Traps & bubbles
Traps & bubbles
– DAULAT JHA
For a nation as ethnically and linguistically diverse as Nepal, we have a relatively good record of peaceful coexistence and communal harmony. There have, however, been sporadic insurrections ever since the consolidation of the modern Nepali state by Prithvi Narayan Shah, particularly because the conquered smaller states were ethnically cohesive units with aspirations towards self-governance. Yet, perhaps because of the lack of free media and excessive state regulation, such movements were conveniently brushed under the carpet. Our schools and the government media reiterated that Nepal was a ‘common garden of 4 jaats and 36 varnas’ until it was imprinted in our psyche. Three years ago, events that unfolded in the mid-western town of Nepalgunj not only shattered that image but also exposed the severe limitations of our civil society and the intelligentsia, including the media, which had resulted due to the persistence of the myth.
On Dec 26, 2006, ethnic clashes had erupted between the Madhesi and the Pahadi communities in Nepalgunj. Shops owned by Madhesis were vandalized and burnt. Madhesis were attacked by mobs, with policemen protecting the attackers while firing tear gas shells towards the receding Madhesi resistors. A video of the incident was widely disseminated in the Tarai, which showed the complicity of the state apparatus in the incident, fueling widespread resentment against the government. The crudely-edited amateur footage was mixed with incendiary captions such as ‘Pahadi community cheers the Nepal police’. The impact of the video was amplified by the unreliable and often biased reporting by the national media, which underreported and distorted facts, under the guise of ‘responsible journalism’ to not let ethnic tensions escalate.
The Nepalgunj riot was a prelude to what was to come. The role the video played in the subsequent Madhes movement of January 2007 cannot be understated. The spontaneity and lack of organization of the movement further resulted in it being directed not only against the state but also against the Pahadi community. Talking to civil society representatives following the first Madhes movement, it was apparent that they held diametrically-opposite views on the movement based on their ethnicity. Since elected civil society bodies were then highly unrepresentative, the national intelligentsia quickly adopted the view that the movement was mired in communalism. And communalism was in itself seen as the single-largest threat to national sovereignty and unity in the prevalent paradigm.
Thanks to the various movements, there has been a sea change with regards to inclusiveness in all sectors today. The initial communalism, which resulted in the displacement of many people, has gradually subsided by now. Relations between Pahadis and Madhesis have normalized for the most part. Yet, the idea retains its influence among many of the intelligentsia, analysts, civil society and media. A common form in which it expresses itself today is through opposition to ethnic-based federalism citing discrimination against minorities in the newly-created states, an issue that can easily be resolved through binding national legislation providing guarantee of minority rights and inclusiveness at the state levels.
In the immediate aftermath of the Madhes movement, the intelligentsia was at a loss to explain the intensity of the movement and the brutality of state repression. Even the autocratic regime of Gyanendra Shah had not gone as far in his repression of the Janandolan II; varied estimates put the death toll in the forties. This was compounded by the insularity of the intelligentsia and the inescapable human condition of subjectivity. This is what I mean when I use the expression ‘traps’. Today, this same trap is what guides them to continue to believe in communal disharmony among the Madhesis and Pahadis in the Tarai even as most Pahadis who have lived here for long disagree. What has happened is that the asymmetric relationship that previously existed has taken a more equitable form, sometimes to the resentment of those who previously benefited from the then state of affairs. The new cordiality in the relationship is most pronounced in cities with mixed ethnicities and in particular among the lower and middle classes. The intelligentsia that had once embraced ethnic federalism as a panacea to ethnic discontent, however, now again stokes up fears about communalism in backdoor consultations.
Another immediate impact of the Nepalgunj incident and the subsequent ethnic movements was the creation of media bubbles. Ever since the democratization of media, Nepal has seen a proliferation of local newspapers and FM stations. Generally catering to small target audiences, it is inevitable that such local media engage in pandering to their demography. This develops into a self-perpetuating cycle when there is a lack of dialogue between the different media outlets. During the Madhes movements, even as the national media depicted the movement as anarchic, the local media was conversely fuelling the movement by focusing on the excessive use of force by the security forces. The resentment during the movement was such that the press was purposely targeted, with local journalists bearing the brunt even as they complained that national-level editors had presented the stories in altered forms.
The popularity of local media and the authority of national media make a dangerous cocktail. As national-level analysts and policymakers rely more on national media, the masses absorb the local media that befit their views. The ensuing media bubbles not only create varied perceptions of a single incident, it is also detrimental to genuine democracy in the long run. In such a situation, a small incident can lead to serious misunderstanding resulting in communal conflict. Not very long ago, an incident about arson at a mosque almost led to clashes between the Hindu Pahadi and Muslim Madhesi communities, which were thankfully averted after active interference by the civil society.
It is our human condition that we are trapped by subjectivity but also the greatness of humanity that we strive towards objectivity. Political analysis and journalism is inevitably influenced by this dialectic. A conscious effort on the part of the intelligentsia in good faith is the only solution to this problem, which if not addressed, may have serious consequences to the maintenance of our social fabric. On the other hand, capacity-building of local media outlets, promoting inclusiveness in the national media, and the formation of an independent media monitoring (and perhaps regulating) body are some immediate steps the government and civil society can undertake. Above all, it is important that our biases do not impinge on our decisions that could undermine genuine democracy.
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