Thursday, August 12, 2010

"Enough Politics – let’s talk Development" by Birat Simha (published in the People's Review, 12 August 2010)

This piece was originally titled “What’s wrong with Nepal” and was intended to explore the political mess this country is in. On second thoughts, the idea seemed totally redundant. We all know all there is to know about the messy politics. And yes, politics is supposed to dictate every aspect of the society. But maybe that is the problem. Perhaps we need to veer away from a politics-driven approach to a Development-driven one while examining what’s wrong with Nepal (the country not the caretaker Prime Minister with the same name!).

Shelving aside elaborate ivory tower definitions of what “development” is, I consider development as simply maximising the human potential of society. One can talk about fancy indicators like GDP, per capita income, rates for literacy, maternal and infant mortality, etc. ad infitum. What it all boils down to is meeting the basic needs of every member of society, providing each member with equal opportunity for advancement, and ensuring they are able to lead secure and peaceful lives. Food and shelter are the very basic of needs. But these needs do not differentiate humans from animals because the latter too have the very same needs. Opportunity to better one’s life is the key. No, we are not all born equal.. But we should all have equal access to opportunities which we can utilise according to our abilities. Without these opportunities, we are prisoners of our birth, locked in a state of inertia, besotted with frustration, basically born to scrape through life and die without any improvement in our lives.

Popular terms such as “democracy” and “human rights” are not mentioned above. They are not because these concepts are made superfluous when one is talking about basic needs, opportunity, peace and security. We have wars of occupation currently ongoing in the world in the name of democracy. Democracy is the modern Holy Grail which some countries, who pride themselves on their democratic mettle, try and imposes on other countries which have no stomach yet for it. Human rights is a term that has been maligned and overused to the extent of making it a jocular political tool. We have seen how well international and domestic human rightists have performed in Nepal.

So in lieu of getting our blood pressures up at the political shenanigans being played out in and out of the Constituent Assembly, it may be healthier and more constructive to look at the state of the country through the prism of development. Nepal ranks 145th, out of 179 countries, in UNDP’s October 2009 Human Development Report (HDR), a comprehensive measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living. As per the Asian Development Bank’s 2010 report, from a total population of 29.25 million with 83% of the population living in rural areas, about 13 million adult Nepalis remain illiterate. About 3 million Nepalis do not have the probability of surviving to age 40 (HDR); and the average Nepali cannot expect to live beyond their mid-60s. 11 million Nepalis, 38% of the population, still live on less than US$1 a day. Sri Lanka, with a substantially smaller population than Nepal, has a higher gross national income than Nepal. Over 50% of rural households cannot produce enough food to meet basic needs; and 39 of the 75 districts are food deficient. Rabid unemployment levels drive large numbers of some of the best and most motivated of our youth to other countries.

The outflow of the youth force is the most blatant indicator of a lack of opportunity in this country. Many halt their education for menial jobs in the Gulf countries among others. Schools close down at the drop of a hat when anyone calls a strike/bandh. This in fact has forced many parents, those who can afford it, to send their children to schools in India – a substantial outflow of funds, besides the fact that these youngsters lose touch with the culture and society of their native country. The typical college graduate has to find a job, the few that exist, based mostly not on his/her merits but on contacts. Those who do not find employment, and cannot find a way to go to other countries, fall into the pit of frustration, disillusionment and radicalism. Let us keep in mind that over 45% of the Nepali population is between the ages of 10 and 34 (Demographic and Health Survey – Nepal, 2006).

The other social indicator is Health of course. Maternal and infant mortality are two indicators that are oft quoted as having improved remarkably in Nepal. Nevertheless, as recently as 2007, half of the children under the age of 5 were stunted, and 10% were actually malnourished. 75% of pregnant women were anemic. Only 27 % of rural households had access to a latrine. Diahaorrea outbreak, and deaths from it, in some districts are still annual events. Yesterday’s papers talk about a possible polio outbreak. Tuberculosis and Hepatitis continue to be major threats. Diabetes has become a rising challenge. Medical service, even in the capital, is sparse with those who can afford it invariably rushing to Delhi or Bangkok for urgent medical problems. Basic facilities such as safe drinking water and sanitation, doctors, nurses, and health center/hospital beds continue to be inadequate, particularly in rural areas. Malaria, especially in southern Nepal, remains a threat.

So the next time our “leaders” (and I use the term stingily) and the CA assembly members put on their political circus act, let us look past all that. They know not what they do. They have not even bothered to approve yet a budget for development activities for this fiscal year. They have lost their way and forgotten the reason why they are where they are – to help the People, as public servants. Let us leave them to their games and concentrate on developing the country, without them if need be. Let us look past the cloak and dagger stuff, the skullduggery, the unashamed cheating on the aspirations of the people who voted for them. If the government cannot help us, we must help ourselves.

Media attention is overly focused on the political. For example, yesterday’s (9 August 2010) OpEd pages of one of the major English dailies has an editorial on the prime minister election, an interview with Maoist Number Two (and potentially Number One) Baburam Bhattarai, and a motley smorgasbord of articles including one on the recent unsolicited and unsuccessful visit of Shyam Saran, allegedly the special representative of the Indian prime minister, to Kathmandu. There are two pages dedicated to “Business”; no space for development issues.

The standard refrain is that development prospects hinge on lasting peace and stability. Well, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then government and the Maoists was signed on 21 November 2006, and we are still searching for that elusive peace and stability. Time to unlock development from this mirage. The politicians can quibble over who gets to the mirage first. Development must now become a people-led agenda, supported by the business sector and the non-governmental and community development organizations with advocacy from civil society, which has unfortunately proven itself Lenin’s “useful idiots”, and the media of course.

Finally, a word on philanthropy. It is not well developed in Nepal. We have the sorry habit of looking always to the government, and especially to the myriad of donors, for development funding. We should take the example of the 2nd and 3rd richest men in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who have pledged half their fortunes to philanthropy and are on a crusade to persuade all 400 plus billionaires in the United States to do the same. There may be no billionaires in Nepal, but there are enough well-endowed domestic sources, individual and organizational, to provide substantial development funding. Instead of complaining only, it is time these sources put money where their mouths are.

(The writer is a former UN international staff)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Don't Make Jokes; Just Watch the Government

Tomorrow, 2 August 2010, our Constituent Assembly sits for a third time to try and elect a new Prime Minister for the country. The incumbent PM, who heads a caretaker government currently, resigned over a month ago. It is unlikely that this 3rd attempt at a new government will bear fruit. There is no consensus among the major political parties. Individual political leaders are merely drooling over the PM's chair. I have actually stopped thinking about this melodrama, a transparent attempt to fool the Nepali People who apparently elected the CA in the hopes of gaining a new constitution and consequently a "New Nepal".

I have a collection of political humour that I kept for just such an occasion like this. I have nothing more to say than to state the "funnies" below. Emphasis in bold are mine:

Giving money and power to government is like giving
whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.
- P.J. O'Rourke, Civil Libertarian

Government is the great fiction, through which
everybody endeavors to live at the expense of
everybody else.
-Frederic Bastiat, French Economist

I don't make jokes. I just watch the government and
report the facts.

-Will Rogers

In general, the art of government consists of taking
as much money as possible from one party of the
citizens to give to the other.
-Voltaire (1764)

Just because you do not take an interest in politics
doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you!

-Pericles (430 B.C.)

No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the
legislature is in session.
-Mark Twain (1866)

Talk is cheap...except when Congress does it.

The government is like a baby's alimentary canal, with
a happy appetite at one end and no responsibility at
the other.
-Ronald Reagan

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing
of the blessings. The inherent blessing of socialism
is the equal sharing of misery.

-Winston Churchill

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects
of folly is to fill the world with fools.
-Herbert Spencer, English Philosopher (1820-1903)

There is no distinctly Native American criminal Congress.

-Mark Twain


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vu Vu What?

No, it is apparently not a “traditional” South African instrument. Neither does it have any significant cultural value. Vuvuzelas started appearing during South African football games in the 1990s. Similar instruments had been used in Mexico in the 1970s. Various officials, coaches and players at World Cup 2010 have protested at the unacceptable noise level produced by thousands blowing on vuvuzelas during matches. The “beautiful game” depends primarily on the players on the football pitch. But the flavour of the game is much diminished without being able to see and experience audience reaction. The cheers, the nationalistic songs, just the pure raucousness of the fans give a game its anbiance. In this World Cup, all we hear is the droning of the vuvuzelas which drowns out every other sound in the immediate universe.

The players cannot even communicate well among themselves. Being able to concentrate on the game is as important as playing skills and physical fitness. Concentrating, with the noise akin to a billion bees humming around you, must be well nigh impossible. The FIFA President says that vuvuzelas cannot be banned since the World Cup is being played in South Africa and these instruments are a part of South African football. Maybe that explains the poor performance of the European teams!

Wimbledon 2010, which starts today, has already banned this pesky item. So has Yankee Stadium in New York. It is one thing to take pride in one’s tradition but quite another to drive the world nuts with the horrible monotone of tuneless noise makers.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Nepal after 28 May 2010 (Published in People's Review, 27 May 2010)

It is not unusual, especially in our New Nepal, for anyone speaking for monarchy, in whatever form, to be viewed as a far-right “royalist” who wants to revert to the good ol’ feudal days. Let me qualify everything written below by saying that I am for a constitutional monarchy and full-fledged multi-party Democracy in Nepal. Let me further qualify that monarchy is treated below in its institutional capacity to unite a fast disintegrating country and to maintain its national identity and sovereignty.

Since Marx is being quoted so often and so haphazardly these days, let me go back some 2,000 plus years and talk about Plato and his The Republic, a fundamental exposition of political theory. Plato expounded that those who have the most intelligence, strength and courage are the ones best suited to rule; rule by the best - the Greek word for which is “aristocracy”. The term “aristocracy” has since been denigrated to mean government by people of the highest social class or by hereditary nobility. The true meaning of the word is simply government by those who have the greatest virtues to govern. Plato relegates democracy to only a step above tyranny. For him, a “Democratic government” holds out the promise of equality for all of its citizens but delivers only the anarchy of an unruly mob, each of whose members is interested only in the pursuit of private interests. Sound familiar?

Ancient Greek utopian political musings aside, 21st century reality is that democracies are the order of the day. A “representative democracy” (and here the definition of the Founding Fathers of the United States is relevant) is where representatives of the people are elected and whose power to govern is limited by laws enshrined in a constitution. This is the “constitution” which the 601 members of our Constituent Assembly failed to draft over the past two years – the time they were given by the last election to achieve this momentous task. “By the people, of the people, and for the people” is the ringing cry of democracy. But who are the “People”? In Nepal, is it the 85% rural population, 50% illiterate, 35% subsisting below the poverty line? Are they being represented adequately in government? Or are they being led like sheep by politicians with only self-interest in mind?

In juxtapose, modern monarchies, in all cases, are symbols of continuity and statehood. The majority of monarchies that exist in the world today are symbolic, whether they are termed “ceremonial”, “figurehead”, or “constitutional”, i.e. they do not have political power. Cambodia reverted to a constitutional monarchy, enshrined in its 1993 constitution, after the tumultuous years of the communist (Khmer Rouge) holocaust and Vietnamese domination. In Spain, Francisco Franco ensured the resumption of a monarchy upon his death in 1975. Malaysia, certainly one of the foremost democracies in Asia, elects a king every five years from among the hereditary rulers of the nine states of its federation. Japan’s emperor continues to serve as a symbol of nationhood and unity. Thailand’s king, the longest reigning monarch in the world currently, is revered by his countrymen. The monarchies of the United Kingdom and Europe remain while the nations themselves are fully functional democracies. Surely, there is much to be learnt from the monarchies of the nations mentioned above – which, incidentally, are all Democracies.

