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Fury Escalates At SPAM's Nero-Like Unconcern

Paralyze As Popular Fury Escalates At SPAM's Nero-Like Unconcern


By M.R. Josse

After a brief busman's holiday last week to Birgunj and its hinterland this commentator returned home with two names firmly imprinted on his consciousness: one contemporary and Nepali, the other a historical figure from ancient Rome. The first individual is none other than Jwala (Volcano) Singh, head honcho of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), a breakaway faction of the Prachanda-led Maoists, while the second character is Roman Emperor (54-68 AD) Nero Claudius Ceasar Drusus Germanicus, infamous simply as Nero.

TERAI ON VOLCANO'S EDGE

Singh – making headlines these days through his groups' terrorist activities including murder and other assorted acts of physical violence and mayhem against hill people, or Pahades, in the Terai, or Madesh – looms larger than life today in Birgunj and the outlying region though he himself is comfortably ensconced in Patna, India.

That the Terai is sitting atop a volcano is evident not merely from the spate of such activities of late and ubiquitous anti-Pahade graffiti in the Birgunj metropolis. It could also be discerned from the swagger and the-hell-with-you look from many Madeshis one passed on the streets. They perhaps believe that the paradise of a separate Madesh state is just around the corner.

I would imagine that such a belief could be gaining ground in the Terai based on two key considerations. The first has to do with the location of Singh's H/Qs from where he directs his violent movement in Nepal; the other to the political success that the Maoists have achieved due, as all know, to the open support they received from the very same sponsors.

Singh's invisible presence also came across in informal conversations with members of the thinking class spanning diverse age groups, professional interests and ancestral backgrounds including Pahades who have been living and working in the Terai for over several generations, speak Bhojpuri and have adopted many Terai customs.

Interestingly, it was from an eminence grise of precisely such a background that one heard that Jwala Singh, a former journalist, chose the nom de guerre of Jwala, in emulation of Pushpa Kamal Dahal's adopting the moniker Prachanda. One was also informed that initially he had been promoted by Prachanda among Madeshi Maoists in order to counter Baburam Bhattarai's sponsorship of Matrika Yadav.

Whatever be the background to Jwala Singh's rise, none seemed to be clear why he is continuing on the warpath when both Prachanda and the Indian Big Brother have, apparently, taken the road to peace via dialogue.

Is Singh being encouraged by the powers that be in Hindustan to check the Maoists or merely to remind them not to stray beyond the straight and narrow delineated by South Block – and, not to forget, the Yechuri-ites? Or is Singh perhaps being used by interested Indian lobbies to unleash the dogs of civil war in this country in order to pave the way, ultimately, for Indian military intervention, and a Sikkim-like merger?

No one that this Pahade observer talked to seemed to be very clear. None however had any doubt that some very nasty hanky panky is going on in the Terai perpetrated by the JTMM at the behest of extraneous power(s).

SUPREME UNCONCERN

Amazingly, while the Terai is sitting on a rumbling volcano stoked by the JTMM and its patron(s), the SPAM governing combo has been merely looking on, a la Nero playing his lyre watching Rome go up in flames in 64 AD.

That was nowhere better, or painfully, illustrated than by the fact that no party within the SPA government or, indeed, the Maoists lifted even a tiny finger to put an end to the series of wildcat bandhs that struck and paralyzed the Terai, including Birgunj, and adjoining regions in the past week.

In Birgunj it took the form of a bandh called by supporters of the family of an individual killed by an oil tanker proceeding towards Raxaul, India. With the SPAM leadership busy doing their own thing in Kathmandu, it was left to the locals to try to set things right, beginning predictably with fish-market bargaining about how much compensation should be paid to the victim's family.

Starting figures fluctuated from Rs. 1 lakh, to three and then five lakhs. While such negotiations continued the bazaar went into a total bandh mode with the all-too-familiar telltale signs of burning tires, screaming youth brandishing lathis and rocks, shutdown shops and business establishments, especially those lining the main thoroughfares of the otherwise noisy, busy city.

