It was both an exciting and a disappointing trip to Nepal. Exciting because it was after fifteen years of closely watching the ongoing people’s movement there and writing and speaking about that revolutionary upheaval in my own language. Overwhelmed with so many memories I crossed the border at Sunauli-Bhairawa around 10.30 in the night. The gate that welcomed us into Nepal reminded me the speeches I delivered on Nepal – including ‘From St Petersburg to Kathmandu’ some six-seven years ago in Guntur. Recollections of the articles I wrote and translated, the couple of books we published on Nepal revolution not very long ago rushed to my mind. I was excited, enthusiastic and anticipating in visiting the land.
Of course, that excitement did not last long. As Neruda said ‘love is so short and forgetting is so long’. Beginning with the withdrawal of armed struggle, surrendering and locking up the people’s only possessions and promises to return rightly seized properties of age-old exploitation, and squabbles within and outside the party, particularly the excessive thrust on sharing power than serving people, my interest in Nepal started waning and the family trip to Nepal did only rekindle the old intimate memories. I wanted to bury those attachments and visit the country as a tourist on family vacation.
The disappointment began at the border itself and continued throughout for the next one week. After reading up a lot on the net and expecting a thorough check at the border outpost for identity and spending a few anxious hours for not able to get identity proof for my 10-month son, we were prepared for any eventuality, but surprisingly there was nobody to check any thing. They have to check at least whether the person is an Indian national or not to allow without visa but even that was not done. The time being a pre-Dusserah rush of Nepalis returning home, the armed guards were busy with checking the bulging suitcases. A Nepali, who was taking back an overstuffed suitcase was almost beaten for not opening it. In fact, he was afraid of the trouble of repacking it and there was nothing incriminating except clothes for the festival. In that rush at least a few dozens of people crossed over without any check and could have smuggled anything!
I enquired with at least three “official-looking” persons and each of them gave an evading reply and I gathered that there would be other check posts to verify nationality. Of course that was not to be. A vehicle driver almost shoved us and our luggage into his vehicle and he also said there would be other check posts on the way. Indeed another stoppage came within minutes. Three or four armed guards stopped the vehicle and I was about to pull out my passport. The guards were not interested in identification papers but wanted to check the luggage. “Give them a hundred or a hundred fifty,” advised our driver. Coming from a land of ubiquitous bribery, it should have been normal for me, but in a country that has a Maoist as the head of the government, I wondered and protested. I refused to pay and asked them to go ahead with checking. They checked one bag and allowed us to pass on. This saga of bribes, inflated prices, cheating the foreign (particularly Indian) visitors continued till the last minute.
There were many others shocks in store. The day we reached Kathmandu, the local newspapers were agog with an incident of undue favour to journalists doled out by a minister on the eve of Dusserah. Coming from India where ‘paid news’ has become a norm and having worked as a journalist for over twenty years I jolly well know this practice, but what surprised me was the casual dismissal by none other than the prime minister, a hero of our times whom I respected a lot.
In the same vein I read about the extra-constitutional power (I’m not sure whether that can be termed so, since the constitution is still in the making!) exercised by the companion of the prime minister. In her earlier avatar, she came to participate in a seminar on woman question in my own city and all of us instantly fell for her simplicity, commitment and uncompromising perspective. Again, what surprised me was not her exercise of that power than the prime minister’s approval.
A couple more disappointing surprises were waiting. The government announced a salary hike for barracked PLA soldiers and speedy resolution to returning the properties of landlords and rich seized during the armed struggle. I believe most of the PLA soldiers, if not all, joined the revolution out of a desire to serve people and usher in a new Nepal than to earn a living. To keep that flame alive, they could have been used in a number of social works than locking them idle in camps and raising their remuneration. Worse still, return of seized properties goes against the fundamental principle of ‘expropriation of expropriators’. Sure, some of the seizures must be excesses, and the property owners might not be the enemies of people, but then correcting those mistakes is different from the blanket return.
All through my journey, stark reality of poverty was all pervasive and it appeared the government did precious little to ameliorate. Whatever may be the obstacles in forming a government, writing a constitution, etc., the successive governments could have undertaken some welfare measures at least to pull people out of poverty and deprivation.
Indeed it was a shock to see the status of transport in the country. People at large, both natives and foreign visitors, are allowed to be fleeced by the private transport operators and the government, shared by the Maoists, did not think of nationalizing and providing decent transport facilities to its citizens. Even the major routes that we travelled – Bhairawa to Kathmandu to Pokhara to Bhairawa to Lumbini – had very bad roads and private operators rule the roost. What prevents the government to introduce nationalized transport along with private operators, if not completely nationalizing, so that public transport becomes a benchmark in amenities and fares? Perhaps, Kathmandu stands as one of the few capitals where there is no pubic transport and people are thrown at the mercy of private transporters.
I wanted to see whether there was any improvement in public education and public health, after the intervention of the Maoists in the government. But the week we stayed there being a holiday, I could not see the education system in working and even on the 900-km travel I could not find a single school or college or hospital building. I beg pardon if I am wrong, but in any other country even a travel of a hundred km would show you an educational and public health institution on the road.
While the institutions of mental and physical health are not visible, the institutions of ill-health, the religious institutions and open exhibitions of bigotry were visible. Particularly the Kumari procession in Kathmandu reminded me of communal processions of Sangh Parivar back home. In contrast, symbols of revolutionary culture were conspicuous by their absence.
However, people repose a lot of faith in the leadership and wait in expectation. Some of the drivers all through, self-employed youth in Bhaktapur and people at large exuded confidence in Baburam, “well-educated man who has a desire to bring new life to Nepalis”. Will the leadership fritter away this support or leverage on it to help people?