Is it then far-fetched to assert that the institution of monarchy can still promote stability and a national identity in Nepal? Here is an institution that survived 240 years through many challenges, not least of which was the 104 years of the Rana oligarchy. It is surprising and sad to see the achievements of King Prithivi Narayan Shah in creating a single unified Nepal in 1769 marginalised by the republicans. Did not King Tribhuban snatch back democracy from the Ranas in 1950? Did not King Birendra surrender to the wishes of the Nepali people to have a multi-party democracy in 1990?

Here we are, 3 days before the deadline for a new Constitution. As already mentioned, the 601 members of the Constituent Assembly have been unable to draft a new constitution within the stipulated time of two years. These members were voted into the CA with the primary purpose of drafting the constitution. They have failed miserably. The political culture in present-day Nepal can only be termed anarchic. The country is held hostage by the three major parties. The Maoists claim to speak for the people, like all communist parties do. “Claim” is the operative word here. Yet the political parties are horse-trading to extend the CA further, maybe even for a year more. What for? The legitimacy of this CA ends at midnight on 28 May 2010. The People had voted in the CA for a purpose. The CA has failed. Let it disband and disburse!

What then remains? There is the hastily concocted Interim Constitution, which has been amended many times already indicating its weaknesses. There remains the 1990 Constitution which was hailed as one of the best in the world. That constitution must come into force. Yes, a constitutional monarchy is part and parcel of the 1990 Constitution. But let us not forget that it is a democratic constitution, a result also of a Jana Andolan.

As a simple layman and a citizen of Nepal, let me take the liberty of outlining, in an almost naïve format, what should happen after 28 May 2010. We are all allowed to dream. The CA becomes null and void. Go home, CA members. As protector of the current interim constitution, the President appoints a caretaker government while the modalities for the reinstatement of the 1990 Constitution are being worked out quickly. Within a week, lest that much-feared “vacuum” sets in, the 1990 Constitution comes into force. The caretaker government proceeds to organize the next election, within six months. Nepal pulls back from the brink. Of course, this time around, no political party which has its own army must take part in the election. Further, the fairness of the election must be scrutinised effectively – Mr. Carter, please stay away this time!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

12-Point Proposal to UCPN-M

RGSD's Proposal to the UCPN Maoists in Nepal.

Aayo Gorkhali !! Jai Pachali Bhairab !!
Om Mani Padme Hum !!

Shri Sher Bahadur Gadtaula,
President, Rastrabadi Gorkha Seva Dal,

We at RGSD have welcomed the calling off of the political confrontations in Nepal. The Basantapur Peace Rally held last Friday; has been a historic victory for the Nepali people. The Gorkhali, Nepali people have once again sighed in relief and thanked the Gods and Goddesses for bringing about this understanding. Once again we wish to reiterate that we do not want any form of violence within Hindu Rashtra Nepal.

We humbly request all independent individuals, concerned citizens, responsible civic society members, private sector's professions and entrepreneurs, political parties and the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), Nepal Chamber of Commerce (NCC), Confederation of Nepalese Industry, Nepal Bar Association, Nepal Medial Association, Media Society and Television Broadcaster's' Nepal to carry forward the people's agenda for permanent peace to it's logical conclusion.

Herewith, below are the "Twelve Point Proposal made by RGSD to the UCPN Maoist" and extend our hand in understanding and goodwill taking into consideration the interest of the Gorkhali Nepali nation and people. This is the exit strategy for a positve, permanent peace, national reconciliation and harmony amongst the people.

First Proposal:

Renouncing of all forms of violence by the political parties.

In the land of Lord Shiva, Enlightened Buddha Bhagavan, Jagat Janani Sita Mata, all forms of violence needs to be banned forever. Hindu Rashtra Nepal is a Zone of Peace declared and accepted by more than 120 nations around the world. The Nepali people wish to see national reconciliation, harmony , rule of law, and to live their lives in dignity, without fear, scarcity and hatred. Hence the first proposal we forward to the Maoists and to all the other political parties is that they must all renounce violence and swear in an oath for the establishment of permanent peace. If any of the parties fail to renounce violence they shall be declared enemies of the nation and people.

Second Proposal:

Dissolving the Constituent Assembly.

As the national leaders, political parties and the 601 member Constituent Assembly has failed miserably to carry out their promise and responsibility to the people, they must immediately dissolve the assembly. Also, we are amazed that not even one member has admitted their failure to fulfill their national duty. Not one leader has volunteered to return the salary for not having fulfilled the people's wishes.

Third Proposal:

Formation of a National Constitution Drafting Commission.

A National Constitution Drafting Commission of independent, capable, credible Nepalis living within and outside Nepal should be formed immediately. As the constitution-drafting process is critically important but so too are social harmony and communal acceptance, personal safety and well being, and livelihood to the average Nepali.The Constitution can be delivered to the people for endorsement through a national referendum as the political parties are unable to come to an agreement.

Fourth Proposal:

Reinstatement of Nepal as a Hindu Rashtra.

The majority of Nepali people all wish that their Nation be a Hindu Rashtra forever, No external force, foreign faith, foreign institutions and individuals can conspire to change the very identity of the nation. Declaration of secular identity of Nepal was done in secrecy and by conspiracy which the people have rejected.

Fifth Proposal:

Declaring all bandhs, hartals and civil unrest as illegal without a permit.

Banning of all bandhs, hartals and civil unrest that causes discomfort to the people and disturbs the peace. Designated areas for protests only after the issuance of a permit defining the time, place, reason and methods of assembly to protest will be allowed as in all civilized, democratic nations. Any destruction of public properties, national resources and infrastructure are criminal acts and sever punishment meted out and fines levied. Improvements in law and order must be prioritized and must remain at the forefront of governance provision regardless of which party heads the next coalition government. Security for all without fear and terror.

Sixth Proposal:

Collecting of donations, extortion's, fund raising by political parties, workers, leaders be banned.

All forms of extortion's, fund raising, charitable donations for political purposes made illegal and banned.
Any leader, party or political worker being involved in these activites will be permanently banned from holding public office and declared criminals.

Seventh Proposal:

The Maoist must return all the occupied lands, houses, business and vehicles.

It has been more than four years since the Maoist's signed the peace agreement and had made promises of returning the private properties the party has confiscated. Why have they not kept their words and acted in good faith. The Maoists must return all forcibly illegally occupied land, houses, business, vehicles and other public properties. These acts to be declared criminal and punishable by the full extent of the law.

Eighth Proposal:

Formation of a Nationalist Alliance to defend Hindu Rashtra Nepal.

All Nationalist political parties and institutions must join hands in unity to safeguard the Nations independence, sovereignty and Dharma. Without reconciliation, peaceful coexistent development is not likely in Nepal’s future. Reconciliation and rehabilitation and integration are crucial for Hindu Rashtra Nepal.

Nineth Proposal:

All Political Parties and leaders must severe their links with foreign governments and institutions.

No political leader or party shall have any link to any foreign government, INGo's, foreign agencies. Anyone doing ss shall be declared anti Nepali and anti people.

Tenth Proposal:

No obstruction to educational, commercial, industrial and social and religious activities.

Normal daily activities of schools, colleges, universities, industries, business, temples, social and religious functions, chad, parba, jatra cannot be disturbed by political leaders, parties. Anyone doing do shall be declared a criminal and punished and fined under the law. Formation of Industrial Security Force citing insecurity in individual and institutional term.

Eleventh Proposal:

All conversions to foreign religions be made illegal.

Any form of proselytizing, conversions, killing of cows shall be declared serious crimes and punished .
All foreign charitable grants, funds, must be declared and accountable to the public. All INGO's and local NGO's activities within the country must be made transparent and legal. All local NGO's must have their financial accounts audited and cleared for further extension of their permits.

Twelfth Proposal:

Protection and preservation of all national symbols and heritage.

All national symbols, icons, statutes, historical monuments, buildings, temples and cultural bodies to be protected from vandalism, destruction and violence. Anyone caught in vandalism, arson or any act of violence against the nation's symbols from the national flag to the temple shall be severely punished. The Nepali people will not allow any disrespect to our national icons.

The current political mess in Nepal was created by external forces who wish to destabilize our nation and carry out their secret agenda through some of our Nepali brothers and sisters, leaders, parties, ngo's, civic societies and individuals. This was the realization of Dollars, Euros and Rupees funded, raised abroad to carry out their war plans into Nepal.

The positive understanding of peace includes harmony, personal and/or communal well being, forgiveness and reconciliation, happiness, acceptance, and security. there will be no more tears and pain or suffering and death. This is the Gorkhali Nepali vision of permanent peace.

United we stand . Aayo Gorkhali !! Jai Kali !! Jai Sankhu Bhagawati !!.

Satya Mayeba Jayatey !! ॐ नमः शिवाय

Jai Pashupati Nath !! Jai Gorakh Nath Baba !! Jai Durga Bhavani !!

Sher Bahadur Gadtaula
Rastrabadi Gorkha Sewa Dal
New York

May 12th, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010


I have decided to put this longish post on the blog site to prove the futility of trying to write reasonably in this country. Some of the articles have already been posted here. But this anthology of published articles, in chronologically backward order, is an example of shouting in the wilderness.

Posted in on 12 June 2009;
Published in People’s Review, 18 June 2009.

An Open Letter to the United States of America

Mr. Robert O. Blake
US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

Your visit to Nepal on 12-13 June, today and tomorrow, is appropriate, timely and welcome. The papers say that you will be discussing a broad range of issues with top officials of the new government in Nepal during your visit to Kathmandu. I further understand that this is your first visit here in your present official capacity. As the representative of the United States and its new dynamic president, Barack Obama, we Nepalis expect much from your visit.

This country is going through a unique process. Some call it the birth pangs of democracy. Others are not so generous. Democracy, as envisaged by the drafters of your constitution, has not even showed its face in this euphemistically termed “New Nepal”. A communist rebellion was appeased by weak political parties with external support from a close neighbour. The country was declared secular, federal and a republic without putting these major issues to the people by the democratic process universally called “referendum”. The election of April 2008 was termed fair by the likes of Mr. Jimmy Carter who did this country no service by his callous statements. The past nine months of the Maoists-led coalition government has not improved this country by even an iota. The increased revenues are cited as an achievement. But these revenues were not able to be utilized for development. They remain useless in government bank accounts or perhaps in the deep pockets of some politicians.
Now we have a Prime Minister who lost the election in two constituencies. Our Foreign Minister is also similarly qualified. The Nepali Congress party, considered the harbinger of democracy in this country, is not democratic within itself. The CPN-UPL, to which party the new PM belongs to, does not even have enough internal unity to choose its ministers for the new cabinet. The Madhesi Janadadhikar Forum, with its quixotic demand for “One Madesh, One Pradesh” is splintered down the middle. These are the three largest parties in the Constituent Assemble, after the Maoists – all with internal in-fighting resulting in political impotence.
The Maoists, as every red-blooded American is aware of, are hell-bent on creating a “People’s Republic”. Their current flirtation with multi-party democracy is merely a tactical step towards their ultimate goal of state capture. No hope of democracy from their side.

