Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sati’s Curse And Forced Fatalism

Sati’s curse on the country has expired – thus spake Khadga Prasad Oli.
The leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, addressing civil servants affiliated with his organization, made that declaration as part of his pre-premiership effort lift the national mood from its deepening despondency.
The sati excuse has long been used to justify our collective languor. And for good reason. What, after all, could be easier than attributing our perpetual woes to the swearword an unidentified widow of yore uttered as she perished on her husband’s funeral pyre? The search for archfiends is as intrinsic to our soul as the quest for saviors.
Comrade Oli must be commended for striking his gavel so hard. As a student and practitioner of scientific materialism, it must have taken him some courage to pull a palliative for something so rooted in the past. Oli’s real resolution lies in his preparedness to pontificate on something so shrouded in oblivion.
What we can gather from the available literature is that a sati pronounces a curse if she becomes angry while preparing to die. In so doing, she makes it known that some person or persons have behaved badly and unacceptably toward her.
The curse is said to hang over a family usually for seven generations and serves to encourage within it proper attitudes and activities. Satis may curse other related families if the cause so warrants. Regardless, her spell is considered a benevolent discouragement against future bad behavior from someone akin to a protector.
But what if she curses persons she is not related to? In that case, her punishment is said to come without guarantees of protection. In other words, she is malevolent and vengeful.
A couple of questions are then in order. Can we consider the sati as malevolent simply because she utters a curse. Or do we have to look at her intentions. To phrase it differently, do we need to see how the recipients understand the curse? In that case, the distinction between the benevolent and malevolent curse becomes sharper.
Then there’s the etymology. The sati is someone impelled by ‘sat’ (virtue) to follow her husband in death. For the curse to be deemed effective, must her motivations be certifiably pure? Can someone who, say, followed a duly convicted and executed criminal on the funeral pyre – regardless of the purity of her act – be considered an effective curser?
If, on the other hand, the pre-deceased male was pious and innocent but the woman was forced to become a sati against her volition, would her motivation in delivering a curse be deemed pure?
Or do other factors, such as bloodline in a caste-regimented society or spousal rank in a polygamous order, count. Perhaps how exactly the flames consumed her body – instantly or ungenerously – makes a difference.
In Nepal’s context, references to sati’s curse are as diverse as they are disparate. One of the earliest collective curses was said to have been uttered by a queen of King Jagatjayamalla, who announced from her pyre the end of the Malla dynasty and the coming of the Shahs.
Every violent change of regime since has had its share of widows burnt alive with their husbands. Who said what to whom? And which sati was more or less qualified than the others to do so – at least in terms of the efficacy of their utterances?
In that great unknown, we accepted a collective jinx: accursed is he who tries to do something good for the country. The first English writers of the history of Nepal perpetuated that line, which has been dutifully picked near and far ever since. Over time, variants also abounded to instill and entrench a sense of fatalism in our national character. And who benefited from our centuries-long obsession?
Oli may be on to something.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Flashback: Take It Or Leave It

