Nepali Times Asian Paints

The freedom to be free

Monday, November 27th, 2017
POSTER ART: Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai’s depiction in the Zeitz-MOCAA Gallery in Cape Town of how African male leaders have wasted opportunities in the post-colonial era to address social justice and governance issues. Photo: Kunda Dixit

POSTER ART: Zimbabwean artist Kudzanai Chiurai’s depiction in the Zeitz-MOCAA Gallery in Cape Town of how African male leaders have wasted opportunities in the post-colonial era to address social justice and governance issues. Photos: Kunda Dixit

+ ‘Political parties have become sites of corruption by those around the centres of power…’

+ ‘We need to put the country before party.’

+ ‘… the judiciary and parliament should be put beyond the reach of party hacks.’

+ ‘When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission offered blanket amnesty to anyone who had committed grave violations of human rights … half the Cabinet was pardoned.’

+ ‘The state-owned petroleum company has a habit of wildly shoveling money in the direction of power brokers, so Parliament has to be ultimately responsible for oversight.’

These and other sentences from the opinion pages of newspapers are not from the Nepali press, but from last week’s South African media. They indicate identical political trajectories in the two countries, a similar frittering away of hard-won freedoms, and a familiar stench of democratic decay.

President Jacob Zuma spent years in prison with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, but is now neck-deep in allegations of nepotism and corruption. His son, Duduzame, has his hands in the honey pot, and #GuptaLeaks emails prove just how close the Indian Gupta brothers got to state capture.

‘Perhaps the greatest wound that Zuma has inflicted upon our republic is that he has buried decency and accountability under rubbish heaps of sleaze and corruption,’ concludes investigative journalist Jacques Pauw in his explosive new book, The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and Out of Prison.  An international conference of investigative journalists in Johannesburg last week denounced the South African government’s attempt to censor Pauw’s book.

An even sharper critic of Zuma is his former intelligence chief, Ronnie Kasrils, whose book A Simple Man: Kasrils and the Zuma Enigma portrays the president as a dangerous demagogue. “He is sly, cunning, deceitful and manipulative. Any opposition or criticism to his looting of the state, he eliminates, no matter the opposition,” Kasrils said at a recent book launch.

All this sounds very familiar to recent exposes in the Nepali press pointing to outright plunder of state coffers by politicians, taking kickbacks on large projects, infiltration of parliament by vested interest groups, and the activities of the medical education mafia. As in South Africa, these crimes are being committed by former freedom fighters.

The so-called Third Wave of democracy that swept the world 30 years ago saw the fall of the Iron Curtain, and beginning of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and in Asia the demise of dictatorships. That global surge of freedom three decades ago that also brought changes to both South Africa and Nepal in 1990 has given way to disillusionment and cynicism.

There are parallels in both countries of former revolutionaries who squandered the people’s sacrifices to go on to become as venal and ruthless as the rulers they replaced. Both failed to reap the democratic dividend, and continue to bleed their countries dry. Relatives of victims await truth, justice and closure in both countries as apartheid era crimes in South Africa and human rights violations in Nepal are brushed under the carpet.

Ambassador Amrit Rai outside the Nepal embassy in Pretoria last week. Rai says Nepal and South Africa face similar challenges in making democracy work for the benefit of their peoples. Photo: Kunda Dixit

Ambassador Amrit Rai outside the Nepal embassy in Pretoria last week. Rai says Nepal and South Africa face similar challenges in making democracy work for the benefit of their peoples. 

Ambassador Amrit Bahadur Rai says Nepal and South Africa face similar challenges to make democracy delivery economic progress.

Nepal’s Ambassador to South Africa, Amrit Rai (left), told Nepali Times that both Nepal and South Africa have seen historical political transformations and can learn from each other’s experiences how better to serve their peoples. He adds: “We are facing similar challenges in building enduring governance institutions, making rule of law work effectively and efficiently and bringing the economic dividend to the people. We also face challenges of meeting the high aspirations of our people in the democratic environment.”