So, Mr. Blake, representing the most powerful democracy in the world today, what are you going to do to help foster democracy in Nepal? We are fully aware of your country’s interest in Nepal as a potentially soft under-belly of China. But Nepal’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Tibet issue is very different from the United State’s or India’s. It has to be because we must live with our two giant neighbours. During the past two years, Tibet’s office in Nepal has been closed down. Tibetan protesters at the Chinese Embassy here have been arrested, some rather viciously. Nepal does not have the luxury of American indulgence in Tibetan rights. Your actors, such as Richard Gere, may come here and highlight the issue of “freedom for Tibet”. But for us, China is a powerful neighbour who has also helped us much in development and with whom, I might add, we have no border encroachment problems. If the US wants Nepal to support the Tibet freedom movement, the geo-political equations here have to change drastically. Mind you, as a country which was never colonized, it would also be difficult for us to accept any overt forms of external intervention.
Mr. Blake, our new government has stated that the conclusion of the peace process and the timely drafting of the new Constitution are its priorities. And they should be. But how do we conclude the peace process when 19,000 rebel fighters are still camped in various parts of the country at the government’s expense, when it is an open secret that they have access to far more fire power than the few old guns locked up under UNMIN supervision, when the Maoists’ youth wing, the YCL, create havoc at will, when Maoist members of the CA openly declare that they can take over Kathmandu in a mere 12 hours. How is peace possible in this scenario? As for the Constitution, alas we here do not have any Jeffersons, Adams or Franklins which your country was fortunate to have in the 1760’s. We simply have a motley crew of power-hungry politicians. So let not America be surprised if the constitution making process is delayed or even aborted.

Democracy has rights and obligations. Few politicians in Nepal think about the latter. Leadership is a sine qua non. Alas again, we do not have anyone with the leadership stature of a George Washington. Of course, we also do not have anyone with the moral stature of a Abe Lincoln. Enough of what we do not have. We do have, I believe, a vibrant youth population who are seeing their dreams of a happy future fade away. A lot of them are educated and aware. Even the political parties have a “few” of them, except the fossilized leadership in these parties ignores the aspirations and potential of youth. You, Mr. Blake, have a President well under 50 years in age. The venerable icon of Nepali democracy (and I do revel in sarcasm at times) is nearing 90!

Let me not ramble on, Mr. Blake. We need support from America in the construction of a strong and vibrant democracy in this country. We know you have the ability to help us with this – and without outsourcing it regionally. We expect a lot from the fresh leadership in your country. And we too think, “Yes, we can!”

Published in People’s Review, June 4-10, 2009

Jai Bandh!

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.

Published in People's Review, Thu 2 April 2009
Posted in, 3 April 2009

Hindutwa Challenged

As the campaigning for the Indian parliamentary elections heats up, Varun Gandhi, a 28-years old candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been taken into custody under the National Security Act. His misdeed: making fiery speeches supposedly inciting communal disharmony. That this has happened in the alleged largest functioning democracy in the world is remarkable; that the protagonist is a scion of the Gandhi clan, son of Menaka and the late Sanjay Gandhi and nephew of the Indian Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi, adds another angle to the story.

Freedom of speech is a basic pillar of democracy. What the young Gandhi exercised was this freedom. In the recently concluded American presidential elections, strong words were exchanged among of the candidates. Radio show hosts were criticized for inflammatory and racist remarks. But no one was hustled into prison. The reason, of course, is that none of these remarks threatened the national security of the United States. That Varun Gandhi's remarks may have threatened the national security of India indicates the fragility of the Indian strain of democracy.
India has made spectacular gains recently in the economic sector. It is also a country where at least a quarter of its billion plus population is mired in abject poverty. Social indicators, especially those on health, do not reflect the political lead that India tries to take in the sub-continent. As a more telling illustration, the Gandhi family - that of Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi (not Mahatma Gandhi) - has become almost the "royal family" of India. That the oldest political party of India, the Congress, is currently headed by a woman of Italian birth says much for the awesome clout of the Gandhi name. Sonia just happened to be the wife of the pilot-turned-politician, the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who in turn may never have had to give up flying if his younger brother, Sanjay Gandhi, had not died in an aircraft mishap. Varun Gandhi is the son of this very same Sanjay.
Varun Gandhi's arrest has its political overtones. The BJP is challenging the Congress to lead the next government of India, which will almost surely be a coalition government. BJP has gained its fame, and has actually ruled India once, as a pro-Hindu party. It is today trying to downplay its Hindu origins to court non-Hindu votes. Varun Gandhi's speeches should not have come as a surprise to anyone. "Theocracy", something that most people believe ended when the Pope lost political power, is alive and well. The numerous Islamic states testify to this, as does the state of Israel. In this state of affairs, Hinduism is unique in that it does not accept converts. So with other religions on a conversion spree, Hindus will gradually have the least adherents. That the BJP should try to downplay its pro-Hindu roots and is almost disowning Varun Gandhi today illustrates this inherent hesitation among Hindus to stand up for Hinduism, that most tolerant of religion which is now facing extinction because of that very tolerance.
Another case in point: about three years ago, Nepal - then the only Hindu kingdom on earth - was declared secular by a motley crew of polticians, without so much as a peep from the people. While the Maoists have been logically blamed for this, the real culprits were the proselytizing grpups from Western donor countries who have made Nepal their conversion laboratory. While its Hindu population, comprising about 65% of the total, remained silent - or perhaps, tolerant! - Nepal lost its Hindu identity with a simple government ordnance.

Therefore, for Varun Gandhi to exercise his right to freedom of speech in the cause of Hindutwa is novel and laudatory. That his country is so insecure that it cannot allow him this freedom is a separate matter. All Hindus, especially those who have remained silent and docile so far, must view this imcident as a young Hindu stalwart's fight for his freedom, his beliefs and his religion!
The time has come for Hindus to stand for their rights and beliefs. This is not an exhortation to violence. Peaceful action is best. The symbol of universal peace, Gautam Buddha, was born a Hindu. Let us not be afraid, however, to fight if that is the only resort left us by our opponents. Let us not forget the Mahabharata and the Bhagvad Geeta when Lord Krishna himself, incarnation of Vishnu, went to battle to defend justice and righteousness.#

Published in: News Front, 9-15 March, 2009; People’s Review, 12-18 March, 2009
Posted in, 9 March 2009

International Women’s Day

8 March is International Women’s Day. International Women’s Day is observed around the world each year to celebrate the achievements and gains made by women and to focus on the job still to be done in working towards equality for women. International Women’s Day provides an opportunity for communities to recognise and celebrate local women’s achievements and the contribution they continue to make to their area.

I was reading in a paper the other day about a community in western Nepal which observed strict traditional customs related to maternity as well as menses. The new-born child and mother have to remain secluded, usually in the cow shed, for 11 days before the priest “purifies” the child in the ceremony commonly known as Nwaran. Similarly, women have to remain completely secluded for 5 days during their monthly menses. The former has resulted in the death of children who do not have access to proper post-natal care. The latter is yet another phenomenon of “untouchability” in our society.

A few months ago, the Miss Nepal pageant had to be scuttled due to protests from a women Maoist group which dubbed it as exploitation of women, ignoring completely that all the contenders were well educated young ladies, there is no bikini parade in the Nepal pageant, and the Miss World organization is a major donor to charities. So Nepal was not represented at the Miss World pageant in Johannesburg, South Africa last December. Ms. Russia won the crown and Ms. India was the runner up. A group of narrow-minded dogmatic women, ironically, prevented the Nepali contestants from competing for a better future.

Another glaring illustration is the treatment of widows in Nepal. When the husband dies, the wife’s bangles are broken, the vermillion on her head wiped away and she is swathed in white, never to wear red again. She has to go into hard mourning for 13 days. Some widows even wear only white for a year or for the rest of their lives. A widower can receive offers of marriage the very next day after the death of his wife.

Closer to home, I learnt recently that daughters, once married, have no legal rights on their parents’ property. I assume parents wash their hands off their daughters once they marry. She becomes the responsibility of her husband. In a way, she becomes a member of her husband’s family completely with minimal ties to her own family. I hear murmurings that this law will soon be changed, giving equal rights to sons and daughters. It is yet to be seen whether the fabled “New Nepal” will redress this inequality.

For sure, women in Nepal, as elsewhere in the world, have come a long way. Women’s literacy is over 40%, though men’s is close to 60%. Women in the work-force are visible from the women traffic police to the numerous executives and secretaries, though more of the latter to be sure. There is yet much to be done. The median age at first marriage of Nepali women is only 17. Maternal mortality rate, the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 deliveries, remains at 281, as compared to 110 for Maldives and 92 for Sri Lanka. Only 23% of Nepali women give birth attended by a trained attendant, as compared to 85% for Maldives and 96% for Sri Lanka.

Statistics alone do not tell the whole story. They are merely indicators of deep-rooted social, cultural and development issues. Until we can accept the fact that all babies, whether male or female, are born equal and have equal rights, the status of Nepali women will continue to be defiled. Parents will keep on having children until they have a son who can light their funeral pyre, thus inflating the birth rate. Women are usually not even allowed at funerals. Why should not a daughter light the funeral pyre? If women in history had the courage to burn themselves alive in the funeral pyres of their husbands, courage is in no short supply among women.

Changes in women’s status can come about only with basic attitudinal changes among men, as well as women who cling to out-dated customs. These changes need to be brought about by education, how children are brought up, and legal safeguards for women’s rights. There is still a long way to go for women to achieve equality and equity with men in Nepal. But it is a challenge that cannot be avoided. It has been proven, for example, that educated mothers have fewer and healthier children. So it is not an exaggeration to say that women shape the future.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, let each one of us reflect on the true status of the average Nepali woman. Not the socialite or CA member, not the educated and aware, but the simple girls and women in a village. Perhaps they spend most of their time fetching water, cooking, washing clothes, and looking after their fields and cattle, if any. They are illiterate, doomed to a life unchanged for generations. Development, a nebulous term at best, requires many ingredients. A crucial one is that women have to be educated and their status must be equal to men.#
(The writer is a former UNFPA Representative in Papua New Guinea and Mongolia)

Published in People’s Review, October 2-22, 2008

The Repression of Nepali Womanhood

Some say that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Others say that behind every successful man there is a woman. The role of women in shaping the psyche of men as well as women is indisputable. The women of Nepal have taken large strides over the past 15 years. But consider these current facts: the median age of first marriage for females is 17; women still have an average of more than 3 children; 281 women out of every 100,000 still die at child birth; only 23% of women give birth with a skilled attendant on hand; married women have no right to their parents’ assets; and so on. The Virginia Slims cigarette ad “You’ve come a long way, baby” does not quite apply yet to the women of Nepal.

Last week, the Miss Nepal pageant was postponed once again, for the fourth time, due to the protests of a group of Maoist women who are barking that beauty pageants exploit women and take away their fundamental rights. A letter signed by a Deputy Superintendent of Police from the District Administration Office in Hanuman Dhoka was delivered to the organizers, Hidden Treasure, at about 7 p.m. on the eve of the pageant. The letter instructed that, keeping in mind peace and security issues, the pageant must not take place. Translation: the security forces, i.e. the Police, was unable or unwilling to guarantee that the pageant would not be disrupted by violent undemocratic protests. The Defense Ministry also instructed the Nepal Army to not let the pageant be held in the auditorium of the Army Officers’ Club, as scheduled. All this happened on the evening of the pre-judging of the contestants, carried out over 5 long hours by 11 judges (this writer included).

The morning after the receipt of the ominous letter, the organizers held a meeting with the 17 contestants, their parents/guardians, as well as the majority of the judges. The purported purpose of this meeting was to seek the parents’ views on whether the pageant should take place as scheduled on that day, 27th September, or not. The organizers briefed the meeting on the situation and opened the floor for comments. Parents, contestants as well as some of the judges aired their opinions. The first issue was whether Hidden Treasure would be breaking the law by holding the pageant despite the letter of stay. The fact that the letter’s authority covered only Kathmandu district became quite apparent. Since the alternate plan was to hold the pageant at the International Club, which happens to be located in Lalitpur district, any legal liability to the organizers did not exist. The second issue was whether the pageant should be held that day or postponed again. The vast majority of the contestants wanted it held that day and were willing to brave any repercussions from the protesters. The majority of the parents also felt that their children had been kept hanging, disrupting their normal lives, for too long. All the judges present, except one, firmly believed that the pageant must be held that day.

