Nepali Times

A general’s labyrinth  

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014
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Ex-army chief Rookmangud Katawal tells all in soon to be released memoir

Rookmangud Katawal

Rookmangud Katawal

A month after King Gyanendra’s coup of 1 Februrary 2005, I was summoned to the Royal Nepal Army headquarters at Bhadrakali to meet Major General Rookmangud Katawal. The coup had been meticulously planned, and was accompanied by mass detentions of political leaders and democracy activists. There was an information blackout, and military censors in the newsroom had to approve pages of Nepali Times before it went to press.

Katawal had a vice-like handshake which I thought was a part of his psy-war repertoire. In the hour-long conversation, he wanted to know the reaction to the king’s takeover among members of the international community and the media, and delivered a veiled warning to toe the line.

Nearly ten years later, Katawal still has an iron handshake and the same non-nonsense manner as he greets me in a living room festooned with framed photographs and military honours.  His memoir, which will be published by nepa~laya this month, is brisk and brusque, just like the abrasive general himself.

An eight-year-old son of a Newari mother in Okhaldhunga, Rookmangud Katawal always wanted to see what a king looked like. So, when Mahendra was riding across eastern Nepal during one of his inspection visits in 1958, Katawal sneaked into the royal tent. The king, wearing shades even at night, was so impressed with the boy’s confidence that he instructed the Ministry of Education to enroll him in the boarding school in Pharping near Kathmandu. Later, on a visit to the school Mahendra was proud to see that the boy had topped his class even after a double promotion.

Katawal was a good student, and never lost his  precociousness. Being a descendant of Dev Raj Katawal, one of Prithvi Narayan Shah’s generals who was killed during the siege of Kathmandu in 1767, he was destined for a military career. He rose up the ranks, and despite strong opposition from the established Rana-Shah brass, became Army Chief during Nepal’s dramatic transition from war to peace, from monarchy to republic. Katawal, as it turned out, outlasted the royal rulers who were his benefactors.

Many thought the general’s rapid rise was due to his proximity to the royal family. Katawal says the palace just gave him a scholarship, but admits turning the rumours to his advantage. Katwal was appointed Liaison Officer to the Brigade of Gurkhas base in Hong Kong, where he hosted King Birendra in 1983 after his US state visit when Ronald Reagan endorsed Nepal’s Zone of Peace proposal. Katawal remembers frantically trying to find the king’s preferred brandy, and flying in a live goat from Kathmandu for the royal birthday party.

The 2001 royal massacre was the beginning of the end of the monarchy. Within five months, the army was sucked into the war, something Birendra had tried to prevent when he was alive. Katawal was then heading the Department of Military Intelligence, but says the army was fighting with its hands tied because the palace’s instructions were to not go on the offensive, only to disarm the Maoists and bring them to the negotiating table.

A few days before the 1 February 2005 coup by Gyanendra, Katawal noticed that the top brass was frequently sneaking out to the palace for meetings. “Something was cooking,” Katawal says, and his suspicions were confirmed when he overheard the Army Chief assuring the Indian ambassador on the phone that no coup was planned.  The next day at 9AM, the prime minister was sacked, government dissolved and Gyanendra had taken over. Katawal remembers an envoy telling him: “RK, your king is a liar.”

Katawal admits that he initially supported the royal takeover to “teach the politicians a lesson” so the army could focus on defeating the Maoists. But a few days later, when Gyanendra appointed Tulsi Giri and Kirtinidhi Bista as co-chairmen, he felt it wasn’t going to work. Within 14 months, Gyanendra was forced to step down.

In 2009, with just four months left in his tenure as Army Chief, elected Maoist Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal tried to tempt Katawal to step down in return for being appointed ambassador to the UN or France. When the general refused to take the bait, Dahal sacked him.

