01 March 2005

Reimagining Nepal: Book review of Forget Kathmandu by Manjushree Thapa

March 1, 2005
The Hindu
Book Review

FORGET KATHMANDU — An Elegy for Democracy: Manjushree Thapa; Viking- Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 350.

Re-imagining Nepal

Siddharth Varadarajan

WRITTEN WITH a deep concern for the political future of a Nepal cornered by the authoritarian impulses of the monarchy, the grotesque factiousness of the parliamentary parties and the anarchic violence of the Maoists, this book is Manjushree Thapa's lament for the apparent impossibility of democracy in her country.

Published weeks before King Gyanendra's February 1, 2005 coup, the book is a highly accessible chronicling of not just 200 years of palace intrigue but also the frustratingly circular transition from Rana rule to that of the Shah kings, the compromise which brought in multiparty democracy in 1990, the still mysterious June 2001 massacre which took the life of King Birendra and brought Gyanendra to the throne, and the subsequent usurping of power by the palace in 2002.

Maoist movement: insights

Thapa's account of the Maoist movement might lack the academic depth and methodological rigour of other books — I am thinking mainly of Deepak Thapa and Bandita Sijapati's excellent A Kingdom Under Siege: Nepal's Maoist Insurgency, 1996 to 2003 (Kathmandu: The Printhouse, 2004) and Deepak Thapa's edited volume, Understanding the Maoist Movement in Nepal (Kathmandu: Martin Chautari, 2003) — but her chapter based on a week-long trek through insurgent strongholds in the western districts of Dailekh, Kalikot and Jumla is full of insights into the nature of the Maoist movement at the grassroots level.

It is clear from her tone, which is sometimes condescending and betrays her impatience with many of the party cadres she met, that she is not impressed with the comrades. And yet, the picture she paints is one which the Nepali elite would find deeply troubling: of villages which fear the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) more than they do the Maoists, of communities so wretchedly poor that the rebels' promise of equality is a magnet for large sections of the youth.

After spending days in search of women cadres — and meeting male party leaders and "motivators" whose rhetoric left her cold — Thapa finally encountered a group of teenaged girls active with the Maoists in Jumla. "I asked the first girl... what she was doing before she joined the party. `Nothing,' she said. `I was at home, spending my days cutting grass.' Then, with a blithe tone that belied the grimness of her message, she said, `You see, before, there were only sickles in the hands of girls like me. Sickles and grass. And now there are automatic rifles'."

RNA's repression

The author's Kathmandu-bourgeois cynicism wilts in the face of this expression of female empowerment growing out of the barrel of a gun, "All my irritation at the Maoists fell away with this. If I had grown up in one of these villages, and were young, uneducated, unqualified for employment of any kind, and as a female, denied equality with men — hell, I would have joined the Maoists, too," she declares. "The other political parties had not offered better options, and neither had the government. Join the Maoists is what any spirited girl would do."

At the same time, the author makes it clear she has no illusions about the Maoists with their often indiscriminate and senseless use of violence and their undemocratic impulses (which has led them to attack members of other parties).

Despite travelling through villages which have borne the brunt of the RNA's repression, she never came across anyone who was not a Maoist who acknowledged supporting the insurgents.

On the road to Manma in Kalikot, the author spoke to villagers who provided a chilling account of the Army's atrocities — of how soldiers in 2002 had killed innocent men, raped women, burnt more than 30 houses and dropped bombs on the village by helicopter. Asked about Maoist violence, villagers said there had only been one instance — the killing, under rather brutal circumstances, of a man suspected of being an informer.

The Maoists also destroyed a local bridge, but villagers rejoiced despite the inconvenience this caused them. "It's been a relief since the bridge was bombed," a boy told Thapa. "Before that, the Army used to come here on weekly patrols... (they) would beat men and boys, they'd speak roughly to women... call them whores." And yet, these villagers were not Maoist supporters. If there were elections here tomorrow, who would win, Thapa asked. "Not the Maoists," a man answered. "Not if they have to put down their arms... The government thinks we are all Maoists, but the fact is, nobody likes them. Nobody."

`Destruction of truth'

Nothing sums up the elegiac nature of her narrative better than the dirge of an old widow in western Nepal who tells Thapa the sad story of her family's destruction. "Her elder son and daughter-in-law had been shot dead by security forces because the villagers, on some grudge, had reported them as Maoists," she writes.

Fearing for their lives, her second son and one of her daughters fled the village, never to return. "Her entire life had fallen apart around her. After telling me her story in almost one breath, she chanted over and over, `My truth has been destroyed... My truth has been destroyed'." This metaphor — of the destruction of truth — is a recurrent theme in the book and the culprits are many.

The sad fact is that Thapa has written an elegy for a democracy that was never, except for brief moments that never lasted more than a few months, allowed to even be born. The promise of a constituent assembly, made by King Tribhuvan in the 1950s, has yet to see the light of day and it is this demand, which the Maoists have made the focus of their political platform today.

Time ripe for democracy

For most of her book, the author describes rather than prescribes but in the end she does put her own cards on the table, "Nothing is more critical to Nepal now than winning back democracy... Only democracy, and the sovereignty of the Nepali people, matter. Neither the monarchy nor our failed leaders nor any national myth or relic need be kept if they pose obstacles. It is time to re-imagine Nepal."

It is increasingly apparent that King Gyanendra has emerged as the principal obstacle to democracy. A democratically elected constituent assembly with a mandate to retain, reinvent or end the monarchy as an institution is the only legitimate instrument to effect the re-imagining of Nepal that Thapa rightly says the time is ripe for.


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