The sight from the pillion of a motorcycle is too fleeting to engage the viewer in details of the scene but panoramic enough to provide fragments for mental notes.
Early in the morning, the May sun is not fierce and a bracing breeze uplifts the spirits. The newly resurfaced link that connects the East West Highway with Janakpur is almost empty with only a few motorcycles wheezing past at great speed.
Unlike Pathlaiya-Birgunj, Butwal-Bhairahawa, Kohalpur-Nepalgunj or even Attaria-Dhangadhi links, there is little sign of ribbon development.
The entire stretch between Dhalkebar and Janakpur is still largely rural, with almost no industrial structures, no commercial activity, and no indication of speculative land plotting. Buildings of the Janaki Medical College and Rice Research Institute stand in the middle of scorched fields in splendid isolation.
Buffaloes on the road don’t seem to pay too much attention to two-wheelers. Riders have to slow down and skirt past the nonchalant mount of Yamraj (the deity of death) to save their own skin. No matter how powerful, two-wheelers are inherently unstable and even a pebble can throw a speeding motorcyclist off the carriageway.
A long-forgotten lesson comes to mind: Balancing the need for speed through smoother surfacing and the necessity of having sufficient grip to avoid skidding is the enduring challenge of road engineering.
“Reduce friction by all means for better acceleration; but keep enough traction, for every vehicle has to stop at some point,” eons ago, Prof. Haroon used to tell his class at Aligarh Muslim University. The learned don would then add mischievously, “Unfortunately, most politicos often do just the opposite: They increase friction and reduce traction. Hence, nothing moves while everything wobbles.”
Everything is wobbly indeed everywhere in the country. The site of the bomb blast near Ramanand Chowk is deserted. On a normal day when buses honk incessantly, rickshaws jostle for space, with passengers crowding around every departing vehicle, lugging their bags, Ramanand Gate looks decidedly gaudy and an irritant to traffic flow.
Resembling a structure assembled from four giant broken tusks, the decorative edifice fails to measure up to any standards of good design in terms of balance, harmony or rhythm. On the day of the banda, however, it looks stately and aesthetic.
The flaw is neither with the architecture nor erection; it is just that the gate does not belong where it stands. It would have done a public park or a parade ground proud as an entrance. In the middle of the town, it’s a visual as well as practical irritant.
Once the motorcycle turns towards Parikrama Road—a kind of inner ring road—it becomes clear that it is almost impossible to enforce a total shutdown in an old town. In a modern settlement, throttle any of the central axes and all movements come to a grinding halt.
A web of winding streets, curved lanes, and crooked by-lanes coupled with interconnecting alleys and occasional cul-de-sacs makes sinews of an organically grown settlement hard to monitor.
Petty crimes thrive in such settings, but urban uprisings require grander avenues where thousands can march together towards the central plaza to symbolically topple the bust of a hated tyrant off its pedestal.
Grocers inside the narrow lanes are doing brisk business. Apparently, they somehow manage to replenish their stocks on a regular basis. Medicine and alcohol shops outside of Parikrama Road are crowded.
The motorcyclist quips without a hint of sarcasm in his voice: After nourishment, dava-daru (Hindustani slang for the daily fix of drugs and drinks) is the second most important need of political agitators.
Surprisingly for a town that has experienced five unfortunate deaths in a conspiratorial bomb attack, excitement of victory permeates the air.
Perhaps that is what the enigma of martyrdom is all about: The dead liberate the living from the agonies of their sins and the sacrifice of martyrs thus evokes glory rather than grief among the masses.
It was barely a month ago when it had appeared that Janakpur had slowly begun to slide into the pathologies of Antonio Gramsci’s interregnum: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Predator medicos from the capital city had resumed their weekly fishing trips to grab patients for their profit-sector enterprises. Henchmen of heavyweight politicos had begun to share lucrative government contracts. Showy actorivism of NGOs had markedly increased.
What was it that suddenly broke the ennui, creating Lenin’s “revolutionary situation” in which the rulers can no longer rule while the ruled no longer wish to be ruled? All fingers point towards the shenanigans of the high and mighty in distant Kathmandu.
Rupture and release
After the Madhesh Uprising, it has been taken for granted that Janakpur would be a provincial capital. In an unguarded moment, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai reportedly told his confidants that the ancient town was too dirty to be a capital city.
If the Tarai-Madhesh east of Chitwan were to be a single unit, Biratnagar was probably better suited to host provincial headquarters. The moment this information percolated down to the grassroots—there are no secrets in Kathmandu—activists lost no time in organizing themselves.
