Wages of proximity
Wages of proximity
– CK Lal
At first, there was just a drizzle. Then it began to rain in the morning. The collective sigh of relief from neighboring villages could almost be heard at the temple of the God of Water at Jaleshwar. Rice seedlings had begun to wilt. They will now gain strength and become ready for transplantation within a week if the monsoon does not play havoc with the farming schedule.
Since these are the first raindrops of this season, locals seem to be enjoying the leisurely walk in the downpour. Not so the candidates who have come from afar to appear for Public Service Commission examinations. Their umbrellas are open and they have folded up the bottom of their trousers to protect themselves from the raindrop splatter. For a disinterested onlooker, the streetscape is idyllic, even enchanting, until an idler disrupts the reverie, “Look, all Pahadis have umbrellas, none of Madhesis do.”
The bile of the comment is bad enough, but what makes the observation biting is the reaction it generates. Almost everyone at a teashop nod their heads in agreement. In such a charged atmosphere, it wouldn’t take much for a miscreant or an agent provocateur to incite communal strife. The sense of alienation in Madhes is apparently deep and widely shared.
The complete collapse of local administration complicates the situation. The Secretary of Gaushala Village Development Committee was striped down to his underpants and beaten mercilessly at the center of the town. The district police station is within hailing distance; and so is the CDO office. However, no offender was held. Village secretaries held naked protests demanding protection the next day. The administration has abjured responsibility by writing to each government office in the district to ensure their own security. In effect, the role of the CDO office has been reduced to that of issuing citizenship certificates and passports.
Soldiers of Indian Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) who patrol the Indian side of the border know that they don’t need to exercise circumspection in dealing with citizens of a dysfunctional state. Whenever a Nepali is caught with a bag of fertilizer, the questioning often begins with a merciless beating and ends with a taunt, “Did Prachanda come to save you” or “Why didn’t you call Upendra Yadav to protect you?” The anti-Maoist mindset of the Indian establishment has percolated down to the lowest rung. In such an environment of mistrust, the rumor that non-Maoist parties in Kathmandu have been threatened with dire consequences if they allowed Dahal to become prime minister once again doesn’t sound far-fetched.
The SSB was once a counter-insurgency force specializing in psychological and covert operations. After their deployment on Bhutan and Nepal border, they may have changed their character. Whether they have been instrumental in changing the perception of Indian politicos of border areas or not is difficult to determine. However, ever since the deployment of SSB, the attitude of political activists, government officials and even some traders in Indian border towns toward common Nepalis have visibly hardened. Cross-border marriages have begun to decline. Strained relationship between Kathmandu and New Delhi may have unintended consequences upon the lifestyle of people of the border areas.
Caught between potential conflicts at home and distrust of cousins from across the border, the Madhesi youth is a confused lot. It doesn’t know whom to trust or where the hope lies. The area could turn into a fertile ground for breeding extremism and militancy. The NGO-activism is a weak substitute for effective governance and political vibrancy.
A section of Pahadi ruling elite believe that a disproportionate amount of Indian development aid flows into Tarai. In the absence of comparative data, it’s not easy to question such an assumption. However, the reality on the ground, at least in Mahottari, may give some pointers. Since the single-lane Dhalkebar-Bhittamod road, which passes through the town, was built to connect the Indian border with the East West Highway at the height of Cold War years in the late-sixties, not a single infrastructure project in Jaleshwar has so far been built with Indian assistance. The road is now in a state of disrepair and needs almost total reconstruction. Other donors haven’t done much either, but that’s beside the point. Munificence of New Delhi once used to be showered upon Janakpur, but even that has declined considerably.
The school, college, hospital, water supply, roads, drains and administrative buildings have all been built with local resources here. Plethora of NGOs that run their various awareness and development programs get their funding from multilateral agencies like the UNDP and INGOs such as the PARI Project. Such programs are useful in keeping some educated youths gainfully employed, but their impact upon rest of the population is often negligible. Much is made of the direct fund disbursement mechanism of the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. It would be interesting to learn about their beneficiaries and politicos who influenced the decision about selection of concerned projects.
Madhubani, Sitamarhi, Darbhanga, Muzaffarpur and Patna were once destinations of choice for Nepali students from Mahottari. It’s no longer so. Students, who can’t make it to Kathmandu, make do with facilities in Janakpur but refuse to go to Bihar. Part of the explanation lies in improved educational facilities in Nepal, but the unwelcome attitude of Indian officials is no less responsible for the disillusionment.
Dhanusha is the source district of most Nepali Workers Abroad (NWA); Mahottari is among top five in terms of laborers going overseas in search of work. Whether it is West Asia or Asian countries, NWAs have to interact mostly with Indian colleagues and supervisors. Under the hardship of foreign employment, they bond well and discover their similarities. Once back home, they find that cross-border relationships have noticeably worsened in recent years.
It’s easy to blame Maoists for raising the pitch of anti-India slogans in Nepal. Their trench-digging antics once and bideshi prabhu (foreign masters) rhetoric now has apparently rattled their former mentors and patrons in the Indian establishment. However, the suspicion that Indians may just be using the Maoist stick to make the Nepali political class fall in line cannot be dismissed lightly. If there is a grain of truth in such an allegation, it generates a more disturbing question: What does India want from Nepal that it doesn’t already have?
Nepali politicians love to hop into the Indian capital whenever it gets a little uncomfortable on the home turf. This trend seems to have created an impression in New Delhi that politicians of Nepal are not mature enough to take responsible decision on their own. That could be reason they are treated with such scorn and derision, and when leaders themselves cannot hold their heads high, people have to learn to accept indignities heaped upon them by lower officials.
The ruling class of Nepal has almost exclusively been Pahadis for centuries and it has always been quite comfortable with the establishment in New Delhi. A section of the Indian establishment helped transform Nepali Maoists into one of the most formidable guerrilla forces of the region. Heads of almost all armed groups operating in Tarai find shelter across the border. Whether Madhesbadi parties are as enmeshed with Indian interests as being alleged remains to be proven.
It takes a while for the resentment of the oppressed against their real or perceived oppressors to dissipate. Madhesis will have to learn to cope with the challenges of shedding subject status and learn to be equal citizens of an independent and confident country. Whether it is in the name of Maoists or Madhesbadis, fanning the fire of discord between Pahadis and Madhesis in Tarai will not help the long-term interests of the ruling class in Kathmandu, the New Delhi establishment or the Indo-Nepal friendship.
Leaders squabbling in Kathmandu must get their act together if the simmering discontent in Tarai is to be kept under check and found a safe outlet. Demonizing Maoists and Madhesis or deifying foreign friends of democracy are excuses, not positive initiatives of transforming a flailing state propped up by meddlesome envoys and self-important NGO executives.
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