For the last few years, Ram Raja Prasad Singh (1936-2012) had been spending almost a lonely life in Rajbiraj with his engineer-turned-entrepreneur son. His courtly daughter-in-law took care of the ailing romanticist. Occasional admirers who went to pay their respects to the iconic republican were struck by the optimism and resolve of the lifelong warrior even in his sunset years. Today’s youth, he would unfailingly mention to every visitor, would not tolerate authoritarianism in any form. A republican Nepal, he would reiterate with unwavering conviction, was destined to emerge as a peaceful and prosperous country of South Asia.
In his celebrated election pamphlet of 1971, the anti-monarchy rhetorician had taunted the youth of the 1960s with the damning indictment, “Ironically, at the time of his arrest, the champion of our liberty, Shree B. P. Koirala, had taken a symbolic asylum in the tempestuous youth rally of the Tarun Dal. But on his arrest not a bosom was bared to dash against a bullet and not a drop of blood was shed to anoint the altar of freedom. Composedly, they went home caring little what epithet history would attribute to them and how vehemently posterity would point an accusing finger at them.” Perhaps in an unwitting act of retaliation, the 1960s generation ignored the republican throughout his life and scarcely took notice of his death except in a perfunctory way.
The fiery revolutionary recruited most of his comrades from the generation of the 1970s youths. They fought with him, many of them died for him, and some were made to ‘disappear’—Dr. Laxmi Narayan Jha, an immensely popular general medical practitioner of Janakpur, being the most prominent of them—in the name of his stillborn revolution. In the fitness of things, this generation made sure that Ramarajababu received in his death what he had aspired for and spurned at the same time throughout his life: National honour. A country can pay no tribute greater than lowering its flag in mourning for someone who never held any public office.
Most ambivalent was the attitude of youths of the Cyber Generation (CG)—comparable to what had variously been called the Millennial, the Gen Next, the Gen Y and the Thumb Generation in the West—born between 1982 and 2002. The oldest of them are now in their thirties and are crawling their way up in whatever life they have chosen for themselves. The youngest ones have barely begun to understand contemporary politics. However, across the cohort, the CGs either refused to take notice of one of the most illustrious sons of Nepal or damned him as a ‘terrorist’ in the manner of the Panchayat-era political gangsters. Faboos wondered why cannons had boomed to honour a commoner. The twitterati sneered at the pioneering republican.
The disconnection between the youths of the 1970s and youngsters who came of age at the turn of the millennium towards their approach to the republican idol of almost three decades was startling. Part of the explanation perhaps lies with the attitude of CGs—Baal Matalab (I couldn’t care less)—who have little or no interest in the political struggles of the past.
The 1970s generation is perhaps equally responsible for raising self-centred progenies who revel in caring for little else other than ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘Myself.’ CG urbanites have been trophy kids schooled at private institutions, lavished with quality time and pampered with the attention of long-distance grandparents. They grew up with videogames, tennis lessons and Nirula’s ice creams. They were always made to feel that they deserved more than whatever they received.
The spirit of the 1980s—neoliberal zeitgeist in its infancy in Nepal—when these hungry youths were growing up as children is perhaps equally responsible for producing a deracinated generation. These youths expect that everything be within the reach of their thumb—of the remote, of touchscreen smartphones or tablets—and all the effort that they should be expected to make is open the door to receive pizza delivery, pasta parcels, and eBay packages. Communication should be through social media; activism should be limited to cyberspace; and occasional get-together at a bar, a café or the mall on the way back home from work should suffice for civic engagements.
Sardar Yadunath Khanal, mandarin extraordinaire and diplomat nonpareil, described 1985 as an uneasy year in a scholarly piece published in Asian Survey of 1986. In fact, it was not just the mid-decade; the entire period was unsettling for Nepal. The 1980s began with the nervousness of the Referendum—a rigged process that would legitimise the royal-military coup of 1960 through stealth two decades after the event—and ended with the crippling Economic Blockade of 1989 that made the Panchayat regime cave in. The People’s Movement of 1990 merely pushed the tottering system, and the active monarchy collapsed.
The post-1990 royal-democratic regime, however, left space for the mentorship of the monarch in the parliamentary democracy. In between the extremes of rigged plebiscite and forced political reformation, Nepal passed through some very interesting times that must have made parents impress upon their children that self-interest was the highest goal of every individual. “Mahajano yen gatah, sah pathah,” say the scriptures: “Whichever way great men take, that’s the right way.” The greatest men of 1980-2000 were still royals and royalists.
Despite clear indications of rigging, BP Koirala had accepted the mandate of the Referendum with the hope that King Birendra would behave like an enlightened monarch. The king did no such thing, and Koirala died in July 1982 a disillusioned person holding on to his tenuous position of ‘neither struggle nor surrender.’ On the funeral pyre of the first elected prime minister of the country, hopes of rapprochement between the king and his most loyal subjects were quietly cremated. Thereafter, the monarch would be a mere prisoner of the palace machinery.
Next year, a commission formed under the late Harka Gurung stirred a hornet’s nest by attempting to portray all Madheshis as immigrants and thus second-class citizens. Almost immediately, the late Gajendra Narayan Singh formed Nepal Sadbhavana Parishad, which would later transform itself into the first Madheshbadi political party of the country. Meanwhile, Ramrajababu had begun to train what one of his acolytes had called ‘the monkey army of Ram Raja to take on the Ravana Raja.’