Politicians flirt with tribalism and stoke ethnic tensions for political gain in both places. Just as here the white supremacist AfriForum tries to revive Afrikaan nationalism, in Nepal Hindu monarchists are trying to roll back history. The plan to turn Mandela’s residence in Alexandra township into a tourist attraction is just as neglected as the BP Museum in Sundarijal.

“In South Africa today race divisions are transferring into class divisions,” explains journalist Ida Jooste, “but opposition to Zuma is now across the racial divide.” Her list of the state institutions co-opted by the President and his cronies sounds uncannily like Nepal: the prosecuting agencies, judiciary, anti-corruption bureau, state security and intelligence agencies. Watching the overthrow of Robert Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe, analysts here warn that Zuma may suffer the same fate.

And just like in Nepal, the media is one of the few institutions still relatively independent. A recent attempt by the establishment to turn the South Africa Broadcasting Corporation into a platform for government propaganda was resisted by eight courageous journalists called the ‘SABC8’.

An IMF mission visiting South Africa last week painted a gloomy picture for the economy. It said: ‘Despite South Africa’s institutional strength and favourable global conditions, increasing domestic political uncertainty, corruption and stalled reforms point to a challenging economic outlook.”

The sense of having dreams shattered is starkest at the Apartheid Museum here, which has Mandela’s famous quote on its wall: ‘The truth is that we are not yet free, we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.’


Performance vs Promises

Sunday, November 26th, 2017
Pic: Bikram Rai

A voter casts his ballot during the first phase of parliamentary and provincial elections at Chautara, Sindhupalchok on Sunday. Three million Nepalis from 32 hill and mountain districts are expected to cast their votes in the first election under the new constitution. Pic: Bikram Rai

A ruinous ten-year war brutalised Nepalis and pushed the country back decades. When that conflict ended in 2006, there was great hope for a peace dividend, but the country was soon mired in an erratic eleven-year transition that frayed the country’s ethic fabric, made instability and poor governance the norm, and allowed unprecedented geopolitical meddling in our internal affairs.

The end result of these 20 wasted years was that most Nepalis gave up on Nepal, and migrated by the millions. Nearly 15% of the country’s population (mostly men) is abroad today. The government has not been able to make even the most basic services affordable and accessible to those who remained behind. Remittances have not been invested in productive sectors to create jobs at home. Corruption has become so endemic that it is treated as a given.  There is a criminalisation of politics and the politicisation of crime.

After travelling that long, dark tunnel, we are finally seeing a light at the end with elections to National Parliament and Federal Assemblies. This week, 32 mountain and hill districts went to the polls, and the rest will vote on 7 December. That these are historic elections, there is no doubt. It marks the last stage of the peace process that started in 2006, and it will elect the peoples’ representatives to national and seven provincial legislatures – theoretically devolving political power away from Kathmandu to the periphery for the first time.

Despite confusion about the division of jurisdictions and the chain of command between the three tiers of government, we will soon have a decentralised political structure that should ideally allow local people decide on local development. One of the reasons Nepal has been keep back is that the Kathmandu establishment thought it knew best what was good for people from Humla to Jhapa.

People queue up to cast their vote in Nuwakot. Pic: RSS

People queue up to cast their vote in Nuwakot. Pic: RSS

In a democracy, elections are a mechanism to select the most honest and more efficient managers to run the country for a limited time period. If they do a good job, there is a chance they will get re-elected in the next round of voting. Regrettably, the whole electoral process has been subverted in the past 27 years by top men in a cartel of parties which has used polls just to reshuffle the cards.

The first elections under the constitution gives us a chance to change that. It will be a test of how independently Nepalis will vote. Will their disillusionment with the three-party syndicate and their failed leaders translate into votes for new faces? Are Nepali voters fed-up enough, outraged enough, and empowered enough to finally vote for ‘performance’ rather than ‘promises’. Or will vote bank politics, caste, ethnicity and party loyalty still determine who they vote for despite their disillusionment with the trad-pols (traditional politicians).

