Saturday, July 01, 2006

A million mutinies now

" get my fair share of abuse...."
Kathmandu, Nepal

"Do you go to the riots?"
"Nah, just one to get a few photos of burning tyres was enough.
"Oh, well I was thinking of going tomorrow, just to say I'd been you know...."

This was common c
offee house conversation last fall, when planned altercations between college students, political parties (not sure I want to call them all activists, some are just opportunists) and the police were routine in Kathmandu. Naturally, they were not intended to be riots, but demonstrations. As often as not, someone would overreact, and violencet would ensue...and a peaceful demo became a riot.

Usually these occurred in very prescribed locations (Maiti Ghar, areas of New Road) and were easily avoided; sometimes even announced thoughtfully in advance in the papers ("the Seven Party Alliance will be staging an agitation tomorrow from 11am till afternoon; avoid driving in the area of....").

no longer as simple (if indeed it ever was) as The People vs. The Man in the Palace. Nepal is now host to its own Million Mutinies Now. There are women, long oppressed and woefully underrepresented in government, clambering over statues of ancient kings to demand their place in the new government. There are victims of Maoist violence as well as victims of police and army violence demanding restitution and justice. Bhutanese refugees gather in front of the UNHCR to protest the lack of clear policy on their status. Members of the traditionally "lower" castes (Dalit, Janajati) also hold sit-ins to draw attention to their need for representation in the New Nepal.

The feeling now, though, is different; there will be no more police opening fire on peac
eful demonstrators. Most of these protests are being done in the spirit of tolerance and newly-embraced free speech (previously, it was a crime punishable by imprisonment to criticize the king). The only exception I know of, sadly, was the pro-Hindu-theocracy, anti-secular agitation in Birganj. They seemed determined to stir up violence in the name of "protecting" Nepal's traditionally Hindu status. Since only elite members of the upper castes have truly benefitted from that status (the majority of Hindus are of lower castes and still experience discrimination in rural areas) this doesn't seem to have garnered much popular support. The Hindutva-type opportunists may not find the fertile soil here that they did in India; Nepal is a multi-faith country that has managed to never experience religious violence or ethnic conflict. (It's about 70 Hindu, 20-plus percent Buddhist, and the rest traditional animist/shamanist, with about 3% Muslim and Christian. Many families in the countryside practice both Buddhism or Hinduism along with their traditional shamanic faith).

For tourists who'd like to get in on a little of the activist action, today's protest is Tibetan refugees and their sympathizers protesting the new Chinese railway, which launches its maiden voyage today. It will link the farflung western regions (ie, Tibet) with Beijing, and undoubtedly lead to a flood of ethnic Han Chinese, further displacing the Tibetans.

I'm going to the Chinese embassy gates to catch what I can of today's regularly scheduled demonstration, then to a concert by Tibet's own "singing nun" Ani Choying Drolma.

Eye knew it....
Turns out that Lawrence & Mayo, the old and distinguished opticians who referred me to the old and distinguished (and faulty) opthalmologists Shroff Eye Center in Delhi, have been distributing a product (gave one to me) that has been under worldwide recall by the manufacturer since April this year.

Renu with Moistureloc has been shown to cause fungal keratitis (ie, corneal infection - sound familiar?) leading to partial blindness and necessitating corneal transplantation in over 30% of affected patients so far. The manufacturer recalled it months ago and there's a class action lawsuit. Yet here they are in the capital of India merrily handing it out with best wishes.

Someone should tell those protesting med students that if they lose a seat, they're really not missing out on much. When a Tennessee cracker with nothing but moxie and a Google search can show up the Indian doctors, it doesn't say much for their medical schools.

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