December 2, 2007
Kanak Mani Dixit is a Nepali journalist, activist, publisher and writer of fiction living in Kathmandu. He edits the English-language magazine Himal Southasian (www.himalmag.com) and the Nepali magazine Himal Khabarpatrika (www.himalkhabar.com), the first newsmagazine in Nepali. He also runs a publishing house and Nepal's preeminent printing press, as well as writing occasional children's novels.
His opposition to the authoritarian regime imposed by King Gyanendra led to him being arrested several times, once for a period of 19 days along with his wife, who runs a school in Kathmandu. During these years Dixit wrote much and gave several interviews to the foreign media, at times from jail. He is recognized as perhaps Nepal's best-known and most important journalist.
I interviewed him at his restaurant, which faces the gates of Patan--a rambling structure which was originally a Rana's stables, now admirably restored.
Portions of that interview follow.
DUNHAM: I’ve just returned from the Madesh, an area that struck me as resembling a tropical version of America’s Wild Wild West. It’s every man for himself down there. No law and order. Fear. Anger that the big shots in Kathmandu marginalize the Madeshi problem and refuse to come down to Madesh to have a look for themselves. How important is Terai in the peace process?
DIXIT: Extremely important. The peace process was meant to bring in the Maoists from the cold-- the so-called “People’s War”-- and to come into mainstream politics. And then, while the State was engaged in doing that, the People’s Movement erupted. So the Terai people, who were seeking to find their identity within the modern-day Nepali State, which they had been denied, were not given due credence. Soon thereafter, in the anarchical situation, it became clear that the Nepali Home Ministry was absolutely incapable of checking violence in the Terai, which was also goaded by open frontier [the Indian border] and an ability to jump across the frontier for refuge and security. As a result, you had an anarchic situation evolving into a violent situation. …What happened was that-- when it came time to organize for the constituent assembly elections and the assembly was supposed to restructure our State and define our future—the people of Terai suddenly felt: “It’s late; we have done nothing about our place in the national movement.” And that is when the People’s Movement in Terai arose. People will try to pin it on Indian activism, the Indian State’s malfeasance or the royalists in Nepal—none of that! The movement was a movement of the Terai people in Nepal to demand recognition of their identity as citizens within the Nepali Nation State.
DUNHAM: Do you think that the Maoists were shell-shocked by the Terai movement?
DIXIT: Yes. The Maoists had had the run of the Terai-- essentially moving into a vacuum left by the State over the last decade. And they suddenly spread like wildfire in the Terai…very quickly…they picked up anybody that they could find, just to build on their grouping. They even took on local criminals and local warlords and groups that might not be ideologically absolute fellow travelers. Now, all of this is coming home to roost, especially in the Terai. …There was the terrible event where many Maoist activists were killed in a place called Gaur. That was also part of the shell-shocking of the Maoists: that such drastic events happened to a group of Maoists who were, themselves, going around being active in violent politics.
DUNHAM: Some of these newly emerged groups were originally Maoists, right? They use Maoist techniques against the Maoists.
DIXIT: Yes, except they don’t seem to have the deeper underlying political orientation of the Maoists, which does exist. It is because the Maoists, deep-down, howsoever violent they were, (and there were even instances of Khmer Rouge-type violence connected to the Maoist cadres), nevertheless, the very fact that they were political enough to understand that there was no winning the People’s War. They reasoned: “Let’s try to go into the political system of mainstream politics and try to work it out from within.” Whereas, for many of these other groups—to begin with, there seems to be much more reliance on criminality and much less on ideology than their Maoist counterparts. Plus the political leadership of the Terai—there are already many groups utilizing and leading politics in the Terai. So these violent groups can, at best be supportive if there is an evolution and collaboration among them. By themselves, I do not think are credible as political groupings.
DUNHAM: Six months ago, I was on another trip to the Terai and I had a roundtable discussion with Madeshi academics and activists of a more moderate slant and their complaint was ironic: For decades they have felt marginalized and now they, themselves, feel marginalized by the more radical Madeshi factions. It’s the violent factions who capture the headlines—
DIXIT: That is a fact—
DUNHAM: And the less radical feel they have no voice.