Voters not just in Nepal, but elsewhere as well, tend to cast their ballots in favour of those who are sure to win. They do not want to gamble as much on untested candidates. However, the results of the mayoral race in Kathmandu in May saw a 22-year-old student from Bibeksheel Nepali Party come out of nowhere to be placed third. If Bibeksheel and Sajha Party had joined forces, as they have done this time, we may have had a mayor in Kathmandu from an alternative party by now. The question for us this week is whether  popular discontent has reached that critical mass for voters to reject candidates from established parties.

Not everything will change with the first election under the new constitution. We may have to wait for two or three more for performance to be the main criteria for voting. The new Parliament may also have to push through new laws on electoral reform – from funding, transparency, provisions for absentee voting, more effective voter education and streamlining ballot papers. Cost over-runs, profligacy, political interference, and even corruption at the Election Commission have become serious matters for the future.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, it looks like Nepal is headed to becoming a two-party state with most parties coalescing around the centrist democratic alliance and the leftist alliance. In the past, whenever the NC and the UML have worked together, we have seen better governance and defence of the core values of democracy, rule of law and open society. But we have also seen periods since 1990 when the rivalry between these two parties paralysed government.

After 20 years in the wilderness, Nepal now needs political stability to ensure investment, job creation, and more efficient governance. Since there is no real ideological difference between the two alliances any more, what we need for stable politics is a majority government with a strong opposition to keep it in check.

At this moment, that is the best we can hope for.

Ani’s song

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

The 2015 earthquake shook up Ani Choying Drolma, quite literally. She was thrown about a room in her 12 storey high apartment in Bansbari, and it forced her to take stock of life so far.

Picture: Gopen Rai

Picture: Gopen Rai

And what a life it has been. When Nepali Times profiled her in 2003 the nun was not yet the superstar nun that she is today. Her Buddhist mantras were just starting to become popular, she was beginning to build an international reputation, and she had not yet written her memoir Singing for Freedom that has now been translated into 14 languages.

Nearly 15 years on, Nepal’s famous Singing Nun has fulfilled most of her ambitions. She is at the pinnacle of her musical career performing all over the world to raise money for her school for nuns in Pharping, a kidney hospital and many other charities. She is a household name in Nepal, and passerby wave as she drives past at the wheel of her sleek silver SUV.

“The earthquake woke me up: I realised I had too many possessions, too many attachments. I was travelling too much outside, I now want to journey inside and retreat into myself,” Ani Choying tells us in a candid interview this week before back-to-back concert trips to Beijing and California.

A health scare was also a warning to Ani Choying to detoxify and yearn for inner peace. Yes, even nuns seem to need such introspection. The past decade-and-half has been a whirlwind of singing, writing, performing, and non-stop fund-raising. Yet, she does have a sense of fulfillment about what she has achieved, to bring spiritual wellbeing and tranquility to millions in Nepal and around the world with her songs.

It was the soothing combination of her mellifluous voice, lyrics of poet Durga Lal Shrestha and music of Nhoo Bajracharya in her hit song ‘Phulko Ankha Ma that launched Ani Choying’s career. Sales of the album helped her complete the Arya Tara nunnery in Pharping. The song is famous not just in Nepal: it is being translated and sung in Hindi and German, and she has young fans singing it to her in Nepali in Vietnam, Thailand and Switzerland.

“When I started, singing was just a hobby, I never imagined that my music would be all over the world,” says Ani Choying.

During her concert tours, Nepal’s singing nun is approached by fans who tell her how her music has changed their lives. Like an American Muslim soldier who had served in Afghanistan and had such severe post-traumatic stress he could not sleep at night. One day while walking on a New York sidewalk, he heard the strains of a soothing music and followed the sound to a Nepali handicraft shop. It was the Karuna Mantra from Ani Choying’s album. He bought the CD, and told her on a recent visit that it has calmed him, and he is sleeping better.

