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When I’m in a situation that feels beyond control, especially socio-politically, I write. I write what I know in order to get a handle on things. When I think it’s useful I share my writing with others. This last Tuesday I wrote about the shocking discrepancy I observed between how the Nepal security forces were dealing with the protests in Birganj and the way they dealt with the student activists protests during the Movement against Regression from 2003-2006. I was in the thick of those protests in Kathmandu from 2004 through 2006. At that time it was very clear who were the protesters and who were the onlookers. Yes, innocent passerbys were inadvertently exposed to tear gas. However, not once was I warned that I need to run when the police come because “bullets do not have eyes.” In Birganj many people have made this plea to me. This is the difference between my time on the streets in 2004-2006 and in Birganj this past week.
I decided to share the piece I wrote documenting this discrepancy. A sanitized version has been published in Kathmandu Post: http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2015-09-04/a-mood-swing.html .
Here is what I wanted disseminated (and below is a list of edits KTM Post made and the updates I made to the original submission):
Discrepancies: The Mood On the Streets of Birganj
I’m sitting in my hotel room in Birganj for the third day trying to write since I can’t pursue the fieldwork I’ve come here to do. On Monday around noon I snapped pictures of a Nepal Army patrol making their rounds through the Bypass Road where a no-protest zone had been declared the evening before. After a few meetings, I heard that a curfew had been enforced from 4pm. I rushed across town to reach my hotel. Things were obviously tense as I crossed the main bazaar from Adarshanagar at 3:45. I was scared for the young men who were on the street vandalizing shop signs. The rickshaw driver took gullies through Maisthan and past Birganj Public College to avoid Ghantaghar and the bus park, places, I later found out, where clashes between police and protesters had taken a serious turn. I reached my hotel’s gully at 4:05 and people were looking southward on the Bypass Road toward Nagua chok. Rumors were flying about how many had been shot and how many had died. I was skeptical but again nervous for all the young men who were lingering on the road around me.
A tall guy approached me and said “Jai Nepal.” I asked if he was Congress. He replied, “Not Congress. Not Maoist. Not UML. Only Nepali.” He lifted up the arm of the man next to him and declared, “He is our leader. His is the sekuwa dal.” I recognized this man as a sekuwa wala from across the street. I jokingly responded, asking him if his chaap was a skewer of meat. They all laughed and the tall man explained, “He’s our leader because his heart is as big as his belly. If only all leaders had such big hearts.” And then, in a more serious tone, he urged me to return to my hotel, explaining that they couldn’t keep me safe. If the police come, he quipped, “we’ll be thinking about our own safety.” After returning to my hotel room and watching the news, I found out one person had already died, shot with live ammunition, and a number others were injured. On Tuesday, working in my hotel room, I rushed out every time I heard shots. At 5pm on September 1st, the death count was officially up to five in Birganj, with dozens more injured, some seriously so.
What has struck me since I arrived in Birganj on Sunday is the palpable difference between the current mood on the streets and the mood during the many months I spent observing student protests in Kathmandu Valley during the Movement Against Regression from 2003-2006. I didn’t worry for the student activists during that time like I’m worrying for the young men on the streets down here. Perhaps I was naive but there never seemed to be a risk that democratic student activists would be shot for being in no-protest zones in 2004. At that time, tear gas shells seemed sufficient to disperse protests. Yes, student activists were arrested for demanding a republic, for burning effigies and photos of the king, and for felicitating five dogs to mock the royal felicitations during the king’s village tour in 2004. The students were charged with sedition and then later released. Admittedly, I was nervous during the 2005 state of emergency. It was an unprecedented time in post-1990 democracy. But international organizations such as the Red Cross tracked down and publicized the locations where student activists and party leaders were being detained so that they would not be disappeared. Bar association lawyers filed habeas corpus cases with the courts demanding their release. They had the privilege of notoriety and that kept them safe.
That does not hold true for the young men here in the south, whether or not they are politically aligned. The preemptive mobilization of the army has set a tone of external occupation, even if the army was called in to assist local civil authorities. Reports documenting the excessive use of force here in the south have been released by human rights and nonpartisan organizations such as Third Alliance and the International Crisis Group. I can only draw conclusions based my own observations; however, I wonder why latis and tear gas sufficed to disperse student protests in Kathmandu during the Movement Against Regression but are insufficient at this time, in this place.
I want to underscore the conversation I had on the street with the young man who declared he’s “Not Congress. Not Maoist. Not UML. Only Nepali.” Lives are being lost. The loss of life has now surpassed the number of days the bandh has been ongoing in the Tarai. These lives are the lives of police, activists, onlookers, Pahadis, Madheshis, and Tharus. Twenty-three Nepali lives lost. Lives of brothers, fathers, sons, and friends. Isn’t that enough?
It is only fair to point out the edits Kathmandu Post made to my original submission as well as the updates I had made to my original submission.
KTM Post’s edits to my original Submission:
#1 Title change:
The original title was: “Discrepancies: The Mood On the Streets of Birganj”
It was changed to: “A mood swing”
with the byline:
“There is palpable difference in the mood on Birganj streets now and 2003-2006 protests in Kathmandu”
#2 These subtitles were inserted into the KTM Post Op-Ed to frame the narrative:
Now and then
Updates I made to the original submission:
I also want to highlight the changes I made in the updated version I hoped would be published. These updates reflect the change in fatality numbers, additional references to analysis that had since been released since I had originally wrote the piece. And also my updated understanding on the loopholes around army mobilization since I recognize that phrases like “preemptive army mobilization” are contentious.
— The updated version changed the order of events so they are in chronological order and dated the piece from the third day of the curfew rather than the second day.
Paragraph Four (Penultimate Paragraph):
— I changed the opening sentence to reflect what people were telling me, that many of the injured young men were not politically aligned but in the wrong place at the wrong time.
— I added more explanation on army mobilization, stating: “, even if the army was called in to assist local civil authorities” with a hyperlink.
— I called out and included a link to the International Crisis Group’s report.
— I updated the number of casualties and rephrased the point comparing the number of days of the bandh and loss of life: “The loss of life has now surpassed the number of days the bandh has been ongoing in the Tarai.”