The ensuing cascade of events is now called ‘Katawal Prakaran’, and resulted in President Ram Baran Yadav reinstating the Chief, and Dahal’s resignation the next morning. Katawal’s account of 3 May 2009 is as riveting as thriller, detailing how he took two pickup trucks of commandos for his meeting with Dahal in Baluwatar with instructions to storm the building if he didn’t appear every ten minutes at the window.

Back at HQ, the situation was tense with the Maoist-appointed Gen Kul Bahadur Khadka preparing to take over as Chief, and Katawal was still in charge till midnight. Katawal summoned Khadka and didn’t mince words. “You bloody joker, what do you think you are doing?” Katawal says he told his colleague, but what he really said is probably unprintable.

Rookmangud Katawal's memoir

Rookmangud Katawal’s memoir

“Prachanda thought he could turn Nepal into a one-party people’s republic, ” Katawal recalls, “he knew if he could take over the army no one could stop him.” Had he accepted Dahal’s bribe of ambassadorship and resigned, or surrendered to Khadka on 3 May, Nepal may have been a different place today – probably a one-party dictatorship.

Katawal doesn’t hide his disdain for Dahal and his manipulations, “Mr Cloud” (Ram Bahadur Thapa) and his hard line, Girija Koirala for being too soft on the Maoists, Ian “Mr Comrade” Martin and UNMIN for being against democracy.

After two recent books by Sudheer Sharma (Prayogshala) and Prashant Jha (Battle for a New Republic) both of which detail the depth of involvement of Indian intelligence in Kathmandu, Katawal’s memoir gives us an insider’s account of the events and personalities that shaped recent Nepali history.

Read also:

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Hand-to-hand, Prashant Jha

Start again, Editorial

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Excerpts

Two translated sections from Rookmangud Katawal’s memoir.

April 2006

“Your king is a liar,” British ambassador Bloomfield told me one day.

I could not accept such things being said about our head of state and supreme commander. I shot back: “How could you ever say that about my king?”

“He is not fit to be king,” the ambassador said even more tersely.

The exchange went on for a while, but I could not convince the ambassador. None of the ambassadors were for an active monarchy, they were not welcome in the palace. But the people surrounding King Gyanendra, and those who were using his power did not warn the King that he was losing international support. At a time when he should be showing some flexibility, the King had become more rigid. I tried to convince the Chief several times to take the message to the King that he should meet the NC and UML, which still had popular support. He did not reply.

3 May 2009

“We are not going to surrender. No way” I told President Ram Baran Yadav’s adviser. “I don’t want to do anything unpleasant myself. My legitimacy finishes by 12 midnight.”

At about 11PM, the President called.

“Do I have to put it in writing?” The President asked. “Can’t I not write it?”

I replied: “If it is not in writing, there will be a question of legitimacy. A letter would resolve the issue.”

By then, KP Oli had got to the palace despite his health problems, and called to say the President had decided to send the letter and to inform all the generals.

A few minutes later, the fax arrived, reinstating the Chief of Army Staff. It was a clear and direct letter, just as we wanted. Soon after, my mobile and all the landlines started ringing off the hook.

The needle on my watch approached midnight. But I wasn’t sleepy, I went to meet my soldiers outside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


मोदीको आशा

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014
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मोदीले नेपाल बनाउँदैनन्, नेपाल नेपालीहरूले नै बनाउने हो। तर, मोदीको मद्दत लिन सकिन्छ, किनभने उनलाई पनि भारत बनाउनु छ।

editorialनेपाल–भारत सम्बन्धको बारेमा नेपालमा दुईथरी विश्लेषण हुने गर्छ। एउटा, भारतले नेपाललाई सिक्किम बनाउन आँट्यो, नेपालीलाई कहिल्यै पनि अघि बढ्न दिंदैन, समृद्ध हुन दिंदैन। अर्को तर्क, भारत जस्तो १.३ अर्ब जनसंख्या भएको मुलुक खुला सीमा पारि छ, त्यसको हामीले फाइदा उठाउन सक्नुपर्छ। पहिलो दृष्टिकोण हामीमा आत्मसम्मान र आत्मविश्वासको कमीको परिणाम हो। दोस्रो व्याख्या नेपालको आत्मबल, एकता र राष्ट्रहितमा आधारित हो।

