It’s January 23 and Khunga VDC in Panchthar district, bang in the heart of the proposed Limbuwan state, is abuzz with the wedding ceremony of the son of a veteran CPN-UML local operative. Virtually the whole village has descended on the wedding house to congratulate the Limbu family on the auspicious occasion. Some people are gathered around the front courtyard to watch the slow, rhythmic chabrung dance. The tent set up for the feast pulsates with light conversation over the day’s specialty: pork soup. A little farther off, there is another tent serving goat meat and rice. The first tent whets the appetite of guests from indigenous communities; the second one is for Bahuns and Chhetries who cook for themselves and abstain from pork and buff. On the far side of the courtyard, there is yet another tent, this one serving the ´damais´ (the ‘untouchable’ caste).
Although they dine separate, people mingle freely. Talk to the local Bahuns about the effect of the growing identity movement in the region, and they look at you askance. At no point in past six or seven years, they say, have they felt threatened by indigenous communities. Limbu residents of Khunga readily admit that while any new state set-up must recognize their identity, the federalism debate, as it is shaping up, could tear apart the whole fabric of their society. But most people you talk to in Khunga seem rather indifferent to the whole federalism debate; and they have little patience for central-level politics. They are little interested in who will become the next prime minister, or if the current one is ever going to step down (the hot topic at any public gathering in Kathmandu).
The course of political discussions with an outsider quickly shifts to gripes over long hours of power cuts and unscrupulous transport syndicates that have made travelling to Khunga (10 kilometers off the Mechi Highway linking Jhapa with Taplejung) such an expensive affair: The three-hour ride to the district headquarter of Phidim can cost up to Rs 700 in self-styled taxis.
Travel 250 kilometers to the south to the bustling VDC of Birtamod—yes, the second biggest financial hub in the east after Biratnagar is still a VDC, thanks to disagreements over gerrymandering the four existing VDCs which make up Birtamod—and here too, national politics is not a popular discussion topic. Crime and lawlessness are. On a lighter vein, a medical shop owner quips that although the CA might have failed to give the country a constitution, the cooling of political passions has had a salubrious effect on business.
Such avoidance of discussions on national politics, deliberate or not, is by no means limited to eastern Nepal. During another (Brahmin) wedding ceremony in Butwal, which serves as the connecting point between western Nepal and Kathmandu, there is likewise little appetite for national politics. The Aryal family which is in the city for the wedding hails from Gulmi district, and enjoys traditional links to CPN-UML. Among the Gulmelis assembled for the occasion, political talks mostly center on how little national level politicians have contributed to their district. When poked for political tidbits, people reminisce how not long ago, entire villages in Gulmi used to be divided between Nepali Congress and CPN-UML. The divisions were so entrenched that if a local UML cadre died, only UML sympathizers would attend the funeral.
There used to be separate taps for Nepali Congress and UML families. Many such divisions remain, you are told, although the rise of the Maoists has brought the once bitter rivals closer. Beyond offering such off-the-cuff anecdotes, even the Gulmelis from politically well-connected families are reluctant to talk politics.
Traveling the country and talking to people from Khunga to Birtamod to Chandranighapur to Hetauda to Butwal, one senses an unmistakable undertone of disappointment with national politicians, even if many speak on the topic with utmost reluctance. Dig a little deeper and you unearth a certain level of anger, a sense of betrayal with the politicians they elected to write a constitution for New Nepal.
But on every stop, the most common complaint was of the absence of a ‘system.’ A tipper (a lightweight truck) mows down an elderly man on the Butwal-Narayangarh stretch of the East-West highway. The driver of the tipper flees. Local (half-drunk) youth quickly surround the tripper, douse it in kerosene and set it aflame. Another tripper that has been stopped is summarily torched. A team from Armed Police Force, which arrives at the scene half an hour after the accident, looks on from the sidelines as the musclemen continue on their rampage. It would be suicidal for the police to try to stop these hooligans who have extensive political connections. The blockage is cleared only when the miscreants tire out and it’s time for them to hit the sack, fully five hours after the accident. “Where is the system?” the stranded passengers repeatedly question.
Wherever you go, there is a distinct whiff of the absence of the state. In Khunga, people love to recount how such and such hardcore criminal escaped punishment by successfully navigating the surrounding mountains, to disappear into Sikkim. In Birtamod, the murder last year of Avenues Television journalist Yadav Poudel for his reporting on prostitution cells that were being run in some of the most reputed hotels in Birtamod, is still brought up to illustrate how the police force, businessmen and politicians have colluded to criminalize the society. The dysfunctional law and order mechanism has contributed to a booming smuggling trade in Chinese goods to India. “There is no system in place,” a hotel operator in Birtamod complains.
“All politics is local,” former American House of Representative Speaker Thomas O’Neill used to say, to illustrate how the success of a politician at national level depends on his ability to keep his constituency happy. The longer the current state of impasse drags on in Nepal, and the longer the election is put off, the weaker the crucial link between national politicians and their constituencies will get. This marks a dangerous level of disconnect between the center and the periphery, and strengthens centrifugal forces and criminal elements which are getting more and more adept at filling up the political void.