The last group to shed its political clothes and jump into the electoral fray wholly naked is newly-fashioned Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal.
In the Bhadra month of Bikram Sambat, which usually begins in mid-August and ends by mid-September, it’s said that heavens often weep at the plight of plebeians. According to popular Hindu lore, even Gods aren’t there to listen to prayers of the laity as Lord Vishnu had retired to the Hades—the mythical Patallok—for the entire month.
Since the Lord Protector is absent, no auspicious event is considered appropriate. People don’t lay foundation stone of a new house, nor do they shift into newly built dwellings. Marriage ceremonies are withheld. Some orthodox Hindus don’t even buy new garments in the belief that doing so will not have the blessings of Laxmi, the divine consort of Lord Vishnu!
Bhadra is also considered to be a month of black magic. Only the arrival of a newborn is supposed to be auspicious as she is believed to bring good tidings and herald hopes of redemption. Towards the end of the period, the Pitree Paksha begins after which suitably propitiated ancestors release their descendents from the misery of the season.
It’s not very difficult to guess why farmers of Madhes have looked at Bhadra as a demanding month. Life in the region is fully dependent on moods of the summer monsoon. It causes draught when rains fail or washes away everything in floods when it has been way too generous. Just the right amount of precipitation at the right time with ample sunshine that irrigates rice paddies and saves plants from pests and diseases is a rarity.
Falling in the floodplains of mercurial tributaries of mighty Ganges, the soil of Madhes is considered one of the most productive in the world. It has sustained some of the most refined civilizations in human history over the millennia. And yet, such are the vagaries of life that Madhesis look at Bhado Maas even today with a mixture of apprehensions and anticipation.
The Deep State is almost as capricious as nature and often much more brutal. Two years ago, the wrath of the PEON fell upon Madhes in Bhadra with the force of flood and drought combined as its fury devastated the entire southern plains. Ostensibly, ‘security measures’ were intended to prepare the ground for the promulgation of a constitution that would have constituted a federal democratic republic. In effect, brutal suppression of peaceful protests against a regressive draft charter fractured the nation.
Countries can survive with the help of coercive apparatuses alone for quite long, but the necessity of spending all the energy in maintaining order keeps such political entities shackled to the security forces. Democracy then becomes a farce waiting for its own demise. Frightening as it may seem, Nepal appears to be sliding towards such a fate in a slow but sure manner.
The downward spiral began from Tikapur in the south-west corner of the country. Haughty and headstrong, the Gorkhali power elite—almost exclusively from the constitutionally created Khas-Arya category—aren’t well known for self-interrogation or retrospection. But history keeps a constant watch on unfolding events.
It’s true that eight policemen died on the line of duty when a population suppressed for centuries rose in rebellion against the discriminatory state and an oppressive society that was bent on keeping them in servitude in the name of Akhand Sudur Paschim. It’s also true that a child fell to a randomly fired bullet. But events leading to or after the riots in Tikapur have never been properly investigated. The Tharus have since resigned themselves to their lot and learnt to live at the mercy of their masters.
It’s all peace and quiet now at the south-west frontier. The socio-political status quo ante has been reestablished. Order has been restored. A regressive constitution has been promulgated that ensures that Tharus will never have the right of provincial self-rule. The Gorkhalis have succeeded in maintaining complete control over regions that their ancestors had acquired in reward from the East India Company.
For anyone who has spent some time beyond wandering in Tikapur Gardens or looking at Ghoda Ghodi Taal in awe, writing an elegy for Tharuhat will break one’s heart. It’s a distressingly infuriating task; distressful because the long-suffering Tharus did indeed deserve to have a province of their own and infuriating because the dominant Khas-Aryas would have lost nothing except its arrogance by ceding to the popular demand.
The subjugation of Tharuhat in the so-called Naya Muluk (New Territories) began later in the mid-1850s when the area fell into the hands of rapacious Gorkhalis. During the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the warrior extraordinaire Jung Bahadur Kunwar, along with his band of soldiers of fortune, rendered outstanding mercenary services to the East India Company. In recognition of their performance, the Gorkhalis were allowed to sack and plunder what was then the wealthiest and largest of all Indian cities and was known as the Paris of the East. That was an act that brought Lucknow Loot into the Nepali lexicon. The root of Loot-tantra, a Nepali term for kleptocracy, has cruel antecedents.
The British, arguably the best tradesmen in the world, recognized the merit of keeping a loyal band of ruthless fighters at their beck and call and bribed the Gorkhali chieftain with the bakshish of nearly autonomous territories of Tharuhat in Awadh. The fiction that Nepal has been never colonized is just that—an invented narrative. Throughout the Ranacracy from Jung to Mohan, Nepal remained a vassal state, which is much worse than being an outright colony. Tharus paid for the upkeep of the Gorkhali vassalage with their sweat and blood.
Paradoxical as it may seem, the glamorous nostalgia of Gorkhalis for a time when Tharus knew their place in the socio-political hierarchy and were generally happy with their condition of subjugation is not entirely untrue. Slavery—the word often used in Nepal was kamaiya or bonded labor since Chandra Shamsher had supposedly abolished the abhorrent practice to please his British masters in the early twentieth century—is a strange beast. After serving their masters for several generations, some bonded labor and serfs do indeed begin to fancy themselves as part of the ‘family’, acquire their language and customs, and learn to fear freedom.
Sublimation of subjugation is the reason many Tharus refuse to accept that despite their loud protestations to the contrary, they are at best Madhesi janjatis, if not worse, for Khas-Aryas and their collaborators. Acceptance of reality is the fundamental condition of liberty; the Tharu campaigners will need to disabuse the community of the detrimental notion that they aren’t Madhesis. They have to make common cause with Muslims neighbors also if they are ever to acquire social dignity and political self-rule.
Bijay Kumar Gachhedar was the first Madhesi leader to fall for the PEON stratagem. He put his political thumbprint on the notorious 16-Point Conspiracy. Upendra Yadav soon followed suit and discarded his ideological pants with an apologia that local elections were just some other fronts of political struggle. It sounded more vacuous than the Maoist excuse that throwing away the monarchy had been the sole purpose of decade-long armed insurgency.
The last group to shed its political clothes and jump into the electoral fray wholly naked is the newly-fashioned Rashtriya Janata Party Nepal. Forget a face-saver in the form of cosmetic constitutional amendments; it has failed to acquire even an electoral symbol of its choice. The struggle for the dignity of Madhesis is going through its darkest hour.
Apart from the obstinacy of the Khas-Arya ruling elite, the failure of the Third Madhesh Movement has also exposed geopolitical limitations of minority aspirations. Apparently, Indian assurances are not worth even the paper they are written on. Taking the moral responsibility of border blockages along key entry points indeed saved precious Madhesi lives. In private conversations, Nepali police officers admit that there were clear instructions to shoot as many people as necessary to snuff out peaceful protests. But the cause of Madhes suffered irreparable damage by its association with the coercive Hindutva diplomacy of New Delhi strategists.
Setbacks, howsoever debilitating, can’t discredit a noble and just struggle for dignified life with self-rule. Even when temporarily lost, a worthy cause is worth fighting for, forever if necessary. Madhesis must brace themselves for further insults and prepare for the long haul until they regain the courage to resist and rebel again. The fight for freedom is far from over.