If you are infuriated by the political establishment’s obsession with how the new constitution should be settled, it is time to cut them some slack. There is not much by way of content that they can show. Well, maybe they can show a lot in the new document. But it won’t be what too many of us will like.
Clearly, the wrangling over the number and nature of provinces serves a purpose. Blame Indian and Chinese geopolitical sensitivities and throw around all kinds of ideas. Madhav Kumar Nepal gets to yell at Khadga Oli at the top of his lungs. Pushpa Kamal Dahal gets to head both the mechanism to manage political affairs and the alliance menacing it.
On the religious right, the Hindu state standard-bearer – Rastriya Prajatantra Party Nepal (RPPN) – is being forced to cede some ground to a group of Nepali Congress leaders. How and when Khum Bahadur Khadka decided to take up the mantle remains unclear. After all, he was on record rallying for republicanism in the early 1990s when Girija Prasad Koirala was still best buds with King Birendra. If incarceration and insulin somehow transformed him, it was a quiet one.
For all its posturing, this Nepali Congress faction has not been able to tell us how a Hindu republic would fare any better than the secular one we have now. The appellation certainly has some implications. A Christian or Muslim president attending the hymnal advent of spring at Hanuman Dhoka might not be palatable to many Hindu ears. But if you start barring non-Hindus from the highest office of the land just to prevent that awkwardness, wouldn’t that constitute non-royal regression?
Or are we just trying to call Nepal the world’s only Hindu republic and leave things at that just to make some of us feel good?
That’s the kind of inanity you would expect the RPPN to pounce upon. There was a time when Kamal Thapa was thought to have abandoned his campaign to restore the monarchy. For a while, he, too, blew hot and cold – and seemed to enjoy it. Now he’s angry – at the deputy prime minister for now. If passions don’t cool soon, well, don’t even think about what might come next.
It’s easy to fall back on the oh-we could-still-restore the-monarchy line. What if Mr. Gyanendra Shah likes being ex-king so much that he won’t budge from where he is? The son, despite the recent outpouring of public sympathy over his travails in Thailand, is still considered too toxic to be throne-worthy. The grandson? He’s too young and running against time to grow up. King Birendra’s daughters? The Basanta Shrawan conundrum would persist in a different way, especially if it happened to be that time of the month for the Queen.
Perhaps our political leaders’ public confidence is genuine and the constitution will be promulgated on time. Those dissatisfied will erupt in protest, but there will be too many howls from far too many directions to pose a cohesive threat to the establishment.
Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could address the nation: “Brothers and sisters, this is the best we could do. Now, take it or leave it.” He could decide toward the end of the speech whether to throw in his resignation, depending on the intensity of the fire and smoke.

Originally posted on November 2, 2014

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Left, Right And Muddle

An uncanny undertaking is under way on left and right ends of our political spectrum.
Mohan Baidya, chairman of the more hard line of two principal factions of the Maoists, believes it would be a historic blunder for fraternity to remain divided any longer.
No, he does not believe his decision to break away from Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in 2012 and create (restore?) the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was a mistake. That split was historically correct, too. But since history has taken a new turn, politics must do so too.
That’s the least bizarre part. Baidya went on to acknowledge deep differences between the two factions and the other splinters of the organization that led a 10-year ‘people’s war’. In other words, there is a palpable recognition that it’s better to stay divided inside a single party than to function as separate entities.
On the right, the leaders of the two Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) factions, Kamal Thapa and Pashupati Shamsher Rana, came together in public for the first time in a decade to explain how they would solidify the nationalist front. What might be nobler?
But Thapa won’t abandon his royalist agenda, while Rana will resolutely adhere to his republican one. Still, the two factions – dominated principally but not exclusively by decade-long allies of the monarchy – seem to be so serious about uniting that patriarch Surya Bahadur Thapa’s normally pungent trashing of the idea didn’t seem to stick.
So Surya Bahadur Thapa is off to New Delhi, close on the heels of UCPN (Maoist) chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s return from China. Who, in turn, had flown up north, weeks after his party comrade-cum-rival Baburam Bhattarai returned from India, imploring – or advising, depending on whom you ask – India’s active engagement in Nepal.
If Nepalis firmly believe that their neighbors are discussing their fate far more seriously, the Chinese and Indians have been nodding their heads more conspicuously. The normally chatty Indians have become even more candid about how they think we should reinvent ourselves, particularly on religious and cultural matters, although careful to profess a hands-off policy.
A few weeks ago, the traditionally reticent Chinese used a leading Nepal expert to reject the prospect of a resurrecting of the Hindu monarchy. Beijing is also using Madhesi leaders to convey its support for any kind of federalism Nepalis wished as long as it did not impair Nepal’s territorial and sovereign integrity. (The implications of the ambiguities surrounding the concepts of “Hindu monarchy” and support for conditional federalism may be left for another time.)
Baidya believes the foreign itineraries and agendas of Nepali leaders are not that important. The party needed to do what Nepal needed: unite.
The right has an easier way out. The unity formula of the two RPPs has room for a republican as well as a monarchical Nepal. Restoring Hindu statehood remains their distinctive common platform, which seems to enjoy popularity in opinion polls and on social media. Hey, the electoral numbers even might catch up soon.
But the Maoists? Even when they try their hand at practicality and expediency, they can’t quit being uppity about ideology, history and objectivity.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Come Now, What’s With The Frowns?

