One dream too many

cOVER
What the future holds for this poverty-stricken feudal society remains a mystery. May 28 is just a conjecture. In the interiors, democracy has already spread its wings. Riding the red flag of the new republic of Nepal

Akash Bisht Nepalgunj/Surkhet (Western Nepal)

The road that connects India and Nepal in the town of Nepalgunj on the UP-Nepal border is bustling with people of various ethnic and social groups, walking or travelling in tongas and rickshaws, or, as in the case of the privileged ones, on Indian-made motorcycles. There are hardly any private cars that ply on this road except the Prados and Pajeros of the United Nations (UN). Every 10 minutes, one such car can be seen zooming by on the streets of this otherwise sleepy town which is little wary of the heavy UN presence.
Famous for being a hotbed of the Maoist Red Army, the town has an uncanny peace and calm that can be felt and heard in the voices of people who talk with hope and doubt about the future of their country, as a republic. This district of Bardia (and nearby Banke) witnessed a huge upsurge of people's movement, especially in April-May 2006, that attained success in a short but hard-fought span. The power script is unfolding in Kathmandu but this part of the country, which has immense political hope, is still finding it difficult to come to terms with an unpredictable future.
Amid this slow turmoil of expectations, a group of men in Nepalgunj sit under a tree sipping tea and discussing the future of the Constituent Assembly (CA). One of them reads the daily, Kantipur. "Things are not as transparent as they look. We don't know what to expect. But we do know that May 28 will be the day that would usher in a change that will go down in history. I don't know if this change would be positive or negative. People of this country voted for change and that change has shaken the ruling class which intended to rule and exploit this country for centuries to come. We all rose to abolish monarchy and we look forward to a new republican Nepal under the rule of Maoists who are pro-people," remarks Mahesh, a taxi driver.
The streets of Nepalgunj are full of such apprehensions and hopes. People are expecting that after the negotiations between the parties in Kathmandu is over, a peaceful, prosperous and unified Nepal will emerge in the days to come. Khem Kisi, a young activist and travel agent in Nepalgunj, adds, "We believe in the Maoists because they did what no government or king could do. They mingled with the people and not the elite and had access to such remote places where the powerful never intended to venture. They set up community-run schools and hospitals for the poor who were deprived of these basic necessities for centuries. So why shouldn't we be with the Maoists? We are with them at every step they take, even if it means dying for the larger cause of a republic." The streets of this small town are awash with optimism as most people believe that their cause is the cause of the Maoists.
In a discussion organised by the CPN (Maoist) on future leadership, political consensus and the question of restructuring the State, several
intellectuals from different parts of western Nepal were invited to speak. The discussion was chaired by young Maoist leader Comrade Athak. Speakers discussed the future course and how political parties should tread a visionary path. They should reach a consensus and look forward to a larger cause. A Muslim intellectual at the discussion said, "The Nepal that I look forward to is one where we can have a Muslim or Dalit president or prime minister in the future. We should have an approach that should leave all the differences behind in a 'gantantra' where everybody is equal and should only be looked as a citizen of this nation-state without any prejudices."
However, the elite of the town have a different opinion about the people's mandate. They allege that the Maoists came to power using brute force. They claimed that the polls were rigged in numerous places and people were even threatened with dire consequences if they vote against them. "My family was given threats of kidnapping, murder and rape. We had no option but to vote for them as I know that nothing much will change even if Maoists rule the roost. Let's see what happens if Nepal becomes a republic. I don't think it will make a difference," claims Abhay Kumar Gautam, owner of a plush restaurant in Nepalgunj. He, however, feels that poor farmers will definitely benefit out of Maoist policies and they will help the poor and needy as always.
The town has a strong Madhesi presence. They have voted in favour of the Maoists, CPN(M) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) because they believe that these parties gave a thought to their cause. They pointed out that they have been left out of the development process by the ruling elite for decades and are discriminated and called 'outsiders' or Indians. The Madhesis have a different view on the political turmoil in the country, but are unified for the cause of a republic. They claim that they have been treated like second-class citizens all this while, but they that hope the Maoists and the MJF will usher in qualitative change
"We are more than 40 per cent of the total population of Nepal, but only four per cent are in non-gazetted positions and 0.4 per cent in gazetted posts. Out of a total of 75 districts, only three or four districts have Madhesi district magistrates, while most of the SPs in police are pahadis. In addition, there are only 546 madhesis in the Nepal Army and only two per cent in the police," informs Jagdish Bahadur Singh of MJF.
He adds that 80 per cent of the total revenue of Nepal is generated from the Madhes region while only 15 per cent of it is spent on it. The entire Tarai region produces 67 per cent of the nation's foodgrain, but Madhes features at 56 in the human development index. Small hill districts like Mustang feature at 15, signifying bias in favour of the hill-people. Most believe that Madhesis have always been looked down upon and the ruling elite and Kathmandu politicians of the ruling parties have always discriminated against them.
"We have been betrayed by the past leadership of this country and the kings have always exploited us. The bottomline is that we want the monarchy to be abolished. The king should go even if it means one more revolution. We look forward to negotiations with Maoists as they have promised to look into the Madhesi cause, but if they don't accept our demands then we will be forced to start our own movement for justice and equality," says Neeraj Singh, a local shopkeeper in Nepalgunj.
However, the local pahadi community calls the whole pahadi-Madhesi conflict a poll gimmick. They claim that there is no such animosity between the two communities. "We have lived together in this region for times unknown and we never had such issues before. This whole conflict picked up because some political parties wanted to use it for their benefit," says Ram Bahadur Shrestha, managing director of Aline Travels.
One of the last standing monarchy supporters is Purna Lal Chuke, journalist, who claims he is close to the king and has travelled extensively with him in his various trips. "A few months ago, I toured with him for 10 days. When I came back, people in Nepalgunj touched my feet and kissed my hands. The reason: I toured with the king alone and they called me the blessed one. So it is not easy to take the king out of the people's mind. They treat him like god," he says.
The mood of the pro-monarchy camp has suffered a setback after the Maoist victory. They have been mauled in the elections. They feel that the king should at least be the ceremonial head and should be allowed to live in the palace like in the UK.
Most of these claims are rubbished by the people in the countryside who are relieved that the 240 years of ruthless monarchy has come to an end. Gabar, a small village on the border of Bardia and Surkhet, gave Maoists shelter during the struggle. The village is next to the highway that connects Surkhet to Nepalgunj and consists of small hutments made of clay, wood and cow dung.
In one such hut lives Tulsi, who lost her husband and brother in the struggle. After years of humiliation and suppression by the local landlord, they joined the PLA (Maoist guerrilla army) and took up arms. They were later killed in an ambush by the army. "I didn't cry for them and neither did anyone else in our village because they were martyrs. They died fighting a battle against injustice. They, like many other martyrs, are responsible for this change in Nepal, which will forever change the fate of the poor," remarks a proud Tulsi.
There are numerous army posts on this highway and every vehicle passing by has to register its number with the army. People sitting in buses have to get off and walk across the post while armymen search their luggage. "This reminds me of emergency. Sometimes I feel that we still cannot move freely in our own country, and are looked down with suspicion," remarked a passenger.
All along the western hinterland, praises of Maoist justice, governance and valour resonate through the discussions of the village folk. They are not really aware of the technical details of the CA and the ongoing political negotiations. They believe that their own people (read Maoists) have come to power and will fulfil all their unfulfilled aspirations. The Maoist win has made them dream of a 'Naya Nepal'.
"The Maoists are people with immense pride and courage. I still remember that if one Maoist was shot, then another would immediately take his place. They would keep marching forward. In
contrast, if anyone in the army got shot, they would all run away. There must be some reason, cause and passion in this valour - otherwise why would anyone like to die a painful death. People knew this and respected them," points Kalu Ram of Kali Maiti village in Surkhet district.

