Nepal is little understood by outsiders because it was not colonised — the reason why there was not enough written about it till the mid-20th century. The country is also a bit mysterious because there is so much variety within it — demographic, geographic, climatic – to be fathomed easily. The feudal era, which lasted all the way till the 1950s, did not help in the understanding of history either. Finally, Nepali scholarship has itself been weak, and what is written with on-the-ground sincerity is mostly available in the Nepali language.
The world therefore understood Nepal first as a Shangri La, and that representation endured for decades after the tourists discovered Nepal in the 1960s. That two-dimensional image of the country was made up of key markers which included: Himalayan Buddhism, the snow massifs (himals), the Tibetan societies of the Himalayan rimland, and the Kathmandu Valley culture. The highly populated midhill region — which actually provides Nepal its own self-image — and the Tarai were largely excluded from the mind’s picture of Nepal.
The Shangri La image took its first beating when the promoters of the ‘Himalayan degradation theory’ claimed that the Nepali peasantry was wreaking havoc on its forests, which was leading to landslides, reduced agricultural yield, and enhanced floods in Bangladesh. It turned out not to be so bad, in hindsight, but the damage had been done, with even the locals convinced by this development propaganda.
Then democracy arrived in 1990, after which several factors aided the steady decline of Nepal’s exotic-forbidden-kingdom image. The fact that democracy had unfettered long-held societal angst meant that ethnic and religious assertion came to the fore and suddenly the country seemed to be (and was) in turmoil. The politicians did no service by becoming quickly corrupt, and the fact that Nepali democracy could not deliver fast enough on its promise led to the birth of a violent Maoist insurgency, which gave the lie to the belief that Nepal, the birthplace of the Buddha, is a peaceful land.
In the latest segment of this unfolding story, the royal palace massacre of 1 June 2001 battered the kingdom’s image further, then the Maoists feigned as if to parley and then in the second half of November decided to violently dare the state and establishment. The Nepali Government of Sher Bahadur Deuba reacts by: a) declaring the first-ever state of emergency in Nepal; b) approving an anti-terrorism ordinance; and, c) ordering the army out to pursue the Maobaadi.
For a country that relies on tourism, possibly nothing could have been worse than this continuous self-inflicted assault on its persona. But to look at the positive side of things — and indeed there is such a side even in these despondent times — the country has been going through a period of telescoped learning whose end result is a polity that will be better able to manage itself and rid itself of contradictions.
The world is shocked to see where Nepal has ended up. But Nepalis are equally surprised to see that they still have a country. Even in the most excruciating moments of national crisis, such as when an entire royal clan was massacred and an unknown void stared the people in the face, all the institutions of state remained in place and functioning. Nepal indeed, is a country that seems to be able to take constant pummeling and yet remain standing. But this resilience is not useful if, at the end of it, there is not a trace of social and economic advance for the people.
The wait for such advance, hopefully, will not be long. In the meantime, the world needs to know that Nepal is no longer a Shangri La, but that it is Shangri La, yet. Meaning that all that is written in the tourism brochures is true — isolated exotic communities, Hindu-Buddhist comity, great mountain peaks, forbidden kingdom. And it is also true that Nepal is a country of 23 million going through dislocating change aided by market penetration and satellite television, amidst a messy exercise in parliamentary democracy. In the latter sense, Nepal is like any other developing country in the world and to have thought otherwise was to have made the initial mistake. And this nonexotic image of Nepal actually makes Nepal more real, more a country of living human beings than a fantastical space inhabited only by gods, temples, and monasteries. Like everywhere, it is the people who make the difference, and Nepal’s multiple identities are its saving grace and it is this diversity that has to be saved in this globalised age. The very hetereogenity of Nepal makes for a unique homogeneity, which is what makes the country different from so many regions in the neighbourhood. This is what makes Nepal truly exotic — an exoticism worth preserving even as the kingdom strives to ‘develop’ economically.
So, to look at the brighter side: even the Maoist insurgency has it. At the very least, it professes to be fighting for a classless society, which is different from the fight for identity which marks the 29 insurgencies that pepper the Himalayan landscape all the way eastward from Nepal to Burma. On the ground level, thanks to a democracy, Nepalis are today more questioning of authority than ever before, and if that is not the foundation stone of democracy then nothing is. Then there is ethnic assertion, gender activism, dalit activism, and tarai activism — not always effective, but nevertheless there. The press is free, the only problem being that it does not use its freedom to the hilt.
Nepal is experimenting with democracy in fast-forward, and the Emergency put in place by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba should be only a brief aberration. The country needs to go swiftly back to democracy as usual. Except that it should not be democracy ‘as usual’, but one that begins to deliver economic and social benefits to 23 million people.