The meeting chair proposed a break to discuss the issue among the various groups. The talented young ladies caucused among themselves while the other groups mixed informally discussing the issues. In this period of almost 2 hours, I interacted with every group. Majority of the contestants, parents and all the judges remaining then were for holding the pageant that very day. It was only the organizers who remained non-committal throughout, consulting mainly with the one judge and the one parent who wanted the pageant postponed. The meeting reconvened and the Chair from the organizers announced that they would not go hurriedly for the pageant that day since it would be like going for “instant pleasure” (his unfortunate words) at the price of the “image and prestige” of the pageant. The weak reason given was that this is what the parents wanted; I personally observed only one parent who wanted this. Actually, Hidden Treasure had lost its nerve! The chagrin in the lovely faces of the contestants was a woeful sight.

Some underlying issues are apparent from the above dismal story. On what basis are the protesters saying that the pageant is exploiting women? The contestants were all educated talented young ladies and winning the title would mean the opening up of new opportunities and careers for Miss Nepal. They were certainly not there to flaunt their bodies. There is no bikini competition in the Miss Nepal contest. In fact the scoring for the 5 finalists gives 80% weight to intelligence and only 20% to beauty. These protesting women Maoists are also surely not aware that the current Miss World comes from the land of Mao - China! The letter from the government cited “peace and security”; actually the authorities were hiding behind this facade in their efforts to appease the protesters. As for the organizers, they failed the contestants and the spirit of the competition. When they could have championed the cause of women’s rights, they succumbed to the complacency endemic to this country.

Seventeen young women, from all over the country, came with their dreams to participate in the finals of this pageant. Their dreams were rudely shattered by the vagaries of a group of uninformed politically motivated protesters, a government that does not govern, and organizers who failed the aspirations of the contestants in every way. When the Miss World pageant is held in Johannesburg, South Africa this December, it is unlikely that Nepal will be represented. It will be a loss for the country and especially for Nepali womanhood.

For information to the ignorant, The Miss World Organization owns and manages the annual Miss World finals, a competition that has grown into the world's largest live annual pageant television event with global viewers in more than 200 countries. Since its launch in 1951, the Miss World Organization has raised more than £250 million for children’s charities. Aside from raising millions of pounds for charities around the globe under the banner of its 'Beauty with a Purpose' program, Miss World is also credited with directly influencing a dramatic increase in tourism in Sanya, China, host of the previous Miss World finals.

So, Welcome to New Nepal! Its ignorance, bureaucracy and complacency rival that of any of the “Old Nepal’s”.#

Published in People’s Review, 18-24 September, 2008


Perched atop her mountain at the southern rim of the valley, Phulchowki Mai has perhaps the best perspective on Kathmandu, It took an hour’s drive from Godavari to reach the top of this 9,000 feet high peak. The arduous and steep drive along a narrow road nestled in luscious green was in itself a thrill. But nothing prepared me for the peak. The early morning mist swirled amidst the forest and Kathmandu was invisible below the clouds. The shrine at the top had been renovated. Fourty years ago I had stood at this spot, participating in the “Phulchowki Day” trek up the mountain, compulsory for all students of St. Xavier’s School, Godavari. In many ways, this was a homecoming of sorts for me.

I was immediately taken back by the fact that the Phulchowki Mai shrine, further enhanced by a Shiva shrine and a Buddhist stupa, is now in the middle of an army encampment. While appreciating the Nepal Army’s protection, I am sure Phulchowki Mai is also feeling apprehensive at this worldly intrusion of military prowess. But the telecommunication and radar infrastructure atop the mountain do need protection in these uncertain times and surely the Gods understand. The Japanese government which provided these facilities can also rest assured that their aid is safe, protected not only by the Gods but also by the Nepal Army.

Let me elaborate further on the themes of religion and security which have been briefly touched upon above. Nepal had been known as the only Hindu Kingdom on earth, making it unique among the myriad of nations. I accept that this was not much more than a slogan to attract tourists for our hard-pressed economy. Now that this country is neither officially Hindu nor a kingdom, let us examine what this has meant to us Nepalis. Official figures say up to 80% of Nepalis are Hindu. This figure is inflated because it includes many ethnic groups who practice other forms of religion. About 11% of the population is definitely Buddhist. Whichever way one looks at it, the Hindu population is the largest in Nepal, followed by Buddhists. Even being extremely stingy with the numbers, 70% of Nepali population is certainly Hindu and Buddhist. Putting figures aside, Nepal does not have religious strife. The cohabitation of Hinduism and Buddhism is indisputable. So secularization was not necessary at all. What secular Nepal now has is an anti-Christian movement, apparently by disaffected Hindus, and a burgeoning Muslim population with a growth rate higher than the other religions. In effect, when the then Interim government declared Nepal secular, it accepted the dictate of proselytizing European groups who have this urge to save all mankind in the name of Jesus Christ. Not sure if Jesus would approve of this form of neo-colonialism.

It felt safe to see the Nepal Army on top of Phulchowki. It also was a reminder of the transformation of the army from an elite fighting force, say in the days of Amar Singh Thapa and Bal Bhadra Kunwar, to the oft-touted role of UN peacekeepers. UN peacekeeping is a chancy thing at best and does not demand too sharp military skills. Domestically, the NA’s role is to ensure the security of the nation. Obviously, we talk here of internal security, not security against our giant neighbours. The current law and order situation needs not be delved into. The Police has just had a major overhaul of its high command. The NA is still confined to its barracks, under the peacekeeping arrangement whereby members of the so-called Maoist “people’s liberation army” are confined – loosely speaking – to cantonments. The NA is proud of being apolitical. But being apolitical does not mean shrinking from its responsibility to preserve the country’s unity, sovereignty and independence. The Army Chief has reiterated that the NA does not belong to any political party but to the Nepali people. Laudable. So let the NA stand its ground when it comes to attempts to politicize it by integrating into it the rebel army. Let it also keep a sharp eye on politicians who sell their souls to foreign powers. Further, let it speak up on the issue of federalism which hopefully will be debated at length by the CA. Will federalism preserve unity? I hope our generals have an answer to this burning question.

So Phulchowki Mai stands as a sentinel over this beautiful valley and, by proxy, over the nation. Let us simply pray that she will protect this beleaguered land from those who seek power for personal gains, from those who do not have a shred of nationalism in them, from those who pander to foreign political interests and proselytizers – from all evil which may hinder the people of Nepal from fulfilling their potential.#

Posted in, 20 April 2008
Published (abridged version) in News Front, #64, 28 Apr – 4 May, 2008

Convince us It’s Bullets to Ballots

As of this writing, 11 days after the Constituent Assembly (CA) Elections, the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (Maoists) candidates have won 118 of the 234 direct vote seats for which results have been announced. This constitutes 50% of the announced seats, 49% of the 240 first-past-the-post (FPTP – direct vote) seats and 21% of the 575 total CA seats available (excluding the 26 seats to be nominated). All this even before the final results for the proportional representation (PR) seats have been announced. The tally of the PR votes is well underway. The Maoists lead handily, though it is unlikely that they will have an absolute majority (301 seats) in the CA. Have the People of Nepal spoken?

It is common knowledge that there has been wholesale pre-election intimidation by the Maoists. Leaders of rival political parties and their supporters have faced the wrath of the Young Communist League (YCL) mercilessly. Voters have been threatened, especially in the rural areas. Many voters were given a choice between voting for the Maoists or an end to peace. They chose peace. Even on the morning of Election Day, polling booths in Gorkha, Sidhupalchowk, Ramechap and Bhojpur districts, to name a few, were captured by Maoist cadres and supporters of rival parties were barred from casting votes.

Irregularities in numerous voting stations have also occurred. As an example, at one station in Kavre district only a couple of hours drive from the capital, voters cast their ballots repeatedly. The polling officers and the police security, all known well to the voters, simply turned the other way. A couple of international observers visited the station briefly, and all nefarious activities were put on hold. Once they left, the comedy continued. “Celebrity” observers, such as Jimmy Carter, stayed in the capital and lauded the fairness of the elections. They did not do any service at all to democracy in Nepal. It is little wonder that the Election Commission has instructed re-polling to be carried out in 106 voting centers which did not meet the code of conduct of the Commission, covering 21 constituencies. This makes up almost 4% of the 2,888 voting centers.

Another issue is whether the majority of voters know the nuances of a communist party. Dictatorship of the proletariat, class struggle, the bourgeoisie – these are but a few of the concepts that those who adhere to doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism use with grave sincerity. Would an illiterate voter, threatened and thoroughly intimidated, know that democracy has no great value in the communist lexicon?
Notwithstanding the aforementioned negative reasons for the Maoist victory, there are other factors at play. The demographics cannot be ignored. About 50% of the voters were under the age of 35. Most of these youths have no strong ties or allegiance to the traditional political parties or their leaders. In 1990, when a multi-party democratic system was instituted in Nepal, a youth who is now 35 would have been just 17 years old, too young to vote. The current exodus of youth to foreign countries for employment reflects reality for Nepali youths. Just recently, about 31,000 young people took the Korean language examination for eligibility to be considered for employment in South Korea. About, 6,800 have passed the examination – that is 6,800 too many bright young Nepalis with initiative who will be lost to Nepal.

The complacency of the other political parties, especially the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal - United Marxist Leninist (UML), cannot be overlooked. The leader of the UML, one of the “big three” parties in the current government along with NC and the Maoists - as well as the leaders of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), RPP (Nepal) and Rastriya Janashakti Party (RJP) – all lost in the elections. The Maoists were supposed to obtain a maximum of around 20 seats in the CA. Domestic political pundits as well as the international community, especially India, miscalculated grossly! Besides the leaders, most of the senior stalwarts of the NC and UML have also lost.

Finally, the voters did want CHANGE. Since the advent of multi-party democracy in 1990, the NC and UML have held sway, for the most part, over the political throne. Their achievements have been dismal. In a stroke of enlightened public relations, and just before the election, the Maoists came up with the slogan “The others have been given their chance – now give us a chance”. They have been given this chance. Further, the grass-roots organizational strength of the Maoists, enabling them to get out their votes on Election Day, was unsurpassed.

The statement given by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) immediately following his victory in constituency #10 in Kathmandu was statesman-like, meant to allay the fears of those who were threatened by the Maoist victory. Despite the likelihood that the Maoists will have close to a majority in the CA, he asserted that his party is committed to democratic values and competitive politics. He promised that the new constitution will be formulated by a coalition, taking into account the views of all the other parties represented in the CA. He assured the international community that the new government will not be a rogue government, dictated by an outdated political doctrine (though not in so many words!). He dedicated his party to the goal of rapid economic growth. He said all the right words on the right occasion. Since then, Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoist ideologue and intellectual as well as Prachanda’s #2, has reiterated that the private sector has the major role to play in the forthcoming “economic revolution”. We will now observe whether these Maoist leaders, their party – and especially their youth cadre (YCL) - stand by them. In fact, it behooves well for the Maoist leadership to disband the YCL immediately as a token of its sincerity towards peace, security and democracy. Mao’s Red Guards did not stay around forever.

