This is a travelogue written 20 years ago on one of the author’s visits to Kathmandu. We are reproducing at much of what was then has remained unchanged even today.
For somebody from India visiting the Nepali capital of Kathmandu, there is hardly likely to be any cultural shock waiting. In fact, in many respects, there is nothing radically visible to distinguish a typical Indian city from Kathmandu, or the Nepali culture from the Indian.
But do not judge a book by its cover. In the Kathmandu valley, which in many ways is what people generally know Nepal to be, below the superficial affinity to India, there is a strong undercurrent of anti-India sentiment, and this is what would come as shocking to most Indians.
No, when I talk of this cold undercurrent, I am not talking about the violent Maoist insurrection in the country, but a sentiment shared amongst both the Maoist sympathizers as well as opponents in the Kathmandu valley, and I suppose the observation can be generalized beyond the population of Kathmandu too, although we were not allowed to venture outside of Kathmandu on account of the ceasefire between the Maoists and the government of Nepal having broken down two days before our arrival.
I arrived in Kathmandu two days ahead of my scheduled two-day workshop, thanks to the fact that there are only three flights to the city from Kolkata in a week. I had hence the time to explore the city for a whole day, and this is when I could have a feel of this undercurrent.
A long time journalist friend from India working for a New Delhi newspaper was the first to tell me not to judge by what is apparent, and to prove his point took me to a seminar in an elite school in the Kathmandu outskirts. He did not tell me immediately what the seminar was to be about, but on entering the school portico, the explanation was there on a bold banner that read, “Today’s Youth and the Nepali National Identity.” So the identity crisis story is not just about the northeast.
The seminar, as well as observations and interactions with Nepalese in the following days revealed some of the core issues of this perceived threat to the Nepali identity, and it has little to do with the Maoists. Till then, I had believed that the Hritek Roshan incident in Kathmandu was an aberration, but not anymore.
The border between India and Nepal is open, and it is generally believed in India that this arrangement benefits the Nepalese more than it does the Indians. This belief is however not shared by the Nepalese, at least in Kathmandu. The newspapers and the Kathmandu intelligentsia in general relentless talk of regulating, if not sealing this border.
Many Nepalese, especially the intelligentsia again, are also not happy with India’s Gorkha Rifles, saying it is an insult to them that Nepali nationals should be fighting for another country.
Many more are unhappy about what they call India’s hegemonistic attitude towards them, and the latter’s suspicion that their country may become, or have become, the haven for intelligence agencies of other countries, especially hostile neighbours. “It is we who should be worried about infiltration from dacoit infested Uttar Pradesh and Bihar” they retorted.
They are also resentful of the fact that most of their business is controlled by Indian business communities.
Surprisingly, there were even extreme opinions, such as those that feel the Sari should be abolished and Nepalese should revert to their original ethnic attires. The Sari they say was introduced in Nepal by the Ranas, when they arrived from Rajasthan.
The extent to which this hysteria can go, my journalist friend explained, was demonstrated by a newspaper headline in Kathmandu a few months hence which screamed, “Indian elephants destroy Nepali crops” when some wild elephants from north Bengal crossed into Nepal territory. Many other current headlines and commentaries contain elements of the same hysteria.
Nepal is a Hindu kingdom, and the RSS has declared the Nepali Monarch as Hindu Samrat, but this has not allayed Nepali insecurities. Instead, many see even this gesture as a silent aggression.
It is difficult to understand a country on a few day’s visit, but one safe assumption about Nepal would be that its capital Kathmandu is an island inside Nepal. Its realities do not necessarily reflect the reality of rural Nepal, so says everybody.
Nepal is a one city state, so says my journalist friend. A charming city located in a charming valley, both known by the common name of Kathmandu, are almost totally cut off from the rest of Nepal, physically and psychologically he said.
Everything is concentrated in Kathmandu, commerce, wealth, employment opportunities, education, power…. and the rest of Nepal have little or practically nothing.
The hill-valley divide, a phenomenon that happens everywhere in the world, will find few matches to its manifestation in Nepal. Not even Manipur will come close, for at least here, a certain degree of empowerment has happened amongst the underprivileged hillmen on account of reservation in the political, employment and education arenas.
Not so in Nepal. According to many, the anti-India bias is strictly a middle-class, Kathmandu phenomenon, and a larger section of rural Nepal is free from it. For much of this section, India has been a land of their sustenance.
Seasonal and sometimes more permanent migrations to India have served as a safety valve for the impoverished population of rural Nepal.
They go to India, as manual labour and all other kinds of jobs requiring unskilled labour, or else to join the Indian Army, and send back their remittance to their homes in the mountains.
This outward migration of unemployed youth have kept tension that accompany unemployment and incomelessness at considerable bay all the while.
The migrations have also not happened so much towards Kathmandu on account of mainly two factors. One, there aren’t so many opportunities here as there are in the vast Indian market. And two, the Nepali society is structured on extremely watertight caste and religious lines.