The picturesque town of Surkhet, which, if locals are to be believed, was King Birendra's favourite town. He even had plans to shift the capital here. This small town is dominated by hill people and is a perfect blend of modernity and age-old traditions and customs. While the elderly folk are dressed in traditional attire, the younger ones sport fashionable western clothes smuggled from China. The valley has huge Maoist support. Trained Maoist cadre hang out on the streets, totally at ease with the people and habitat. Posing for a picture, a Maoist rebel points out, "Don't go by the version of the modern people who sit in towns and cities and pass judgement on Maoist brutality, terror and electoral rigging. Ask the people at the grassroots level and they will narrate the story of why the Maoists succeeded."
The entire Surkhet valley is celebrating with the Maoists. But people are suspicious of the role of other parties like NC, CPN (UML), among others, who they think will not be easy to negotiate with. Says local FM radio broadcaster Ganesh Acharya: "Post 1990 elections, we saw how governments would fall every six months. Then a new one would come to power with different combinations. That should not be repeated. Political parties should come to a consensus to form the Constitution and then hold peaceful elections. This is the need of the hour as people don't want to witness violence again."
Clearly, in the villages and plains of western Nepal, the people are looking forward to May 28 - and the days and months that will follow - with hope and suspicion. They are in total support of a republic and the abolition of the monarchy. They are ready for another revolution, if need be, because they believe the time has come for the masses to rise and rule the country and take over what they have always been deprived of - development and equality.
What the future holds for this poverty-stricken feudal society remains a mystery. May 28 is just a conjecture. In the interiors, democracy has already spread its wings. Riding the red flag of the new republic of Nepal