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Posts Tagged ‘constitution

Don’t talk, just listen

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(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.

Just listen
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.

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Written by Pranaya

September 21, 2015 at 4:24 AM

On violence

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“On the specific question of violence, the elite are ambiguous. They are violent in their words and reformist in their attitudes.”

One day, some weeks ago, as I walked down from my home in Greenland Dhapasi to a microbus at Basundhara, I noticed two young kids, maybe 11 or 12, doggedly following a Madhesi man with a bicycle. This man, dressed in loose fitting cotton pants and shirt, was studiously attempting to ignore the two boys, who were hand-in-hand and giggling. As I passed by, I distinctly heard the boys call after the man, while following him around, “Dhoti, ae Dhoti.”

“It is not enough for the settler to delimit physically, that is to say with the help of the army and the police force, the place of the native. As if to show the totalitarian character of colonial exploitation the settler paints the native as a sort of quintessence of evil. Native society is not simply described as a society lacking in values…The native is declared insensible to ethics; he represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is, let us dare to admit, the enemy of values, and in this sense he is the absolute evil.”

Even earlier, when images of Madhesi and Janajati leaders smashing and hurling chairs in Parliament flooded our airspaces, social media took on a strange, unwelcome hue. Under a thin veneer of condemning violence, the bile spewed on social media took on decidedly bigoted overtones. The barbs hurled were no doubt familiar to Madhesis: dhoti, Bihari, Indian. Some people, who on occasion had even posted that all 601 members of the Constituent Assembly, should be shot, were now suddenly concerned about the sanctity of Parliament. Most others complained of what ‘message’ this would send to the world.

Earlier this week, when news came in of the terrible deaths of security forces and protestors, social media was similarly flooded. This time, the racism wasn’t hidden; it burst forth as if it had been waiting, crouched beneath the skin. There were comments about how Tharus should have stayed Kamaiyas, comments wishing for floods to wash away the Tharus. Some regretted having donated goods to those very Tharus during the floods last year. Someone posted, “Let the security forces go around the Madhes and ask everyone there who they are. Anyone who replies ‘Madhesi’ or ‘Tharu’ should be shot dead on the spot. Anyone who replies Nepali should be let go.” And all along, that now-familiar refrain, “Are they even Nepali?”

 “The native is always on the alert, for since he can only make out with difficulty the many symbols of the colonial world, he is never sure whether or not he has crossed the frontier. Confronted with a world ruled by the settler, the native is always presumed guilty. But the native’s guilt is never a guilt which he accepts; it is rather a kind of curse, a sort of sword of Damocles, for, in his innermost spirit, the native admits no accusation. He is overpowered but not tamed; he is treated as an inferior but he is not convinced of his inferiority.”

There is no defence of violence. Malcolm X’s threat of ‘by any means necessary’ does not encourage violence, it encourages only the means that are necessary.  And there are those who would argue violence as necessary, but I would reply that murder is never necessary. The violence inflicted on an unequal system is the only kind of violence that is necessary and in that sense, the system must be smashed, not reformed. The structure must be destroyed and built from the ground up in a twilight of the idols. To those protesting the new federal set-up of the country, no structure has been destroyed. The new is the same as the old.

The violence of the Tikapur incident was brutal, no doubt. And there can be few who would condone or justify that atrocity. But there are many who would ask that the same outrage be directed at those who perished at the hands of the security forces, like Rajiv Raut and the five others shot dead in Birgunj. But the social media consensus seems to be that because they were protesting, they somehow deserved their deaths. Their guilt was decided the moment they joined the protest; their death was their sentence.

The point is not to belittle one death or another; it is not to say one was more important than the other. A life is a life, especially when it is extinguished. But sadly, some deaths mean more than others, some lives just more precious.

“The politicians who make speeches and who write in the nationalist newspapers make the people dream dreams. They avoid the actual overthrowing of the state, but in fact they introduce into their readers’ or hearers’ consciousness the terrible ferment of subversion. The national or tribal language is often used. Here, once again, dreams are encouraged, and the imagination is let loose outside the bounds of the colonial order; and sometimes these politicians speak of “We Negroes, we Arabs,” and these terms which are so profoundly ambivalent take on during the colonial epoch a sacramental signification. The nationalist politicians are playing with fire: for, as an African leader recently warned a group of young intellectuals, “Think well before you speak to the masses, for they flare up quickly.””

Who is to blame for these deaths? Is every man his own master or is he often misled and promised dreams by those who would seek to use this man for their own ends? On one side, the protestor and on the other, the policeman. Who is the more autonomous? The protestor is there of his own accord, he is fighting for his right to be. The policeman is there without choice, fighting for his pay. Who do we blame? Those who would fan the flames of war in order to achieve all ends, decrying the same blaze they helped ignite when the fires have charred all? Or those who would send some 50 policemen to take a crowd of 10,000 under control, even when they know there are those sowing discord?

Why does it take acts of senseless violence to bring those powerful to the table to talk? Why is that when unspeakable acts of violence are enacted, it is only then that the politicians spring into action? If your early action could have stopped murder, at the end of the day, whose hands are really bloody?

 “Decolonization never takes place unnoticed, for it influences individuals and modifies them fundamentally. It transforms spectators crushed with their inessentiality into privileged actors, with the grandiose glare of history’s floodlights upon them. It brings a natural rhythm into existence, introduced by new men, and with it a new language and a new humanity. Decolonization is the veritable creation of new men.” 

What the second Janaandolan, with its toppling of the monarchy, set in motion cannot be stopped. It has acquired an inertia of its own—it will continue to move forward unless acted upon. And even then, if it has momentum, it will sweep all obstacles out of the way.

No one is ever really comfortable with repression; it’s a human trait. Being beholden to someone else rankles. We all would rather be our own masters. Those protesting know this, but perhaps those in ivory towers do not. Sometimes, it might look like they’re losing but the struggle is long and it is arduous.

All excerpts taken from ‘Concerning violence’ in The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Written by Pranaya

September 7, 2015 at 11:53 PM