Dying or Winning in Nepal

In the face of violent opposition, an ethnic minority fights for equality. But has the government found a way to profit from their protest?

Sasha Chapin is a writer living in Toronto. His writing has previously appeared nowhere...

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All over post-earthquake Kathmandu, buildings lie like brick puddles on the ground. The raw siding of apartments hang like open wounds over garbage-strewn lots. It almost makes you wonder what happened to the 4.1 billion dollars Nepal has received in international aid money for earthquake relief since 2015. Maybe it strikes you as a little suspicious that all the money was squirrelled away in a private government fund.

What do you think about when you think about Nepal? Perhaps you think of snow-capped mountains like so many white-roofed mansions. Immediately, probably, you recall the earthquakes, which broke big parts of the country in pieces last year. These are things I’m aware of, too, but after visiting Nepal’s southern border town of Janakpur, where in September 2015 a child was shot in the face by police while hiding in the bushes during a protest, all I can think about is a corrupt government waging a slow-motion campaign of oppression against the farmers who make their beautiful, dysfunctional country possible.

I write to you to explain the footage I have here on a USB drive, of police shooting at protestors with what was, reportedly, live ammunition. Perhaps I could introduce you to the people being shot at, who gave me that footage. These are the Madhesi, an ethnic minority group pursuing a campaign against the Nepali government. A campaign that, due to some pretty remarkable official perversity, has apparently made the politicians they’re fighting even richer.

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When I was in Kathmandu in January, I felt a little lonely, so I struck up a lot of conversations in cafes, which all immediately swung so suddenly towards anti-government sentiment that, by the end of my trip, I started using the question, “So do you like the government?” as an icebreaker, with great success.

The government is so unstable, so rapidly collapsing, that it seems impossible to pick out the wreckage left by any other prime minister from the blunders of the current one. Nepal has enjoyed eight PMs in the last eight years—a swirling mess of constantly splintering parties fighting amongst themselves. So, though it may seem a little simplistic to write “the government,” Nepal’s power structure seems most easily captured by a nondescript noun.

An Internet game show called Integrity Idol rewards Nepal’s least corrupt officials with pretty trophies. The current prime minister is a high-school dropout who makes Donald Trump look like Winston Churchill.

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Madhesi is a term somewhat like a famously nasty two-syllable American slur for black people, which serves to lump together a bunch of darker-skinned ethnic groups. The thing about being Madhesi is you’re considered Indian, not Nepali. The Nepalese have a paranoid attitude towards India—the man who conquered the kingdoms that comprised Nepal called his creation “a yam between two boulders,” the boulders being China and India. The Madhesi intermarry with Indians, and many have darker skin, and some of them speak Indian languages—in a caste-based society, this means being branded as Those Other People Over There, the human tentacles of India’s influence, the ones slowly destroying Nepali culture.

Many Madhesi—who now take pride in this moniker—live on the Terai, also known simply as the Madhesh, a low, flat wetland where cows trot through a clingy damp air. The earthquake didn’t touch the cities of the Madhesh, but it kind of looks like it did: Janakpur, the border city I visited, is impoverished, filled with crumbling, cracked multi-story buildings or small hovels, stretching in crooked lines away from a big white temple.

I travelled to the Madhesh with Patrick Ward, who is also a Western journalist, and Praveen Kumar Yadav, a Madhesi reporter who was totally invaluable to this project—he found sources, he translated, he got us chicken. Banita Khanal, a writer from the high caste—the “hill Brahmins,” as they’re called—accompanied us as well. Khanal was becoming increasingly concerned that the racist rhetoric her friends espoused wasn’t at all true. We took a fast tiny bus through severe hills, a trip described beautifully by Yadav as “much sick-making.” After the sick was made, the country abruptly flattened out, revealing a sea of sugarcane fields—this is where the Madhesi farm much of their country’s food, for their oppressors, among others.

Two Madhesi children were killed by police; at least two protestors were shot when they pelted police cars with stones.

From a bus depot we took a shaky rickshaw ride past troughs of gravel left by recent monsoons. Over the displeased-sounding putter of the engine, Yadav told me that if you’re growing up Madhesi, you usually get ridiculed for your dark skin or Southern food. Khanal reported sadly that she might as well have been one of his bullies. In light of this information, Yadav cheerfully waged small-scale psychological warfare against her for the duration of the trip; since the Northern diet is all about rice, Yadav kept saying, “We’re looking for rice for Banita, maybe there’s rice over here,” no matter how unrelated to food our current activities were. She appeared somewhat amused by this.

As an adult, Yadav faces less naked discrimination day-to-day, but, working in media, he’s aware of how rare it is for his peoples’ voices to be heard. He’s one of two Madhesi in a 47-person newsroom in Kathmandu.

Nepali law doesn’t discriminate against Madhesi people directly, but it’s seemingly gently rigged to limit Madhesi influence. Take Nepali citizenship laws. The Nepali constitution makes a distinction between two kinds of citizenship: citizen by Nepali descent, and naturalized citizenship. Those possessing the former are able to run for high office, while those with the latter are not. This often applies to the Madhesi because the constitution specifies that children born of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers are only eligible for naturalized citizenship, which, given frequent Nepali-Indian intermarriage in Madhesi communities, means that a lot of Madhesi kids won’t have much of a future in politics.

Moreover, according to Dipendra Jha, a Madhesi advocate who works with the Nepali Supreme Court, there’s also a lot of unofficial discrimination in how citizenship is rewarded. Ultimately, he says, the chief district officer of a given region has the unilateral power to approve or reject a citizenship application—and many Madhesi citizenship applications are simply denied. He attributes this to the fact that a lot of these officials are high-caste people who regard dark skin as inherently Indian. “That is the thing they have been brought up with; that kind of traditional notion.”

