“Hrithik Roshan insulted Nepal. We should avenge that insult. Burn his posters on the streets, tear up his postcards. Torch his film and the movie hall where it is being screened.”
“You ask for proof that Hrithik actually said it? The people on the streets do not need proof!”
“Hrithik is India. India is our big brother. Big brother imperialist! Respect our sovereignty! Go home big brother India!”
“Burn tyres! Show your love for the Nepali nation.”
“Anti-India means anybody looking Indian must not be spared. Is this the house of Mr so-and-so?”
“It was not supposed to happen in Nepal. We are a peaceful people. Riots—especially those that target a specific group—were only supposed to happen elsewhere in South Asia, not in Nepal.”
It is now clear that the actor Hrithik Roshan did not insult “Nepal and Nepalis” in any of his interviews. It is also clear that the rumour that started the whole trouble in the mid-Tarai Nepali towns was spread by someone who hoped to ignite a conflagration. Clearly, he got his wish, seeing the damage done to the national psyche after the Kathmandu riots of 26-27 December.
In the aftermath of this nerve-racking episode, the ‘anti-Indian’ nature of the rioting has received much play, both in the Nepali and Indian media. But of course it is much more than that, and to relegate it to purely a hostile outpouring against India and Indians would be restrictive and incorrect. Within India itself, there is voluminous literature on the why and wherefore of riots which prove that monochrome portrayals tend to be faulty.
Indeed, there are several corrections to make at the outset. While international media reports suggested that all of Kathmandu Valley was ruled by mobs during those two days, the actual theatre of disturbance was confined to small pockets within Kathmandu town only. Patan and Bhaktapur, the other two cities of the Valley, remained calm. Even within Kathmandu, the demonstrations were restricted to the downtown areas of New Road, Ratna Park, Jamal, Thamel, Banes-war and Kalimati, without spillover to other localities. There were tyre-burnings in some locations along the Ring Road. The whole Valley was not burning.
In downtown Kathmandu (around New Road and Indrachowk), shops belonging to Nepalis of all ethnic and caste origins were attacked. Private property—irrespective of ownership demography—was destroyed. In some other places, however, there was selective targeting of shops owned by Indians as well as people of Tarai origin. Stone-throwers destroyed shop-fronts and wrecked signboards.
Indeed, Indians and ‘Indian-looking’ Nepalis became targets of violence. But it has also to be said that the selective and exaggerated reporting of the Kathmandu incidents by the Indian press and television helped fuel the logic of the riot organisers. The constant reiteration that this was an “anti-Indian riot” created the “social truth” that it had been an exclusively anti-Indian riot! That it was, but it was equally also an anti-Nepali riot and anti-property riot.
A second striking aspect of the events of end-December was that they were opportune for the forces that want to put an end to Nepal’s experiment with political democracy. The violence might have begun as a response to the quote attributed to Hrithik Roshan but very soon it became an anti-government protest. Apart from those affiliated to the various party-led student organisations, both the Maoists and royalists were out on the streets in force. The Maoists were looking for newer ways to disrupt life in Kathmandu after their student wing had successfully forced all schools to close for a week in early December. The royalists who want the king to re-assume active power (so that they may get back to their authoritarian functions, under cover of the crown), for their part, have been using every opportunity to make the multi-party democratic establishment look more inefficient than it really is.
This was also an occasion for the small left parties to demonstrate evidence of their existence through street action. In retrospect, it is clear that the momentum of the riots was carried by these small left parties plus the pro-Maoist and pro-palace forces. Hrithik Roshan may have provided the spark. Anti-Indianism stoked the fire. And together they provided the excuse this time around. Next time it could be something else entirely.
It may have been asking too much from out-of-country reporters who know next to nothing about the complexities of Nepali society, its history and politics, to cover the riots other than through hyperbole. But if the Indian press and television wants to mature into a credible source of news and analysis for all of India and the rest of South Asia, then it will have to do better than it did covering the “Hrithik Riots”.
Ambiguities of the left
No matter how we read the events of late December 2000, we cannot deny a strain of anti-India sentiments in Nepali society. The broad contours of the history of this sentiment are well known, but its deeper manifestations deserve closer scrutiny. It may surprise some, but the ‘anti-India’ sentiment does not have a permanent place even in the hearts of those who have shouted slogans against India on the streets or participated in supposedly ‘anti-India’ protests. It is more than likely that many of those who tore Hrithik Roshan’s posters on the streets went home and listened to Hindi songs over commercial FM radio or watched a Hindi movie on video (the satellite feed of Hindi movies through cable operators had been yanked by the time they had reached home).
The Nepali anti-India sentiment is a deeply ambiguous one, and nowhere is this more true than among the leaders of the Nepali left. After all, they learned their Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, by and large, from Hindi translations of the original German, Russian and Chinese. And I would suppose that comrades Prachanda and Baburam acquire the guns and bullets for their Maoist platoons from the small arms racket in India.
In other words, the anti-India sentiment occupies only a particular (and limited) domain in the lives of the protestors and leaders alike. For, the same “anti-Indian” Nepali consumes Indian products profusely, travels in India on pilgrimage or pleasure as if it were his own backyard, and leaders in particular have no compunction in seeking help from the Indian embassy in getting sons and daughters admitted to Indian colleges and universities. This paradox of the Nepali mindset, hating and loving India at the same time, must be understood by anyone who seeks to know the country and report on it.
