Don’t talk, just listen
(The Kathmandu Post Constitution Special, September 20)
I am a Chhetri man, born and raised in Kathmandu. Today, the new constitution of the Federal Republic of Nepal will be officially promulgated and it is my constitution—it has been drafted by people who share my gender, my complexion, my language, my customs, my religion and my traditions. It is a document that preserves my standing in society. It takes pains to ensure that my kind, we Bahun-Chhetri men, will not lose much, if anything. And it sends a message to those pesky Madhesis, Tharus, Janajatis and women—all those who oppose this ‘historic’ ‘epoch-making’ document—that we will prevail, whether by ballot or by bullet.
On that vaunted public sphere that is Facebook, there is triumph, a sense of victory for having persevered against those who would try to derail us. There is a very real geist present, that of a battle won. We the winners and they—the protesters who are against the constitution—the losers. After all, we tried to reason with them, but they just wouldn’t listen. We invited them for talks but they never sat down with us. Of course, we had armed policemen, ready with their tear gas, their rubber bullets and their live ammunition, but that, of course, was just for our protection.
Winners and losers
By all accounts, I should be ecstatic.
But there is little euphoria. Unlike most of my acquaintances on social media, instead of joy and celebration, there is only a deep unease and a sense of foreboding. There have been more than 40 deaths in the Madhes, of both protesters and security forces. Half of the country has been shut down for weeks. There are still curfews in place. And yet, the constitution was issued in Kathmandu amid a flurry of handshakes between ageing men in daura-suruwals and Dhaka topis. Once again, it is as if Kathmandu is all of Nepal and the Madhes might as well be Syria or Kosovo.
On social media, among those who would call themselves ‘liberal’, the tone is both triumphalist and defensive. It celebrates the ‘historic’ constitution with the caveat that the document is not set in stone and that it can be amended. Certainly, it could’ve been amended even before it was passed. But that wasn’t allowed. The party whips saw to that.
This triumph has been a long time coming. Ever since the protests started in the Madhes and the Far West, Kathmandu has treated them with deep suspicion. Despite media images of thousands of people on the streets of Tarai in protest, there are those who refuse to believe that this is a legitimate protest from legitimate citizens. The Madhesis are being misled by opportunistic leaders, or they are being instigated by Indians from across the border, or the favourite refrain, they are ‘uneducated’. There is little attempt to listen and try to understand why so many would want to march on the streets when there is a very real chance that they might be shot.
Instead, everything is taken personally—“I am not anti-Madhes”, “I didn’t oppress you”, “I didn’t call you dhoti”. The distinction that the Madhesis are opposed to the state, not individuals, is lost. And that is because our, we Kathmandu elites’, identification with the state is complete and total. The state has always been there for us. It is at our beck and call. We can march into any government office and know that the man (and it is always a man) behind the desk will speak our language and understand what we want. We can rest easy knowing that the police will never call us dhoti or Madhise or Bhote. We are the state and when it is opposed, so are we.
Know your privilege
Because Kathmandu is so divorced from the rest of the country, we have the privilege of sitting back and allowing things to take their course. We can celebrate the constitution because we have something to celebrate. We find it difficult to identify with those in the Madhes because we have never lived the lives they have. Our privileges have insulated us from everything that they go through. Empathy is one thing, experience is another. And it is just so hard to admit that one is privileged. It means coming to terms with the unpleasant fact that perhaps it is not our innate talents that have gotten us to where we are. It is difficult to believe that we had a head start when we’ve already won the race. So we choose denial. No, they must be wrong. Their grievances are illegitimate. Structural inequalities don’t exist anymore because now, there are no seats in the Lok Sewa reserved for us.
And we actively seek out faults in others. They’re lazy, they’re uneducated, they’re violent, they hate us when we’ve never hurt them. And when that doesn’t work, we choose to patronise them, treat them like children with no minds of their own. Poor Madhesis, they’re just misled. We, with our degrees from foreign universities, talk down to them in English from our op-ed pages. We delude ourselves into thinking that they don’t understand what federalism entails. And when they write to us, outraged and angry, we dismiss them as the ramblings of the ignorant. We accuse them of wanting to break up Nepal—the Nepal they’ve never really gotten to know because this Nepal sees them as Indians.
This is a malaise that infects everyone from the top rung leaders of this country to the ‘educated’ upper and upper-middle class. Those who’ve gone to school in America post Facebook links about how #Blacklivesmatter, but back home in Nepal, the quiet comfort of Kathmandu cannot be shaken by protests because Madhesi lives don’t matter. It is a symptom of a small privileged population that continues to see itself as the custodian of democratic values and the harbinger of anything progressive. Kathmandu’s elite young people have benefitted so much from a rigged system that they will do anything in their power to maintain that stranglehold.
The approach then is of excessive benevolence and magnanimity. Kathmandu is the benefactor and the Madhesis, Tharus supplicants. And if they finally come to talk, first, we make them beg and then we talk over them and down to them. At first, there is the patronising ‘Tharus are not violent people, they must’ve been instigated to do this’ and then ‘You were misled by your leaders’. When that doesn’t work, the bigotry comes to the fore, ‘You are violent people’, ‘You want to break up Nepal’. And then the admonishments that dangle ‘being Nepali’ as if it is a gift to be given away. The age of hectoring from a bully pulpit is past. Whatever happens in the coming days, amendments or more protests, Kathmandu needs to learn to listen.