A section of the Mithila state activists are genuinely committed to the cause dear to their heart. This starry-eyed group consists of litterateurs, academics, journalists, and senior citizens concerned about the decay that has set into the Maithil culture and they earnestly believe that an autonomous province would help regenerate their ancient civilization.
Then there are profit-minded individuals who are lured by the prospect of better businesses that a province will bring to the town.
A nexus between crafty political operators, land mafia, and contractor conglomerates is looking greedily at the prospect of public investments in infrastructure improvement.
Then there are opponents to the idea of federalism itself who think that they can give pro-Mithila protests an anti-Madhesh tilt. Together they form a formidable force.
Prolonged pro-Mithila banda paralyzed the national convention of Rajendra Mahato’s party. In frustration, one of the “permanent ministers” of the republican order hit out at activists as soon as his programs were over.
Had it not been for the martyrdom of Maithils, the cause of a Mithila state was as good as lost. Even now, it would require a lot of efforts to resurrect Janakpur’s rightful claim to be the centre of Mithila-Madhesh or Videha State.
Unbeknownst to activists on the ground, their representatives had bartered away their claims in order to ensure timely promulgation of the Constitution.
According to tentative arrangements, the east of Koshi would be a different province, Chitwan shall stay like a wedge to keep the Tarai-Madhesh apart, and the Tharuhat west of Karnali shall remain integrated with a unified Far West Region.
Now, even if Janakpur becomes the capital of “moth-eaten Mithila,” to borrow a phrase from Birendra Pandey of Tribhuvan University, the town would have to survive under the shadows of energetic Lahan in the east, wealthy Birgunj in the west, and the upcoming Nijgarh International Airport in between.
Such gloomy prospects should have frustrated activists. It seems to have had the opposite effects. With expectations toned down to realistic levels, the town is euphoric.
Rapture and risks
The road that connects Janakpur with the international border at Bhittamod is in as bad a shape as it was a decade ago, this despite the fact that almost every Works and Transport Minister since then has been a Madheshi.
Ironically, the condition of the road is often cited in informal conversations as a proof of how little say Madheshi ministers have in the policy decisions of Pahadi-dominated governments in Kathmandu.
Perhaps this is how colonized people learn to live with the misery of their existence: Incompetence of one of their own is explained away as helplessness, criminality becomes courage in the face of insurmountable adversities, and prosecution is interpreted as victimization.
Gossips travel fast. At interactions with teachers, journalists, and loquacious locals, it emerges that nobody in Jaleshwar is expecting federalism to materialize in a practical form.
Days before political settlements were to be finalized in Kathmandu, an NGO executive opined that Bijaya Kumar Gachhedar would put his thumbprint on any document.
According to rumors, he has been lured into believing that he was going to be the joint Madheshi-Janjati candidate backed by NC-UML to face Pushpa Kamal Dahal in the presidential elections.
Mahanth Thakur is modest enough to have modest ambitions, but his influential party colleagues have been promised that patience would make them premiers someday in the eventuality of a fractured mandate and hung House. Could that be the reason their criticism of the Big Three’s decisions is rather muted?
Madheshi leaders would have to go back to their constituencies clutching postdated cheques written in invisible ink. Is its value zero or infinity? In politics, both figures often amount to nothing. In any case, invisible ink is heat-sensitive.
The temperature that Tharu-Madheshi alliance can generate in Tarai-Madhesh this summer would determine the fate of the postdated cheques in the hands of Gachhedar and Thakur.
On the way back from Jaleshwar, two boisterous buses are seen lurching ahead on an empty road that is riddled with crater-sized potholes. Apparently, marriage parties are exempt from banda strictures.
Astonishingly, however, even busloads of revelers are shouting “Jai Madhesh!” slogans in the heartland of Mithila. There is joyous readiness for another round of showdown. Unfortunately, this time, the opponents will be some of their own leaders. If streets are allowed to erupt, it is going to be extremely messy.
Politicized youths who chose not to go to West Asia in search of work seem to be itching for a fight after five years of the drift and purposelessness that has discredited the last Madhesh Uprising.
Upendra Yadav and Ram Kumar Sharma, after all, may not face as much difficulty in harvesting rising discontent in the countryside, as academics in Janakpur believe. No matter whether it is a stadium or an agora for public discourse, joyous protestors spell trouble.
Lal contributes to The Week with his biweekly column Reflections. He is one of the widely read political analysts in Nepal.