The reaction of many of my peers to the nightmare unfolding in the south of Nepal has inched up a rising scale of frustration, consternation and despair, funnelling into a generalized state of helplessness from which there is no respite, least of all in the echo chambers of social media. This is a crisis beyond fundraisers and relief operations, and expressing oneself on paper or street whilst cocooned in the Nepal Valley’s many distractions is not, we know, going to change things. Not as long as things are not even in the hands of elected parliamentarians, but dealt in stealth behind closed doors by those we cannot trust with the honour or intelligence to rise above themselves. Still, those of us with the luxury to interrogate our consciences continue to do so.
Much of the talk is about the need for more talk, in order to first bring an end to the violence being committed on both sides, and second, to move towards a settlement. I feel the first step is always possible. Does anyone who harbours hopes for the future have any choice but to believe it? The last two decades have brutalized and desensitized Nepalis beyond what we may once have thought possible, but we are still relatively new to this game. I don’t care for the curious rationalizations that allow many Nepalis to take pride in our aptitude for both war and peace, as I don’t believe any nation has these innate tendencies. It is historical and particular circumstances and the success or failure of leaders that dictate what happens on the ground. And yet circumstances can produce patterns of violence that, beyond a certain point, become depressingly normal.
So while the current violence can be halted when and if the politicians come to their senses, it is the second step that worries me more. We can stop the violence, but can we prevent it from happening again? I do not propose a solution here – it is difficult enough to know who is doing what and why without pretending to deal in political revelations. What I do propose is looking into ourselves to better understand why we are where we are.
To cut to the chase: I was disappointed I was unable to attend a talk on the Madhes crisis in Kathmandu yesterday, simply because there was no getting out of a family event. As it happened, one of my relatives, a resident of Biratnagar, was able to update me on what was going on. ‘It’s terrible,’ she lamented, ‘All the roads are black with burned tyres, the shops are closed.’ She’d only managed to get to the airport because, she said, she’d hitched a lift on a ‘Madisey ko motorbike’. She was keen to get back, however, because what was she to do if a gang of Madhesis camped in her garden? An uncle had earlier recounted to me his dramatic exit from Dang, when their nighttime convoy of microbuses was showered with slingshot pellets that smashed a window right next to his wife. ‘But our Tharus are not like that,’ he continued. ‘They are more reasonable.’ Meanwhile, a cousin with a penchant for driving without a license was complaining that he’d been fined Rs 1000 by a traffic cop, but that really, it had been his tinted windows that had attracted the attention of the law. ‘He was a madisey as well,’ he added, and the uncle was quick to quip, ‘Well no wonder, the madisey saw the black glass, and stopped you.’ Laughter rippled through the room, and my wife and I offered each other twisted smiles.
This sort of casual abuse is par for the course across Nepal, and it is usually the victors who tell the tale. At Mike’s Breakfast last year, I was distracted by a middle-aged Chhetri man holding forth over a bottle of breakfast beer. As if acting out a perverse game of charades, he rose to his feet, arms stretched out, and clenched his fists: ‘He beat them up, ek haat le madisey, ek haat le bhotey.’ That image of the macho man, squeezing the air out of a southerner in one hand, a northerner in another, seemed to sum up the state of the state. The storyteller gave the impression that his hero was restoring the natural order of things. Or was it just careless talk?
Careless it may have been, without malicious intent, but racial slurs are certainly not benign. Yet we – middle class and elite middle hill people lumped together as ‘Kathmandu’, who have as much and as little political power to directly influence the course of the constitution as the Madhes protestors themselves – continue to bandy them about. If we have ceased to do so in the presence of the objectified subject, we feel safe enough within our own four walls, with our friends and elders and, what’s worse, our children. Indeed, these are days when groups that could once be safely ignored are now discussed in every household. But why then are we surprised by the final consequences of our carelessness? If the leaders of non-Bahun-Chhetri communities can so easily draw upon the wellspring of resentment fed by our abuse, using that to stoke the sentiments of communities we consider less than Nepali, then it seems obvious that the only thing to do is to drain that toxic slough of ethnic and racial abuse, replacing it with a language of mutual respect. Only when we address each other as equals can we begin to consider our relations with each other, as one person to another rather than landowner and labourer, master and slave. Language is not everything, but first we have to learn how to talk to each other. Then we can ask each other what drives our fears and anxieties, consider what underpins our prejudices, and begin to work out the terms of our settlement.