Lower castes and tribals are still openly discriminated against socially and economically. Untouchability is still very much a practice, and many who are placed down the caste hierarchy cannot even eat in public, leave aside entering temples and other public places.
It is hardly surprising then that the Moist movement, with its promise of an egalitarian society, has drawn its chief support from amongst the hill tribals and lower castes Nepalis of the Tarai region. Nepal’s fighting classes, chiefly the Magar and Gurung tribes, who form the bulk of the Gorkha Army regiments in India and elsewhere, as well as in the Royal Nepali Army, belong to these groups, a fact that cannot at all be not worrying for the Nepali administration.
Despite the hill-valley divide, ethnic lines are still not sharply drawn as in India’s northeast, but many fear that such an eventuality can come about if the current Maoist insurrection does not find an acceptable resolution.
Considering Nepal’s ethnic and caste diversity, such development will be explosive and tragic.
But Nepal’s lived experience as a nation, centuries longer than India, claims Nepali intellectuals, should be able to prevent such an outcome, and if it does come about, absorb it without endangering the nation’s unity and integrity.
To counterweight this optimism however, is the weak, myopic, self-serving brand of politicians and leadership that the country is cursed with.
Not very different from the kind of leadership thrown up in the northeastern states, including Manipur we suppose, whose very weaknesses and corrupt ways have given legitimacy to the mushrooming of parallel administrations, putting their people into misery and a depressing state of overriding hopelessness.
“Maoism is democracy”
Kathmandu residents are today worried. Till recently, the Maoist insurrection was a thing that happened in the distant hills, away from the immediate concern of most in the valley. But after the peace talks between the Maoists and the Nepal government broke down and ceasefire between the two withdrawn late last month, something disconcerting has happened. The Maoists have infiltrated and spread their extortion net to Kathmandu.
This is only logical says the Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Shyam Swaroop, who invited the Indian journalists in the workshop I attended for a drink one evening.
Ambassador Swaroop, before his Nepal assignment was the Ambassador to Myanmar, and knows Manipur and the other northeastern states very well.
It came to me as no surprise that he too thinks that the Manipur situation is grim, much grimmer than the other northeastern states torn by insurgencies.
Kathmandu is where almost all the business of Nepal is concentrated, and it is only logical that the Maoists would want to include Kathmandu in their “parallel tax net” to be able to run and sustain their insurrection.
According to many observers of the rise of insurrection in Nepal, the ceasefire period gave the Maoists the tactical space to make this expansion.
All this while, the Royal Nepal Army has been engaging the Maoists in the hills, but today they are out visibly on the streets of Kathmandu round the clock, patrolling on foot as well as in armoured personnel carriers.
Indians do not need to carry a passport to enter Nepal, but these days they are advised to have it on their persons always while they are in the country to make sure their identity is not confused.
The Maoist movement in Nepal would strike anyone as surprising on at least one count. In an era when democracy has come to be equated with Capitalism and hence seen to be a system opposed to Communism, the Nepal Maoists equate their movement to a quest for deeper democracy.
The Maoists are not secessionists for they only seek the total transfer of the country’s power from what they call, and rightly so, an undemocratic autocracy, to their hands so that they may ensure a “people’s democracy.”
Unabashedly, they claim the “Sendero Luminoso” (Shining Path) Maoism of Peru, as their guiding light, and very knowledgeable commentators have indeed drawn striking parallels between not only the rise of Maosim in Peru and Nepal, but also the social and political conditions that put the wind in the sails of their respective rebellions.
Nepali politics, like Peru at the time of the rise of the Sendero Luminoso, revolves between three poles. A long authoritarian regime represented by the monarchy; a mere shadow of a representive governance in the elected government of Nepal, discredited by incompetence and corruption, and made subservient to the monarch by the country’s constitution; and the looming presence of what Nepalis call “Indian hegemony.” In case of Peru, “US hegemony”.
All these factors are compounded by the discriminatory Brahminical social order, which has made sure all opportunities remained in the hands of the upper castes in Kathmandu.
As an example of this “hegemony” a Nepali intellectual cited the case of a dry port Nepal developed with foreign assistance to offset some of the disadvantages of being a land-locked country.
Goods meant for Nepal were to pass through Kolkata and other Indian sea ports unhindered to Nepal. However after the port was commissioned the Indian customs insisted on the right to check the contents of any consignment destined for this port, not just in Indian territory but also at Nepal’s own dry port.
This is an infringement on our sovereignty, he insisted. But even as Nepali blood boiled on this and many other irritants in the relations with their bigger and much more powerful neighbour, Nepal’s only dry port remains dry of business.
Surprisingly, China hardly comes into the picture. Maoism is dead in China, and so is China’s interest in Nepali Maoism. China has openly backed the Monarchy in Nepal, and I suppose it is also because fraternal feuds are always more bitter. China is in the cold distance across the Himalayas, while the cultural and economic links between India and Nepal cannot be wished away.
Gorkha Rifles ex-servicemen in Nepal still insist on drawing their pensions from the Indian Embassy and not through the Nepali banks.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author