 नेपाल र भारतलाई संयुक्त इतिहास, संस्कृति र धर्मको गाँठोले बाँधेको छ। भारत र नेपाल दुवैमाझ् उस्तै विकासको चुनौती पनि छः गरीबी, अशिक्षा, जातीय भेदभाव र धनी–गरीबबीचको खाडल। नेपालले बाल र मातृ मृत्युदर घटाउन तथा साक्षरता बढाउन जुन प्रगति गरेको छ, त्यसले भारतभन्दा धेरै ठूलो फड्को मारेको छ। भारत नेपालको ‘ठूल्दाइ’ होइन कि दिदी हो, जसले बहिनी नेपाललाई माया गर्नुपर्छ र उसलाई सन्तुष्ट र खुशी राख्न प्रयत्न गर्नुपर्छ।

तर, गएका दशकहरूमा भारत र नेपालले एकापसलाई कर्के नजरले हेरे। भारतले अलि हेप्ने, नेपालले आफ्नै हितमा हुने कुराको प्रस्ताव आउँदा पनि नहेर्ने। भारतसँग किन दब्ने, भारतलाई अलिकति दियो भने सबै खोस्छ भन्ने सोचले गर्दा हामीले आफ्नै देशको विकासमा टेवा पुग्ने कुराहरूलाई पनि वास्ता गरेनौं। यसले गर्दा नेपालको जलस्रोत, व्यापार र पूर्वाधारको विकास अघि नबढेको मात्र होइन, पछि धकेलियो। यसको परिणामः यत्रो ठूलो जलस्रोतको भण्डार मानिने नेपालमा दिनको १२ घन्टा अन्धकार छ, एक दुइटा बाहेक सिंचाइ योजना बनेका छैनन् र तराईलाई काठमाडौं १.५ घन्टामा जोड्ने राजमार्ग नबन्दा ८ घन्टा लगाएर राजधानीबाट वीरगञ्ज पुग्नुपर्छ। यी योजनाहरू नबनेको भारतको कारण होइन, हाम्रो इच्छाशक्ति र प्रतिबद्धताको कमीले हो।

सन् २०२० सम्म नेपालमा जलाशय भएको बहुउद्देश्यीय योजना नबने आन्तरिक बिजुलीको मागलाई पर्याप्त हुँदैन। जलाशययुक्त योजना बनाउन भारतसँग सहकार्य नगरी सुखै छैन। भारतले पेल्छ भनेर हामीले अहिलेसम्म यस्ता योजनाको कुरै गरेका छैनौं। बरु पानी खेर जाओस् तर भारतसँग घुँडा टेक्दैनौं भन्ने मनसाय छ, हाम्रो। नेपालको भारतसँगको बढ्दो व्यापार घाटालाई समाधान गर्ने दीर्घकालीन रणनीति के हो? भारतबाट आयात गर्ने तेल र ग्याँस पाँच वर्षमा तीन गुणा बढेको छ। तेलको अन्तर्राष्ट्रिय भाउ यही क्रममा बढ्दै जाने हो भने भारतबाट तेल किन्न अब नेपालमा भारु पुग्दैन। नेपालको सबै निर्यातबाट कमाउने विदेशी मुद्राले अहिले नै तेल र ग्याँस मात्र आयात गर्न पनि पुग्दैन। यो आर्थिक निर्भरताले गर्दा नेपालको राजनीतिक स्वतन्त्रतामा नै आँच आएको छ। अनि के को फुर्ती? भारतसँग निहुँ खोजेर हुन्छ?