International sensitivities are also at play. India suffers from a multitude of threats from its own Maoists. It certainly would not like Nepal to support these Maoists or provide safe haven to them. The Nepali Maoists also remain on the United State’s “terrorists list”. These two countries, which lay claim to being bastions of democracy in the world and in south Asia respectively, will be observing the new government of Nepal with more than ordinary interest.

The Maoist leaders have already started speaking repeatedly of how they will magnanimously allow a ”graceful exit” to the king, once the first session of the CA “implements” (read “rubber-stamps”) the decision taken by the seven parties in the current Interim Government to abolish the monarchy for a republic. Can a decision taken by an unelected government, without seeking the people’s consensus, be valid constitutionally and legally and can the CA be forced to rubber stamp this decision? The CA has been constituted to draft the new Constitution of the country. It is this Constitution while must finalize the form of government and put it to the people’s vote. Should the first CA session abolish the monarchy, the new government will have begun its tenure on a totally undemocratic note, undermining all the rhetoric that go along with the call for a “New Nepal”. The rule of law, democratic norms, and regard for the people’s opinion will all have been thrown into the garbage heap of high-handed oligarchic dictatorship. Let the CA, and especially the Maoist-led new government, note this.

We will see predominantly new faces in the CA. The CA will be a more inclusive legislative body than any Nepal has ever seen before - with more women, various ethnic groups, madhises, dalits, and other previously underrepresented groups. The Maoist victory is really a challenge, a challenge by the People to the Maoists’ commitment to peace and stability, independence and development for this beleaguered nation. Will they be able to make up for their ruthless past that has left 13,000 Nepalis dead and many more homeless over the past twelve years? Unlikely. But with a careful amalgamation of vision, co-operation with all, emphasis on inclusiveness, incorruptibility, control of its youth cadre (the YCL), pragmatism as opposed to being slaves to archaic doctrines, and pure and simple dedication to building a “New Nepal”, the CPN-M may yet prove to the world, and more importantly to us Nepalis, that a communist party can actually come into national power via the ballot – a feat never before achieved on earth! We, the People, await this feat with abated breath and with eagle eyes. This time, the onus will be on the Maoists to deliver, with no way to shift the blame to any other party.

Published in News Front, #61, 7-13 April 2008
Posted in, 8 April 2008

The CA Elections: eleventh hour observations

The news bulletin on the radio reports that ten Nepali Congress (NC) workers including a campaigning candidate have been attacked and severely injured with khukuris and stones in Rasuwa by a group of 200 Young Communist League (YCL) cadres. Just the day before, the leaders of the Nepali Congress, United Marxist-Leninists (UML) and Communist Party of Nepal – Maoists had faced the Election Commission, on live TV, and pledged an end to any activities that breached the code of conduct set down by the Commission. This widening gap between the declarations of the politicians on their commitment to the elections and ground reality is causing much turmoil in the minds of the electorate.

On another front, marauding armed factions in the Terai have yet to sit for negotiations with the government. Their key objective is to stop the elections. They have declared a Terai bandh (closure), to commence just a few days before the elections. Meanwhile, Maoist fighters in the various cantonments have started leaving in groups in uniform and armed to “support” the campaigns of the Maoist politicians. UNMIN stands impotent, declaring that this is against the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) but that it neither has the capacity nor the mandate to stop this exodus. To top it off, the Election Commission has declared that 227 candidates for the elections have yet to present their citizenship papers and 66 candidates are below the age of 25 – both requirements for candidacy.

On a recent evening, Madhav Kumar Nepal, President of UML as well as Pushpa Kamal Dahal a.k.a. Prachanda, Chairman of the Maoists were on television on separate channels. Mr. Nepal spoke of the significance of the Constituent Assembly elections, how it will take place at all cost and how the end of the monarchy was a done deal. Mr. Dahal was speaking about his college days, trying to provide a human face to his “awesome” reputation. Girija Prasad Koirala, PM and head of the NC, repeatedly asserts, in his usual maudlin manner, that the elections will take place.
However, most Nepalis are still uncertain whether they will take place. Should they take place, it is almost guaranteed that they will not be “free and fair” given the scenario presented above. Every day, Nepalis hold their collective breath wondering if, once again, there will be the all too familiar announcement of a postponement. Should the elections be held, knowing full well that they will not be free and fair? Does the law and order situation allow for these elections? Unsettling questions plague those who are concerned about the elections, while those who do not really know what this hullabaloo is all about enjoy ignorant bliss.

International election monitors – from the EU, Carter Center and many governments and INGOs - have poured in. Former US President Jimmy Carter himself is here for the elections. It is expected that every polling booth will be covered by at least one of these monitors. This is a good sign and signifies the commitment of the international community to peace and democracy in Nepal. However, international commitment without national implementation capacity is not enough. We trust that these monitors will have the moral courage to call the elections, should they occur, as they are - untainted by condescending notions of “budding democracy”.
Our politicians have now started hinting at utilizing the Nepal Army (NA) to provide security for the elections, in addition to the Police and the Armed Police. The NA has been used effectively for this purpose in previous elections. Currently it is solely the provision of the CPA, dictating that the NA be confined to its barracks while the Maoist fighters are confined to their cantonments, which poses a political dilemma for the NA to be assigned security tasks for the elections. As mentioned above, the cantonments are fast emptying and it is commendable that the NA has exercised discipline and remained in its barracks. But if the only way to secure law and order for the elections is to use the NA, some tough political decisions need to be made by the government, and fast, lest the NA be forced to decide for itself.
Let us presume that the elections will be held and the Constituent Assembly formed. The CA will immediately realize that the current interim unelected government has taken decisions that are the purview of the CA. It has declared Nepal a “secular federal republic” without mandate and without taking into account the opinion of the People. This was done in two phases: initially, the declaration of a secular state, followed by the declaration of a “federal democratic republic”. A recent opinion poll undertaken with the involvement of The Asia Foundation indicated that 50% of respondents wanted a place for monarchy in Nepal and 59% wanted Nepal to remain a Hindu State, while 38% did not want to retain the monarchy and 31% wanted a secular state. The survey sample reflected carefully the composition of the general population. These issues must be put to the People for their decision, i.e. by a Referendum. Denial of a referendum will almost certainly lead to violence. Further, the issue of “federalism” needs to be deliberated upon and decided by the CA. This is an intricate issue with numerous implications and cannot be “declared” by a bunch of unelected politicians.

To conclude, after these many years of civil strife, what we want most is Peace and Development. To illustrate, a recent headline read that the World Food Programme has estimated that almost 4 million Nepalis in western Nepal are facing food deficit because of poor harvest and skyrocketing prices. To these 4 million, 15% of the population, the CA is not a priority – their hungry stomachs are. And to an objective observer, the CA – should it be constituted soon – will do little to appease this hunger. Power-crazed, self-centered and divisive politics will not help.

Posted in, 17 March, 2008

“Aba Atee Bhayo” (Enough is Enough)

The Nepali People are being taunted and made fools of by the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist and its Youth Communist League (YCL). While the campaigning for the scheduled 10th April CA election is now supposed to be well underway, every day brings new reports of the YCL preventing candidates from other parties from campaigning in their constituencies. This blatant breach of the Election Code of Conduct has affected the entire gamut of political parties – Nepali Congress, UML, Rastriya Prajatantra Party, Rastriya Janata Party, and more. All the while, we are supposed to be headed for a “peaceful, democratic New Nepal”.

The case of the YCL attack, and almost assassination, of NC leader Dilendra Prasad Badu in Darchula on 5th February is a case in point. Along with Badu, three other NC cadres and six policemen were also injured in the attack. The all-party commission formed to investigate the incident came out recently with its findings. The Maoists/YCL were the culprits. Then the commission made its ludicrous recommendation: the Government was not to take any action and the Maoists were to censure/reprimand/ whatever the ruffians involved. This, in a nutshell, is the state of Law and Order in Nepal today. The YCL must be held accountable for their actions and the Maoist leadership must take full responsibility for what their cadres have done. The People, that is you and me, have to rise as one voice to protest this threat to our long-awaited chance for peace and democracy and an end to the oligarchic unelected government which we have had for the past two years.
With the pervasive breakdown of law and order across the country, the Home Ministry remains silent. Its minister KP Sitaula, a NC politician, has been accused of being a Maoist stooge for a long time. Yet he remains in the cabinet and the blessings of his boss, Prime Minister Girija Koirala, continue to be showered upon him. One wonders why. Perhaps the Maoists have put the fear of God (what irony!) into the PM and, as he loses his party colleagues every day to the Madhesh parties and as his own party seriously doubts his leadership, he has nowhere to cling to but to the comrades.

Here in the capital, and certainly elsewhere too, we see large hoardings exhorting all to give the “laal salaam” (red salute) to Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who is supposedly going to be the first President of Nepal. This is also a breach of the Election Code of Conduct. But, to fight fire with fire, why does only Comrade Dahal’s picture stare down at us? Do not the other parties have materials for signs? Maybe they cannot think of adequate slogans? Or are their leaders just too shy or too afraid to project their image and their party’s platform? With no chance of more than 10-15% of the CA seats being occupied by Maoists, should there really be a fair and free election, these hoardings are jokes. To you and me they may be jokes, but to the unaware public who do not know what a communist party is, they are a part of a skillful public relations campaign being waged by the Maoists. This charade is only a means to justify blaming others when the CA election does not take place as scheduled. Given established communist operating procedures, the Maoists will not settle for anything less than a sweeping victory in the election. They will not accept to be partners in a coalition government, because they cannot achieve any of their outdated Marxist-Leninist goals in that manner. But as long as the common voter sees these hoardings, they will believe that someone really is going to be President. Since no other political leader’s face stares down on them, Comrade Dahal must be the man.

When the election does not take place on 10th April, the SPA government immediately loses its legitimacy and credibility. It will have to go. We have waited two years. Enough is enough! The only alternative is a Government of National Unity led by a non-SPA leader, but with an open invitation to the SPA leaders to be included. Should any SPA party resort to arms, the sole remaining option is for it/them to be crushed militarily. The Nepal Army will then have to earn its keep. The Police and Armed Police Force cannot do this alone. Lessons will have to be taken from, say, the then Malaya in the 1950s/60s or Peru more recently. Let us all – the NA primarily as well as we the People – be ready for this eventuality. As the saying goes, hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Published in News Front, 10 March 2008
Posted in, 9 March 2008

Political Vocabulary

“All men are enemies. All animals are comrades.” George Orwell, Animal Farm

A discerning political analyst friend, P.S. Kunwar, recently suggested to me that there is a lot of confusion in political discussions in Nepal these days due to the unfortunate fact that the same words have different meanings for democrats and communists. Right off, this statement implies that a communist is not a democrat. In fact, our communists consider Jana Andolan II as only a ‘democratic revolution’ which is to be followed by the real revolution on 10th April 2008 when the CPI-M will win and transform the country into its own image. Consequently, the term “Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal”, being bandied about so haphazardly, already has a built-in contradiction since this term has been endorsed by the communists in the SPA.

“Democracy”, to democrats, stands for a pluralistic form of governance where all views have the chance to be endorsed or rejected through elections by the majority and, once accepted or rejected, is binding to all. To communists, democracy is a tactical move leading to a form of governance whereby a communist party, which is supposed to represent the voice of the “People”, rules. Hence we have the tiresome repetitions by the CPN-M and its leaders on how they are fighting for the “people”, while the “people” seem unaware of this uncalled for championing on their behalf. This is inevitable since, to communists, “People” are the recipients of the Party’s benevolence who need to be directed and taught. Democrats consider “people” as the ultimate deciders of the direction of the state.

