Game of brinkmanship, CK Lal

A lot has changed at Hanuman Dhoka police detention center. Back in 1985, youngsters asking for whereabouts of ‘forcibly disappeared’ physician Dr Laxmi Narayan Jha of Janakpur were often threatened that they would meet the same fate if they persisted with their enquiries. A group of concerned people that wanted to meet engineer-scientist Chandra Kant Raut early this week were politely told that they were holding the accused on behalf of the Biratnagar police and meeting for anyone other than the immediate family wasn’t permissible.

In deference to the persistence of visitors, the officer on duty allowed them to hold a short conversation with the firebrand from outside the metal grills. However, there are socio-political realities that will probably take some time to evolve. In the eyes of the machinery of the Permanent Establishment of the Nation (PEON), any Madheshi is suspect for just being who he is rather than what he has done.

It was clear from the rough language and arrogant manner of prison guards that Raut was not being treated as a prisoner of conscience—a person being held for his convictions—but just as another Madheshi suspect presumed guilty until proven innocent. He is probably lucky that he has been transferred to Kathmandu. Detainees in Tarai-Madhesh are often killed in stage-managed police encounters for lesser reasons.

Nearly three decades after Dr Jha was made to disappear by the security forces on specious charges of treason, Raut is being held for equally fallacious accusations of indulging in ‘suspicious activities’, an expression that stinks of Panchayat-era paranoia when whatever Nepali Congress did was considered to be ‘anti-national’ activity. The NC was blamed of working to undermine national integrity; Raut is being accused of espousing separatism. The NC cadres were considered saboteurs; Raut is condemned of being what the Chinese call a ‘splittist’ undermining the unity of a divine entity.

Former ‘anti-national elements’ are now at the helms of government. Degenerates of democratic socialism, however, are merely fronting for the Male-Mandale—shorthand for chauvinists and fascists that operated under the garb of communism and nationalism during the royal-military regime of Panchayat at the height of Cold War—clique that has managed to recapture the state all over again.

Once the supremacy of courts rather than the constitution was established with the dissolution of first Constituent Assembly, it is no longer possible to question fundamental premises, howsoever flawed, of political structure and social order. The status quo is sacrosanct. Dissent is tantamount to blasphemy. Opposition to mainstream views is a criminal offence.

Dignity denied

From behind the bars of detention center, Raut first responded in Maithili to queries about his health and living conditions. He then turned the topic to political rhetoric and thundered in Hindi that he was being subjected to mental torture and declared that he would go on indefinite fast. In evolving societies where even physical torture of dissenters is routine, it is a bit difficult to comprehend the damage that psychological torment can do to the well-being of a person.

Handled properly in the aftermath, physical injuries are cured after a while and memories of pain fade away when living conditions of the sufferer change for the better. Maoists that managed to come out of notorious interrogation centers of royal-military regime alive haven’t done too badly for themselves.

Tormentors and victims during decade-long insurgency were sometimes relatives and wounds of brutalities have healed, with some exceptions, surprisingly fast. Mental scars, however, damage the worldview of a person for life. It seems intelligence agencies that conspired to arrest Raut in seemingly well thought-out manner have gravely underestimated unintended consequences of their stratagem.

In his student days, Raut was atypical Madheshi. He hobnobbed with hotheads in the student wing of UML rather than the NC-affiliate association; insisted on speaking Nepali with fellow Maithils; and desperately wanted to belong to what was then considered the national mainstream. Like many Madheshi politicos of UML that carry Dhaka topi in their pockets and hastily put it on when they see a leader of the party walking across the street, colleagues of Raut remember him as more of a conformist than a questioner. He showed no signs of becoming a rebel.

Raut’s attitude probably changed once he realized the futility of formalism when he excelled in his chosen field. In the meritocracy of the mainstream, there was no place even for an achiever of his caliber. He was what he was—merely a Madheshi—no matter what he did or how well he behaved. Nothing was going to change the fact that he was the ‘other’ of the ‘ideal’ Nepali self. Dealing with denial of dignity is an excruciating process.

