‘Maila Baje’ is Sanjay Upadhya
This the Foreword and concluding chapter of Empowered and Imperiled: Nepal's Peace Puzzle in Bits and Pieces in which US-based Nepali writer Sanjay Upadhya confesses that he is the Maila Baje who wrote the Nepali Netbook blog. The new book is a collection of his entries over the years.
Sanjay Upadhya also wrote a column on current affairs for Nepali Times (screengrab, below) between 2001-2003 under the pen name Puskar Bhusal, which are in this paper's online archives. It includes this piece on Sher Bahadur Deuba's second tenure as prime minister which is as relevant today is it was in 2002: Consensus Charade.
Out of the Shadows, Finally
It feels good to finally come out. I’ve been tempted to do so several times over the last decade and a half. The shades just seemed too soothing. I chose this nom de guerre before I’d decided what I’d call my blog. Relatively new, the blogosphere beckoned with all its breeziness. A notebook on Nepal on the net. Bingo.
King Gyanendra’s royal rule was at its toughest. The Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists had signed the 12-Point Understanding but so much was unclear. Geopolitics, public opinion, hope, despair—the imponderables were too many. Powerful as the royal regression narrative was, I never bought it—and still don’t.
Our triangular fight had become too drawn out for anyone’s good. I don’t think King Gyanendra had any specific plan when he took over on February 1, 2005. He wanted a realignment of forces into a bipolar one, and thought he could pull it off. If not, well, others were free to try. They did and here we are.
I’d been defending the royal takeover in that spirit, drawing all the venom I expected to. There seemed so much going on that seemed so unreal. Yet, a lot of what seemed to be going on seemed too real to discount.
I had used this genre as Puskar Bhusal in the Nepali Times. Yes, Kunda Dixit soon found out I was somewhere in Nepal. And Kanak Dixit, although still burdened by my indolence to his years of prompting, asked me to contribute an essay to his superb volume ‘State of Nepal’—in my real name.
Over the years, People’s Review weekly carried my pieces under the bylines of Krishna Singh Bam, Madan Prasad Khanal and Rabindra Adhikari. (Frankly, I can’t recall the other names.) My inspiration was my father, Devendra Raj Upadhya, who would write as ‘Jatayu’, ‘Sampati’ and a bevy of other beings in an assortment of Nepali weeklies.
I recognised the disadvantages going in. I’d be called a coward for shooting from the shadows. A propagandist who could sell his soul but not show his face. An agent for this, an agent provocateur for that. I’m still called all that, although I was careful to disable the comments function on Nepali Netbook. What surprised me was the positive interest my posts also began generating early on. The guessing game began.
Top on the list was King Gyanendra. My mentor—and cousin—Dipak Gyawali, having worked with the monarch both in the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation and as his minister, detected similarities in style and some of the expressions used. During a one-to-one talk of over an hour in Narayanhity palace in August 2007, I only recently learned, Dipak daju asked the monarch directly: he just waved his hand dismissively!
Bhola Bikram Rana, another mentor, had also asked the monarch in a formal interview. Again, his denial didn’t seem to matter. Others said it had to be a former biggie out to cash in on the regime change. Still, others said it couldn’t be a Nepali because a royalist couldn’t write in English.
Gen. Rookmangad Katawal, given his public past with pseudonyms, was another candidate. My first boss and great teacher, Mana Ranjan Josse, conceding his status as a middle son and a Bahun, came out with a full denial more than once.
Was Maila Baje young or old? In Nepal or abroad? A Nepali or a foreigner? Male or female posing as one? Heck, was I even one person or a composite? When, to my surprise, Janabhawana weekly started translating my posts and publishing it as a weekly column, everything took a whole new form.
Dipak daju later told me that while he did suspect me, he was also skeptical. Maila Baje was writing about events, the news of which had not even crossed the Ring Road in Kathmandu. Anyone not living in Kathmandu and in the thick of it all could not even be aware of these events let alone comment on them. On Twitter, he recently offered anyone who correctly identified me a nice recommendation for the world’s top investigative journalism award. (Thank you, Dipak daju, for the deflection).
My good friend Rabindra Mishra once asked me point blank. I gave him a flat denial. He couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t see his facial expression because he was on the phone line from BBC Nepali Service in London explaining my assignment for the morning. My lie must have infuriated him. I’m sorry, Rabindra ji. But I believed I had a good reason.
The blogosphere had already given me enough space to wander at will. Pseudonymity added to its appeal. As time flew, Maila Baje acquired a personality of its own. Coming out of the shadows would stifle him. Any time I had any inhibition, I would shut my eyes and imagine Nepal’s map and its position on a slowly revolving globe. It always felt like I was doing something good.
Nepal has never ceased to amaze me. Being squeezed between giant opposites India and China provided the element of space. Time, too, was of essence. I grew up as Indian parliamentarism and Chinese communism contended with American capitalism and Soviet collectivism. Born into a family that allowed me varying levels of proximity with royals, the Nepali Congress and communists of all hues, curiosity abounded as the same story differed with the teller.
My profession afforded me contact with foreigners who had something to do with Nepal or knew a lot about the country in ways a Nepali did not. The more I looked around Nepal, the more I saw so much to uncover. That’s when I began understanding something I was once told by King Mahendra. A nine-year-old standing on the line waiting to welcome the monarch during his visit to Thailand—where my father was posted—I bowed a respectful namaste when my turn came.
As my father introduced me, the king glared at me for a few seconds before saying: ‘Consider yourself very fortunate here. Study well and use your education in the service of Nepal, no matter where you may be.’