At a dinner hosted by the owner of WeChat in Shanghai recently, a woman told Ani Choying she played her Karuna Mantra during a difficult delivery and “half the pain went away”. After almost every concert, fans mob Ani Choying to tell her stories of how her music helps them cope with the stress of modern life: women tell her how the music has made it easier to deal with a messy divorce, and in Nepal she has heard there are countless stories of how much ‘Phulko Ankha’ has changed young peoples’ outlook towards life.

Ever since her Coke Studio concert with A. R. Rahman, Ani Choying’s popularity in India grew, and fans recognise her at airports when she travels there. Now, Bollywood has taken notice and Ani Choying is organising the Songs of the Himalayas concert in Kathmandu on 19 November with stars like Shantanu Moitra, classical vocalist Kaushiki Chakraborty , flutist Ashwin Srinavasan and sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee. All are coming to Kathmandu pro bono to help Ani with her Arogya Hospital.

She says: “I feel blessed that Bollywood composers are interested and willing to help, and I am really excited about being on stage with them.”

Songs of the Himalayas

with Ani Choying Drolma and Shantanu Moitra

6 PM Sunday, 19 November

Rastriya Nach Ghar

Tickets home delivery: +977 9801141261

The guilt of freedom

Monday, August 7th, 2017
 Doing Time with Nehru The Story of an Indian-Chinese Family Zubaan Books, New Delhi 2015 190 pages, INR 495

Doing Time with Nehru
The Story of an Indian-Chinese Family
Zubaan Books, New Delhi 2015
190 pages, INR 495

As the Quit India movement grew, the British colonial authority in Delhi built an internment camp in the village of Deoli in the Rajasthan desert. One of the inmates in the many huts there in the 1930s was Jawaharlal Nehru.

The British finally left India in 1947. Nehru became prime minister, and in the spirit of pan-Asian solidarity built strong rapport with Mao Zedong. ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ was the rallying cry in those post-colonial times. This friendship did not last, and a dispute over sections of the 2,500km Himalayan border between the two countries (demarcated by Henry McMahon in 1913 never officially recognised by China) flared into open warfare in 1962.

More than 2,000 Chinese traders and businessmen who had settled down during British times in Calcutta, Darjeeling and Northeastern India were rounded up, jailed and then transported in trains to Deoli where many spent up to five years. Yin Marsh was 13 then, and her family was assigned the shed in which 30 years previously the same Nehru, who ordered the internment of Indians of Chinese origin, had been detained by the British.

Marsh and her eight-year-old brother were released after a few months with the help of her mother who had moved to Kathmandu to set up a hotel, restaurant and beauty parlour. Among her customers were members of Nepal’s royal family, and the American Embassy helped bring them out of Deoli and fly them to Kathmandu.

Marsh had decided to forget the injustice, pain and separation of her early life after marrying an American diplomat at the Kathmandu embassy and moving to the United States. But upon learning how little even her Indian Chinese compatriots knew about the internment camps, she decided to write Doing Time with Nehru.

The book has resonance today as relations between India and China are once more strained. Marsh begins her book with a harsh reminder of the high-handedness of Indian officialdom when a rude policemen at Dum Dum threatens to arrest her for taking pictures as her extended family returns to Calcutta for a reunion in 2001.

Doing Time with Nehru doesn’t have the sweeping historical tour d’horizon of Wendy Ng’s Japanese American Internment During World War II, or others like Kimi Cunningham Grant’s epic story of her grandmother in Silver

Like Dust: One Family’s Story of America’s Japanese Internment. But Yin Marsh paints a raw picture of the consequences to individual lives when the same racist ruthlessness leads insecure governments to arbitrarily treat an entire emigrant population as enemy when war breaks out.

Like Yin Marsh’s family most Indian Chinese never got their property back, many went back to China after being released and others are scattered all over the world. Her book is another tragic reminder of how families are torn apart and lives ruined when they are trapped in wars waged by men.


Monday, July 10th, 2017

Ever since the brief but fierce war between India and China in 1962, the world’s two most populous  countries have been observing an uneasy truce and keeping their border dispute in a deep freeze. Fifty-five years later, there has been a Himalayan thaw – and the cause is not just global warming.

