Sunday, March 29, 2009

Of Executioners And Eunuchs

When Unified Marxist-Leninist Chairman Jhal Nath Khanal called the United Maoists a crowd of executioners for killing Youth Force district member Prachanda Man Thaiba in Butwal, one couldn’t wait for the former rebels to respond. Almost dutifully, Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai dismissed his party’s senior coalition partner as a band of eunuchs.
Traditionally, the UML has been quite creative in defining its adversaries. What made the latest outburst interesting was that it came from the man the Maoists considered their greatest friend in the UML. (The former rebels consider Deputy Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam a fellow Maoist in all but name.)
The Nepali Congress is not buying into this sudden splurge of bad blood between our Reds. But, then, it needs to stake out some position as the real opposition. And, more importantly, deflect attention from its own contribution to bringing about this situation.
The Maoists considered Khanal’s election as UML chairman as something of their own triumph. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal still seems unfazed. Even at the height of the flare-up, he felt confident enough to embark on a European trip. Khanal, for his part, subsequently revised his threat to pull out of the government. Like the Nepali Congress, the UML will vigorously oppose the Maoists’ “atrocities”.
Tragic as Thaiba’s murder was, Khanal’s reaction stood in sharp contrast to the UML’s stand on 13,000 the Maoists killed during the insurgency. (Yes all of them, since the insurgents brought out the army by attacking the barracks in Dang.) Like most of the political establishment, the UML cheered the Maoists for taking up arms in the name of the people.
A single death, Stalin famously said, is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. But Khanal cannot be dismissed as your regular Stalinist. He believes ancient Nepal was an amalgamation of republics that were true democracies long before the Greeks sat in contemplation. The UML chief wants to make sure Nepal gets its rightful place in the world’s universities and academies as the real designer of democracy. For him, the Maoists are impeding that grand mission.
It is tempting to view Dr. Bhattarai’s characterization of the UML within his understanding of the evolution of Maoism amid Nepal’s geopolitical realities. In ancient China, castration was a traditional punishment before it became a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. At the height of the Ming Dynasty, there were some 3,000 eunuchs in the service of the emperor. Some eunuchs amassed power surpassing that of top officials. The notion that eunuchs were less likely to capture power and establish their own dynasty precisely because they were incapable of having children gained ground in the imperial court.
Since that’s not a connotation that would suit Dr. Bhattarai, our search for meaning must change directions. Imperial households in India employed eunuchs as servants for female royalty. They could live and work among women sparking fewer worries. While most eunuchs served as support personnel like messengers, watchmen and guards, some wielded enough influence to become part of the court’s council of advisers.
Since this legacy, too, has an affirmative resonance, one must consider the word Dr. Bhattarai used, hijara, in contemporary connotation down south. Clad in saris and wearing heavy make-up, hijaras typically live in the margins of society. But they work in the mainstream. They gatecrash weddings, births, shop openings and other major family celebrations, complete with harmoniums and drums, singing and dancing until they are paid to go away.
This analogy becomes more fitting, as, in the Maoists’ view, the UML has not been able to make up its mind whether it is a ruling or opposition party. (A malady, one might add, the party has suffered from in every coalition government it has joined.)
But one must not ignore the full picture. One reason hijaras get their way at public ceremonies is because the organizers believe their presence brings good luck. The corollary? Many fear the curse of an unpropitiated eunuch, not to speak of an enraged one.