Condescending and even royally conceited? Not at all. Years later, when I happened to meet B.P. Koirala in New Delhi, I began introducing myself. He remembered meeting me a few years back and wondered where I was in my engineering studies. Stunned, I told him I had changed disciplines. ‘Whatever you study, study it well and be of use to Nepal, wherever you may be.’
Only if these two great men had been able to work together. I refuse to believe that politicians really resemble their caricature. They are not in the game to intentionally harm the country and people. There is something up there that’s just different. Compulsions, compromises, enticements, intimidations all end up taking their toll. Sure, some individuals are more vulnerable and vicious than others. By and large, though, it’s the nature of the beast.
Nepal, somehow fertile ground for initiatives and experiments fair and foul, is perhaps more susceptible to superfluous influences, alien and local. Things just don’t just happen here in a vacuum. Trying to make sense of it all is strenuous but still fun. Conspiracy theories instantly run wild. But that doesn’t necessarily make them irrelevant. Pulling these seemingly disparate strands together into a coherent 600 words every week or so has value. ‘If you can’t solve things, at least expose the problems you see’ seems to be a good motto.
One afternoon an uncle visiting from New York asked whether I read Maila Baje’s blog. When I said I did, he asked whether I knew who he or she was, and began naming names others had suggested to him. Maili Bajai sitting next to me told him the truth. She turned to me to say the time had long come.
Actually, it hadn’t. It took two more years, when my good friend Ajit Baral of FinePrint shot me an email asking me what I thought about a compilation. When I ‘outed’ myself to Dipak daju and sheepishly sought his suggestions on bringing out book, he promptly gave the structure a new vibrancy and direction, for which I am indebted.
With this selection before you, all I can say now is, gee, it’s so bright out here.
(aka Maila Baje)
Coming Full Circle
If there hadn’t been so many stakeholders with reputations to lose, Nepal’s political exercise in platitudes would have been pronounced a failure with the first constituent assembly's dissolution in 2012. In the spring of 2006, Nepalis did yearn for change. The royal regime had failed to inspire an initially expectant population, whereas the opposition parties and the Maoists had brought some hope.
The alliance struck in New Delhi was aimed more at punishing the palace than empowering the people. The text of the understanding had to be watered down to accommodate all parties' basic positions. Even so, the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists could not issue a signed joint text. Apart from viability, the venue would hobble the accord in a country ever so wary of the Delhi Compromise of 1951.
For the moment, however, it was enough to energize the masses, no doubt abetted by a sustained international campaign of vilification of the palace. By the time the pressures of the streets had receded, Nepal was on its way to becoming a federal and secular republic—agendas that People’s Movement II had not raised. If the task was arduous enough for Nepal’s new rulers, the process would prove excruciating.
Of the three pillars of ‘new Nepal’, Hindu statehood was controversial from the start. How it found a place in the House Proclamation of May 18, 2006—hailed as the equivalent of the Magna Carta—remains a mystery. Two years later, the elected constituent assembly voted on what had been already presented to members as a fait accompli: the abolition of the monarchy. With no trace of regret or recrimination, Gyanendra Shah held a news conference before leaving the palace to blend into a life of a commoner.
He would be no ordinary citizen. As a former head of state, Shah continued to exhort his successors to recommit themselves to the pledges they made to the people. In the early years, the political class largely sneered at him. Then they began warning him against attempts to subvert the new order. Over time, the ex-king began drawing larger crowds than politicians in his visits across the country. India and China, among other countries, stepped up consultations with him as a national force. Politicians recognized they had run out of powder. When Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai persisted in their tirades, the people began ridiculing them.
Federalism became such a central agenda after the Madhes movement that everyone started proposing models. No structure could satisfy everyone, while Nepal’s northern neighbor would have none of it. While championing inclusiveness and broadest-based representation in general terms, the southern neighbor couldn’t find a model it liked, either. By the time provinces and local bodies got elected leaders, new taxes and conspicuous patronage appeared to validate the few early skeptics.
A decade and a half later, it has become impossible to identify what went wrong and when. In reality, it is beside the point. If King Gyanendra had bet his throne on the mainstream parties’ and the Maoists’ inability to unite against him, a section of the Indian establishment— the one closest to a budding alliance with the West—called his bluff without anything specific in mind.
Every subsequent compromise turned out to be a renegotiation of the previous one. Nepal’s two neighbors became particularly assertive, and were sometimes capable of joint action. The Indians and Chinese, who brought the United Nations in to anchor the Maoists into a nebulous ‘peace process’, were also the ones that ensured it left.
Why consensus could be miraculously reached during some phases while it was stubbornly elusive during others was also a largely irrelevant question. The peace process had to proceed at any cost and thus acquired a logic of its own until the promulgation of the new Constitution and the election of representative bodies.
By the time the transition ended, local, regional and international dynamics had shifted remarkably from those in 2005-2006. India’s new governing elite had not directly participated in shaping New Delhi’s Nepal agenda and made a big thing about it. Having transcended the Tibet issue to envisioning Nepal as a land bridge to South Asia, the Chinese used security and development as prods, depending on the state of their relations with India.
More distant stakeholders like the United States, Britain and European Union member states shared a clear set of concerns but found it harder to draw coherence in terms of priority. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the battle lines between the US-led Millennium Challenge Corporation compact and the China-led Belt and Road Initiative had been drawn. Sadly, the security and strategic dimensions superseded the economic and development ones in the Nepali psyche and polity.
The Nepali political class sought collective action while driving the peace process. When things started falling apart, they seemed ready to shoulder collective blame. When the finger-pointing started becoming too personal for the public’s consumption, the politicians coarsened the discourse. The people may have found nostalgia more appealing than any notion of the future. Nepal’s fate now indeed rests in their hands.
Empowered and Imperiled: Nepal's Peace Puzzle in Bits and Pieces
(Available in book shops from February)