that celebrate the cycle of birth and death with brief interludes of joy, apathy, and grief in-between.
The autumn harvest festival of Dashain is dedicated to the Goddess of Power and is celebrated by warrior Kshatriyas with blood sacrifice. For cultural, historic and economic reasons, Dashain has remained the biggest annual festival of Nepal, celebrated with equal gusto by all the four varnas of the Hindu hierarchy. Monarchs represented the entire population of the kingdom; hence, Dashain was declared to be the national festival. Non-Hindus, atheists and agnostics mark it as a cultural fête.
After the ouster of the monarchy in 2008, Nepal formally became a federal democratic republic, but cultural practices persist despite political upheavals. The expression “Dashain hoina, Dasha” in Nepali is used to describe sufferings when mischance befalls instead of good fortune, as it has done this year in the form of a contested constitution that has wrought multiple crises.
During Dashain, Nepalese of all persuasions head home to be with their families. New clothes are bought. Ingredients for special dishes are arranged to last for a fortnight. The markets of Kathmandu used to be crowded prior to the festival with shoppers buying gifts before going on a long vacation. Seats in long distance buses used to be booked months in advance and airlines increased their flights to cope with the passenger load.
This year, everything is subdued. Asan and Indrachok, two of the busiest market streets in Kathmandu valley, are almost empty. Let alone buyers, even window-shoppers are few and far between at the fancy boutiques on Durbar Marg. Footfalls in the chain of Bhatbhateni superstores are negligible. Newly developed shopping malls appear desolate.
Buses plying between different cities didn’t open advance booking counters and airlines haven’t added flights. Many restaurants have put up signs that no food will be served due to scarcity of cooking gas. Diplomatic missions have issued advisories warning their citizens that travelling to Nepal is fraught with risks.
Kathmandu these days is a city of queues, where taxis wait for days to get a few litres of petrol. There is a mêlée near Balkhu, where cylinders of cooking gas are being made available by turn to consumers. Private vehicles are allowed to ply on the basis of their registration number alternately on odd and even days.
The city showed its survival instinct even at the height of the Gorkha Earthquake when people shared the grief and joy of each other in a stoic display of optimistic solidarity. Exasperation bordering on despair is the current mood inof Kathmandu. Nobody knows for sure why they have to endure all this.
In the Madhes plains along the 1,751 km-long open Indo-Nepal border, the situation is much worse.
Schools and shops have remained closed for almost two months. Businesses have been shut down. There is no transport. Grief and anxiety permeates the air as survivors of police atrocities struggle to cope with their loss. Prohibitory orders and curfew was common till few days ago. The army has been officially withdrawn, but paramilitary forces and riot police continue to patrol highways and streets throughout Madhes.
Protestors have found innovative ways to express their distress; some of the examples being the formation of lthe argest human chain in the world along the Hulaki Highway and the demonstration of a ‘live corpse’ lying in the middle of thoroughfares to represent the condition of common Madhesis.
All this is happening because of a statute that has deepened the longstanding divide between the Pahadi and Madhesi communities of Nepal like never before.
The permanent establishment of Nepal – what I call the PEON – in Kathmandu blames the “unofficial blockade” of the landlocked country for widespread distress in the daily life of the people. Protesting Madhesis claim responsibility for the blockages in supply lines due to their uninterrupted demonstrations at major entry points along the Indo-Nepal border. At the heart of both explanations lie contested provisions of a new constitution that was rushed through parliament by voice vote with the help of party whips and without any discussion on the floor of the house.
The charter has been doomed right from the start. If the damp Dashain is any indication, its implementation – without amending some of its fundamental features – is going to be fraught with unpredictable risks. Unfortunately, the chances of corrections in the constitution appear dim. A radical-right and ultra-left coalition has replaced the lackluster government of Sushil Koirala that reigned without governing the country. The newly-elected prime minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, will probably reign and rule but fail to govern all over again.
Opportunistic coalition of male, masale, mandale
In the hung parliament, the Nepali Congress is the biggest party. Its leader, Sushil Koirala headed a coalition with the second biggest group on the floor of the house – the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) until a week ago. After the promulgation of the new constitution, the two partners have parted company. Contesting against each other, the NC’s Koirala lost the race for premiership to Oli of the CPN (UML).
