In Nepal, your social and political standing dictates the applicability of lawsThe principle of equality before the law was established in 1963, and yet rules are applied differentially.
One evening not very long ago, an elderly relative of mine found himself quite distraught when he saw on TV the news that an old friend of his had been indicted for corruption, stemming from a decision he had made as a high government official years earlier. Feeling sorry for someone who went back almost to their teens, he decided to call him up in commiseration. Since there was no answer, my relative assumed the poor chap must be feeling down and not in a particularly talkative mood.
He was in for a surprise though, since the next morning he received a call-back from his friend who sounded in the highest of spirits. After the exchange of pleasantries and upon being told how sad the turn of events had been, the indictee brushed it aside and said there was nothing to worry about; it was just a matter of paying an ‘x’ amount (itself a rather huge sum) as a fine and he would be off the hook.
A tale of two classes
I could not help think of that incident when reading about another corruption indictment more recently. His is not a household name, but Hari Prasad Acharya was in the news for some days. A lowly government official, Acharya had committed suicide following a case being filed by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority for his alleged role in transferring public land to a developer when he was with the land revenue department. His death came after two other suicides by two other government officials also facing corruption charges and hence made it more newsworthy.
What struck a chord with Acharya’s death was his suicide note. Composed in the manner of someone not used to writing but attempting all the same to anticipate what would befall his family after he passed on, through his last missive the late Acharya asked his wife to live in amity with their sons and his mother, and asked his sons to do well by their mom; he calls himself a sinner for not being able to see his youngest son earn his bachelor’s degree; he refers to a small bag in the cupboard with cheques for four different banks (probably less an indication of corruption than his salary accounts being in different banks as a result of his having been moved around); he asked his neighbours to dispose of the buffalo and goats and instructed his wife to move to Kathmandu to be with their son as he completes his studies, and so on.
Acharya appears to admit having erred in the instance for which he was charged but is vehement that he is not corrupt. Whether it was an innocent mistake or whether money actually changed hands is something we will perhaps never know. Either the shame of being accused of indulging in what would have at most been petty corruption or the stress derived from not being able to drag in higher-ups involved seems to have driven Acharya to take his own life. Contrast that with the first case referred to above, where, going by media reports, the chances of corruption (actually, grand corruption, in the distinction Transparency International makes) having occurred is almost certain, the man charged was quite unconcerned.
That, thus, is the tragedy of our country. It was in 1963 that the old Muluki Ain, which laid out different penalties for the same crime based on one’s position in the caste hierarchy, came to an end, and the principle of equality before the law was established. But, in actual fact, the rules have always been applied differentially to those in power. Not that Nepal is an exception since such examples abound the world over. But it is jarring nevertheless to see it continue in practice after all these changes the country has gone through. Another pertinent example follows.
To teej or not to teej
The upcoming women-only Hindu festival of teej has been getting a lot of heat in Nepal. Feminists view the idea of devoting three days in praying for one’s husband’s longevity to be symbolic of patriarchal bondage. There are the traditionalists who believe fervently in the power of feasting, fasting and prayer in doing the trick. Then, there are those who have recently taken to re-defining teej as a time for women to get together at a socially sanctioned time and space and enjoy themselves to the hilt, away from the disapproving gaze of the men, which, they argue, is equally liberating.
It is the latter who have been organising dar khane feasts in the days and sometimes weeks before teej. It was only to be expected that they would be criticised for ‘subverting tradition’ and the sentiment had been building up over the years. And, this year the government took it to a new height through an attempt at some good old cultural policing. According to a news report, the district administrations of at least six districts have put a halt to any such advance celebrations. The reasons provided are manifold, including in one instance, ‘maintenance of law and order’, but all appealing to tradition.
This all sounds suspiciously like control over women, and one of those long accused of distorting tradition, singer Komal Oli, who is now a member of parliament, did not mince words: ‘How is it possible that menfolk indulge in alcohol-soaked parties almost every day but when women meet for a few days during teej to enjoy and share their joys and sorrows, it is going to lead to social disorder?’
Of course, the Social Practices (Reform) Act of 1976 is still in force with its outdated notion of what kind of spending should be allowed during social events. Wedding guests are limited to no more than 51 people, and for other functions, the guest list cannot exceed 25. I remember it creating somewhat of a buzz when first enacted and one heard instances of the local administration taking action for its breach. Although on occasion it has been used to outlaw teej parties, as a news portal wrote approvingly, on the whole, that act has remained quite ineffective.
Just as it was when Prachanda celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary a few months ago. Even if we were to close our eyes to the impropriety of the bash being hosted by a businessman whose dealings were, and still are, under the government scanner, the fact that the attendees consisted of ‘most of the who’s who in town including Vice President Nanda Bahadur Pun, top ministers and party leaders, lawmakers and other notables’, must have bloated the number truly and well beyond what the law allows.
Of course, the Act mentions only nine social practices, and wedding anniversaries do not figure in the list. But neither does teej. Yet that has not prevented some of the district administrations from flexing their muscles against women—muscles that seem conspicuously missing when it comes to those with the power, whether political or patriarchal.