Most members of the marginalized find that it is easier to mold oneself rather than go through the agony of changing ground realities. Some choose to withdraw and create their safe cocoons or hang on to their precarious perches. A few find solace in ghettos built of likeminded people. Majority of minorities make peace with forces of hegemony by accepting their secondary position. That is the safest course; geopolitics permitting, it can take a loyalist to the highest post of the land. However, there comes a point when such options become redundant. After the fall of first Constituent Assembly, mocking Madheshis has become the favorite pastime of anti-Maoist monarchists and anti-minority nationalists alike. Radicalization of Raut needs to be understood in the context of the threat of ‘being made a Paramand’ becoming a favorite phrase of patriotic politics.

Political stability without honoring the principle of “inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” is an impossibility. Pursuing one’s right to secede through peaceful means is a political position. It is neither treason nor blasphemy. Its efficacy, however, is suspect at best. More often than not, calls for secession fail because most people see little difference between one state and the other: They are all instruments of coercion that end up serving the interests of the entrenched elite. Countries are created more out of geopolitical compulsions than nationalist uprisings.

Desperate measures

Peaceful struggle in politics is a slow and strenuous journey where every two-steps forward is often followed with a step backward to maintain the stability of society. It is still one-step forward at a time in any case. Radicalism offers a straightforward path where either one keeps climbing the steps or falls off the ladder. The most alluring choice is that of extremism—the equivalent of an escalator in politics—where the goal looks so near that most people don’t pause to ponder the source of power propelling the machine. Extremism, however, pushes plurality offstage and helps create conditions for emergence of powerful personalities.

Conflation of a cause with a leader is fraught with unimaginable risks. Examples can be found everywhere, but the neighborhood in South Asia shows that a personality dominating political movements either gets picked up by the establishment or is defamed and eliminated once his utility is over.

Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran will continue to live in legends, but his utility had ended once he had managed to completely wipe out Tamil leaders working peacefully for federalization of Sri Lanka. He was probably made to realize the futility of his path by Norwegian interlocutors, but extremism burns bridges as it moves forward. There was no way Prabhakaran could retract and survive. He chose martyrdom.

Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was propped up to counter the all-pervasive influence of Akali Dal in prosperous and powerful Punjab. After a point, he began to see himself as a later-day prophet of Sikh purity and compromised the integrity of the most respected community of his country. Indian Sikhs are yet to recover from the tragedies of 1980s.

Laldenga compromised, even though he stood on firmer political grounds in Mizoram, once he saw that geopolitics of the region was not amenable to his ambitions. He managed to become the Chief Executive of a province rather than of an independent state.

At home, Upendra Yadav lost his utility once Maoists were checked from spreading in Tarai-Madhesh. Despite the grumble that disunity among Madheshi politicos has discredited dignity politics, perhaps it has survived mainly because there are too many leaders in the region to be undermined either through elimination or cooptation.
The path Raut has chosen for himself is grand, but the government has pushed the country towards lose-lose proposition in its response. If Raut is forced into extremism, the state has little legitimacy left in Tarai-Madhesh to counter his influence. In the long run, Madheshis too have little to gain and much to lose from the politics of brinkmanship, but emotions seldom take cost-benefit ratios into account. His suppression and demonization would merely strengthen his argument that separation is the only honourable solution. Since Nepal without Tarai-Madhesh is as unsustainable as it was in 1816s, geopolitics of the region would foreclose all such options.

The Male-Mandale establishment must show sanity and unconditionally release Raut forthwith. Meanwhile, Raut needs to break his indefinite fast. The state is so naked in its functioning that there is little need to expose it any further. The struggle must continue, but it has to remain within bounds of peaceful politics. Maoist insurgency threw away the crown. Madheshis have to exercise utmost restraint in order to keep the country intact. It is the only one we—Pahadis and Madheshis alike—have for those of us uninterested in applying for DV lottery or dual citizenship.

Published on 2014-09-29 00:08:04
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