recently returned from Kathmandu where I was attending a ten-day
workshop on non-traditional sources of conflict. I have never
been a fan of parachute journalism -- the practice of dropping
into some hot-spot and asking a few cursory questions before
writing up one's observations with great elan and authority
-- but do think that I saw enough in my twelve days there
that a personal account of what I learned about life in Nepal
might be useful to readers here in Bangladesh.
day before I arrived in Kathmandu, the city had been shut
down for two days by the Maoists and I was interested to see
what kind of atmosphere prevailed in a country that from media
accounts essentially seemed to be in the midst of a civil
told me that the bandhs called by the Maoists are obeyed by
the general public as no one dares defy them. However, there
were no bandhs during the time I was in Kathmandu and things
seemed peaceful enough.
there were army checkpoints everywhere and I was stopped on
a number of occasions. But unlike in Dhaka, I was never made
to get out of the car or searched, and the security did not
seem much more intrusive than what we face here at home.
couldn't tell for sure, but it did seem that tourism was light.
The hotel at which the workshop was being held was sparsely
populated and the crowds at the historical sites and tourist
spots seemed to be pretty thin too. One presentation at the
workshop estimated that tourism had been cut in half by the
insurgency with a cost to the Nepali economy of roughly $200
of the foreigners I met spoke of emergency evacuation plans
put in place by their embassies, but no one seemed particularly
worried and the atmosphere seemed fairly calm.
should of course be mentioned that this is only Kathmandu
that I am speaking of, and that things could be, and by most
accounts are, very different outside the city. There are villages
in Nepal which are a week's walk from the nearest paved road
and so it is easy to see that life in the relatively prosperous
Kathmandu valley is hardly representative of life in the country
as a whole.
room-mate for the duration of the work-shop was a Nepali student
pursuing his doctoral thesis at JNU in Delhi. He was a very
interesting man with a lot of insight into the political situation
in the country.
didn't think much of the Maoists -- indeed I couldn't find
a single Nepali who had much good to say about them. But he
did see them as legitimate insurgents and didn't like the
label "terrorist" to be applied to them.
in fact, was the default position of most of the Nepalis I
came into contact with -- most made it clear that they did
not support either the goals or the means of the Maoists --
but they were hesitant to condemn them outright.
room-mate, when asked how the Maoists would fare in democratic
elections, straight-forwardly told me that they had perpetrated
too many atrocities to ever gain the affection of the general
public -- but intimated that the situation was complicated
and that many of their grievances were legitimate.
told me that he was interested in establishing a republican
form of government in Nepal and told me all about the ethnic
conflicts in the country. He was a member of the Madhesi community
from the Tarai region of Nepal, and before meeting him I didn't
know that 50 per cent of the Nepali population were from the
plains and ethnically more similar to North Indians than the
hill people who dominate Nepali society and government.
made the point that the Maoists are just one of many disaffected
groups in Nepal and that ethnic, regional, and caste tensions
were all simmering beneath the surface. So the problem is
not just the Maoists.
presentations on Nepal that I attended at the work-shop were
very interesting and helped fill in a lot of the gaps.
found one presentation by Prof. Dhruba Kumar, a senior research
scholar at Tribhuvan University, to be particularly compelling.
Kumar made a convincing case that the Maoist insurgency was
not a product of marginalisation and deprivation. He pointed
out that the Maoists are not active in the least developed
regions of Nepal as one would have thought would be the case
if the insurgency was a response to poverty and oppression.
further pointed out that the Maoists came to prominence after
the democratic reforms of the 1990s and that had the insurgency
been a reaction to marginalisation, destitution, and lack
of democracy, that it could have been expected to have happened
Kumar opined that the best way to understand the Maoists is
to see them as rebelling against both the monarchy and democracy.
He suggests that their marginalisation (which led to their
subsequent call to arms) had come at the hands of the other
left parties in Nepal and not the state.
days is hardly any time at all and I don't presume to have
gained any great insight into Nepali society or politics in
my brief time there.
you cannot spend some time in Nepal without feeling something
for the people of that beautiful country.
the one hand they are stuck in monarchy that has neglected
their needs and aspirations and created a society that is
strikingly stratified and unequal -- even for South Asia.
I heard horror stories of the crown prince and his drunken
excesses, and nobody seems to be looking forward to his ascension
to the throne.
the other hand they are faced with a brutal and bloody insurgency
which has long ago decided that it is not interested in winning
the hearts and minds of the population, but will achieve its
aims through fear and intimidation.
in the middle are the Nepali people -- struggling to get ahead
-- with dreams of democracy and self-determination and development
Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004