| November 28, 2020

Crossing humane boundaries

Crossing humane boundaries
Further politicization and internationalization of plight of Madheshis have perhaps become inevitable. The cry for human rights need not be bound in chains of national sovereignty

The recently released report ("Like We Are Not Nepali": Protest and Police Crackdown in the Terai Region of Nepal) of the Human Rights Watch makes for a disturbing reading. From eyewitness accounts, it meticulously records the way security agencies swatted protestors and bystanders alike like flies by grabbing them from the streets and shooting at them from close range. Predictably, the press in Kathmandu failed to take adequate note of the publication just as it has been downplaying concerns of Tarai-Madhesh all along.
The national press refrained from depicting the most brutal suppression of civic unrest in the history of the country. Journalists usually don't lie because they don't have to. There are tricks of the trade—prioritizing, framing, selective sourcing, creative reporting, subjective interpretation—that are considered bona fide ways of practicing freedom of the press. The independent media merely exercised its liberty of choosing what to see and what to ignore.

The Human Rights activism in Nepal ceased to be a mission and became a commission in early-1990s when ambitious neo-cons were drawn to its career prospects due to generous funding of Western donors. Dominated largely by latte liberals of the PEON community, the profession isn't too well known for its sympathies for the minority rights.

The HR industry in Kathmandu kept quite during the First Madhesh Uprising in 2007 as long as Madheshis were being shot by the police and woke up only after the massacre of Maoists in Gaur. Atrocities of security agencies in the Second Madhesh Uprising of 2008 were not even reported properly. Had it not been for the nudge of UN's OHCHR, it is unlikely that excesses of security agencies in Tarai-Madhesh would have been taken into notice.

The international presence in the Third Madhesh Uprising is limited to that of media-persons from neighboring India that seem to be giving protests in Tarai-Madhesh bigger coverage than newspapers in Kathmandu. At the insistence of India, which was uncomfortable with the presence of an UN agency in what New Delhi considers to be its backyard, the OHCHR was asked to pack its bag and leave the country in March 2012, ostensibly to build the capacity of National Human Rights Commission of Nepal.

Unfortunately, the NHRCN suffers from everything that makes other organizations of the State unfriendly towards Madheshis. Other than personal zeal of a few of its energetic commissioners—the name of Mohna Ansari immediately comes to mind—the NHRCN as an institution has failed to respond effectively to human rights crises in Tarai-Madhesh.

Apart from undaunted work of some Madhesh-focused human rights activists, the report of the HRW is the first detailed account of excesses of security agencies in Tarai-Madhesh. The probability of it being taken seriously, however, is perhaps very low.

Honorable exceptions apart, intellectuals in Nepal have repeatedly shown that they are willing members of the intelligentsia that function as pinions of power rather than speak truth to it. It is unlikely that they will raise anything that can be construed as remotely anti-government with any seriousness.

Looking glass

For over two months now, Tarai-Madhesh has remained closed in protest against the newly-promulgated constitution, but all that the chattering classes of Kathmandu are worried about is the crisis of consumerism. There are indeed blockages in supply-lines at some entry points along 1,751KM-long open Indo-Nepal border. Blockade—"an act of sealing off a place to prevent goods or people from entering or leaving"—is a strong term, but it is being used in such a manner that the word has lost its original meaning and implies merely long queues of petrol tankers and LPG carriers stuck at Raxaul border post in Bihar.

To an outsider, the amblyopic vision of Kathmandu towards Madheshis may appear somewhat strange, but it is the predictable outcome of drawing racial boundaries of nationalism in such a way that the "different" becomes the "other" to be ignored, resisted, and countered in every way possible.

In Atmabritatnta, the late life recollections of BP Koirala, dehumanizing effect of the process of "othering" is gingerly explored. At Sundarijal detention center, an irritated BP challenges the camp commandant about inviolability of an official order, "So, suppose an order comes for you to destroy that village and loot it, will you do it?" The officer replies in the affirmative. The inquirer prods him further, "You are ordered to rape the women there, will you?" The answer is again positive. Then comes the clincher, "They will ask you to rape your daughter, will you?" The commandant lapses into silence and BP concludes, "So it seems you do stop somewhere. You have not crossed all boundaries." What doesn't get explained is what exactly are those boundaries, who draws them, and for what purpose.

Religious boundaries of behavior are perhaps most well known. Sacred, kosher and halal are all well established concepts. Legality is also clearly defined. Moral values too are established through generations of practice. In the realm of politics, however, power plays often determine the attitude of dominant and dominated communities.

Political scientist Benedict Anderson posits nation as an imagined political community. Perhaps it's possible to argue that in countries like Nepal, the nation leaves nothing for imagination: It's merely a network of caste, families and ethnicities that creates in-group and out-group from its self-definition.

The first postulation of nationhood is that Nepal is primarily a country of and for Pahadis—inhabitants of the mid-hills of the country—where some dwellers of high mountains and Madheshis of southern lowlands are also allowed to live. The latter two out-groups must learn to conform to the values of the former in order to exist or be prepared to face consequences of boundaries of behavior being crossed at slightest provocation.

The second postulate is equally negative: It defines a Nepali as 'not an Indian' rather than by any other civic marker. Since a 'true Nepali' finds it impossible to differentiate between an Indian and a Madheshi, it gets frightened by the specter of looming demographic aggression as if the whole of billion-plus population is waiting to invade the land of the pure and brave, which continues to be one of the poorest in absolute as well as relative terms in the entire world.

It's a combination of the confidence of political existence and fear of cultural extinction that makes instruments of the PEON so brutal in Tarai-Madhesh.

No exit

Despite the urging of the HRW to "Investigate Deaths During Terai Protests: Hold Perpetrators to Account", the likelihood of any such thing happening are extremely slim. Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli's Naxalite past, when he was involved with beheading campaigns of "class-enemies", is now history. But one of his deputies has been indicted for human rights violations by the Justice Janardan Lal Mallik Commission in the wake of People's Movement in 1990 as well as Justice Krishna Jung Rayamajhi Commission formed after the Popular Uprising of 2006. Perpetrators of armed insurgency, First Madhesh Uprising and Second Madhesh Uprising were never brought to book. Many rose up in the ranks to command their force in due course of time.

When Madheshis are the victims, the PEON community tends to circle the wagons even more tightly. Most police personnel on the ground are almost as educated as Prime Minister Oli and look at common Madheshis equally disdainfully. Expectation of better behavior from either of them in the near term is pointless. They will do what they have to do. Further politicization and internationalization of the plight of Madheshis have perhaps become inevitable. The cry for human rights need not be bound in the chains of national sovereignty.

There is little to celebrate this festive season. But then there is a famous Urdu lament of Mirza Galib, which when rendered roughly in English implies: When suffering exceeds the boundary of tolerance, it becomes its own medicine. Little wonder, Madheshis are rejoicing in protests against the regime even after enduring everything that the HRW has recorded in its report and much, much more.
CK Lal

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