DIXIT: The Terai violence that has grown after the great Terai Madeshi Movement of the winter of 2006-2007-- the blame actually goes to the Home Ministry of Nepal and the current government of Mr. G.P. Koirala-- the way they let law and order collapse in the Terai. You can find many excuses but the blame lies there. As a result…a lot of people of hill origin have had to evacuate from deep Terai regions. That is relatively well known. What is less appreciated is that this run of Terai violence is impacting the Terai people, the Madeshi people, who are the original people of the Terai much more than the hill people. So essentially, you can say Terai violence is presently attacking and victimizing the people of Terai.
DUNHAM: You just alluded to Sitaula, the Home Minister: How does he manage to maintain his position in the government if he is so universally loathed?
DIXIT: That is a mystery and the answer can only be provided by G.P. Koirala—Mr. Sitaula’s mentor and boss. Mr. Sitaula was extremely successful as a negotiator of the Maoists; there is no doubt about that. And the credit he deserves, which is a great deal of credit, is for negotiating with the Maoists (under the direction of G.P. Koirala) to bring them in from their People’s War. Ten years of brutal war. Anybody who helps stop that war deserves a lot of credit. At the same time the same person who has had obviously so much interaction and so much invested in a relationship with the Maoists, is made the Home Minister, whose task it is to control those Maoists!
We all knew---logic told us that ten years of war with young unruly men and some women going about—they’re bound to do extortions, they’re bound to utilize their socialization of violence some more for a little while longer. So you need a Home Minister who can control affairs and stand to up the Maoists as require-- not the right-wing reaction of shoving them off a cliff. No. Nobody wants that in mainstream Nepali politics. It is a challenge enough for the Maoists that they will come in with some humility into the open process. Sitaula was unable to do that.
Now, your question about why does Sitaula remain if he is so universally loathed? This is something that Mr. G.P. Koirala can answer. The lack of motivation of the police is a fact. The lack of state presence around the country is a fact. The lack of law and order is a fact. Nepal is not a failed state but it is certainly a failed government. And that failure of government is ascribable directly to the Home Ministry.
But now there is no sense in blaming Mr. Sitaula. You have to blame his boss, Mr. Koirala, who in conversation indicates that he understands how bad the situation is, but seems unwilling to act on the knowledge that Mr. Sitaula has been abject in his failure as a Home Minister.
DUNHAM: Where is Nepal is in the peace agreement? I’m sensing some regression in the last six months.
DIXIT: It’s too early to say that we are actually going backward. We are going through the highs and lows and, perhaps, this time had to come: when the Maoists decided to challenge their own decision to come into mainstream politics. And then they’ve got to settle down and decide there is really no “Plan B”. There is nowhere else to go. ...What the Maoists are trying to do, and what we are all trying to help them do, is come to mainstream politics after ten years of violent, often brutal revolution. That is one hell of a demand. And I would suspect that there are very few insurgencies that have been brought to a safe landing in the way we have already half-succeeded in Nepal. But it would be foolish to believe that there would not be hiccups. Mainly the hiccups would be in the conflict between the Maoist propaganda of People’s War and dictatorship of the proletariat-- and actual utilization of the gun and brutal methods over ten full years-- and finally to say, “Ok, all that is now passé. We are going into peaceful politics. Obviously there is going to be contradictions in between-- both ideological contradictions in the leadership ranks as well as the socialization of the cadres and slowly converting them.
I believe that we are going through the throes of such a process and for the average Nepali this process has taken too long—nearly two years after the People’s Movement. We’re supposed to be reaping the peace dividend. Our economy is like a spring willing to just about release itself and has not been able to release itself. India is growing at 9% and China about 10%; Nepal, in the middle, is growing at less than 3% and the population growth undercuts most of that. So the people of Nepal are suffering badly and hence, they are saying, “How long do we have to wait?”
But the other way to look at it is: “Just two years.” In just two years, (a) the Maoists have not gone back to the jungle; (b) it doesn’t look like they can afford to go back to the jungle—that is the good news. The bad news is that it’s been two years and two years are too long. I feel that the Maoists are just now tackling their internal contradictions. I wish that their leadership had been better able to train and prepare their cadres over the last year-and-a-half to open politics. Instead they concentrated on saying one thing to the international community, saying one thing to the Kathmandu intelligentsia and…at the same time telling their fighters, “The fight is really not over. We still have the great glorious fight ahead of us.”