In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and her son returned to government with a massive majority. He had no patience with the antics of Narayanhiti Palace then flirting with US and Chinese strategists. The Soviets were still fighting Mujahideens—moral equals of the Founding Fathers of the USA in the characterization of Ronald Reagan—in Afghanistan and they did not look kindly towards the bevy of hawks of competing powers resting their deadly claws in Kathmandu. It must have been difficult to believe that high-profile personalities such as Henry A. Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jimmy Carter came to Nepal within a year just to have a look at the Annapurna Ranges.
Under Indian pressure, the award of Kohalpur-Mahakali Highway contract to the Chinese was cancelled. In time, the loan money from the World Bank would be emblazoned in a very sophisticated manner. In the false hope of diversifying trade, the Nepali Rupee was devalued from 1:1.45 to 1:1.60. Families of menial labour toiling in India got more money in their hands, but the remittance bought less at home. The SAARC Summit in 1986 deepened the crisis of confidence between the palace establishment in Nepal and the Indian intelligence agencies.
In the current embarrassment of riches, people seem to have forgotten that the real media revolution in Nepal started with the introduction of television in mid-eighties. Provocative talk shows were designed to keep politicos in their place, which was below the boots of monarchists. Ubiquitous dish antennas began to throw signals of exotic foreign channels and imagination of emerging middleclass in Nepal grew wings.
The unsettling decade was reaching its apogee: The Indian Economic Blockade. Meanwhile, Bhagwan Rajneesh had come and gone, ashes were still falling off the pictures of Sai Baba and Indian-made Japanese motorcycles had begun to outsell the originals. In the bazaars of Kathmandu, Elam activists from Jaffna, fugitives from Indian North-East, remnants of Sikh insurgency in Punjab, ‘freedom fighters’ from Kashmir and desperados of all kinds mingled with each other under the benign eyes of Nepali intelligence agencies. The establishment in Kathmandu had begun to be addicted to easy money.
Lesson of the 1980s? Nepal was no country for anybody not connected with the Narayanhiti Palace. The target had been identified. In time, it would fall prey to its own machinations. Meanwhile, the generation that would ridicule monarchy to its fall had begun to discover its anthems.
Parachutists hijacked the post-1990 politics. Politicians who had deserted the ship during difficult times to pursue lucrative careers here and abroad began to make a beeline for public posts. In the euphoria of the 1990s, the profit sector prospered as airlines, banks, hospitals, schools and land transport were thrown open to all kinds of speculators. The NGO-sector, too, found that donors had more money for them than they could handle. The free-for-all bolstered the confidence of CG urbanites but alienated rural youngsters. In villages, children become adult at 14 and they suddenly found that machines were digging roads, trucks were bringing goods and they had no money to buy the abundant supply. Some picked up guns at the urging of political entrepreneurs. A lot many began to go abroad in search of livelihood.
Remittance became a magic term after the Narayanhiti Massacre when even middleclass youths lost all hopes in the future of the country. Those seeking refugee statuses in many Western countries in the early years of the millennium, on the pretext that they were being targeted by the royal-military regime, were usually royalists. Similarly, the ones who claimed that they were on the hit list of Maoists and needed protection may have been Maoist sympathisers.
Duplicity emerged as the defining characteristic of educated Nepalis determined to leave the country at all costs. A few winners of the Diversity Visa Lottery, when denied permission to migrate, would hold protest marches and fast-unto-death for their inalienable right to run away from their country and settle in their dreamland.
The values CGs imbibed from such surroundings were unmistakable: Protect and promote your self-interest; everything else is secondary. If conscience troubled, Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare from the neighbouring country had a heady prescription: Mouth platitudes against corruption, and all your flaws would be forgotten and forgiven.
Little wonder, the highest concern of the top-of-the-heap CG urbanite nowadays is how to cut, saw, or sandpaper a micro SIM so that it will fit into the nano-SIM slot of the latest iPhone 5. The labouring class wants to find out the easiest way of obtaining a visa for Qatar—the Sheikhdom where Nepalis outnumber local citizens—and obtaining a work permit is the prime concern of rural youths aged between 16 and 32.
Why Ramrajababu had so much faith in these youngsters? To deracinate, says the dictionary, implies forcing people from their homeland to a new or foreign location and liberating a population from the stifling comfort of their culture or norms.
A deracinated Manish Harijan is free to mock the symbols that have tormented the soul of Dalits for many millennia. An emboldened Ashok Rai sees that the adornment of the class he once considered amulets against exploitation is in fact a handcuff intended to limit his role to parroting platitudes. People have begun to move, and that creates optimism. Rosa Luxemburg had observed that those who did not move failed to notice their chains.
From a youngster requesting a stranger at the Tribhuvan International Airport to fill up her migration form because she can only sign her name, to the boy coming back home from the USA for the summer and carrying an extra pen so as to help as many fellow passengers fill up immigration cards as possible, a great many of CGs are travelling abroad. An equally large number of youngsters toil in the wheat fields of Punjab, the mean streets of Maharastra and high mountains of Himachal Pradesh. Some of them would come back home. The Millennial may hold their hearts in iPhones and Androids and auction their loyalty over the Internet, but as long as menials abroad maintain their roots in the soils of Madhesh and Pahad, the future of this country is safe.
Lal contributes to The Week with his biweekly column Reflections. He is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.