भन्नै पर्दा, भारतले नेपाललाई नहेपेको होइन। वीरेन्द्रको पालामा त चीनबाट बन्दूक किन्यो भनेर झ्न्डै दुई वर्ष सिमानामा नाकाबन्दी नै लगाइदियो। भारतीय एजेन्सीहरूले नेपालका नेताहरूलाई धम्क्याएर, खुवाएर आफ्नो कठपुतली बनाए। विगतका नदी सम्झौताहरू भारतकै एकतर्फी हितमा बने। यसले गर्दा नेपालीहरूले भारतलाई नपत्याउने ठाउँ त छ, तर छिमेकीको शंका मात्रै गरेर अब देश उँभो लाग्दैन।

अब नरेन्द्र मोदीको सरकार आएपछि नेपालमा एउटा नयाँ आशा पलाएको छ, केही भइहाल्छ कि भनेर। मोदीको नेपालप्रति व्यक्तिगत र आध्यात्मिक लचकता छ। तर, यसको माने यो होइन कि हामीले भिक्षा मागेको जस्तो गरेर त्वंशरणम् गरेर लम्पसार पर्ने। अब माग्ने होइन कि आपसी साझेदारीको रूपमा ठूला अन्तर्राष्ट्रियस्तरका पूर्वाधार, ऊर्जा र जलस्रोतका योजना अगाडि बढाउनुपर्छ।

आईके गुजरालको पालादेखि, १७ वर्षपछि यो ठूलो मौका हो। मोदीले नेपाल बनाउँदैनन्, नेपाल नेपालीहरूले नै बनाउने हो। तर, मोदीको मद्दत लिन सकिन्छ, किनभने उनलाई पनि भारत बनाउनु छ।


Societies in black and white

Sunday, July 6th, 2014
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Veins curl in a gnarled arm like the bark on an old tree trunk. A refugee girl’s bright, alert eyes are windows to a homeland she has never seen. A transgender person posing for a formal portrait looks confidently straight into the lens. A victim of an acid attack, her face horrifyingly disfigured, is a testament to the depth of greed and injustice in our world.

Photo:Jan Møller Hansen

Photographer Jan Møller Hansen denies that he goes out deliberately seeking these images of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. He says photography is all about telling a story, and the stories of those living in the margins of society represent real drama. And Hansen, a diplomat-photographer tells those stories of the excluded and voiceless through stark black-and-white images.

“You can get closer to the person with black and white, the images are more powerful because there is no colour to distract you,” Hansen explains, “you can concentrate on the texture, features, tone and dynamic range of the image.”

He is self-taught, and what started out as a hobby has now become a powerful way to document and show the reality of the dark underbelly of our societies. When posted in Bangladesh, Hansen ventured into the teeming slums by the railroad tracks, the shelters for victims of acid attacks, the metal-strewn beaches where supertankers are beached to be dismantled for scrap.

“The life of a diplomat can get a bit boring with expats and clubs, and photography was a bad excuse for me to meet people I would otherwise never get to meet, connecting with them and telling their stories,” Hansen says.

When Hansen was posted to Nepal, he was happy to be back in a country that he knew well from a previous stint 20 years ago as a volunteer. But this time, he was returning with his new hobby, and whenever he has some free time from his work at the Danish Embassy, Hansen is off with his camera bag, taking pictures along the recycling shops along the Bagmati, refugee settlements, abandoned cement factories, or brick kilns.

One of his most striking and pictures is a long shot taken at Pashupati of a mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby. The picture won 1x.com‘s 2013 Photo Award on Documentary (People’s Choice) and is the kind of photo that Hansen says “hits you in the gut”.

A mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby.

A mother grieving at the funeral of her dead baby. Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Through black and white pictures, Hansen puts the physical frailty of human beings in vulnerable situations in sharp contrast to the uncaring, unfeeling, unjust world around them. But even amidst all this squalour and suffering, you see the triumph of the human will, the spirit of survival.

A Pakistani refugee attending school in Kathmandu.