DUNHAM: Do you believe, as some people do, that Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai are shifting into a more radical view espoused by more radical factions of the party?
DIXIT: That is clear. That is clear. The Maoists have had [unintelligible] in various places every couple of years. And the great decision they made to come to aboveground politics was in 2003, when a central Plenum took place in their original hinterland, west-central Nepal. There they decided to work with the political parties and to come to aboveground politics. And that trend was kept in place. There was a big division between Prachanda and Dr. Bhattarai.
DUNHAM: What was the source of their falling out?
DIXIT: Their falling out had to do with how to perceive India and how to perceive the king, as far as we can understand. And essentially, in determining who can be more useful in this process of transformation of the Maoists. And there was even a time when Baburam Bhattarai, from what we understand, was under house arrest by the Maoists. But then, after their own meeting of minds-- and it seems that India may have played some role in cajoling them-- but then [Prachanda and Bhattarai] were like twins and have been since. Which is a good thing. We do not want the Maoists to fracture. Because that will lead to a warlord-ism of the kind that we do not want. We would rather that they take a little more time, that they battle out their internal contradictions…
…The so-called “radicals within the Maoists”-- led by Mohan Vaidya, Mr. Gajurel, Mr. Badal, and a few others-- they suddenly came to a majority at a Plenum held in August 2007, in Balaju, here in Kathmandu. They said, “We cannot go into elections. We will humiliate ourselves. We have given up the Revolution. We must put forward a more radical stance.”
The only problem with that stance is that there is no place to go. There is no “Plan B” other than to say, “Let’s get out of government. Let’s us not go for elections.” The only “Plan B” they could have would be to keep this society in suspended animation. …But the longer you do that, the more the Maoists will lose their base—even the little base that they have. We just have to wait for this to play itself out and for the Maoist radicals to be exposed. Then, the so-called “moderate line” that Mr. Baburam Bhattarai and Prachanda represent will once again be able to lead their flock, as I believe they would want to. The only problem with all of this is that whatever way you look at it, the Maoists will be humiliated in a free and fair elections because the Nepali people are no different from any people anywhere else in the world. They detest violence. It is a denigration of the Nepali people for observers elsewhere, beyond Nepal, to look to Nepal and to hope for a Maoist victory as the Maoist would want it, because that implies the utilization of violence in politics, besides all the other non-democratic practices that a communist totalitarian State would do.
We believe that the Maoists will be forced by geopolitical circumstance and internal circumstance to actually convert into a mainstream political party. In the beginning, they will not get many votes, but if they stay with their original philosophy which is to defend the rights of the poorest, I believe that they will evolve into a very strong force. It’s just that their politicians were in a hurry and went underground.
DUNHAM: And the YCL? Are they helping?
DIXIT: Not at all. To begin with, Nepal is a country where politics functions in the Nepali language. The entire discourse and the terminology is in Nepali, but the Young Communist League is an English terminology foisted on the Nepali people by Maoists. To be kind to them, it could be that they were trying to create a phalanx or a group that would help them in their political transformation among the youth so that their militia and some of their fighters would evolve as political individuals. But obviously that is where their intentions were not trained enough on the transformation. They relied on what they knew to do best, which is violence or the threat of violence. Rely on extortion. Rely on forcible procedures.
A lot of Westerners who come to Nepal tend to forget one fact. (And, I think, a lot of Maoists, too, forgot this fact.) For 12 years, between 1990 and 2002, we had a rambunctious democratic exercise. It was not a clean exercise, but nowhere in the world is democracy clean. Neither was it in Nepal. We were learning all along. But it was a dozen years of successful democratic experimentation where the people found a voice. There are many problems with our constitution of 1990, which allowed us these 12 years of experimentation, but on one factor-- freedom-- civil rights in a relative way-- Nepal was a free country. As a result, the people found a voice. They knew how to speak up and how to reject. The only reason they could not reject Maoist violence was because a gun can control a valley.
