Expressions of subalternity

Published On: April 10, 2017 10:47 AM NPT By: CK Lal

The emergence of Yogi Adityanath in India may imply something dramatically different from what the PEON has been expecting

BHAIRAHAWA. Like other conurbations of the country, settlements along the north-south road connecting the Indian plains with the East-West Highway of Nepal are emerging as centers of consumption rather than production. On a late-March evening, there was a seven-kilometer queue of loaded trucks waiting for their turn to be cleared through the Sunauli-Belahiya customs. Trucks exiting Nepal were invariably empty and moved fast in the opposite direction.

It appears that the great country of Lord Buddha, brave Gurkhas and high Himalayas has failed to find anything of value to export and has to continue to rely on remittances to pay for everything that it imports including edibles and electricity.

The country is nearly self-sufficient only in the production of sweetened soda, alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and oodles of noodles. The bottled drinking water being sold at the Belahiya parking bay is locally packaged. It’s available at almost half the price of the Indian import. The Magar taxi driver from Gulmi prefers to pay the premium with a terse dismissal, “One can never be sure about the quality of Nepali products.”

The road from the border has been widened to facilitate the movement of air-conditioned buses that take tourists coming from Varanasi and Gorakhpur directly to Kathmandu. Buddhist believers proceed straight to lodging houses of Lumbini. Butwal has emerged as the preferred transit station for travelers headed for mountains. Other than travelling salesmen and stray social visitors, few seem to care for a stopover in Bhairahawa.

Unlike in Bihar, alcohol is still legit in saffron Uttar Pradesh despite the enthronement of Mahanth of Gorakhpur as the new Chief Minister; hence few tipplers feel the need to cross the border for their daily fix. Bars in fancy hotels along the highway are filled with local revelers. Contractors, dealmakers, brokers and fixers have begun to swarm like flies to the dung heap in the expectation of making a quick buck.

Even in the late evening, Bhairahawa gives the feel of a city in the making. The highway has bypassed the old town, but that has failed to kill the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs such as the proprietors of the famous Pawan Misthanna Bhandar. The thoroughfare through the Galla Mandi marketplace has been widened and repaved. The footpath is almost gone, but everyone seems to ride either a two-wheeler or an e-rickshaw that can be parked wherever one wishes. Obsessed with motorized transport, urban road builders no longer care for pedestrians. 

The airport is in the process of getting a facelift with improved infrastructure, an international status and some modern facilities. The highway northwards is being upgraded to six-lanes. The busy Buddha Chowk is all dug-up, ostensibly for beautification. Hopefully, someone somewhere is also planning for a proper landfill site and safe disposal of overflowing sewers. Things seem to be happening at the trading outpost that once lay along the popular trade, pilgrimage and cultural route between Hindu settlements of the Gandak Basin and the Kashi-Prayag centers of higher learning.

Status anxieties

In contrast to the commotion of bazaars, residential areas of the town wear an erringly quiet look. Indigenous Madheshis go about their businesses with bowed heads as if unsure of their identity. Pahadi settlers avert their gaze when someone tries to look into their eyes. The swagger of the victor that once characterized Khas-Arya entrepreneurs with fancy houses in older part of the town is almost gone. Hushed conversations have replaced bluster; and boisterousness seems to have given way to thinly disguised bitterness at being in a town that no longer accepts their supremacy.

Diffidence of Madheshis in Bhairahawa dates back to its history of being the main exit point of Gurkha recruits. Passing soldiers and local inhabitants were from different communities and everyone knew their place in the social hierarchy. With the arrival of aggressive Burmelis settled with government assistance, community relations worsened. Madheshis slowly began to withdraw into the countryside and those that chose to stay in the town began to accept their inferior status.

Lingua franca of local Pahadis in Rajbiraj and Janakpur has mostly been Maithili. Everyone could speak Bhojpuri in Birgunj or Awadhi in the streets of Taulihawa. However, most Madheshis in Bhairahawa learnt to converse in Nepali language even among themselves in order to be accepted as ‘proper Nepali’ by the all-pervasive instruments PEON power. But how did seemingly arrogant Khas-Arya begin to develop doubts about their cultural monopoly, social superiority, economic prior rights and political hegemony?
Considering that the UML stalwart Bamdev Gautam could openly insult and taunt not just Madheshis but dishonor their mothers too and get away with it without paying the political price for the scorn until quite recently, the turnaround in public mood does appear to be a little quick. Is it a temporary phase or an evolving phenomenon? Such questions needed an informed deliberation to appreciate their implications.

Shailendra Ambedkar Harijan is a young lawyer and an energetic human rights defender. He heads the local unit of the Tarai Human Rights Defenders Alliance (THRDA) in Bhairahawa. Having gone through the trial by fire of Madhesh Uprisings and their brutal suppression by security forces, he has garnered enough contact, sufficient clout and ample credibility to assemble nearly a hundred Madheshi Buddhijibis at a few hours notice.

The meaning of a Buddhijibi in marginalized communities is slightly different from intellectual connotations of the term in the mainstream discourse.  A Madheshi, a Janjati or a Dalit Buddhijibi may not even be the member of the intelligentsia as a practicing professional of the marketplace. She doesn’t have to show the audacity of speaking truth to power. All that the Buddhijibi of an externalized community has to do is be concerned about the state of society and be able to articulate her thoughts whenever necessary.

In a community where literacy has been the privilege of a few so-called forward castes, an opportunity merely to express can have a liberating effect. Like most other marginalized communities that have remained silent for a long time, politically aware Madheshis want to be heard even if they are merely repeating what earlier speakers have already said. Patience is the price learners and listeners have to be willing to pay if they are at all interested in hearing voices of the grassroots.

Coping mechanisms

Perhaps the subaltern is to the cultural economy of consumption what serfs and slaves were to the feudal system of political economy. In the loyalty, reward and patron-client networks of consumptive economies with centralized control of contacts, capital and information flows, a subaltern lies outside the politically, culturally and economically fused power structure of complete hegemony.

Unlike the proletariat of the industrial economy, the subaltern is too diverse, dispersed and defuse to organize and rise up in rebellion. Perhaps that’s what made Gayatri Spival ask provocatively whether the subaltern could speak and then answer her own question negatively. Political scientist Jay Maggio puts it even more forcefully—“the act of empowering itself has a silencing effect”; something that the UML has successfully done to its showpiece members from minority communities. When survival is imperilled, subservience comes naturally to the subaltern. Madheshi UML politicos have learnt to swallow their self-respect in order to maintain whatever little role they have.

Like subservience, complete submission in expectation of just rewards too is an effective coping mechanism. Madheshi and Janjati members of Nepali Congress have routinely found that they end up getting more when they ask for nothing, former President Rambaran Yadav being an illustrious case in point. However, the price of such an honor is the sacrifice of one’s identity and dignity.

Like all supplicants in unequal power relationships, Madheshbadi parties have been looking for their rightful share through honourable settlements in the national politics. They are increasingly being pushed into the corner by cries of the fourth ‘S’ option—an outright separation.

The state is not a divinely ordained entity but a political artefact created through coercion or consent; hence calls for independence aren’t as blasphemous as they are often made out to be in all inappropriately imagined countries. Unlike the Madheshi heartland of eastern Tarai where CK Raut has few takers of his radical rhetoric, he has begun to appear as the last hope of redemption westward of Bhairahawa. Little wonder, shroud of sadness has begun to envelope western Madhesh.

Emergence of Yogi Adityanath in Indian politics may imply something dramatically different from what the PEON has been wistfully expecting. Interesting times, in Chinese sense of the term, seems to lie ahead for arbitrarily constructed Province Number Five.

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