It’s quite clear that we Nepalis aren’t among the world’s happiest people. But the bottom of the heap? Well, almost.
A Gallup survey released on the eve of the United Nations International Day of Happiness last week put us on the last-but-one rung of 143 countries examined in 2014. Only Bangladeshis, Serbs, Turks, Tunisians, and the Sudanese seem more morose than us.
Asked whether we experienced a lot of enjoyment, smiled or laughed a lot, felt well-rested and felt treated with respect, and learned or did something interesting the day, we ranked with Afghans, Bosnian and Herzegovinians, Georgians and Lithuanians.
No quibbling with the Afghans here. Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, has far deeper scars from its civil war. The Georgians, long wary of the Russian bear, are not convinced that the West would lift so much as a finger should the growls turn into another dangerous prowl.
The way the Lithuanians are behaving inside the United Nations Security Council these days, you have to know that they, too, are haunted by the specter of the Soviet Union. Yet, remarkably, Ukraine, where the Brezhnev Doctrine has been updated and is playing out in full, remains a bit happier. (Maybe Gallup oversampled the eastern part of that country, would you think?)
The point is: the fact that we’re squeezed between two giant neighbors doesn’t explain our gloom. Among our neighbors, Bhutanese are happier than Americans. (The former’s much-hyped Gross National Happiness index wasn’t quite enough to gain extra credits, much less catapult them to the top).
Sri Lankans feel better than the Chinese, who were ahead of the Indians. Your status as an island, a subcontinent or a civilization masquerading as a nation – none of those count. Pakistanis’ happiness approximated that of the Congolese (Democratic Republic), Croatians and Liberians. Feel free to read into that juxtaposition whatever you want.
Among the other powers, the Japanese and Russians were almost equally happy. Notwithstanding Benjamin Netanyahu’s determination to prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb and the Ayatollahs’ commitment to wiping Israel off the map, Israelis and Iranians were perched on the same echelon of exhilaration.
Coming back to Nepal, yeah we’re a bit confused about who we are and who we want to be. Six basic laws in the last six decades have failed to impress us. We now have to promulgate the seventh one to find out what’s in it.
Frustrating as it is to see the political contortions, life hasn’t been that bad. Foreign investment, we are told, is going gangbusters. Remittances have been doing so for a while. The Chinese and Indians have been pampering us with pledges of new massive financial assistance, if not actual disbursements.
Sure, we’re clueless about what really transpired between the monarch and the opposition parties before he restored the parliament in April 2006, only to have himself sidelined and ultimately removed. But neither do we know the full details of the events surrounding the Delhi Compromise of 1951, the midnight deal in April 1990, or the 12-Point Agreement of November 2005.
Our movies and music are flourishing as are our books and magazines are becoming glossier. Nepalis are high on the list of visitors of salacious and sensational sites on the Internet. A Nepali is a Forbes billionaire, the diaspora has spread far and wide, and workers abroad have established their diligence and discipline. Hey, even the Indian prime minister fully and formally affirmed that Lord Buddha was indeed born in Nepal.
So what’s with the frowns?
Maybe the premise is wrong. Gallup clarifies that low positive emotions don’t necessarily mean high negative emotions. For example, people in the former Soviet Union countries typically report some of the lowest positive emotions in the world; however, they also report some of the lowest negative emotions in the world. (Thanks for explaining that in the bottom of the third page of the eight-page news release!)
The polling company also says results are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews with approximately 1,000 adults in each country, aged 15 and older. Nepalis were asked those questions in Nepali.
That’s it. So here’s probably how your average interview went:

Q.    Did you feel well rested yesterday?
A.    What kind of question is that? With all my head and body aches in total darkness amid the tumult in the neighborhood?

