M A I N   N E W S

Nepal Jam
Valley of chaos, hope and despair
Shastri Ramachandaran lately in Kathmandu

Nepal’s road to democracy may be paved with good intentions, but the scene in Kathmandu is very bad. Not a day, or even several hours for that matter, pass without a clash, protest or shut-down that throws the valley’s snarling traffic into a gridlock of jams. Life has certainly become stickier after the historic peace agreement between the ruling Seven-Party Alliance and the Maoists, who are on the threshold of entering government.

That’s jam for you in one of the world’s poorest countries where bread-and-butter issues await the transition to a New Nepal to be ushered in with elections to a constituent assembly six months down the line. The world’s fastest peace process — sealed between the Maoist guerrillas and the SPA — has certainly thrown life out of gear.

Survive the vagaries of airline schedules snagged by delays, fogs and whatever else to arrive in Kathmandu and it is more than just mountain air that greets the visitor. Barely out of the airport on Christmas-eve Sunday and the taxi is stuck in a mile-long jam at least six lanes across. “Andolan, andolan”, yells one taxi driver while another motorist says it is the doing of Maobadis; a third interjects that it is a group protesting against Maoist disruption even as other voices speculate on whether it is a procession that has brought traffic to a halt or a clash further down the road.

Vehicles worm and wind their way out of the choking disarray with an ingenuity that defies law and logic. Turns out it was a traffic accident — a young man run over by a bus; but he was part of a group involved in a fracas with a shopkeeper. The next day, a motorcyclist rams into a public transport mini bus and it triggers another clash and a traffic jam. The bus blocks the road and other bus drivers rally to his defence to take on the swelling ranks of motorcyclists who are geared for a fight. The road is blocked for a few hours before those involved run out of steam.

Elsewhere in Kathmandu, on Christmas Day, doctors in Kanti Children’s Hospital struck work in protest against “manhandling” and “vandalism”. The strike continues and has spread further, bringing to a halt all medical services. The doctors are demanding protection from manhandling of medical staff and vandalism. Hardly a day passes in Kathmandu, and in other parts of Nepal, too. without a protest, procession or incident snowballing into a violent confrontation between groups, parties and communities. People are on a short fuse. The new-found freedom has turned thoroughfares and public spaces into theatres for protests that explode at the slightest provocation.

The SPA government’s announcement of ambassadors brought the Maoists out in force and it was street power that forced Prime Minister G.P. Koirala to retreat on the issue. What these developments underscore is that there is a new belligerence to protests - be it against a foreign policy decision or a trifling local dispute — which can rapidly escalate into a menacing street confrontation.

The situation is tense, volatile and chaotic and the atmosphere suffused with a kuchh bhi ho sakta hai fear and anxiety. A despotic king has been sent packing by a people weary of his oppressive excesses and the dawn of any republic is disorderly. But this is more than the routine breakdowns of law and order that punctuate life in South Asia.

The scene in the Kathmandu Valley and other regions of Nepal, particularly the Terai, suggest that the unravelling democracy is a powder keg. There is no evidence of the state, law, order or any authority being in command enough to thwart disruption, intimidation, violence or the outbreak of deadly clashes as witnessed in the border town of Nepalgunj on December 27. The imposition of a curfew and presence of riot police did little to dissipate the ugly mood of conflict building up between the hill people and the Madheshis on the plains. The hostility has been simmering but so intensely that a transport vehicle driver’s defiance of a local bandh was trigger enough for unrelenting arson and street battles.

The police do not appear to be anywhere on the scene. As a force in uniform, they have been tarred with the same brush that discredited the Royal Nepalese Army for its war against the Maoist guerrillas and the atrocities it unleashed against the people. One of the agreements reached between the SPA government and the Maoists was against the re-establishment of displaced police posts.

On December 25, the cabinet decided to reinstate the police posts to control crimes and create an atmosphere free of fear in preparation for the constituent assembly elections. The Maoists have opposed this decision and set about capturing the police posts that were restored. An already discredited, demoralised and barely-visible police force, which the Government was nudging out of the woodwork, is now reported to be extremely reluctant — if not fearful of ‘public’ anger — to take up the task of enforcing law and order.

Even the worst victims and critics of police actions under the monarchy are convinced that no state, country or government can be run with a semblance of civil order without an effective police force. However, unlike the mainstream political parties, the Maoists who command the cadres, force and fire-power to ensure that their writ runs, are determined to resist the reappearance of the police as a restraining presence.

Authoritative sources that played a decisive role in the peace agreement between the Maoist rebels and the SPA worry that unless law and order are enforced as the first priority, it would be impossible to create a climate free of fear for the elections to be fair.



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