When they met in Beijing in 1988 Deng Xiaoping and Rajiv Gandhi decided not to fix something that ain’t broke, and instead decided to adhere to the unwritten understanding to let the 3,000km Himalayan arc separate their spheres of influence. This pact has been robust enough to withstand numerous skirmishes along disputed borders in Arunachal, Ladakh and Bhutan, the fact that the Dalai Lama resides in India, and a lingering distrust between the two nuclear nations; until now.

Something changed after the new administration took over in Washington, and especially after the famous bear hug administered by Narendra Modi on Donald Trump at the White House last month. There are now geo-strategic rumblings along the Sino-Indian Himalayan border. China feels increasingly encircled, relations with Burma and Singapore have soured somewhat, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea are unstable.


Beijing and New Delhi used to go out of their way not to irritate each other, but lately they are doing just the opposite. China has been preparing carefully for the post-Dalai Lama era, and could feel it expedient to keep the pot boiling. Modi’s India could feel the need to perform a war dance for domestic purposes.

Whatever the reasons, it is mystifying why the latest flashpoint is the disputed Doklam Plateau near the Bhutan-China-India tri-junction in the Chumbi Valley, which itself is astride India’s strategic Chicken Neck corridor. The timing of this flare-up 150km away from a violent statehood agitation in Darjeeling is also intriguing. The dispute has also been a rude awakening for happy little Bhutan, the only neighbouring country with which Beijing has no diplomatic ties.

Nepal cannot be unconcerned about these tensions so close to our eastern flank. Those who are secretly delighted that Bhutan is getting caught up in this clash of the Titans may bear reminding that although  Bhutan may depend on India for defence and foreign affairs, Nepali nationals are deployed by the Indian Army on the frontlines. As in 1962, thousands of Indian Gorkha soldiers could be killed if the Doklam tension escalated into another Himalayan war. We are forced to think about the anomalous and incongruous state of affairs where nationals of one country serve in the military of another which is a foe of least two of its friendly neighbours.

India and China benefit from the fact that there is a 1,500 km mountainous border between them that they don’t need to guard because Nepal is a buffer state. And it is in Nepal’s national interest that this conflict does not escalate. The sabre-rattling by the media on both sides is deafening. It has degenerated to the point where Indian TV is now countering belligerent prose on China’s semi-official Global Times in the use of racist epithets. Going by the Indian and Chinese social networks, war has already broken out.

New Delhi and Beijing need to put the Himalaya back into the deep freeze. Both countries have bigger things to worry about.

Federal Feminine Republic of Nepal

Monday, May 29th, 2017
Pic: Hem Budthapa

Pic: Hem Budthapa

Nepal is still a patriarchy. Girls are discriminated against within families, communities and society. Men from privileged castes dominate decision-making, they are disproportionately represented in the cabinet, the executive branch, the civil service and also in senior positions in the private sector. Men sit where it matters.

Yet, there are winds of change blowing across Nepal’s gender landscape. Nepal’s President, Speaker of Parliament and Chief Justice are all women, and nearly a third of Parliament is female. And now, the feminisation of Nepali politics is trickling down to the grassroots through new constitutionally-mandated quotas for women candidates in local elections.

With 90 % of the votes counted from the 14 May elections as we go to press, women have won 4 of the mayorships and 65 of the vice-mayoral in races to municipal councils. Women also won 8 of village council chairs and 263 vice-chairs, and 2,598 of ward memberships. The vice-mayors in all four metropolitan cities where ballot papers are still being counted are sure to be women as well.

Compared to the total number of male candidates this may not seem like much, but it represents a revolution in the way many new villages, municipalities and cities will be governed from now on. This election is putting Dalit women not just in policy-making positions, but also making them responsible for implementation. Nowhere else in Asia has this gender shift in governance been as dramatic, and it is the most vivid indication yet of the inclusiveness promised in the new constitution.