In order to prop up his government, Oli has joined hands with the Hindutva party of Kamal Thapa on the right and the Maoists led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ on the left. The rearguard support for the coalition comes from the Madhes-based outfit of Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar – a Tharu politico of fluid convictions.
Such a dodgy coalition – derided as a mix of Male (Stalinists), Masale (Maoists) and Mandale (Monarchists) – has nothing in common except their shared chauvinism, which portrays India as the main enemy and the Madhesis as Nepal’s fifth column. With the composition of a cabinet such as this, it’s extremely unlikely that Premier Oli will have the courage to amend the constitution and bring protesting Madhesis back into parliament before going for fresh elections.
Other than an agreement over distribution of posts, the unwieldy alliance has failed to prepare a common minimum program to address outstanding issues of political economy. After experiencing uncertainties of supplies through Kolkata port, investors will carefully weigh their options before making any commitments. Tourism has taken a hit at the beginning of what would have been the busiest season (September-November) for business. Production at industrial units has plummeted and distribution has been stalled due to fuel shortages and the resulting transportation hitches. The road to the resolution of all these issues passes through Madhes.
Since the conclusion and ratification of the Sugauli Treaty in 1814-16, the relationship with India has been one of the key elements of domestic politics in Nepal. Courting or cursing New Delhi according to one’s convenience has continued to be the favorite pastime of the power elite in Kathmandu ever since.
The exchange of pleasantries between prime ministers of both countries apart, there is little indication that the opportunistic alliance in government has a coherent India policy. Waving the China card to make fun of the discomfiture of Indian diplomats is all very well, but the reality is that Nepal’s northern neighbour can only be a supplementary partner and not an alternative to the multi-sector affiliations with New Delhi. Once again, the flawed constitution is perhaps an issue that has to be satisfactorily resolved to bring normalcy back into Indo-Nepal relations.
With issues so entangled between the PEON in Kathmandu, protestors in Madhes, and the power elite in New Delhi, the harder anyone tries to get out of the quagmire, the deeper they sink.
The economic crisis has begun to bite the regime in Kathmandu, but the new government lacks the political resolve to backtrack from its belligerent position. There is exasperation in Madhes after over two months of relentless protests, but cessation is not an option without extracting constitutional concessions from the regime. Perhaps there is considerable confusion in the power corridors of New Delhi too, which doesn’t know what to do with an internal conflict of Nepal that has sucked it in. No matter what it does, the charge will be that it has either not done enough or gone too far, depending upon interpretation. There is a reason the normally garrulous international community in Kathmandu has maintained a meaningful silence. Nobody knows what to do next.
Protestors in Madhes may find it unpalatable, but the constitution is already a fait accompli. It’s not possible to rescind the charter anymore. Amendments are the only way out of the bog. Since Madhesbadi parties have already participated in the constitutional process by voting for the main opposition party in the parliament – they backed Koirala over Oli in the vote for PM – they will have to convince the Nepali Congress and make a common cause with them for desired amendments. The implementation schedule of the agreement signed between the UML and Gachhedar’s party offers a window of opportunity.
The regime in Kathmandu will need to suspend its triumphalism and realise in all modesty that fooling people isn’t a sound strategy of either governing the country or doing diplomacy. The constitution was “fast-tracked”. There is no reason why amendments can’t be passed in a similar manner. The 10-day gap between Dashain and Tihar should be enough to ensure that the householder Vaishyas have enough reason to light lamps of hope during Deepawali.
Strange as it may seem, New Delhi’s options too are rather limited. It cannot be seen as constricting the flow of goods into what is an India-locked country for all practical purposes. However, it can’t shy away from potential conflicts along its long and open border either. Away from grandstanding, New Delhi will probably have to keep watch and maintain calibrated pressure to ensure that Nepal doesn’t fall into the abyss of intractable conflicts due to the shortsighted chauvinism of politicians in Kathmandu.
It is a bleak Dashain by all accounts. The possibility of a bright Tihar is still there. Living in Kathmandu makes one believe in the power of prayers.
C.K. Lal is a journalist and political commentator from Nepal