Yet another year of despairIt is said that the determination for collective struggle comes from the deep despair of the dispossessed.
At the beginning of the year 2019, there was a hint of hope in the air. Confident of its overwhelming majority at every level of government and in every organ of the state, the largest communist party of South Asia had begun to display a trait uncharacteristic of its foundational ideology—political tolerance.
In a gesture of reconciliation, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) regime had allowed Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal parliamentarian Resham Chaudhary to take the oath of office. Nattily dressed in colourful Dhaka prints, white trousers and an appropriate cap on his head, the triumphant lawmaker had shown his badge of honour to the camera with a beaming smile.
If a picture says a thousand words, then that one snapshot showed the Tharu pride in a more convincing manner than the hundreds of militants with guns that had been inducted into the Tharuwan National Liberation Front of the Maoists with the promise of autonomy during the decade (1996-2006) of intense armed conflict.
Celebrations over the installation of lawmaker Resham had been premature. The more things change in Nepal, the more they remain the same. It was hoped that the investigation report of the Lal Commission would succeed in throwing some light on charges levelled against the popularly elected parliamentarian. The report hasn’t yet been made public.
The partisan press had already pronounced Resham guilty of every charge. The lower court had done its job. The civil society in Kathmandu prefers to maintain its haughtiness about issues that don’t concern its ethnonational interests.
Unlike in the Dreyfus affair of the late 19th century France, no Nepali littérateur, artiste, journalist or intellectual of note has so far shown the moral courage to speak up for the much-reviled lawmaker. He continues to languish in prison.
If the picture of the beaming parliamentarian had heralded hope, the emblematic image of despair of the year must be that of the lonely lawmaker shackled to his hospital bed.
First of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, that to be born is to suffer, holds true for all humanity. Still, its salience is even more for the marginalised and externalised communities everywhere. In the land where Prince Siddhartha was born, the incessant pain of just being what one is, especially for those not belonging to the constitutionally-created political category of Khas-Arya, is too intense to be captured in words.
There is little similarity between multi-media artist Lavkant Chaudhary and imprisoned lawmaker Resham Chaudhary except for their surnames. But some surnames are significant causes of suffering in ethnonational politics. Through the Masinya Dastoor exhibition, the artist attempts to show that the imprisoned lawmaker isn’t alone in his agony.
In the hierarchy of the Hindu Varna system, there is no place for nationalities that had managed to stay out of Brahmanism for centuries. Territories that the warriors of Gorkha kingdom annexed during their military campaigns began to fall off the cultural map of the new country immediately. Since the victorious Gorkhali chieftain was committed to building an Asali Hindusthana, Tharus were destined to be Shudras—touchable subjects, hence fit for enslavement—of the imperial order. The suffering of Tharus intensified with the emergence of the Gorkha Empire.
Through the Muluki Ain of 1854, Jang Bahadur merely codified customary laws of the land to gain religious legitimacy for his power grab and solidify the control of the Hindu aristocracy of the mid-mountains throughout the country. Excepting a select few families that agreed to collaborate with the Gorkhali courtiers, most Tharus continued to lose their land, property and human dignity.
Chandra Shumsher was a wily ruler and ran the chieftaincy with the help of two brilliant bahuns—Mahila Gurujyu and Mahila Pandit—to entrench himself in power. He realised somewhat early that social reforms were the new technique of acquiring modern legitimacy for an archaic system of governance. He abolished Sati, established a college and entered into a treaty with the British. The first wave of massive deforestation in eastern Madhesh to feed the railway system in India brought fabulous wealth to Chandra’s loyalists, but it ended up pushing Tharus westwards.
Chandra also conducted a census, had the land in Madhesh surveyed, and resettled freed kamaiya slaves from the mountains in the ancestral land of Tharus. The dispossession of Tharus intensified after the survey and census that didn’t recognise the rights of hunters, gatherers and slash and burn farmers of the forest such as Tharus, Mushhars, Majhis and Kewats, among a host of other Madheshi Janajatis. The land thus acquired was granted in tax-free birta to Rana family members, their in-laws and loyalists of the court.
Juddha Shumsher continued the grand tradition of the Gorkhali court of dispossessing forest-dwellers of the southern plains. The second wave of massive deforestation denuded the central Madhesh of its green cover. True to form, Juddha granted the land thus cleared to family and friends. Tharus were pushed further westwards. Many crossed the border to the safety of British India.
The third, but not the last, wave of deforestation proved to be most devastating for Tharus. After the royal-military coup, king Mahendra desperately needed to buy support for his power grab. Since hariyo ban (green forest) was the only Nepal ko dhan (riches of Nepal) other than export of mercenary fighters, Mahendra began to clear jungles on an unprecedented scale.
The geopolitics of the Cold War helped Mahendra acquire technical and financial support from the United States for the clearance of forests in Madhesh. Massive pieces of equipment cleared and prepared large swathes of land for settlers from hills. The Malaria Eradication Project and Rapti Doon Project, funded by grants of the USAID, washed Madhesh with DDT, which Krishna Bhattachan thinks means ‘Dangerous Doses to Tharus’, rather than ‘Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane’. Dispossession of perhaps the most ancient people of the plains continues unabated under the republican order. And now, they have nowhere else to go.
Aristotle holds that the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. The two, however, are often intertwined. Lavkant depicts the entanglement with the passion of the prosecuted without losing the detachment of a professional in his Masinya Dastoor exhibition.
The word dastoor comes from Urdu into the Nepali language, which can mean a tradition—the right of the ruler to extract tributes from his or her subjects—or merely a fee the surf has to pay to keep what is otherwise his own. Masinya is the convention of dispossession that began with the military campaigns of the Gorkhalis. Historian Ludwig Stiller called the Gorkhalis’ compulsions to continue extracting resources as the Silent Cry in an eponymous book. Stories of dastoor that Tharus have to live with remain to be written. Lavkant makes an attempt for artistic expression, which carries the risk of becoming ‘sublimation of rage’.
It is said that the determination for collective struggle comes from the deep despair of the dispossessed. On that wishful note, Happy New Year 2020.
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