Let’s zoom in on the Hupsekot Village of Nawalparasi district. Laxmi Pandey of the NC became the first village council chair to be elected in last week’s election. But it didn’t end there. The vice chair is also a woman: Kopila Malla of the UML. By voting women from two different parties to the highest offices in their village council, the people of Hupsekot have demonstrated their confidence in female leadership.

Even conservative Jumla, which is still steeped in patriarchal values, made history last week by elected social activist Kantika Sejuwal of the NC as the country’s first female mayor. After the votes were counted it was another woman, Apsara Devi Neupane, of the Maoist-Centre who was elected deputy mayor in Jumla.

As more results come in, more women are being added to decision-making positions at the local level. There are twice as many candidates in the second phase of elections in 14 June, and this trend is expected to continue.

All this has been made possible by the provision in the new constitution mandating that every Ward Council must have a woman and a Dalit member. Parties were required to field a woman candidate in either the head or deputy in metropolitan, municipal and village councils.

Yet, there are places like Jumla and Hupsekot where both the head and deputy are both female. Some gender rights activists had complained before the polls that the female and Dalit quotas were ‘tokenism’. But the new Constitution is turning out to be a spectacular surprise — signifying a major shift in gender power balance in Nepal’s political history.


Monday, May 8th, 2017

Editorial cartoon

It is only now becoming clear how close Nepal and its democracy had come to a fatal plunge last week as the executive and the judiciary faced each other off at the edge of the cliff. Showing a singular lack of appreciation of what they were  doing, the coalition led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and prime-minister-in-waiting Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress arm-twisted (some say, tricked) one-fourths of Parliament into signing an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Sushila Karki.

Never before in Nepal’s turbulent history, not even in the bad old days of the absolute monarchy, was the judiciary dealt such a severe knock. The fact that two alpha males of Nepali politics went for a constitutional instrument of last resort just because their fragile egos were dented, exposed just how shallow their commitment to democracy is. Going against every principle of the separation of powers, the executive branch got a lapdog legislature to hound the judiciary.

Deuba was willing to sacrifice his country, the future of our democracy because his feelings were hurt. The Supreme Court had ruled in favour of Nabaraj Silwal and against his nominee for police chief, Jaya Bahadur Chand. Prime Minister Dahal himself had no love lost for Chief Justice Karki because of her rulings on wartime crimes, and allowed Deuba to shoot himself in the foot. But by blatantly undermining a judiciary which has played an activist role on transitional justice cases, the coalition elicited sharp criticism from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) among others.

The Supreme Court ruled on a writ petition on 30 April to reinstate Chief Justice Karki. Since then, both the coalition partners as well as the judiciary have pulled back from the edge – probably with the intention of not letting the dispute disrupt the first phase of local elections on 14 May. Parliament has been suspended till after elections and the impeachment motion shelved for now. The Chief Justice, for her part, has reportedly said she will not hear any more cases till she retires next month.

This unnecessary crisis had added another element of uncertainty to local elections, but now that both sides have pulled back voting will go ahead in three of the six provinces on Sunday. There is considerable anticipation among Nepalis that the first local body election in two decades will finally usher in an era of development and inclusion.

This is the first election under the new constitution and the new village and municipal councils will have far more decentralised decision-making on local revenue generation and budget than the VDCs and DDCs ever had. The nearly 4,000 VDC boundaries were designed for an age when Nepal was largely roadless and there was poor connectivity. The Maoists decimated elected VDC representatives during the conflict, and Deuba during his second tenure as prime minister cancelled scheduled local elections in 2002. Now, the new 481 village, 246 municipal 17 metropolitan councils have the economic and political autonomy to use their economies of scale to fast-track development.

We have seen how the three-party political syndicate in the absence of elected local bodies has pocketed development grants, plundered rivers and forests with political protection over the past decades.  There is now a danger that the politico-criminal nexus that profited from the lack of grassroots accountability is now fielding candidates for village and municipal councils. Combined with the enhanced decision-making powers of local councils, this could spell disaster.

Our only hope is that people at the local level are far more aware of who the crooks are, and will  judge wisely when they enter the voting booth on Sunday.