A Pakistani refugee attending school in Kathmandu.
Photo: Jan Møller Hansen

Hansen just contributed to a ‘Refugee Stories’ exhibition of black-and-white portraits of urban refugees in Kathmandu from Burma, Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Somalia. What comes across from those portraits are not despair and hopelessness, but stories of families focused on finding a future.

Jan Møller Hansen (right) with Kunda Dixit. Photo: Milan Poudel

Jan Møller Hansen (right) with Kunda Dixit.
Photo: Milan Poudel

“People ask me why I am always negative,” Hansen says, “I am not. The people in my pictures may be poor but they have a lot of dignity. And they all have stories of survival.”

http://janmoellerhansen.smugmug.com

Kunda Dixit

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Setopati’s one year

Monday, June 9th, 2014
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Success of digital-only portal indicates that online media has attained  critical mass in Nepal

The biggest surprise about a new portal a year after it started is not that it has 400,000 users per month, but that it is a shoestring operation run out of an improbable hole-in-the-wall office in Jhamsikhel.

Ameet Dhakal with his technical manager at the Setopati office in Jhamsikhel earlier this month.

Ameet Dhakal with his technical manager at the Setopati office in Jhamsikhel earlier this month.

When asked how many people are logged in to setopati.com at that moment, founder editor Ameet Dhakal whips out an iPad to confirm that more than 465 people all over the world are reading the portal even as we speak. We notice that Dhakal’s iPad has seen better days, its touchscreen is cracked and taped up.

“We don’t have deep pockets, we have no pockets,” quips Dhakal. “I could have bought a new tablet, but this one still works.”

Indeed, in the brave new world of digital media setopati.com is turning everything on its head. It has shown that you don’t need massive investment, there is no gestation period for startups, and journalists can be their own bosses.

Dhakal had worked before in The Kathmandu Post and helped start Republica but quit after differences with publishers. He joined up with like-minded editors like Narayan Wagle and Yubaraj Ghimire to launch Setopati on 1 April 2013.

Having seen the potential for online media in Nepal in their previous job, and convinced that they didn’t want to work for anyone anymore, Dhakal and Wagle decided to start a Nepali news portal with serious, exclusive and investigative content in longform journalism format.

“If we had started a newspaper, we would never have got this kind of readership within one year,” says Dhakal, “and all journalists need readers.”

Whereas a popular story in the print media would be read by 20,000 people at most, Setopati’s most read story by Kamala Thapa about her botched delivery at a maternity hospital got 325,000 readers and nearly 24,000 shares on Facebook. A profile of heart surgeon Bhagwan Koirala by Binita Dahal was read by 125,000 people in the first week of publication.

“I could never have got that kind of readership when I was working for Nagarik,” Dahal, who used to be a Setopati reporter and is now with BBC Nepali, said.

With the number of Facebook users approaching 4 million and 400,000 on Twitter, Nepal now has a critical mass of online users. Low startup costs mean that new portals are sprouting all over the place. Mainstream media also have digital editions, although in many cases their sites are just dumping ground for print content.

Ameet Dhakal with his iPad.

Ameet Dhakal with his iPad.

Setopati has tried to ride this digital wave, and has managed to prove wrong a lot of assumptions about online media. Says Dhakal: “Setopati is proof that you don’t need multimedia content or light sensational news to attract readers.”

Even the readership breakdown indicates that Setopati users in the diaspora are more high-brow than other popular entertainment and gossip-driven portals. The Gulf countries and Malaysia are not among Setopati’s top ten countries: it is Nepalis in the US, Australia, UK, South Korea and Japan who login most frequently.

The most pressing challenge for the portal is to make the venture sustainable. There is virtually no advertising on Setopati, including from Google Adsense since the portal is in Nepali. Dhakal is planning on launching an aggressive marketing drive to cash in on the eyeballs, and perhaps even a voluntary subscription model in future. He doesn’t rule out accepting donor funding.

