Friday, April 21, 2006

Crackdown Town

-BLOG IN PROGRESS-I am blogging from Laxman Jhula in Uttaranchal, trying to sort out what is and isn't happening in Kathmandu.

"History. We won't know... we'll all be dead." - George W. Bush to Bob Woodward, 2005

It occurred to me that His Majesty Gyanendra and GWB have a lot in common - unelected (or quasi-elected) despots fighting losing wars. ("Cheney Declares, 'War Going Very Well in Alternate Universe.'") Much like Dubya, HMG somehow manages to ignore thousands marching in protest in the streets to declare "Mission Accomplished." His national address a few weeks ago never even made mention of the Maoists, who've been garnering credibility by actually sticking to their promises (maintaining unilateral cease-fires, initiating dialogue with the political parties - this, in between kidnapping rural children for their army, abducting noncompliant villagers, among other things).

When your government makes even the Maoists look good, that's really saying something.

"We'll all be dead." He may not be able to kill them all, but HM Gyanendra (ably assisted by the police and Royal Army) is doing his part. The Nepali King imposed eighteen-hour curfews this week (you're allowed to move around between 2am and...?) in an attempt to stifle pro-democracy demonstrations all over the country. In response, hundreds of thousands of people defied the curfew and its shoot-to-kill orders to partcipate in the demos.

When the Royal Army says "shoot to kill," they mean it. Wednesday had four demonstrators shot dead; Thursday saw at least shot dead and some 40 wounded. Reality check: these were not just folks walking around going to work, but people actively participating in the demos and in the vicinity. If one needed to visit Kathmandu, one could probably get around safely as long as the demonstrations were avoided completely. However, when there are 100,000 people in the street that's tough to manage.

And for my visa purposes, is the Indian Embassy even functioning on a normal schedule (that is, as much as they ever do - their schedule is spotty at the best of times)?

I would love to wax all starry-eyed about a storybook people's uprising, but this storybook's pages are blood-stained and sleaze-spattered. To be honest, "the people" fortunately know better than to put complete trust in the Seven Party Alliance, lots of whom are corrupt career politicians. But when your options are His Majesty's Government or the Maoists, the SPA begins to look like the best of a bad bunch. So there is a cynical tone to the "pro-democracy" demos. One angry Nepali blogger alleges that most of the demonstrators can't even name one democratic principle. Less idealistic than Tiananmen Square, but sadly, with the same potential for bloodshed and tragedy.

The Nepalis I spoke to during my five-month stay seem fond of the tradition of their Monarchy. They customarily look upon the King as their father - and this includes not just the majority Hindus, but Buddhists (of which there are many) and other minorities. A young Muslim man I met in Thamel told me that, after the Royal Massacre tragedy of 2001, his father and brother both shaved their heads. (Shaving one's head is the traditional Nepali sign of mourning, observed only at the death of one's father.) "But you are Muslim," I said. "That's not even a Muslim custom." "It doesn't matter," said Amir. "Birendra was like our father. "Here in Nepal, we have never had religious conflicts." Every Nepali history book I read bore this out.

The majority Nepalis seem to hold a real reverence for the office of the King, if not for its current manifestation, and would like the monarchy to have a ceremonial place in modern Nepal - alongside a multiparty democracy.

How is it that this tiny, incredibly ethnically (there are a couple dozen distinct ethnic and linguistic groups in nation the size of Tennessee) and religiously diverse country could do so well in terms of communal harmony, and suffer so in terms of governance? India, the "800-pound gorilla" superpower to the south, has managed to maintain functioning democracy but is plagued by outbreaks of communal violence.

What, I wonder, can they learn from one another?


mp524 said...

"But you are Muslim," I said. "That's not even a Muslim custom." "It doesn't matter," said Amir. "Birendra was like our father. Here in Nepal, we have never had religious conflicts."
True, Birendra was more revered - may be because he agreed to stay on as a constitutional monarch after democratic movement of 1990. But Gyanendra is completely different customer - he has not only taken away civil liberties and press freedom but seems to be intent on "ruling" his "subjects" through autocratic means - using brutal force if necessary. Little trust that people had in monarchs has now eroded completely, which can be seen in anti-monarchy demonstrations not just in Kathmandu but all over Nepal. His speech (your next post) seems to have come too late!

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Yes, I have written about this extensively elsewhere in the Blog last fall,anduwhile I was still in Kathmandu. Nepalis have a real attachment for the institution of monarchy but Gyanendra has overplayed his hand terribly and misused his "divine right." Regardless of what happens now, I don't think the role of King can ever be the same in Nepal again - for better or worse. Along with all the autocracy and abuse of power will probably go all the ceremony, tradition and heritage. It didn't have to be this way, but he pushed it way too far for too long.