The “State”, to democrats, is a permanent framework that governs society, and the parties which have won popular approval can steer the state for a limited time. The state is an instrument of the party for communists. If the state does not follow party lines then parallel institutions will be created. We in Nepal are very familiar with this parallelism. There is a dichotomy even on the definition of “Political Parties”. Is it a vehicle to formulate and articulate views or, as the communists would have it, a vehicle to usurp and maintain power?
The CA Elections are only about a month away. Democrats consider “Elections” a periodic impartial event. For communists, an election is an event which endorses the rule of the Communist Party. That is why we have these events - the proclamation that 200 YCL cadres will be present at each voting booth; the statement by a top Maoist leader that should the CPI-M not win the election it will not be an election; and the numerous instances of YCL ruffians employing scare tactics to prevent candidates from rival parties from campaigning. It should also be increasingly apparent that parliamentary democracy is anathema to communists. “Parliament”, to democrats, is an effective arm of governance providing checks and balance to the executive. Communists consider parliament an instrument to rubber-stamp the activities of the executive.

“Equality” to democrats is equality of opportunity while, to communists, it is equality of outcomes. How the outcomes are achieved is up to the wisdom of the Communist Party, with all ends justifying the means. Simplistic definitions mired in outdated doctrines are also the monopoly of the communists. For them, “Underdevelopment” is caused by the oppression by the feudal classes. Democrats see underdevelopment as being caused by a myriad of socio-political, economic, domestic as well as international factors.

The SPA has just agreed in principle to the autonomy of Madhesh, to be endorsed by the CA. It will be interesting to see what happens, since the communists view “Autonomy” as the principle of de jure federalism with de facto centralization through the Communist Party, while to democrats, autonomy is the principle of decisions being most effective if they are taken closer to the ground. Again, “Social harmony”, to democrats, means that no group or segment of the population is left unfairly behind. To communists, it is the elimination (physically in most cases) of all “anti-people” elements.

“Development” has largely been ignored in Nepal while a divided government is preoccupied jockeying for power. Even here, democrats consider that the establishment of a framework and conditions for all to prosper leads to development. Communists want to achieve development by allocating resources as per political needs. Finally, and most strikingly, “History”, to democrats, is facts from the past while to communists it is interpretation for the future. Of course, the interpretation is the purview of the communist leadership.

So we stumble on with two groups speaking two different languages yet telling us Nepalis that they are united. The question is for how long are we going to be fooled?

Published in NewsFront, 28 Jan-3 Feb 2008, #51
Posted in, 28 Jan 2008

The Fort

From the lofty ramparts of his fort, five hundred years ago, Man Singh Tomar looked down upon the city. It was a city he had vanquished.
From the lofty ramparts of this fort, Jahangir again looked down at the city. It was a city he had conquered.
From the lofty ramparts of the same fort, the Maratha rulers looked down at the city. It was a city that was now their own,
From the lofty ramparts of this very fort, the current Maharajah looks down at his city. It is a city of which he is now a part.

In democratic India, there lies a place where the Maharajah - still addressed as such by his people though he has no semblance of official royalty - is revered by his people. Where his actions, though he is Hindu, can stop Hindu-Muslim riots. Where the people know that he will always be there - a symbol of unity, someone with whom they can identify, someone who will always listen to their troubles. He is himself a Member of Parliament and a Congress stalwart.

Meanwhile, the Fort looms over the city casting its protective shadow. Reputed to be one of the most invincible forts of India, it stands rock solid – a symbol of permanence, of continuity, of a glorious history and irrefutable values, all personified by its rulers. The fort houses a Sikh gurudwara, displays Hindu palace architecture, modified by Muslim influence and is guarded by gigantic Jain sculpture. This amalgam of religions speaks of historical changes of power, but more importantly, it is a testimony to the religious tolerance displayed by the rulers. From this same fort, Maharani Lakshmibai goaded her stallion to jump off the ramparts to her death below to escape British captors. Her courage is a testimony to the stirrings of Indian nationalism and to women’s equality.

The city, which is synonymous to its pride – the Fort - owes much to its maharajahs. Its industrial development, irrigation projects and education infrastructure were initiated by the then Maharajah in the closing years of the 19th century. The legacy of the present Maharajah’s father, whose political footsteps he follows, reminds all of what the father did for his city as well as for his country. A MP from his city in national parliament for 30 years, thrice a Minister with various portfolios, he is credited, inter alia, with the modernisation of India’s railway system. The city itself now has a literacy rate of 70%, 10% higher than the national average. It boasts at least 42 institutions of secondary and higher education. It is prominent for its health care facilities with leading hospitals and pharmaceutical companies. It is a modern city with well developed transportation infrastructure connecting it to the rest of the country by train, air and roads.

The above discourse on the fort is not just a romantic reflection on days gone by. Obviously, this Fort represents monarchy. It represents the bedrock of strength on which one can build upon. It represents stability and continuity – of culture, values and a way of life in a shifting world. Further, the positive impact of some of the recent rulers of the city personified by this fort is also quite apparent. After Indian independence, the Princely States ruled by the maharajah’s seceded to the Indian Union. It was an inevitable evolution to secure the huge land mass of India as a single united modern country. There was reason and logic to this development.

So when we debate the issue of monarchy in present-day Nepal, there are lessons to be learnt. There is one, and only one, criterion for the validity of the Nepali monarchy – it must remain, if it serves the interest of Nepal. Does it provide value-added to the sovereignty of Nepal? Does it help with Nepal’s standing in the community of 21st century nations as a united political entity? In spite of premature announcements of the death of the Nepali monarchy and its apparent impending “cremation” by the fabled Constituent Assembly, it is time we look at the institution and judge for ourselves whether it serves a purpose for Nepal and its people. When the winter blizzard is oncoming, let us ensure that we not throw away our coats no matter how old and tattered they may be. Those old coats might be just that edge needed to keep away frostbites.

This unnamed place is a testimony to the validity of a Maharajah’s aura over a thoroughly modern city. This is of use to the city. It is now up to the Nepali people to decide whether their monarchy is useful to their country. Mind you, it is up to the people, not to a triumvirate of unelected politicians. If the majority of Nepalis want a republic, so be it – that is democracy in action. But let the choice be THEIRS.

Posted in, 31 December 2007

Nepali Nationalism and Prashant Tamang

The latest display of nationalism, or at least a variation of it, which I saw recently came about in rather an ironic fashion. An Indian Policeman from Darjeeling won the “Indian Idol” song competition and Nepalis went wild with pride and joy. This is not to take anything away from Prashant. A clean cut young man, who probably looks more “Nepali” than you or me, he has a beautiful voice and sings Nepali songs from the heart. The irony, obviously, is that the latest show of Nepali nationalism can be attributed to the musical talents of an Indian policeman. Where then are our Nepali icons and idols?

Nationalism is defined as “Patriotic feeling, principles, or efforts; policy of national independence” by the Oxford English Dictionary. In today’s Nepal, nationalism means different things to different people. It is a concept either mutated for political convenience or, more often, ignored altogether. What makes us proud to be a Nepali and how do we express this pride? Certainly it is foolish to be proud of our current development status, economic or political. So we need to look elsewhere to fan the sparks that can ignite the flames of our patriotism. History is an obvious area, but there are other not so obvious areas which can provide us with these sparks too.

while it has become recent fashion to debase our history for political reasons, we cannot ignore our glorious history. During the last truly national war, Balbhadra Kunwar displayed his bravery at Kalapani earning the respect of his British adversaries; the names of Kazi Amar Singh Thapa and Bhakti Thapa also shine on from that war. Bahadur Shah’s consolidation of his brother’s work in forming Nepal is a lasting legacy. The great poet laureate Bhanubhakta Acharya; the literary giants Lekh Nath Poudyal and Laxmi Prasad Devkota; more recently, Kazi Sherpa, mountaineer supreme who has climbed Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) more times than any other human – these names and many others adorn our history. And the name that reigns above all is one Pritihivi Narayan Shah, who founded Nepal by means of his leadership and military genius and with the gallant support of his army, composed, it might be noted, not only of chhetris but numerous other hill tribes. This is the same Pritihivi Narayan Shah whose remembrance day, a national holiday, was ignored last year so fickly by an unelected interim government. The same individual without whose deeds, none of us would be Nepalis today. Alas, nationalism is but a pawn these days of power grabbing politicians.

Besides history, we must be proud of our country’s natural beauty. Agreed hungry stomachs cannot appreciate nature’s bounty; but that’s another issue, already mentioned above. We live in the shadow of the great Sagarmatha. Our rivers rush down from the Himalayas in torrents of silver streaks. The beauty of Nepal draws tourists from all over the world making it one of the prime trekking and mountaineering destinations. The artistry of our temples awe all. Not least, the gentle hospitality of the Nepali people is appreciated by the world. Given the events of the past 11 years, all of this may sound maudlin and laughable. But if we are to recover from these gory 11 years, these items of pride are the very instruments which will aid the recovery.

We do seem to have very little to be proud of today, in these times of lack of law and order, rabid corruption and the hawking of our sovereignty to foreigners. But the trick is to rise above our condition and to act with vision and courage for a better future, one that we can be truly proud of. This effort, in itself, is Nationalism. We must not forget that we are a proud people never subjugated to colonialism, That we are Nepalis first, seconding our ethnicity for the greater good. This is not a dreamer’s wish. If we are to survive as a nation, we must all be Nepalis first. We can safeguard our ethnic heritage, but never forget that we are first and foremost Nepalis. We need to inculcate in ourselves discipline and fairness. For example, Switzerland has 10 times the number of vehicles as compared to Nepal, in an area less than 30% of Nepal’s. Yet the chaotic traffic that we see here is unheard of there. The simple reason being that all drivers know traffic rules and follow them strictly. Obviously we need to raise ourselves from the mire of poverty. Hopefully, a stable legitimate government will soon be in place which will concentrate on development as opposed to staying in power. Well, we can always hope!

Sports is one area in which Nepalis are doing well while much more still needs to be done. The haul of tae-kwon-do medals garnered by our athletes in international competitions is something to be truly proud of. A gold medal Olympian would coalesce the nation in a show of real nationalism. Beijing beckons. Our film industry has not risen to the challenge of nationalism. A recent Indian film “Chak De India” (we seem to be looking south for all our examples, but that, in itself, is no sin) made Indians proud of their nationality. Why not have a film that inspires Nepali nationalism, which could also be commercially successful at the same time? The theater arts and music also bend well to inspiring nationalism. I remember vividly Ganesh Rasik’s song of the 1960’s with lyrics dripping with nationalistic fervour - “Hati hoena dati ladne Nepali ko bani huncha/Kahiley najhukne seer utheko swavimani Nepali huncha….” We must use lines like these to motivate us, to work harder, to be proud of being Nepali.

Prashant Tamang is a gifted singer who sings also in Nepali with brilliance. Our nationalism however must be stirred by stronger stuff - true pride, made in Nepal. We have much to be proud of if we can only shake off the lack of confidence our economic condition bestows on us. We are indeed a poor country. We must strive for progress. Meanwhile, let each of us do his or her part in making us proud of being a Nepali. Let us never lose our self-respect. Thank you, Prashant, for giving us a glimmer of nationalism. But now we want to do it our own way – the Nepali way!

Published in NewsFront, 31 Dec 2007 - 6 Jan 2008, issue #47
Posted in, 29 December 2007

Democracy – Nepali Style

December 28th was another busy day for the unelected interim parliament of Nepal. With 3 dissenting votes, it approved the declaration of Nepal as a Federal Democratic Republic – to be “implemented” by a simple majority of the 601-member Constituent Assembly when elected by mid-April 2008. The declaration had been made public a couple of days earlier with the machination and blessings of the leaders of the three major political parties in Nepal.