Naturally, vehicular traffic ground to a standstill and educational institutions went on unplanned 'chutti' or vacation. Naturally, a target for special attention was the Birgunj customs office, just across the Nepal-India border, which not only handles the bulk of Nepal's surface imports and exports in this sector but provides the state with valuable revenue.

On the second day of the bandh the figure for the compensation demanded was heard on the streets to be the sum of rupees twenty five lakhs, before it rose to thirty lakhs! However, when the bandh was finally broken at 3 PM on the third day – no thanks to SPAM – the figure that was on practically on all lips was Rs eight lakhs: that apparently was the sum that was finally accepted by the victims' family from the company that owned the oil tanker.

What was particularly instructive was to hear a cacophony of complaints against SPAM constituents for not doing a thing to settle issues affecting public life for nearly three full days in as important a commercial, transport and educational hub as Birgunj.

The fury of popular wrath at SPAM's callousness and brazen disregard for the public weal had to be personally experienced to be believed. It emanated from citizens from all walks of life, varied professional groupings and equally from members of the Pahade, Madeshi, and Madbadi communities. One overheard cynical comment by mid-aged person to his friend was "this is a taste of janatantra."

Predictably, the sense of public outrage was further fuelled when reports began to filter in of similar bandhs in the Mechi, Koshi, and Sagarmatha zones and of incidents ghoulishly similar to the one that touched off the three-day Birgunj bandh on account of a traffic accident.

Such incidents were reported from Narayanghat, Itahari, and even Kathmandu. The government and the Maoists were perceived in the public mind as either unable to do anything about such situations or unwilling to even make the attempt.

In fact, traveling back to Kathmandu – fortunately via the Hetauda, Bhaise, Bhimphedi, Kulekhani, Pharping route – was no less an educative experience. Though one heaved a sigh of relief for having escaped the bandh-affected choke point of Kalanki, which would have caused us untold misery especially in this season's numbing cold had we decided to use the Narayanghat-Mugling route, it was offset somewhat because it took more than a full hour getting home from Kirtipur as many points on the Ring Road were also in the vise of a 'chakkajaam'.

Is this the face of 'new Nepal'? was an-oft asked rhetorical question by traveling companions.

OTHER ISSUES, CONCERNS

Some other serious issues and concerns were also underlined during the trip outside the capital in what was meant to be a straight-forward fun trip with family and friends. One that merits mention centres around the fact that when it became apparent that the oil tanker that killed an individual in Birgunj was India-owned, it did not take very long for youngsters to begin to attack all Indian-registered vehicles that they could find.

In fact, one learnt that 18 oil tankers sitting put on the by-pass leading to the Raxaul customs office had their windscreens smashed, as a result. According to a source it would cost Rs 75,000 or so for one to be replaced. It was disturbing, if not very surprising, to learn, even as I departed Birgunj for Kathmandu, that because of that incident some interested parties across the border in Raxaul had planned their own bandh restricting the passage of all vehicular traffic into and out of Nepal.

Most scary of all was the possibility of an orchestrated attack on Indian businesses and individuals with the objective of setting off a panic exodus into India with the consequent result of triggering armed intervention by India, "in the interest of providing security to Indian lives and property."

Other concerns that found expression during my brief sojourn in the Terai was the spate of kidnappings and other forms of criminal activity that seemed to blossom in the current state of political limbo in the country. Very many, for instance, pointed out the absurdity of UML students going on the rampage over educational issues when their own representative was minister of education.

Others, likewise, pointed to the sheer contradiction in the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi) engaging in bandhs, such as the one that led to a death and riots in Nepalgunj in the recent past, while being a constituent member of the SPA government. A politically astute local observer commented that if Sailaja Acharya's nomination as ambassador to India had been objected to by the UML, why should UML's K.P. Sharma Oli's not having actively supported the April Uprising not be cause for him to be dumped from his important position.

Similarly revealing though scary were widespread comments that the country was going to the dogs with one seemingly in charge and, even, that in such an awful situation none should be surprised if the Army staged a coup. To that a wag added: if there were to be the case, ordinary people, sick and tired of the non-governance of the past few months, would in fact applaud!

All I can say is to pray and wonder: Nepal, quo vadis?

ENDS


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