Yesterday, 1 June, I had one of my most peaceful days in Kathmandu since returning here about two years ago. I walked from Jamal to Kaldhara to Lazimpat to Maharajgunj and back. The streets were sparsely populated with pedestrians, a few bicycles, one or two ambulances on emergency call, a few daring motorcyclists and one ironic motorbike with the pillion rider festooned in a red bandana and carrying a red communist flag. A few mom-and-pop stores were stealthily open. The rest of the stores were shuttered down as tightly as the Guantanamo Bay complex in Cuba is soon expected to be. There was almost a festive mood in the air, people walking in the middle of the street with hardly a care in the world. I felt good walking in the middle of the street too and hardly felt the heat of the afternoon sun.
I have concluded the following from the scenario above:
(a) There is absolutely no need for petroleum-based vehicles in Kathmandu within the confines of the ring road. We can all live healthier lives getting good exercise by walking (or bicycling) in a pollution free environment.
(b) The perpetrators of bandhs, and there will be many more now that the Maoists are out of the government, need to allow shops to open. There is no purpose in inconveniencing hard-working merchants during these bandhs. Inconvenience the elite driving around in their SUVs, but why pick on these shops who are simply trying to make a few bucks? Shutting down shops will not pressurize the government in any way. It does not really care, can’t you see?
(c) Let us institutionalize bandhs in our fledgling democracy. Just like it was/is accepted practice to air political views standing on a box at the corner of Hyde Park in London, let us all accept that bandhs are a means of political expression. Just let’s not close down the economy. This way, we get the best of both worlds. People will certainly notice a bandh while the economy does not have to suffer.
Yesterday’s bandh was apparently initiated by the “joint action committee for Newa Autonomous state” demanding, inter alia, the declaration of Kathmandu Valley as an autonomous state. Not a quixotic cause, I might add. If Madhes is to be one state and the other ethnic groups are also having a go at autonomy, why not the Newars? They are, after all, the original inhabitants of this valley. Since federalism is supposed to cure all our problems and Nepal has already been “declared” a Federal Democratic Republic, it is hardly surprising that various ethnic groups try and consolidate their political identity by demanding autonomy. Now let us see where federalism will lead us. Will Nepal break apart at the seams or will we become a strong federal state such as the US? There is a saying, “Don’t go to the cardiologist unless your heart is giving you trouble”. The politicians of “New” Nepal ignore this. They have made us secular, federal and God knows what else is coming, whether we needed it or not.
I mentioned somewhere above that we would be wise to expect more bandhs now that the Maoists have abandoned the government and are in opposition. They have this basic strategy of “struggle programmes from both the streets and parliament”. Fine, I guess this is democracy in action and every political party has the right to stop parliament from functioning, to create massive traffic jams, to present the people with the gift of insecurity caused by political cadres (who can also be called hoodlums) attacking everything in sight and, in general, shutting down the country for days on end.
Even as I write this, I hear chants in the street below. And today is not even a bandh day. We are supposed to be having a bandh break between the Newa bandh from yesterday and the Maoist “struggle programmes” to begin tomorrow. Someone is breaking the bandh rules! So we can expect a long hot summer and monsoon while this new government tries to govern, when it has time to do so while trying to survive. The “logical” conclusion of the peace process and the formulation of the new constitution are supposed to top the political agenda. I know not whose logic the peace process is following. And what about Development? Or have we been declassified from being a LDC lately?
The Indian Congress Party swept the recent election there having co-opted the Academy Award winning song “Jai Ho!” My tongue-in-cheek “Jai Bandh!” is a cry of frustration, no doubt. I can only plead that let not this country be governed by an endless series of bandhs, leading nowhere except into deeper depths of poverty, lack of governance and mayhem.