The Madhesi allege, also, that Nepal’s electoral districts are organized in ways that deliberately limit Madhesi influence in parliament. According to some of Jha’s recent research, electoral districts in the Madhesh have been sliced up so that many contain a majority population of hill Brahmins, despite Madhesi people being, obviously, the majority population in the overall region. 

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The protests became violent in Janakpur on July 20, 2015. Madhesi discontents filled the streets. They had been summoned to a public meeting, where they were promised their opinions about the new constitution would be heard. According to VICE, when they arrived at the meeting-place, they found the doors guarded by rows of police. I have encountered no explanation of why the Madhesi were invited to this meeting then denied access, leaving a street full of angry people staring down a bunch of cops. Accounts differ over whether the police or the Madhesi threw the first punch. After that, more protests came in waves. The most dramatic, in September, was suppressed when police fired on demonstrating crowds with metal bullets. I met a man whose hand no longer works well after being shot through the wrist. A few Madhesi dragged a policeman from his ambulance, beat him to death, then burned the ambulance. Two Madhesi children were killed by police; at least two protestors were shot when they pelted police cars with stones.

Despite this, demonstrations continued—many of them organized by a group named MASS, members of which met us in a restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious meal, besieged by flies, hearing harrowing accounts of violence. The MASS leaders struck me as kind, and kind of badass. Saroj Mishra, the group’s leader, handed me a ball of fried paneer while telling me about being beaten unconscious with batons. Mohammad Riyaj Safi, a young figure in the movement, appeared amused at being intimidated by police on Facebook. He took me for a rip on his motorcycle, pointing out the places where his childhood friends faced down rows of riot shields.

When nothing came of the initial demonstrations, the Madhesi decided to play some real hardball. Nepal is totally dependent on Indian exports, so the Madhesi activists put the country under siege by blockading the border, starting in September 2015. They set up tent settlements along key shipping checkpoints and halted the flow of goods from India. This should have been incredibly effective: without Indian fuel, nothing happens. Without Indian medication, routine infections linger. But, reportedly, the government figured out how to turn this blockade to their advantage.

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I arrived in Nepal not knowing much about the Madhesi revolution—however, I had heard of a blockade preventing fuel from entering the country. So, in rookie reporter fashion, I expected to see obvious distress upon leaving the airport. I did not.

As a tourist, you can still have a great time in Kathmandu, if you’re prepared to ignore a slight hum of the amiss. It’s a pretty city, dense with everything. Tight alleyways clustered with stalls open out on crumbled squares crowded with vendors selling mountains of cauliflower. Sherpa chess hustlers wiped me off the board in three games played in the shadow of a stupa. Nobody stands around on their phones in the markets, because traffic overwhelms all available space. Traffic is absolutely insane everywhere.

Oh yeah, about that traffic. For a country undergoing a fuel crisis, there was actually a lot of fuel in Nepal through the winter. Following the blockade’s beginning, a thriving black market sprung up, providing fuel or anything else—at wildly inflated prices—given the greasing of the right wheels.

What shouldn’t surprise you, if you’ve read this far, is that the government had a pretty shady relationship with the black market. Even while police make a show of arresting certain smugglers, I heard multiple reports of police facilitating black market trade: a cabbie told me he had to pay off police to get fuel. Puja Singh, a Nepali friend of mine in Bangkok, told me she could get me fuel in Nepal “tomorrow, yes, definitely—I would call a few friends and they would know a few friends, who owned petrol pumps or who were related to the army or the police.” In January 2016, the Minister of Foreign Affairs expressed gratitude for the smugglers’ help. There was a general suspicion, among the people I interviewed, that the government had somehow skimmed black market profits; this doesn’t sound implausible, given the overall picture. A local who would prefer to remain anonymous told me that “UML”—Unified Marxist-Leninist, a leading party—“has goons that actually are getting very rich with this black market—so there’s no motivation to end this.”

Obviously, we can’t now meaningfully deduce what the government’s exact role in the smuggling was. But it appeared as if the government neither rigorously suppressedthe black market trade (which would have necessitated an immediate resolution to Madhesi affairs) nor broke up the blockade completely. They dragged out the so-called fuel crisis as long as they could, while their people struggled to buy suddenly expensive staples. They blamed the high prices bankrupting the lower classes on the Madhesi. For the rich, meanwhile, there functionally was no blockade—they rolled through town in luxury cars, the markups on smuggled goods representing only a slight dent in their deep budgets.

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Three more Madhesi were shot on January 21. They were demonstrating over an insultingly weak new constitutional amendment—a mild appeasement. There’s talk of secession now, a growing movement to make the Madhesh its own country, with full possession of its precious farmland.

The blockade ended on February 5, when a coalition of local officials and businessmen burned the activists’ tents and ripped down their barriers. Following this, the United Democratic Madhesi Front declared the blockade officially suspended. Madhesi reactions varied. Apparently, many had become frustrated at how black market trade had limited the blockade’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, the less moderate feared that the blockade’s end would be taken as a sign of weakness. 

Now, the question is whether this revolution will end up being merely one of Nepal’s many stillborn political movements. The members of MASS I spoke to have absolutely zero faith in the government changing, yet none of them considered giving up for even a moment. Over dinner, they smiled as they told me they’re either dying or winning. Either one, I suppose, will eventually answer the main question, which is whether it’s their home they’re living in.

Research Editor: Daniel Viola

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