International media, CNN and BBC in this case, have trumpeted the headlines “Nepal abolishes its 240 years old monarchy”, “Nepal ceases to be the last Hindu Kingdom in the world”, and so forth. The headlines, of course, ignore the “implementation” part of the parliamentary approval though it does appear inconspicuously in the body of the news stories. They do not question why the CA is needed if this parliament is going to do its work. For all purposes, the World woke up today to discover that in one fell swoop Nepal is now a republic. Voila!

I have always been under the impression that “democracy” is rule by the people (of the people, for the people – if you want the full American definition). I am bemused that a parliament which has not been elected, at the instigation of three political leaders – one an octogenarian with ambitions to be the first President of Nepal before it is too late; another a leftist politician who has hopes of somehow being the first Prime Minister of a republican Nepal; and the third whose political party is in government solely from the effects and future threats of its guns – has declared this country a republic without finding out what the Nepali Public wants. Further, this declaration goes against the Comprehensive Peace Accord between the then government and the Maoists which clearly stated that the issue of republic versus monarchy would be decided by a two-thirds majority of the Constituent Assembly, when elected. Of course, the CA elections have been postponed first in June 2007, then in November 2007, and are now vaguely planned for April 2008. In short, the common Nepali in the street has never been asked whether he wants a republic or wants to maintain a constitutional or ceremonial monarchy. This “asking” is commonly known as a Referendum.

If Nepal is to be a modern multi-party DEMOCRACY, it is time for Nepalis who love this country to practice wisdom and rationality and take this declaration as a direct insult to their intelligence and basic human rights. If Jana Andolan I (1990) put an end to the Panchayat system and Jana Andolan II (2006) to an autocratic government, it may be opportune now for Jana Andolan III. This one will put an end to the high-handedness of an oligarchic government controlled by a triumvirate of power hungry politicians.

One might also ask what the Nepal Army is doing about this despotic declaration. The Chief of the NA has clearly stated that the NA will support democracy and the legitimate government of Nepal. It is time now to ponder on the legitimacy of an unelected government which seeks changes based on the agreement of three politicians and their mostly befuddled parties.
Half of the world’s population is below the age of 25. At a time when National Leaders all over the world are taking the helm of their countries while they are below the age of 50 – France’s President Sarkozy is a recent example – the youth of Nepal confine their involvement in politics to senseless “mobism”, indoctrination into obsolete political ideologies, or being the stooges of wily old politicians. As per data from the “2006 Demographic and Health Survey – Nepal”, almost 40% of Nepal’s population is between the ages of 10 and 29. If ages 30 to 34, which really are young enough to be considered youths, are included, the figure rises to over 45%. The present political leaders have followed the near-sighted power-crazed policy of not grooming young political leaders. This is one reason why our political leadership is well beyond the range of what can be called youths. This alone however does not give almost half the population of Nepal under the age of 35 the excuse to sit quietly while the country is robbed of its right to Democracy. It is time Nepali youths use their education, nationalism and vision to speak out with firmness and non-violence. The country awaits you to lead Jana Andolan III!

Published in NewsFront, #45, 17-23 Dec. 2007
Posted in, 17 Dec. 2007

Our Dignity and Humanity

December 10, Human Rights Day, is celebrated annually across the world to honor the UN General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948. Human Rights Day 2007 marks the start of a year-long commemoration of the 60th anniversary of UDHR. The theme for 2008, Dignity and Justice for all of us, reinforces the commitment of UDHR to universal dignity and justice. UDHR, for the very first time in the history of mankind, codified a common standard of human rights for all peoples and all nations – a true milestone in the progress of civilization.

Unfortunately, the term “human rights” has been bandied about by all and sundry so much that it has begun to lose its meaning. A concept meant to safeguard the dignity and worth of every individual has been used haphazardly by politicians and pressure groups. Even the industrialized countries use it regularly to pick on the developing world. It is worthwhile here to recall the words of Louise Arbour, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the occasion of Human Rights Day in 2006:
“Today, poverty prevails as the gravest human rights challenge in the world. Combating poverty, deprivation and exclusion is not a matter of charity, and it does not depend on how rich a country is.

By tackling poverty as a matter of human rights obligation, the world will have a better chance of abolishing this scourge in our lifetime...poverty eradication is an achievable goal.”
These are not empty words of a UN bureaucrat. They embody the essence of the most pressing human rights need of today. Indeed, fighting poverty is NOT charity. At the social and humanitarian level, it is helping the disadvantaged. At the economic level, it is the most prudent action to preserve and expand wealth. At the political level, if we keep on amassing wealth ignoring the poverty surrounding us, we should not be surprised when the ‘have-nots’ rebel against the ‘haves’.
A recent survey cited Nepal, along with China, as having the widest gap between the rich and the poor in Asia. China’s galloping economic growth accounts for this; Nepal has no such excuse. For at least the last three years, poverty alleviation and development in general has taken an unfortunate back seat to politics in Nepal. Moreover, even excluding the issue of poverty, our brand of politics has paid scant attention to human rights. It is remarkable to note that the National Human Rights Commission has received no less than 186 complaints of human rights violations since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord. Gaur, Kapilvastu, Birendra Sah are only some of the examples that make headlines; day in day out, the human rights of the ordinary Nepali is abused and there is nowhere to turn to for justice.
Let us examine the relevant articles among the 30 Articles of UDHR as they apply to so-called “New Nepal”. We are supposed to be entitled to our rights without distinction of political opinion (Article 2). Yet we are castigated for any opinion divergent to that held by the Seven Party oligarchy. We are supposed to have the right to life, liberty and security (emphasis added) (Article 3). Security is one commodity that none of us, except those with unauthorized weapons, have. We are all to be equal before the law (Article 7). What law, I ask! The police have been cowered by lack of support and direction from the Home Ministry. The Army is locked away in their barracks. So that leaves the streets to gangs of unruly mobs. We are entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal against any criminal charges (Article 10). Yet so many turn to non-governmental “tribunals” having lost all faith in the government judiciary system. We are to be safe from arbitrary interference in our privacy, family and home (Article 12). Tell that to the criminals and politically motivated mobs that attack private homes. We are to be safe from being deprived of our property arbitrarily (Article 17). The numerous persons displaced during the past 10 years who are yet to return to their homes bear testimony to failure on this count. We should be able to express our opinions freely (Article 19). Yet any opinion which deviates from the oligarchic government’s is politically denigrated as regressive, anti-democratic and worse. Finally, we are to be safe from being compelled to belong to any association (Article 20). Perhaps the folks deserting the cantonments have heard of this one.
UDHR remains, in Nepal like in many other countries, an archaic peace of writing concocted by diplomats at UN Headquarters while sipping cocktails and shedding crocodile tears for the woes of the world. But that is not the way it has to be, certainly not the way it should be. It is unfashionable these days to harp on the right of every individual to basic dignity. You take away a person’s dignity, and you take away that person’s humanity. The very first article of UDHR states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” At the risk of sounding overly idealistic and even quixotic, when it is currently fashionable to be cynical while pretending to be pragmatic, this humble piece is an appeal. An appeal to reason, to compassion – before it is too late for all of us. Martin Luther King once said “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” So let us consider seriously the Human Rights theme for this coming year and breathe life into the words through action.

Published in News Front, #43, 3-9 Dec., 2007
Posted in Nepali Perspectives, 3 December 2007

Tea Chat and Act

It is traditional for us Nepalis to gather at the local “chiya pasal” (tea shop) and share views. It is in this spirit of conviviality that this piece is written. The CA elections have been postponed yet again, journalists are being dug up from unmarked graves, doctors are being thrashed, business houses are being solicited for ‘voluntary donations’, echoes of Mao’s Red Guards ring out daily, Jimmy Carter has come and gone once again presuming to cure Nepal’s ills, the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) has been overtaken by events, the coalition government is participating in a power-crazed orgy of accusations and counter-accusations, the king and the prime minister compete to serve the living goddess, temples have been attacked by hooligans, we live in a limbo between a republic and a monarchy in a ‘democracy’ governed by the unelected, UNMIN is seeking extension to further prolong its impotence—no dearth of topics to talk about as we sit comfortably and sip our tea or latte, espresso, cappuccino or whatever. “We” - meaning the educated supposedly aware elite - are apparently unable to make any difference. We complain, criticize and curse. The tea or coffee seems to go down better as we righteously proclaim half-baked solutions to the country’s woes. We resort to our proverbial complacency and take umbrage in the belief that whatever will be, will be – it is, after all, written in the stars.

Let us remember that “we” are among the Nepali people for whom democracy is meant. It is our right, if we are citizens of a democracy, to demand accountability from our political leaders. They must follow our aspirations and dreams, not theirs. It is heartening to see recent efforts by professional groups towards this end. While the prestigious Nobel Prizes have recently been awarded, our own “Nobel experience” has been that suffered by the doctors at the Nobel Medical College in Biratnagar. The sit-ins at Singha Durbar by a rainbow coalition of professionals bear testimony to the fact that we have had enough.

Doctors, lawyers, journalists, teachers, businessmen, human rights advocates, youth, women have joined hands to proclaim “enough is enough”. We must be allowed to get on with productive lives – lives without fear. All of us have been aware over the past months how steeply law and order is deteriorating. The Home Ministry pays lip service to improving this situation. The police have proved ineffective in improving this situation. The army’s hands are tied by their confinement to the barracks. So who is going to improve the law and order situation? Maybe we have to resort to mercenaries or external security forces; the latter has an ominous ring to it, doesn’t it?

The fact of the matter is that without law and order there is no democracy. Let us not fool ourselves about this. As long as this climate of fear persists, the future of Nepali democracy is non-existent. It is time we, the common Nepali citizens, speak out against mindless terrorism with meaningful actions. We have seen how guns can achieve political power, how bandhs can debilitate society. Should we let these tactics be the monopoly of the few? Let us remember that we all have the democratic right to protest this invasion of our personal security – and we, the real “People” are the majority.

We hope – no, we expect – that the professional organizations will now unite in a strong but non-violent campaign with clear objectives to right the wrongs that have been done to this country in recent times. The euphoria of “Jana Andolan II” has long given way to disappointment, disgust and even depression. The current threat by doctors to hit the streets is a stellar example of what civil society has been driven to, due to, in this case, the shocking apathy of the Home Ministry and the Police regarding finding and punishing the perpetrators who kidnapped and tortured doctors from the Nobel Medical College. The Nepali population must not be allowed to be held hostage to selfish political interests. If the authorities are incapable of performing their duties, then matters have to be taken into our own hands.
It is also heartening to see the increasing number of stories in the daily press highlighting the present dismal state of affairs. As the guardian of free speech, this role of the media cannot be underestimated. The martyrdom of Birendra Sah cannot be forgotten.

We the People have been taken for granted and fooled for long enough. Our leaders must start becoming accountable to us immediately. So the next time any of us are in a tea shop chatting with friends or strangers, let us exchange views on current affairs but with an eye to act on the tyranny of the few. We are, after all, supposed to be living in a democracy.

Abridged version published in News Front, #36, 1-7 Oct 2007
Posted in Nepali Perspectives, 25 September 2007

We, the People

Last week, The Himalayan Times started off a piece with the statement, “Nepali Congress has gone republican following the wishes of the people….” The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) uses terms like “People’s Liberation Army” and justifies all its actions in the name of the People. The PEOPLE – who exactly are these people? Do I not belong to the people? Does not each and every one of us Nepali comprise the people? Are our political leaders speaking on our behalf, but without our knowledge or consent? The haphazard use of the term “People” by demagogues across the political spectrum has gone on for long enough. It is time for We, the People, to speak up and tell these power-crazed maniacs that WE are the people and do not be so condescending as to presume to speak on our behalf!