And it is naïve to expect that, because a Maoist had the gun, they actually had the support of the people. That has to be proven by the ballet. That is what we are trying to vote for. The problem in Nepal right now is that we are trying to do three things at the same time, and this is what the international community has to understand. First, we are trying to re-democratize after the marauding of King Gyanendra. Second, we are in a post-conflict phase of rehabilitation: of our economy, of our infrastructure, of our blown-up bridges, of the very civil service of government which has been so destroyed—our school buildings that have been taken over by the Maoists or by the army—we are rehabilitating in many, many different ways. While we are doing these two things, which are what most societies would have to do, we have a much larger challenge of State restructure: giving due space in the newly designed constitution and the newly designed State; giving due space to all the marginalized communities in Nepal. That is a debate that has barely begun.
So while you are trying to do all three things at the same time, you’ve got a government that is in a confused state because they are still trying to bring in the Maoists, while the other rebellions are erupting. So, in all of this, the one thing that should have happened—extremely important—is good law and order. We should have had at least a half-capable Home Ministry. That, we didn’t have.
…Nepal is in such a crisis right now, but you can still see where we can descend further. …this is the real scary scenario that we hope never to see: The political parties and the Maoists would be so unable to manage their affairs within each party (and between the various parties), that there would be fear of a left-wing takeover …and the possibility of a collapse of the Nepali State, at which time, there would be an outsider right-wing reaction. India, which would always like to see stability in Nepal for its own reasons-- regardless of what kind of regime was in place-- would be backed by the international community to support politicians who came forward to say, “We will run this State and government. We will do your bidding. We will be backed by the army” And the Nepali army would back such a government. It would be a hodgepodge solution made up of opportunistic politicians. And at that time, the politicians of Nepal would lose the handle.
As things stand today, the politicians of Nepal are still in command and in control. The parties are still talking to each other-- not very efficiently, but they, I believe, understand the pitfalls of letting things go somewhat worse than what it is now.
DUNHAM: In the meantime, it seems to me, King Gyanendra has been doing the smartest thing he could possibly do, which is to remain silent. He lets other people make a mess of things for a change. What is the possibility of there being a resurgence of popularity with, not just the monarchy, but King Gyanendra?
DIXIT: Slim. Mainly because King Gyanendra so underestimated the people of Nepal and their democratic leanings, and their good sense. He took this idiotic line—a takeover that could never have worked. He, himself, was an abject failure when he did try to rule absolutely for a year-and-a-half. It was an absolutely a failure and people have already seen that-- a total loss of face...if the people of Nepal look for salvation in another place, it will not be the king. Almost certainly it will be more like a right-wing combination without the king. Even the right-wing of Nepal, even including some of the generals who might be called “right-wing” within the Nepal army, don’t see the king, I think, as a solution, even as an iconic head. The idiocy that he exhibited! Anybody with good sense was telling him, “Don’t take over. You will destroy the kingship.” And he just went head-on. In too many ways to describe, he showed himself to be an idiot. I think the public understands that. He could have made himself popular by clearly stating that he had made a mistake. It is very easy for a king to come back in popularity, if you do things in the right way--except he didn’t. He has not apologized. He has backtracked, under pressure, to allow the Parliament to be reinstated and the political parties to come back into place. But everybody knows that that was under the pressure of the army, the international community and the great People’s Movement we had in April 2005-- not because King Gyanendra wanted to. …He could have easily evacuated himself, left the country for six months, let the country settle down. That would also have added to his image.
But in the end, in Nepal, where the whole political class is slowly becoming republican, the biggest republican is Gyanendra himself. Nobody I know has been so successful in taking a wholesome monarchy—a constitutional monarchy at that—with a 250-year legacy, and destroyed it within a year-and-a-half. King Gyanendra has that to his credit as a republican himself. Therefore for all these reasons, people will look elsewhere for some kind of release-- even a rightwing release-- but not to him.
DUNHAM: Prince Paras?
DIXIT: Not at all. Prince Paras is the bad boy with clear involvement in two negligent homicides, which were never taken to the court—never charged. And there are many additional instances of Paras being uncontrolled…
DUNHAM: What about King Gyanendra’s grandson-- for people who retain a latent soft spot for the institution of the monarchy?