Q. Were you treated with respect all day yesterday?
A.  Yeah, cheated by the storekeeper, lied to by the leaders, yelled at by almost everyone around me. I tried respecting myself a little, though, if that counts.

Q. Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
A. Are you kidding? What’s there to laugh about in this country cursed by sati? I might have laughed at myself at times for having expected otherwise.

Q. Did you learn or do something interesting yesterday?
A. Yeah. To expect tomorrow to be lousier than today and not be bothered.

Q. How about enjoyment?
A. You got that one right. That clerk they nailed on corruption? His son was always making us feel he was better than us. Just because my dad never got to poke his finger in the national pie.

Throw in the scowls, smirks, tenor and tantrums, and Gallup would get the kind of result it did, wouldn't it?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Expediency Collides With Propriety

Rumbles of realignment on the right and the left have instilled some specificity in the latest response of former prime minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to ex-king Gyanendra Shah’s allusion of a behind-the-scenes political deal in April 2006.
The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) leader and senior-most living opposition participant in negotiations with the palace now admits there had been a proposal to install a ‘baby king’, which he rubbished. In fairness, Comrade Nepal insists that the only thing that could be called a deal was the one between the monarch and agitating parties on transferring sovereignty to the people.
Still, his latest clarification poses new questions against the backdrop that republicanism, secularism and federalism were not on the agenda of the April Uprising. The concept of a ‘baby king’, enunciated by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, came way after Baburam Bhattarai’s spoke of retaining a ‘cultural monarchy’ and Koirala’s own articulation of the necessity of providing ceremonial space to the palace.
What is also beyond dispute is that the monarch restored the parliament and appointed Koirala prime minister on the basis of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 1990. Koirala, too, took the oath from the king on that basis and formed the cabinet that would negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement with the Maoists.
Thus, the subsequent sidelining of the king, the supplanting of the 1990 Constitution and the surfeit of sub-deals made on the basis of an interim basic law were the outcomes of political expediency. If the monarch felt he had been betrayed in any way, the national mood was not conducive for him to express his feelings. Any injustice could be addressed if and when the tide turned.
The mainstream parties and the Maoists continued to argue over who should get the real credit for bringing down the monarchy. Scant attention was paid to the imperative of devising a successor institution to the monarchy that could not only preside over a diverse state but also navigate the geopolitical pressures of an unstable neighborhood that was fundamentally susceptible to extra-regional dynamics. For the people, ‘new Nepal’ was not supposed to be limited to the emergence of new potentates.
Similarly, the argument over how many provinces Nepal should have proceeded before we could ever sufficiently debate whether Nepal needed to be federalized to mainstream the marginalized. The urge to identify Nepal’s Hindu identity within the narrow confines of the monarchy simply ignored how religion had established itself as a way of life.
With the political tides shifting directions, outcomes of expediency have now stood starkly before the imperatives of feasibility, legality and propriety. There is a semblance of seriousness in the political establishment – but only a semblance. On the right, the two Rastriya Prajatantra Party factions have initiated the process of unity, as have the two principal Maoist factions. The spur, however, is weak. Could a common desire to restore Hindu statehood be enough to unify the monarchist and republican factions on the right? Or have the internal fissures in each propelled their quest for proximity?
The Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Mohan Baidya factions of the Maoists, we were told, were ideologically incompatible and therefore worthy of separate existence. What happened during these past months and weeks that the third largest elected party is now working to reunite with the faction that boycotted the second constituent assembly election and still officially sees that body as an obstacle to a new constitution?
The Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML have been a conglomeration of factions ever since each realized the damage formal splits had inflicted on them. So their internal dynamics can play out less conspicuously.
If we want to get to the root of today’s malaise, we need to shine more light on what was actually agreed on that fateful day in April nine years ago.