Let’s get down to the basics. At the risk of sounding condescending myself, let me quote the definition(s) of “Democracy”:
1. Government by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.
2. A political or social unit that has such a government.
3. The common people, considered as the primary source of political power.
4. Majority rule.
5. The principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.
So today in Nepal, we have a government not elected by the people. The common people – We – are certainly not the source of political power. There is no majority rule, and social equality and respect for the individual is flaunted by everyone from our autocratic political leaders to the taxi drivers blocking traffic in efforts to create yet another of our infamous “bandhs”. Jana Andolan I of 1990 and Jana Andolan II of 2006 are supposed to have delivered Democracy to the people of Nepal. Yet, here we are towards the end of 2007, living in a country falling apart from chronic shortages of essentials, chronic bickering within the oligarchic Eight Party coalition and now chronic inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflict. This must be a peculiar Nepali version of democracy indeed!

This situation makes one hearken back to Plato’s assertion that a democratic government holds out the promise of equality for all of its citizens but delivers only the anarchy of an unruly mob, each of whose members is interested only in the pursuit of private interests. This 5th century Greek gadfly further postulated that a democratic person is someone who is utterly controlled by desires, acknowledging no bounds of taste or virtue in the perpetual effort to achieve the momentary satisfaction that pleasure provides. Does this remind us of anyone in the current political landscape? It reminds me of a lot of people.

We do not live in a democracy in present-day Nepal. Let us not fool ourselves. Our voice has been silenced by intimidation and political trickery. It has been taken away from us for others to use as they please. No one speaks for the People of Nepal today. We are the Silent Majority (yes that term again) who must remain silent no more. Let us speak up for our individual rights as Nepalis who deserve and want to work for a better future. Let them not hang over us the mirage of a “New Nepal”. Nothing is new, only the honeyed words of irresponsible politicians seeking to waylay us while they pursue their dreams of power and grandeur. Their dreams are not our dreams. They must be made to realize this.

The new National Anthem speaks of 100 flowers in one garland signifying Nepal and Nepalis. Some of those flowers are more wilted than others. Sixty percent of those flowers are unable to produce enough food to meet basic needs. Fifty percent of those flowers are illiterate. One can produce many more statistics on these flowers; suffice it to say that we are a poor country with serious development problems. Further, those who need it most have the weakest voice. These voices cannot be forced to rise at the barrel of a gun or by baseless demagoguery. They are also the People. They have been fooled for long enough.

This commentator makes no apology for the angry tone of this piece. We are known as a peace-loving people. We tend to accept authority with almost closed eyes. But let us not forget that we also have a martial tradition. Our country was created by the blood of our ancestors. The fighting prowess of Nepalis in the two World Wars and in the Gurkha regiments of India and U.K. is stuff of legends. To fight for our right, to make our voice heard, is not an option anymore. It is the duty of We, the People.

Published in News Front, #33, 10-16 Sept. 2007

Climate of Fear

As they waited for the bus to take them home, perhaps their mind wandered to the future. They wanted to make something of themselves. College, professional training, maybe marriage when the right person came along…they were determined not to be just traditional ‘housewives’, making babies and servicing the home. Then they heard only the beginning of the thunderous blast before blackness engulfed them. In one cowardly act of vicious terrorism, their life seeped away in that crowded bus stand…the tapering monsoon gave way to a climate of fear.
Terrorism has raised its macabre head amidst us again. It is not the first time; alas, it probably will not be for the last time either. We now struggle to come to terms with the Kathmandu bombings of 2 September 2007. Do we accept them as just another symptom of the making of a “New Nepal”? Or do we label them for what they are – attempts to achieve political ends by unacceptable methods of violence against innocent Nepalis?

A few days have passed since the bombings. A few obscure organizations have allegedly taken responsibility for them. The police allegedly have some suspects. Meanwhile we, the general public, try and go about our lives with the impermanence of life haunting our sub-conscious. The words of Shelly in his poem The Mask of Anarchy ring in our ears, “And each dweller, panic-stricken/Felt his heart with terror sicken....” The news says that the target of these bombs are the Constituent Assembly polls, now less than 80 days away. Maybe so, in fact most likely so. But who gives the perpetrators the right to use innocent civilians as fodder for their objectives?

It is unfortunate that the sanctity of human life and the traditional peace-loving nature of Nepalis have been violated repeatedly over the past 11 years. The gun culture popularized say by American western films or the incessant modern jihads is now no stranger to this Land of the Buddha. The current lack of security and the incapacity of the security forces to do anything about it have driven many a Nepali to arm himself in order to defend his life, his family and his property. We are turning fast into an armed nation, even though the national army is ironically confined to its barracks.

The other troubling phenomenon is the rise of communalism. Is there anyone anymore who considers himself/herself a “Nepali”? We now comprise an ethnic mosaic with pointed classifications such as Madhises, Pahadis, Bahuns, Chettris, Limbus, Kirats, Newars, Thakalis, Janjatis, Dalits and on and on – each fighting for that last pound of flesh from an emerging democratic polity. Somewhere down the line, the “unity” of this country has been placed in the back burner. While, for example, the European Community is increasingly united by its monetary unit and international perspective, we Nepalis are fragmenting ourselves, stapling ethnic and communal labels on one another. Our new national anthem that speaks of a united Nepal, likening it to a garland of 100 flowers, pays but lip service to today’s reality.

Coming back to the apparent purpose of the 2 September bombings, on the surface everyone appears to be supporting the CA polls. Lip service again! Any keen observer of contemporary Nepali politics is fully aware that there are those who would benefit from the postponement or even cancellation of the 22 November polls. There has been the recent alarming proposition to convert the current interim parliament to a constituent assembly, as if by a magic wand. Other preposterous proposals have been put forward by different political parties. There seems to be an ongoing competition on who can come up with more demands. The futility of this demand-based politics is obvious when the supply of goods and services to be provided by the government is so scarce.

The necessity of the CA Elections is sacrosanct. If Nepal is to be a multi-party democracy with a legitimate elected government, there is no way around these elections. While politics is certainly the art of compromise, political decisions will never please everyone equally. The 1990 Constitution was hailed at the time as one of the best in the world. Today that same constitution is being shredded by haphazard amendments and on its way to being defunct. One wonders about the fate of the new post-CA constitution given the political fickleness of our leaders. Case in point is the shunting aside, by his own party, of the core philosophy of that “most charismatic and visionary leader” (NewsFront #32), B.P. Koirala, and his emphasis on national reconciliation and national sovereignty cemented by democratic forces and the monarchy.

No matter who planted those bombs on 2 September, the fact remains that it was wrong – morally, socially as well as politically. Unless we want to make Nepal mirror Baghdad, this has to stop. Those who believe that they are achieving political ends must ask themselves whether the means they are using are justified. The question is whether the entire Nepali population is to be held hostage to selfish political goals. As long as this climate of fear persists, the future of Nepali democracy is bleak. Let there be no doubt about this. It is time we, the common Nepali citizens, speak out against mindless terrorism with meaningful actions. We have seen how guns can achieve political power, how bandhs and ‘chakka jams’ can debilitate society. Why let these tactics be the monopoly of the few? Let us remember that we all have the democratic right to protest this invasion of our personal security – and we, the real “People” are the majority.

Published in Kathmandu Post, 16 August 2007

What Is To Be Done?

In the current almost inscrutable maze of Nepali politics it seems opportune to ask “what is to be done?” to ensure democracy in Nepal. (Apologies to Nikolai Chernyshevski who wrote a novel with this title circa 1887 and also to Vladimir Lenin who borrowed this title, circa 1915, for his own treatise on the Bolshevik cause.) This is a question that plays, or should play, in the minds of every Nepali who is bemused, appalled and downright frightened by where the country is currently headed.

There is no “New Nepal” yet. April 2006 was not a “political watershed” as termed by many. It was merely a consequence of the unholy alliance between the seven political parties and the Maoists, endorsed by a gullible international community and forced by the high-handed approach of the Government then. There still exist triangular, though uneven, centers of political leverage in Nepali politics: the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), the Maoists and the currently side-lined king. The SPA is bungling along with no leadership or direction. The Maoists are playing a waiting game to seize the first opportunity to come to power (not necessarily by democratic means). The king, stripped of his powers, remains still a distant focal point for a substantial number of those who still believe that the monarchy is useful for the New Nepal. Given recent developments, the Madhesis (MJF, JTMM, etc.) may be considered a fourth player in this macabre political dance.

The timeline has been set: elections for the Constituent Assembly on 22 November 2007, just over three months away. The Chief Elections Commissioner has yet to confirm that the law and order situation is expected to be conducive to elections by the planned date. Eastern Terai is afire with the marauding Madhesi extremists. Breakaway Maoist factions are attacking security forces. The YCL behaves like a security force in itself. The verification process in the Maoist cantonments has been stalled without rhyme or reason. Kidnappings and extortions occur daily and silently, since the victims are cowered into silence. Is it realistic to expect politicians to campaign and voters to vote in this scenario? Needless to mention, the indefinite postponement of the elections only prolongs the tenure of this un-elected Government.

Hence, first and foremost, Law and Order must be established across the country, not only in Kathmandu valley. The Home Ministry must deal with this paramount issue realistically, instead of, for example, setting naïve deadlines when political dialogue is needed. The Defense Ministry must implement an urgent plan to utilize all its resources (i.e. including the Nepal Army) in the cause of law and order. So Minister Sitaula and the Prime Minister really do need to burn the midnight oil.
Once law and order has been established and the security situation allows candidates to campaign without fear and, subsequently, allows every voter to vote in a completely secure environment, the CA elections can be held. Further, if election campaigns and awareness creation is left exclusively up to the much talked about “eight-party mechanism”, it would be folly. The SPA and Maoists do not have exclusive rights on Nepali democracy. After all, 62 parties have registered for the elections. Every party must be included in the “mechanism” leading up to the elections.

It is advisable to hold the elections under the auspices of the United Nations, which has a far better record in conducting elections than in peace-keeping, for example the post-Khmer Rouge elections in Cambodia conducted by the UN. In addition, every polling booth needs an independent international monitor, for example Mr. Jimmy Carter’s organization and others. Mr. Carter would be of far greater use in this exercise than the performance he put on during his last visit to Nepal.
Once fair and transparent CA elections are held, the CA sets out to prepare the new Constitution. Concurrently, a national referendum needs to be held on the question of monarchy versus republic. This issue is far too important to leave to the CA alone. The recent “constitutional amendment” allowing the current Interim Government to abolish the monarchy with a two-thirds majority in parliament is a politically naïve gesture, even presuming that an un-elected Interim Government has this authority which it does not. If political parties of every hue and colour - even those who have reached the national stage merely by the power of their guns - can have a say in this vital issue concerning national sovereignty and unity, certainly every Nepali must have the opportunity to speak up too. Let the cards fall where they may, but there must be a national referendum on this issue. The infrastructure already established for the CA elections can also be used for the referendum. The referendum is on the institution of monarchy. Issues such as possible abdication to younger generations can be dealt with post-referendum.

So the above, in almost an outline format, is what is to be done in the short-run. The complacency that we Nepalis are so famous for must give way to activism. We must be more demanding of our political leaders. If democracy is to be the birth right of every Nepali, it is the duty of every political leader or would-be-leader to make it clear to us what his or her political agenda is. We must stop voting for individuals, but rather for policies and programmes. Delays, hesitation and politics as usual will only shatter the dream of a “New Nepal”.