Says Damakant Jayshi of Panos South Asia and Dhakal’s former colleague at Republica: “Setopati is refreshing, it is doing what Nepali language journalism sorely lacked: perspective and analysis. It is a must-read portal for me, but needs to expand its coverage.”

Setopati spent its first year maximizing readers, which it did successfully. The reason Setopati hasn’t spent resources on augmenting content with video and images is because of low bandwidth in Nepal, Dhakal explains, but all that could change with the spread of 4G enabled mobile platforms. “We want to earn our readers, not buy them,” he adds.

The name ‘setopati’ (which means whiteboard) came about by chance as the original team was at a brainstorming retreat and discussing possible names for the portal, as it turns out, on a whiteboard.

But perhaps the most telling measure of setopati.com’s success is not the surprising number of readers it has amassed so fast, but that it has so many copycats with names like ‘ratopati‘ and the soft porn site ‘nilopati‘. Imitation, after all, is the best form of flattery.


Dangerous business

Friday, April 25th, 2014
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It is time the government set aside a more substantial portion of the fees it earns from Himalayan climbing to the welfare of workers who lay their lives on the line.

Tragic as it was, the avalanche disaster on Mt Everest last week that took the lives of 16 Nepalis was not wholly unexpected. The danger of seracs calving off the hanging glacier on the West Shoulder has been well known. Below it, the Khumbu Icefall is a treacherous gauntlet that early climbers deemed impassable.

Scaling mountains that jut out nearly 9km into the stratosphere is dangerous business at the best of times. But that danger is often forgotten when the business motive takes over. Professional climbers and those whose profession it is to help climbers reach the top are fully aware of the perils.

There are ‘subjective’ dangers in mountaineering: lack of training, inexperience, ambition, overconfidence, carelessness or recklessness. Lately, the pull factor of the world’s highest mountain has attracted woefully unprepared climbers to its slopes who not only endanger themselves, but also put other climbers in harm’s way.

‘Objective’ dangers, on the other hand, are related to weather, avalanche or rockfalls, earthquakes, and lately, global warming. Alpinists weigh all the factors and take a calculated risk. Sometimes expeditions are called off when objective dangers are deemed unacceptable as in 2012 when a team leader concluded that the Icefall was too hazardous.

It is when expeditions become over-commercialised, the mountain is oversold, there is too much money at stake, that the tipping point is breached. The occupational hazard of working on the mountain then becomes a losing gamble, as commentaries in this edition by veteran climbers note.

It’s not that the workers on Mt Everest don’t know that they are exposed to more risks than their employers, they have accepted it as a part of the job they have to do. It’s just that they have long felt that although their remuneration has improved it is still disproportionate to the dangers in their line of work. Outside Magazine, for example, calculated that being a high altitude worker in the Himalaya is 12 times riskier than being a US soldier in Iraq.

There is a pall of gloom in the Khumbu region this week, almost every Sherpa household has lost someone who was related, or a friend. The government has reacted surprisingly swiftly to raise compensation levels, but it will still be difficult for families who have lost their main breadwinner like Ash Bahadur Gurung.

There have been rumblings on the mountain in recent years as employer-worker relations have frayed, and anger boiled over last year as commercial mountaineering and alpine-style philosophies collided on the Lhotse Face. Rope-fixers employed by commercial expeditions saw a direct threat to their jobs from small teams that don’t hire high altitude guides. Because the mountaineering industry pays well by local standards, the jobs are much sought after despite the risks. And with all the focus on Sherpas, the exploitation of heavy-lift low altitude porters is often forgotten.

Although some expeditions which lost workers abandoned their climb, others want to go ahead. they are being intimidated by militants in the group which have put forth demands of a political nature. Neither the government which has already collected more than $3 million in fees this season, nor the workers in other expeditions, want to lose their income.

We may need a Mt Everest moratorium this season to draw the world’s attention to the critical role of Nepali workers in climbing the world’s
highest peak, and out of respect for the dead.