DIXIT: Not right now. I think the political parties so much control the political discourse---this is what an average observer doesn’t appreciate. First, political discourse happens in the Nepali language and the other local languages, not in English. So you are completely removed from the understanding of the vibrancy of this discourse. Also, this is a mistake that diplomats make all the time: not appreciating the power of the political parties’ to shape the discourse. So what you see as you see as complete anarchy and a mess---it is true, it is exactly as you see—but there is discussion all the time. And because the political parties control the discourse of Nepali politics, to an absolute level, they will never, never—across the spectrum, from the UML to the Nepali Congress, to now the Maoists—we will never allow the king to be active, even if, per chance, due to various factors, he gets into running the show—it won’t be for more than a few months. At that time, there will be a true revolution, particularly because King Gyanendra has shown himself to be not a man of great intelligence. So he’ll make mistakes. Even now, the sense I get is that he is still hoping that, indeed, things will get so bad that people will come to him to act as a savior. I think that is a mistake. Nobody will go to him.
DUNHAM: But the king is still here. He must be clinging to that hope.
DIXIT: That’s for sure. …But I think he is a very selfish man and he would want to take the kingship down with him, if it were to be obliterated.
DUNHAM: One more question, this time about the Media: How important is the role Nepali media plays in the political chess game—nation-wide, but also in the Madeshi turmoil? Several Madeshi journalists have complained to me that the stories they post to their Kathmandu editors are either re-written or re-interpreted before being published by their newspapers. Editorial Bias?
DIXIT: The media is very powerful in Nepal because it is very close to the people. It has its weaknesses because we attained freedom of press only in 1990. As a result, there is some lack of professionalism. There is domination by one community, the Bahun, which is the hill Brahmans. There is a lack of awareness of the issues of the world, because most of our journalists are not converse in English, so the world of learning is locked away from them. The strength is that, unlike colonized societies, Nepal does not have that differentiation between the English language papers, that are quite powerful, and the vernacular. Here, the vernacular rules top to bottom. The Prime Minister and his private secretary and the average laborer will read the same newspaper. So you can take a relatively sophisticated idea and take it to the mass level. That is the true political power of Nepali journalism, which was exhibited over the last few years, as we learned the ropes…
One particular facet of our media, which is unique to Southeast Asia, is our free radio.
Radio arrived in south Asia in 1946-47 and it got promptly high jacked by the State propaganda, the State machinery as well as sheer commercialization. It was only in 1994-95 that the radio transmission was handed over to the people. So you’ve got public radios, community radios and commercial radios, which tend to be more localized. In a country made up of a lot of illiteracy, the radio helps.
Nepali media helped generate the People’s Movement. In the beginning, we had a lot to learn. Even today, we don’t have good investigative or economic journalism. Our media was, in general, a little too romantic about the Maoists. They didn’t do enough critiquing of the Maoists, as the Maoists rose. But it has been a very quick learning curve for the media, which started from zero in 1990, to what you have now.
On the other hand, there are pitfalls ahead. For example, all the violent groups are now pressurizing the media not to serve its function. It was relative easy to fight the Maoists because the Maoists had hopes and expectations of coming to the center. So they had to go by certain rules. And they were political up to a point. But when you have apolitical groups, which are increasingly violent, then the local journalists…are more likely to be under pressure from violent groups. As far as the government pressure is concerned, the government doesn’t exist so it cannot exert any pressure on the media, as happened under the King.
There are some problems of bias, which have to be sorted out. Coverage of the Terai issues, for example, could have been much, much better, with much more empathy for what the Terai people are doing. It should have been recognized as a People’s Movement and that its underpinnings were truly a people’s desire to be heard…
DUNHAM: But what about the journalists’ fear of being targeted by violent groups? There was the incident of the journalist who, a month ago, was abducted and murdered—the Maoists taking credit for that.
DIXIT: There is no question that the journalists like myself, in Kathmandu, are very well protected, with the distance from the violence and some level of protection of international and national exposure. But when you are a good journalist that is based locally, the pressures you face are enormous and some of that is the threat of violence.
DUNHAM: I experienced some pretty serious tension when interviewing the owner of a burn-ed out teashop. This was in Krishnanagar. Before I knew it there were 80 people surrounding us and blocking the entrance and they were quite angry—shouting at us to turn off the cameras and go home. There were policemen on the opposite side of the road do nothing of course. There was a sense of helplessness. We were crossing a fine line. The incident could have taken a more violent course.
DIXIT: Was it a hill community or a Muslim community?
DUNHAM: That particular morning, I was interviewing hill people.
