A mood swing in Nepal unrest

KATHMANDU, Nepal (ANN) - There is palpable difference in the mood on Birganj streets now compared to the 2003-2006 protests in Kathmandu

I am sitting in my hotel room in Birganj, trying to write since I cannot pursue the fieldwork I have come here to do. Yesterday, I rushed across town after I heard a curfew was called for 4pm.

Around noon, I took pictures of a fully armed patrol of soldiers making their rounds through the Bypass road, where a no-protest zone was declared the day before.

The atmosphere was obviously tensed as I crossed the main bazaar at Adarshanagar at 3:45pm. I was scared for the young men who were on the street vandalising shop signs. The rickshaw driver travelled through gullies at Maisthan and passed Birganj Public College to avoid Ghantaghar, the Link Road, and the Bypass Road; places, I later found out, where clashes between the police and protesters had taken a serious turn.

I reached my hotel’s gully five minutes after four o’clock and people were looking southward on the Bypass Road. Rumours were flying about how many were shot and how many died. I was skeptical but again scared for all the young men who were lingering on the road around me.

Just Nepali

A tall guy approached me and said, “Jai Nepal.” I asked him if he was a Congress cadre to which he replied, “Not Congress, Not Maoist, Not UML, Only Nepali.”

He lifted up the arm of the man next to him and declared, “He is our leader. His is the sekuwa dal.” I recognised this man as the sekuwa wala from across the street.

I jokingly responded, asking him if his chap was a skewer of meat. They all laughed and the tall man explained, “He’s our leader because his heart is as big as his belly. If only all leaders had such big hearts.”

And then, in a more serious tone, he urged me to return back to my hotel, explaining that they could not keep me safe. “If the police come,” he quipped, “we’ll be thinking about our own safety.” After returning to my hotel room and watching the news, I found out one person died from live ammunition and a number others were injured. Today, I have rushed out every time I hear shots. At 5pm on September 1, the death count is officially five in Birganj with at least a dozen more injured, some seriously so.

Now and then

What has struck me since I arrived in Birganj on Sunday is the palpable difference between the current mood on the streets here and the mood during the many months I spent observing student protests in Kathmandu Valley during the Movement Against Regression from 2003-2006.

I did not worry for the student activists during that time like I am worrying for the young men on the streets down here. Perhaps, I was naive but there never seemed to be a risk that democratic student activists would be shot for being in no-protest zones in 2004.

At that time the tear gas shells seemed sufficient to disperse protests. Yes, student activists were arrested for publicly demanding a republic, for burning effigies and photos of the king, and felicitating five dogs to mock the royal felicitations during the king’s village tour in 2004.

The students were charged with sedition and then later released. There were times, especially during the 2005 state of emergency that I was nervous for student activists who had been arrested.

That was an unprecedented time in post-1990 democracy. But international organisations like the Red Cross tracked down where these students and party leaders were being detained, publicising the locations so that they would not be disappeared. Bar association lawyers filed habeas corpus cases with the courts demanding their release. The democratic student activists had the privilege of notoriety and that kept them safe.

That does not hold true for the young men here in the south no matter how they are politically aligned. The preemptive mobilisation of the army has set a tone of external occupation and human rights organisations like the Terai Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance have already sent out press releases about the excessive use of force since Sunday here in Parsa. I can only draw conclusions based on my own observations; however, I wonder why lathis (bamboo sticks) and tear gas sufficed to disperse student activists protesting in Kathmandu during the movement against regression but they are insufficient at this time, in this place.

I want to underscore the conversation I had on the street yesterday with the young man who declared he’s ‘Not Congress, Not Maoist, Not UML, Only Nepali’. Lives are being lost; at this moment, one life for each day of the strike has occurred here in the Tarai. These lives are the lives of the police, activists, Pahadis, Madhesis, and Tharus. That is 17 Nepali lives lost. Lives of brothers, fathers, sons, and friends. Isn’t that enough?