April is the month of turbulence in Kathmandu. What’s in store this time?
Signs are ominous. Mohan Baidya-led radical faction of the UCPN (Maoist) is teaming up with revolutionary fringe parties to wage war for “federal people’s constitution,” and national sovereignty beginning March 31. United Madhesi Democratic Front (UMFD) is threatening revolt if “federal” constitution is not drafted within the May 27 deadline. Some top political leaders have outright ruled the possibility of timely constitution. Corruption and lawlessness are increasing, scarcity of daily commodities has unnerved households; but the government seems to be doing precious little, as if all its energy is focused on protecting rogue ministers in the cabinet. And April, which has come to be famous for its rallies and protests in Kathmandu, is nearly upon us. Are equally political upheavals lined up for this April too, I wonder.
When some daring youth threatened self-annihilation back in January (demanding justice and jobs), I saw a possibility of Kathmandu reaching a tipping point; ready to explode. The warning had come amidst mounting street protests from various student unions against the government’s petro-price hike. The plan had been to wrap themselves up in the national flag and set themselves ablaze. The prospect seems to have alarmed Baburam Bhattarai administration—it had all 10 of the “suppressed” youth arrested. The supposed point of no return never materialized as Minister for Commerce and Supplies Lekh Raj Bhatta came up with promises to subsidize fuel for agitating students and the poor (it’s a different thing that the promise has not materialized as yet). Kathmandu seems to have entered a phase of normalcy of late. But problems have only multiplied since the January protests: LPG gas is still as scarce, law and order situation is worsening, the government’s accountability has further eroded and no one quite knows what will happen post-May 27. But Kathmanduites seem to have held their patience.
Elsewhere, this dire situation could have sparked riots and revolutions. Back in January, when Nigerian government raised price of petroleum products, the whole of Nigeria came out on the road in defiance. Ten people lost their lives, hundreds were injured and the army had to be called onto the streets. Normalcy was restored only when President Goodluck Jonathan caved in to protests and announced a new round of subsidies. Riots seem to be the norms of the day in Europe and the Middle East. The key demand of rioters centers on jobs, justice and basic services, which is no different to the needs of common Nepalis. One wonders why Kathmandu (or some other part of the country) has not revolted yet.
A common assumption about Kathmandu’s complacency is that Kathmanduites are tolerant and forgiving, that they forget all injustices even when assured by what are clearly false promises. This is but only a part of the answer. Kathmandu’s apathy to political injustice is not difficult to discern.
First, Kathmandu is not a monolith: It is as much a home to the traditional elites as it is to the middleclass and the migrants. Each of these classes has its own set of values which result in unique set of problems. Elites are ensconced in the most comfortable zones and seem to have little to do with the going-ons in Singha Durbar. Kathmandu’s middle class, sometimes unfairly criticized for its silence, lives with its own complexities. Studying Kathmandu’s middleclass, British researcher Mark Liechty has made an interesting observation in Suitably Modern. He describes this class as “suitably modern”—neither too modern like the elites whose sense of modernity encompasses some elements of the vulgarity and lack of ethics, nor too rustic as is the class below it in the socio-economic hierarchy. The great challenge for this class, Liechty contends, is to maintain its middleclassness. This prevents them from emerging from their cocoons of illusory comforts. Not that this class is unaccommodative. In time, many non-Kathmandu residents, usually migrants, have shot up the prosperity chain through realty brokering and other dubious business deals to reach their current middleclass status. This middleclass, while abreast with national politics, reacts only when it is pushed to extremes or is confronted with a tyrant.
Those who take the plunge by coming out on the streets are usually the lower middleclass folks of Kathmandu and low-income non-Kathmandu residents. But for them there is a bigger challenge: Finding work. If they do not work even for a single day, their household can be put under severe strain. Unlike the other two abovementioned classes, a slight rise in the price of vegetables and petrol products causes great alarm among them. But for them revolution is not a priority.
Second, Kathmandu is used to suffering and submission. It ignores minor threats and if threats are insurmountable it tends to give up. This has been the case since time immemorial. Let us count the occasions on which Kathmandu has come out in defiance. During the Malla era, Kathmandu saw the turbulence with Gorkahi invasion back in the 1770s. Powerless to fend themselves against the rampaging Gorkhali forces, Kathmandu submitted. This point on until the late 1940s, Kathmandu operated under the diktats of Rana Oligarchs and Shah Kings. After the 1950s, Kathmandu’s slumber was broken in infrequent intervals: 1980s referendum movement, 1990’s people’s movement and 2006’s historic revolution. Going by this trend, time might not yet be ripe for Kathmandu to rise up again.
Third, Kathmandu usually responds to the calls of revolutions from elsewhere. In 1950, it responded to the revolutionary flames emerging from eastern Nepal. In 2006, it was responding to the calls of Mid- and Far-West hinterlands. Now since youths are leaving the country in droves for employment opportunities abroad, there are hardly any youths left to take to the cause.
Fourth, in the post-2006 political set up, Kathmandu has multiple enemies to fight. In 2006, they could vent their ire on the monarch. With the monarchy gone, people are left with the option of fighting the political leaders, who have been elected on the back of their votes. It cannot fight the government that in its own admission is incompetent and helpless against the great challenges before it. When the perceived enemy confesses its helplessness, it is hard to set against it.
Besides, the current government seems to be a master at buck passing. For every failure, it is quick to point an accusing finger at the opposition parties. And for every misery, the opposition blames the government. This is perhaps a complexion of the postmodern democracy that scholars like to often debate. Another reason has to do with politics of ethnicity and federalism. Post-2006 politics has deeply divided people along ethnic lines. The issue advanced by one ethnic group is deemed non-significant by the other. It is hard to unify this divided psyche for a common cause. Moreover, Kathmandu is cynical about its political leadership. Many in Kathmandu see UCPN (Maoist) as the chief enemy of progress, but it is also a deeply divided party. There again seems to be no one enemy to fight.
Mired in these troubles, Kathmandu is confused. But this self-induced confusion is emboldening political leadership to continue with politics as usual. April is the cruelest month, said TS Eliot. This April, cruelty is manifest in multiple amorphous forms in Kathmandu. Kathmandu really has only two options at this juncture: To bear with the cruelty or to confront it. In either case, challenges will be huge