But the disaster on Everest also draws attention to other Nepalis forced to work in hazardous conditions building stadiums in Qatar, as female household help in Kuwait, or as security guards in Kabul. The Nepali state can’t seem to provide safe and decent jobs within the country, nor protect its citizens from the clutches of ruthless recruiters.

Given this, it is not surprising that the state has been caught off guard by the scale of the tragedy on Mt Everest. The government needs to urgently address overcrowding with a new pricing policy on the world’s highest mountain, and to ensure that a more substantial portion of the earnings from this sector goes to the welfare of the workers who lay their lives on the line to get clients to the top.

Read also:

Extreme Everest, BHRIKUTI RAI AND MATT MILLER

Taking chances on Chomolungma, DAVID DURKAN

A dangerous place to work, JON GANDAL

Infographic: Working in high places, AYESHA SHAKYA

“I still call him everyday.”


Vacuum in the villages

Monday, April 14th, 2014
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Nepalis are paying a heavy price for the absence of local elections

As Bhim Neupane walked up the dusty trail to the village of Katunje he greeted women carrying oversized loads of fodder grass, asking how the children were doing in school. He stopped at the tea shop, and was welcomed warmly with smiles and namastes. He stopped to speak to farmers and asked about their water buffaloes, whose individual names he seemed to know by heart.

PICS: KUNDA DIXIT
LEADING BY EXAMPLE: As VDC chairman of Kushadevi of Kavre, Bhim Neupane inaugrates a microhydro plant on Gudgud Khola in his village in 2000.

That was in 2000, and Bhim Neupane had been re-elected chairman of Kushadevi VDC. He told me then: “People are now aware, they are able to plan and work together to improve their living standards.”

Fifteen years later, I was walking again with Bhim Neupane along the same path, which is now a motorable road. VDCs were dissolved by Sher Bahadur Deuba government in 2002, local bodies across Nepal have had no elected councils since. Even so, Neupane is approached by families who want citizenship papers certified, and he is still asking them about their water buffaloes.

Bhim Neupane (left) talking with a local.

Bhim Neupane (left) talking with a local.

After visiting Kavre, Dang, and Rupendehi in 2000 to meet elected village leaders like Neupane, it was clear grassroots democracy was finally delivering development. Cynics who said democracy was a luxury for a poor and illiterate country like Nepal could not have been more wrong.

To be sure, national level politics was a mess back then, as it is now. The Maoists were impatient for regime change, their bloody insurgency had entered its fourth year. Local elected officials were their first targets, and by the end of the conflict three-fourths of the 3,900 VDCs across Nepal had been destroyed. Kushadevi’s VDC block which also housed a health post and training centre was bombed twice, and the Maoists killed charismatic and respected local leaders like Krishna Sapkota in 2002. Sapkota was tortured and decapitated, his head displayed in the village square to terrorise others. Neupane stayed in Kushadevi through it all.

Today, there is little sign that there was ever a war here. The VDC has been rebuilt, Kushadevi has prospered because of proximity to Kathmandu. Bhim Neupane surveys his scenic village from a hilltop, and says: “This is what local democracy can do, we made this happen.”

Indeed, it was during his two five-year tenures as VDC chairman that Neupane upgraded government schools, added a 10+2 campus, rehabilitated health posts, built 50 km of roads that today provide access to markets for Kushadevi’s dairy and vegetable farmers. He brought drinking water to far-flung wards, irrigation for off-season vegetables, and Kushadevi was lit up at night with microhydro power.

The VDC also stood guarantee for insurance so farmers were not ruined if the costly animals died. “Buying a buffalo was a gamble, but insurance reduced the risk and it lifted many farmers here out of poverty,” Neupane recalls.

Across Nepal, VDCs have been run by an unelected club of the three main parties and a government-appointed secretary. But people still turn to charismatic chairmen like Neupane for leadership and advice. Villagers in Kushadevi have given up on the government, and now take their own initiative when something needs to be done.