DIXIT: The hill people feel especially aggrieved in Kapilvastu because, after the initial murder of the Muslim leader, the killings thereafter were all of hill origin, which then led to a backlash in which the people of plain’s origin, mostly Muslims, simply ran away. And as usual, the State didn’t know how to respond—no, they did know how. The just didn’t. They didn’t respond. The State didn’t go after the killers. Neither did they go after the killers of the Muslim leader, Mr. Mohit Khan, nor did they try to locate and bring to justice the people who killed the people of hill origin. But after that initial massive tragedy of those killings, it is also a fact that the people of hill origin felt closer to the State administration than the Madeshi because the State administration is run almost exclusively by people of hill origin. The people of Terai origins, or Madeshis, or Muslims—they will not feel that the State will listen to them. So when they feel pressure, unlike the hill people that you would have met in Kapilvastu, who will have the wherewithal to express their extreme anger, most of it justified, against the State-- the other community just disappears into the light because it doesn’t feel that the administration will speak for them. Kapilvastu was a terrible problem where a charismatic local leader was murdered, we do not know by whom. …What the State should have done at that point would have been to (1) investigate who killed Mohit Khan. 2) investigate who killed all these other people of hill origin and (3) reassure the entire population, including the people of plains and hill origins. Instead, the State was so ineffective. I would still give credit to the local politicians of Kapilvastu, that things did not get worse. Things could have sparked from there to many other places…but politicians rarely get credit in this country even thought they worked hard to try to keep a semblance of calm amidst all the anger that you did see.
DUNHAM: But there is this open wound down there because of the lack of accountability. Until they see some evidence of the State working hard—
DIXIT: I said the political parties are working hard.
DUNHAM: Right. I’m sorry: the political parties. Even so, if you are an average villager, you don’t see the political parties working hard.
DIXIT: But they are trying to help. For example, the whole issue of rehabilitation: That’s what people want right now. Because to begin with, if you remember, the talk of how many people died and the kind of rapes and killings—most of it didn’t happen. Not fifty people, sixty, eighty people dead. But 14, if I remember the count. So the numbers were bad and grievous indeed, but not as bad as had been spread about.
DUNHAM: The media was reporting those inflated figures. Were they not at least partially responsible for spreading those numbers?
DIXIT: Yes, this is the weakness that I alluded to earlier. We have to be careful-- especially about radio-- and also local vernacular media-- they have to be much more responsible. All I’m trying to say is that Kapilvastu was very bad, but it could have gotten so much worse. It got controlled in time. And then even the media became alerted to its own power and the need to conserve its power and not to misuse it. Radio, in particular, as you know, from examples of Rwanda and elsewhere. We can be extremely proud with what we have done with radio. But that same radio can be a tool for killing by spreading conflagration.
We know from the eastern Terai, for example, where they came under a lot of pressure from local insurgents and local criminal gangs; the media started spreading the word as required by such gangs and groups. It has not all become a useless exercise, but the dangers are clear. And the responsibility to learn from Kapilvastu is how close we can come to intercommunity violence. The only way out of it seems to be something so obvious: That everybody who’s in a position of being an opinion-maker-- a politician or journalist-- must understand not the fears of their own community but fears of the other community. Anybody can speak of the fears of their community. But empathy is required for the other community. To me, that is the answer and this is something that must become a national movement in Nepal. There are issues of, firstly, historic neglect of so many communities in Nepal by the State. Then, there are current issues of displacement, violence by people, often acting on local prejudges, but giving it a community-based orientation. You might be a local bandit who wants to get rough on a local journalist or leader, but you can give it the coloration of community-to-community fight. And then, what happens is it really impacts on other community members to speak up because, the moment you are saying, “I am doing this for my community,” all the other people in my community who know better, cannot speak up. Everybody tends to fear the isolation that comes from being a lone voice in their community. In all that, you must have a State that exists, a State that holds people accountable, regardless of which community they are from. And right now I can say that that the State is not even being biased toward one community: It is a State that is just not doing anything. It’s not that the State is biased towards the hill people, as we speak. There has been an historical bias, but right now, it’s not even exhibiting that bias, the State is not even there to exhibit that bias. Which means --
DUNHAM: It’s a vacuum.
DIXIT: Yes, a vacuum.
DUNHAM: I think that’s a good place to end: on the need for empathy.