Dikendra tolls UML’s death
Dikendra tolls UML’s death
– Pramod Mishra
APR 20 –
Dikendra Rajbanshi’s suicide by hanging at CPN-UML headquarters in Balkhu on April 16, 2010 has stunned me for its tragedy and symbolic valence. Not that I knew Dikendra personally, but I know first-hand the diminishment of the Rajbanshis and other marginalised ethnic groups in Morang and Jhapa. Even though death by suicide is common everywhere, this suicide of an eastern Tarai indigenous political activist at his own Bahun-dominated leftist party headquarters symbolises a number of things that has always been wrong about the relationship between the marginalised ethnic groups and the mainstream party politics in Nepal.
It speaks of the morally unsound ethnic composition of the mainstream parties and their consequent insensitivity to the needs of a multicultural country. It also disturbingly speaks of how the high caste Nepali-speaking leadership of these mainstream parties can be insensitive to the cry of their non-Nepali speaking followers. Or, it explains why a non-Nepali speaking Tarai indigenous activist like Dikendra couldn’t rise up through the UML party ranks and his Nepali-speaking high caste comrades became prominent figures in Nepali politics of the past 20 years. It also speaks of how small Tarai indigenous ethnicities, such as the Rajbanshis and Dhimals, have always found themselves helpless in modern Nepal, especially after the abolition of zamindari when local authority was wrested from the ethnic zamindars and patwaris and deposited in the hands of the Nepali-speaking high caste functionaries of the state.
The villages knew the state only through the local zamindar’s dealings. The higher state authority was confined to a handful of Ranas and Thakuris, and regional authority to the hands of a few Bahun-Chhetri Ditthas, Subbas and so on occasionally supervised by the Daudahas sent from Kathmandu or later the centrally appointed Bada Hakim at the regional headquarters. The local political, social and economic arrangements were left alone to the ethnic zamindar’s discretion. All local authority for collecting taxes, dispensing justice, social arbitration and so forth was vested in the zamindars. The state hadn’t yet fattened its bloated machinery of Nepali-speaking functionaries with bribe, bungled office budgets and foreign aid money. Migration, deforestation and ethnically skewed capital flow hadn’t yet tilted the land distribution in the eastern Tarai.
But everything changed for these indigenous groups with the expansion of the Nepali-speaking, hill high caste-dominated Panchayat state. Now on, those who could attach themselves to the state rose politically, socially and economically. And these were mostly Nepali-speaking high caste men with a few Newars by virtue of their adoption of the Nepali language outside the valley or habitation in the capital and even fewer high caste Madhesis, the latter by virtue of their scriptural entitlement and affiliation with learning.
The Tarai indigenous groups, such as the Rajbanshis, Dhimals, Khabas (has anyone met any member of this group lately?) and Tharus who were mostly peasants with a sprinkling of a few zamindars here and there were the losers in the game of modernisation and nationalism. Even the wealthiest zamindars among them failed to convert their feudal currency of land and gold and silver into modern education and political and civil leadership. The Panchayat system by instituting Nepali language as an explicit criterion for participation in the state structure and hill high caste ethnic nexus as an implicit network for entry into it and advancement thereafter effectively blocked these Tarai indigenous groups and destroyed their sense of themselves, making them the recipients of the effluents of modernisation. It impoverished them while enriching even a lay hill high caste man by offering him myriad opportunities.
Thus, while the topmost civil and military positions were still occupied by the Rana-Shah cohorts, the astronomically expanded civil service became the preserve of the Bahuns and the police and mid-level military that of the Chhetris. The culture of corruption that the Panchayat state inaugurated in 1962 and the multi-party system promoted since 1990 benefited these groups. Thus, even a lower-level government clerk who received peanuts as salary could build a multi-storey house in Kathmandu with marble floors and carved wooden doors and windows and become socially somebody while the resources of the children of even a wealthy Rajbanshi or Dhimal zamindar of Morang and Jhapa shriveled up, turning many into day labourers over the last 50 years.
When I was growing up among the Rajbanshis in the 1960s and even the early 1970s, the powerful men for me were not Nehru or Gandhi or Prithvi Narayan Shah but Bhim Prasad “zimdar” of Jhapa or Lakhichan Rajbanshi of Kurheli, Khadga Narayan of Keraun, and Chaitu Chaudhari of Katahari in Morang. Where are their children and grandchildren now? How many of them have become ministers, secretaries, military and police officials? How many have owned and run airlines, banks and so on? And why not?
The answer lies in the criminal structure and functioning of the Nepali state, especially as it unfolded in 1962. That the Panchayat state led by King Mahendra laid down the structure that deepened and widened the already existing tentacles of the discriminatory state was not surprising. I had argued in 1991, at the First Convention of Nepalis in North America held in College Park, Maryland, that the change of 1990 was merely cosmetic; but what I hadn’t anticipated was that the multiparty structure, even while creating a vibrant public sphere and free media culture, legitimised even more deeply the hill high caste domination through mainstream political parties and their leaders with only lip service to diversity and multiculturalism.
You can see that I am enraged at Dikendra Rajbanshi’s suicide. The question that can be asked to these UML stalwarts is this: Why couldn’t they find a job for Dikendra’s son? Haven’t they found jobs for their own numerous kith and kin? Haven’t they found jobs for their ethnically more powerful party workers? And Dikendra was no ordinary party worker. He had been one of the pioneers of the Jhapali rebellion from which UML traces its origin. He had paid his dues by spending eight years in prison. And he was not asking his son to be made a high ranking official but any job suitable to his qualification. And then, couldn’t the UML leaders institute some sort of stipend for Dikendra himself for his role in the political struggle as a freedom fighter? Yes, they could; but they didn’t.
In the late 1980s, a young man boarded a night bus with me in Biratnagar and came over and greeted me. I asked his name, his village. He was a Rajbanshi, but I didn’t know him. He had just finished SLC, he said, and was going to Kathmandu to look for a job, an act I found audacious for a Rajbanshi. When we got off the bus in Kathmandu, he had nowhere to go. I asked him to lodge with me, and the next morning took him to media-reviled Badri Mandal in Harihar Bhavan. I had never been to the Gangai minister’s or any Panchayat minister’s quarters as a matter of principle. Later, I heard that the minister had arranged a job for the boy and he was able to study further. Couldn’t the UML ministers do the same? But they didn’t.
I am going to say what I don’t want to say. That Dikendra’s suicide shows that these mainstream political parties and their top leaders, UML most of all despite my political sympathy for it, have lost traction with the people. Their ethnic composition, their leaders’ insensitivity to the people’s and the country’s short- and long-term needs due to a combination of their moribund politics and caste positioning, their resultant incestuous thinking — all this is going to cost Nepali democracy heavily. The leaders may strut and fret for now; but unless these parties’ leadership structure is ethnically revamped, these parties have become all but dead for the people. And the new parties that will emerge from their ashes may have the ethnic card right, but may lack the political principles to bring everyone together and take the country to new heights. Achieving ethnic balance and sensitivity is the challenge Nepali politics faces right now above everything else.
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