Casinos in the towns of Tarai-Madhesh are big draws. They attract a certain kind of people—those with easy money, or the ones who are bored with the dull routine of their daily lives and want excitements that money can easily buy—who come here from border townships in India. Sipping cold drinks in chilly winter and consuming endless plates of paani puri, they seem to marvel at the ease with which they can eat, drink and be merry without anyone giving them a second glance.
The kind of envious looks that the newly rich in the streets of Indian bazaars attract is almost absent in Nepal. The possible exception is Janakpur where public display of wealth is likely to result in ransom notices from ‘armed groups’ that form, deform and dissipate with astonishing regularity. No wonder, many of such gangs are alleged to have links with local administration. In general, Nepalis blame their government for everything wrong in their lives rather than those who may have caused, created or benefited from their misery in direct or indirect ways.
Biratnagar has gone through a transformation in its basic character. It is no longer an industrial center. Benefiting from the boom in the remittance economy, trading is now the mainstay of the market. In the main bazaar, every third shop seems to be selling bags and suitcases. And every fourth outlet or so is an eatery.
The credit or blame, depending upon the way one looks at the development—for turning industrial workers and subsistence farmers into construction hands in West Asia or journeymen in Malaysia – should go to various finance ministers after mid-1980s that left industrialization at the mercy of the market forces. Left free to pursue profits, even established entrepreneurs have turned into importers and traders: Less investment, little risk, no labor problems and unheard of margins. Selling consumer goods rather than working for the common good is the motive force of commerce. Why dream to be an industrialist and bother setting up manufacturing plants of any kind in this energy-starved country where labor-productivity is the lowest but cumulative wages the highest in South Asia?
THE WEEK FILE PHOTO
There is a sound reason the Confederation of Nepalese Industry (CNI) wants the government to allow its members to invest abroad. Siphoning off profits of trade and legitimization of capital flight are the logical outcomes of pursuing the path of free-market fundamentalism in a country with very low industrial productivity and very high profitability in trade and services.
The latest addition to the market landscape along the main thoroughfare is a multistoried departmental store, owned allegedly by some toughies in the protection racket with connection in high places at the Balkhu Palace. Ironically, a particularly notorious strongman won his seat in the district committee elections of UML this week, but his team lost to doctrinaire Leninists considered ideologically closer to the Maoists.
Biratnagar once had the reputation of a Marwari town. At the Satya Narayan Mandir, morning prayers are still held in Marwari language. Golchhas, Dugars, Todis and various Agrawal families did give some color to the bazaar. But with a few exceptions, most of them prospered by accepting a secondary position in the social pecking order. The top echelon belonged to Rijals, Arjyals, Acharyas, Basnets, Karkis, Thapas, and yes, Koiralas.
The town lives with the image of having once been a base of Koiralas. In the days of yore, most Madhesis remained out of sight unless they appeared in public as appendages of the Pahadi aristocracy. Let alone Pahadis, even an upwardly mobile Madheshi wouldn’t be caught dead speaking Maithili—the lingua franca of rural hinterland. Hindi was acceptable, but Maithili? Biratnagar prided itself for not being just another Janakpur. That too is slowly changing.
The middle class still sticks to the ‘national language’ in public conversations. However, rickshaw pullers speak their language with pride. Girls cycling to school chatter away in their mother tongue. Perhaps that is a more prominent sign of linguistic awakening than the Vidyapati Memorial Day that has come to mark the calendar of language rights activists.
The image of ‘Koirala Town’ is not undeserved though. KP Koirala—venerated as Pitaji in Nepali Congress lore—served the original settlement as a revenue contractor and helped set up its first school, among other things. BP Koirala was born in Varanasi. Other than years served in jails of Kathmandu as most illustrious political prisoner of South Asia, he spent much of his time in India in self-exile. The same is true of Girija Prasad Koirala. He was born in a village along the banks of Koshi River in Bihar and spent a major part of his life either in self-exile in India or in the prisons of Shah Regime in Kathmandu.
After the 1990s, GP was based in Kathmandu and paid only occasional, but always highly publicized, visits to his ‘hometown.’ Born and brought up in India, BP and GP were cremated on the banks of Bagmati at the Aryaghat. However, this was the only place on the planet that they could call their home. Home is where the heart is, and BP and GP were perhaps correct in characterizing Biratnagar as their hometown.
Younger Koiralas don’t seem to have such emotional attachments to the town anymore. Many whisper in private that after the Madhesh Uprising, Biratnagar is in the process of becoming a “Madheshi Town.” That would perhaps close the circle. BP reminisces somewhere that the model of a ‘Big Man’ for him in his childhood was a Haji (A pious Muslim gentleman) rather than a Kazi (A powerful member of the state apparatus).
The communication between Pahadi and Madheshi communities, however, continues to be strained and guarded. Part of it is the problem of language: Sincerity in an acquired language is difficult to express. In addition to that, the tone and terminology perhaps take time to change.
The Pahadi Town
Nepalgunj is the closest equivalent to Biratnagar in western Nepal except that trading has traditionally been the mainstay of the settlement on the gateway of Karnali region. Similarities between Madheshi-Pahadi relations in Biratnagar and Nepalgunj are so striking that memories of one town often gets mixed up with another. As in Nepalgunj, almost all rickshaw-pullers in Biratnagar are Madheshis while their customers are invariably Pahadis. The tone of conversations between rickshaw pullers and their customers have become frighteningly confrontational. Even a hint of condescension makes the rickshawwalahs mention Madhesh Uprising. Apparently, the Uprising had been cathartic even for toiling Madheshis. Pahadis, on the other hand, want to forget the nightmare.
Biratnagar has also become a safe haven for operators of bikaas industry in the hinterland. Petty government officials, sundry suppliers and smalltime contractors like to settle in larger towns to spread their business. In fact, this is the group that has come to dominate urban politics in most Tarai towns. Their prejudices are strong and they are more aggressive towards those whom they consider to be anti-national, anti-democratic, anti-people, anti-federalism, anti-inclusion or anti-unity—take your pick. This group doesn’t want to cede an inch to what it considers to be the other, which has alarmingly come to mean the Muslim community.
Members of the nobility in the past harbored a sense of guilt somewhere in the back recesses of the mind that their good fortune was not entirely deserved. The realization bred humility. They made conscious attempts to befriend even the ‘other’ to cleanse their conscience.
Though envious of nobility, aristocrats realize that protecting privileges requires a show of modesty. To some of them, unpretentiousness comes naturally. Others learn to fake it. Aristocrats too are generally good at maintaining civil relations with what they perceive as the ‘other.’
The meritocratic elite consider, perhaps rightly so, that they have worked hard to reach where they are and those who failed to follow their footsteps were either lazy or ignorant, possibly both. Thus, the meritocratic elite have little respect for those less successful in life.
However, they grudgingly accept achievers irrespective of their communities. The proletariat bond across communities with ease.
The most edgy groups among Madheshis as well as Pahadis are to be found among the lumpenbourgeoisie. They can unite only in the face of a common enemy. Agent provocateurs have begun to depict Muslims and Christians as easy targets.
The problem with mending a broken mirror is that no matter how hard one tries to fit pieces together, one or the other shard always keeps falling off. The new normalcy in towns like Biratnagar and Nepalgunj can only be created through a brand new statute. Sadly such prospects appear dim at the moment.
The writer is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.