Even as the 10th round of ministerial level talks to resolve the decade-long refugee dispute between Nepal and Bhutan moved towards an encouraging consensus, Nepal’s peace was shattered at year-end by civil strife and violence in parts of the country. Protests against Indian establishments and movie halls screening films featuring Bollywood actor Hrithik Roshan, animated by rumours of unspecified origin, provoked a police firing which killed five people, while retaliatory mob violence and arson caused extensive damage to property. There was an organised flavour to the uncharacteristic turn of events in a country that has been relatively free of the kind of social conflicts that have proliferated among its neighbours. There is latent bigotry and an undercurrent of racism and intolerance in every society and, in this instance, there were foot soldiers of various causes readily at hand to exploit the circumstances. In the feast of street politics that ensued, Nepal suffered, and its reputation took a beating.
There is no shortage of those who would have benefitted by cashing in on the frustra-tion of the public over the incompetence of successive elected governments in the past 10 years. Democracy has just not been able to deliver development, rather it has institution-alised corruption. Joblessness and inflation have gone out of control. In the general climate of despondency, particularly among the youth, there were many who cynically cashed in: the Congress factions, the nine leftists, the ultra-right, the Maoists, communal chauvinists.
The chain of events point to well orchestra-ted mischief. The programme on which Hrithik Roshan was supposed to have expressed anti-Nepal sentiments was aired on 14 December, but the rumour itself surfaced more than 10 days later. And as events progressed, the rumour and all that it represented, lost its salience as other grievances and complaints came to be ventilated.
In the subsequent political encashment of the situation, neither India nor Indians figured even remotely on the agendas of the various parties. Within the ruling Nepali Congress,
the anti-Koirala faction found it to be an appropriate moment to initiate no-trust procee-dings against the prime minister, who in turn, engrossed himself in thwarting the challenge to his leadership. Meanwhile, the nation’s calamity so troubled the nine-party left combine that it called a two-day strike to coincide with a lucrative phase in the tourist calendar, in the immediate aftermath of fairly severe economic dislocation.
Sadly, the news relayed out of Kathmandu by the media had no place for the many nuances of the troubles in Nepal, and in this the culpability of the Nepali media cannot be denied. The daily newspapers, particularly in the initial phase, gave a great deal of prominence to the many incendiary statements that were being quite freely expressed, failing in the process to both distance themselves from the original rumour and ascertaining the authenticity of the purported statement that fuelled the protests. But this cannot condone the conduct of the international, particularly Indian, media, which is ostensibly richer in experience and certainly richer in resources.
In the haste to break news, little attention was paid to the events in their unfolding detail. With all the debris cleared and the body count taken, the clear fact is that all those who were killed were Nepalis and the property damaged was by and large of the Nepalis. And after the police firing, the rioting took on an indiscriminate character. But the Indian media found it unnecessary to report the change in situation from day to day. With its one-sided emphasis on the anti-Indian angle and its exaggeration of the magnitude of the trouble, it only contributed to adding to the tension in Nepal and keeping alive the antagonism towards India.
Doubtless it was this that emboldened a senior functionary of the Bharatiya Janata Party to engage in revanchist vituperation and great power nostalgia, going so far as to settle scores with an Indian prime minister now 36 years dead. That he subsequently retracted his statement does little to minimise the damage, more so because of the veiled threat he held out against Nepalis in India. Clearly, there is no dearth of provocateurs on both sides.
The long-term consequences for Nepal are difficult to guess. The economy has been severely affected, as much by the loss of commercial property as by the loss of tourism revenue. Politically, while there has been no scramble to appropriate the tension, there has been little enthusiasm about condemning the events. None of this makes for a hopeful prognosis about social and ethnic relations. Most alarmingly, what began as an expression of antagonism towards Indians now threatens a hill-plains rupture.
But it is not all a tale of unmitigated gloom. The events of the past few days thrust into the background the news of a possible break-through in the Nepal-Bhutan refugee deadlock. The fact that Bhutanese refugee groups them-selves welcomed the agreement reached in the Tenth Round of the Ministerial Talks in Kathmandu in late December, seems a good enough reason to welcome it. And at first glance, it does look like good news.
Bhutan and Nepal have agreed that they would take valid documents belonging to the heads of families to verify who is a true refugee, and consider anyone below 25 years old as a member of a refugee family. There is now a faint hope that many of the 100,000 refugees languishing in camps in eastern Nepal for the past 10 years (17,000 of them were born there in the past decade and have never been to Bhutan), may be able to go back to their homes.
The sudden mellowing on the part of the Bhutanese government is directly related to recent international pressure from the EU, the United States, and Bhutan’s donor consortium. There could also be an added element: the slaying last month of ten Bhutanese in Assam by militants that shocked Bhutan. This is potentially a much more serious crisis for Thimphu, and has sensitive implications for its relations with India as well. Thus it might be best to get the refugee thing sorted out once and for all before it becomes entangled in India’s dangerous Northeast.
But the real question is, how smoothly and quickly will verification happen? Ideally, it should happen immediately. It is in the interest of neither Himalayan monarchy that the refugee crisis drags on.