Last week, 12 years after VDCs were dissolved, he was hiking up the mountains to explore the possibility of homestay tourism to augment income of villagers.

“Nothing has been built here in the last 12 years,” says Laxman Humagain, a Kushadevi native. Kathmandu-based quarry tycoons have bought off entire mountainsides to feed the capital’s construction boom. Families have been displaced, springs have gone dry as excavators claw at the slope and tipper trucks groan through clouds of dust. Neupane says the quarries would be strictly regulated if there was an elected village council.

 

Neupane gazes out to the east at folds of mountains in fading shades of blue, and says wistfully: “We were elected then, we were accountable to the people, and there was a sense of collective destiny. Without elections there is no accountability, and people have no motivation to work together.”

Kunda Dixit in Kavre

All politics is local, #560

Think nationally, act locally, #702

 


Irreconcilable truths

Thursday, April 10th, 2014
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“You just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.”

Seven years ago this week, Kathmandu saw hundreds of thousands of people massing up in the streets against a king who wanted to turn the clock back to the era of absolute monarchy. From the other side, the Maoists were busy exterminating ‘class enemies’. Democracy was being squeezed from both the extreme left and extreme right. But what the Maoists could not achieve with ten years of war and 17,000 dead, was achieved in 19 days of peaceful pro-democracy street protests that forced Gyanendra to step aside.

Whatever the glorifiers of violence and apologists for brutality may say, April 2006 represented a moral victory for peaceful political struggle. It proved that in this day and age one needn’t kill a whole bunch of people to bring about political change, even to remove a state that perpetrates structural violence.

The Maoists are not the type to say sorry, or admit that their ideology is obsolete and counterproductive. The question is how do we deal with the post-war legacy of violence, the simmering anger among survivors and relatives of victims, so as to help the healing process. How should we handle reconciliation in the aftermath of a conflict that neither side lost, and both want to forget?

Wars leave scars. The deep wounds take decades to heal. Twenty years later Rwanda is still trying to come to terms with the abhorrent atrocities of its genocide. What helped was that the Tutsi leader who took over avoided retribution against Hutu mass murderers. South Africa took a similar step by naming and shaming rather than trying apartheid era crimes. Nelson Mandela’s famous maxim was to “forgive, but not forget”.

In Spain, an amnesty pact between Franco and the leftists protected a fragile democratic transition. But 40 years later, a survivor who is taking his torturer to jail told the New York Times this week: “I agree with the idea of reconciliation. But you just can’t turn the page. You have to read that page before you turn it.” Bangladesh and Cambodia have shown that sooner or later war crimes have to be addressed.

‘Reconciliation’, ‘transitional justice’, ‘truth’ may sound like donor vocabulary, but survivors everywhere need closure. They need to know what happened to relatives, why they were killed and by whom, and justice must eventually be served to prevent the wounds from festering. Every country takes its own path, and Nepal’s road to reconciliation should be much easier because ours wasn’t an ethno-separatist or religious strife, but a class war. There is much less bad blood, relatively less of a sense of revenge, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for truth and reconciliation.

Collusion between former enemies had led to the tabling of a bill in parliament on Wednesday to set up commissions for truth and reconciliation and disappearances. The NC and the UML were glad to let the Maoists take the flak for obstructing the bills, but they weren’t pushing it much either. The Maoists, in characteristic fashion, blocked task force negotiations on parameters of the bills, while stalling parliament proceedings to protest delays that they were primarily responsible for.  But all four main political groups are responsible for Wednesday’s bill to whitewash their past.

It is now meaningless to ask which side perpetrated a war crime. Both sides are now the state, and it is the state’s responsibility to deliver truth and justice to the families of Krishna Adhikari, Maina Sunwar, Dekendra Thapa, the Doramba 18, the Kotbara 35 or tens of thousands of others. Without truth and justice, these questions will remain irreconcilable.


 

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