This paradox manifests itself in oft-visible acts of political opportunism. The need to portray themselves as opponents of Indian interests in Nepal is paramount for the political survival of small left parties, particularly when they do not hold the deciding balance in government coalitions. Take for example the case of Bamdev Gautam, present leader of the Communist Party of Nepal-Marxist-Leninist (CPN-ML), members of whose student wing led the riots in Kathmandu, and who upbraided a BBC interviewer on air for daring to enquire if he had proof of Roshan’s reported anti-Nepal statement. Today, out of power and somewhat remote from it given his separation from the rump CPN-UML, Gautam tries hard to portray himself as anti-Indian. However, he did not have the diligence to vote against the overwhelmingly pro-India Mahakali Treaty signed some years ago. As someone who was himself some time a worker in India, Gautam may have tried to understand the kind of backlash anti-Indianism within Nepal can have vis-à-vis the hundreds of thousands of Nepali labourers in India. But then, personal opportunism and lack of principles and contemplation are the hallmarks of the Nepali politician today.
The spatial distribution of the ‘anti-India’ sentiment within Nepal also deserves attention. This xenophobic attitude perhaps exists strongest in the large pahadi (hill) population that migrated to the Nepal Tarai since the eradication of malaria, and which lives in close proximity to the madhesi plains-people and the Indians close by across the border. The attitude may also survive to a smaller degree in the original inhabitants of the Tarai, the indigenous forest-dwellers who have been squeezed out of their habitats by homesteaders from north and south. However, in the wake of the events of late December, it would seem that the hub of this hateful sentiment is within Kathmandu Valley itself.
The anti-madhesi sensibility of the original inhabitants of Kathmandu Valley was built up over history by rulers with a need to point at an enemy without. This inherited sensibility found occasion to grow in the ‘anti-India’ intellectual discourse of the Nepali left and of the proponents of the Panchayat regime (the nationalist vocabulary of these two strains are almost identical). It is because of this coming together of historical animosity on the one hand with the modern-day dogma of the Panchayat and the left on the other, that an ‘anti-India’ protest can transform so very easily into an “anti-madhesi” one. Although no one seems to quite know the dynamics of this slippage, this was how a protest against Hrithik Roshan quickly snowballed into a targeting of Nepalis of Tarai origin.
The “hate India, love India” Nepali paradox is also, of course, tied to acts of political opportunism in India. While the average Nepali is predisposed to ‘love’ India for the myriad of cultural and social links he has south of the border, his ‘hate’ is, besides the source already mentioned, stoked by the way in which the Indian state and establishment have targeted Nepal for various ills that are mostly India-specific. Take for example, the social currency given to the fiction that the Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence is encouraged by the Nepali state itself to do mischief in the neighbouring Indian heartland. Indian media managers and scholars in centres engaged in research of neighbouring countries show a remarkable willingness to accept the position of the Indian state on this matter. No wonder, the point of view of these gatekeepers transfers so easily to the population in general, and the Indian state’s version of “anti-Indianism” in Nepal becomes the public’s belief.
For long, Nepalis have told themselves that they are a peaceful people. Orientalist visions of the ever-smiling Nepali contributes to the durability of this self-image. But just as the nationalist psyche can entertain both fascination and revulsion against India, so too can a ‘peaceful’ people reach deep into their dark inner-selves to find violent ways to settle scores. Long before the Maoists began to demonstrate this trait, it had been expressed on the streets of Kathmandu as part of the People’s Movement of 1990. In the immediate aftermath of the democratic restoration, some people who were deemed spies of the old regime were held captive by a “pro-democracy” group. They were killed in public over a period of hours, and their bodies were taken around the city in a macabre celebration of “people power”. Even as this happened, in broad daylight, Kathmandu residents by the thousands chose to watch and not intervene. In 1992, this writer had asked, “What is it that allows people to be murdered in such a way? Why is it that such violence was tolerated by the same people who had only recently brought an end to a supposedly ruthless system? ….Do these killings constitute an aberration or are they evidence of deeply embedded violent tendencies in our society?” From today’s vantage point, it is easy to see that those killings were not an aberration.
If Kathmandu‘s residents were capable of such violence in 1990, we have become even more violent due to the particular history of the intervening decade. Anyone who cared to notice that the rioters in Kathmandu were overwhelmingly young and male would have to ask whether being young and male are significant for an understanding of violence in Nepal today. They are. High levels of unemployment amongst semi-educated youth, easy circulation of pessimism in college campuses, and the macho ways in which personal and societal problems are solved in the universe of Nepali and Hindi films, have given birth to a highly violent masculine imagination among this segment of the population.
The rioters in Kathmandu were living that imagination. Ghetto violence of the urban underclass in the US is sometimes explained as emanating from “having nothing to lose”. The situation of Nepal’s semi-educated, unemployed young males is not very different, and within Kathmandu there is also added the conspicuous consumption, within close proximity, of the suddenly-rich classes. The events of late December 2000 prove that Nepalis, too, are also a violent lot, and any further exploration of the Hrithik Riots will have to begin with that acknowledgment.