Blog Archive – October, 2015
- October 30, 2015
Manju is a Nepali activist working in a village near the Indian border in the densely populated fertile band across the length of Nepal called Terai or Madhes. She’s found herself in a community in revolt that poses a serious challenge to the new republic only weeks after it finalized a constitution. I hope the crisis I wrote about last week in CounterPunch will be resolved soon. Because, if Nepal doesn’t have leaders who can urgently unite the country and repel India’s suzerainty, the republic could be in serious jeopardy.
I am reminded of my visit to the Terai to see Manju. I’d spent most of my career in the higher regions of Nepal and compared to what I’d known of those areas, I found the Terai so much like India. Still, I saw no hint of the tension that’s recently surfaced there; indeed the people I met expressed strong Nepali nationalist ideals and were proud of their infant democracy, particularly a new local radio station.
Unlike many compatriots, Manju did not take a job in the US after completing her PhD; she returned to her country to address some of its needs. Moreover she chose to do this in her ancestral village near Basantpur, beyond Janakpur, and far from the modern facilities of the capital.
Manju is a committed Nepali nationalist like others in her family. And she’s a sociologist and a feminist. But she didn’t choose the route we expected:-- join some foreign- funded NGO for women’s services where she’d command a good salary.
When Manju returned to Nepal ten years ago, media was recognized as indispensable to the new democracy. Radio production could be done on a modest scale and idealistic young people were eager to join new media opportunities. Combining her interests in journalism and women Manju decided to establish a radio station and did so in a rural area where listeners would be local farmers and shopkeepers, teachers and school children.
Phoolwari Radio became one of more than 300 private, commercial micro radio stations that sprang up across the country. Phoolwari, under Manju’s direction, is the only one run entirely by women.
Manju was keen for me to meet her fellow producers so on a visit to Nepal in 2013 I flew to Janakpur and made my way from the airstrip first by rickshaw, then bus, then another rickshaw, to meet them. Facilities at Phoolwari Radio are modest but adequate, with sufficient power to reach villages in a radius of 20-25 miles. The seven women working (part-time) alongside Manju produce stories on a range of issues; they interview studio guests and also go into ‘the field’ to report on real conditions. Phoolwari is required to carry two 30-minute daily news bulletins from Kathmandu; the rest of the programs are their own productions. Besides production work, the team has to secure advertisements to pay operating expenses, and they have to compete with larger stations that reach their locality from farther afield. It was good to see my friend’s pride in a project that combines her commitment to women and to democracy through media.
Today Madhesi leaders across Terai are in a fierce confrontation with the central government. I expect that Manju, her co-workers at Phoolwari Radio and her neighbors in Basantpur are debating the controversial clauses in the new constitution. Negotiating this will be a real challenge for the radio station. END[ Nepal Update with Radio Station Phoolwari ]
- October 25, 2015
To set the framework for its infant democracy, to recognize its rich pluralist character, and to enshrine its secular ideals Nepal had finally awarded itself a new constitution. Barely five months after earthquakes struck Kathmandu and neighboring districts an agreement that had eluded Nepal’s constituent assembly for eight years was finalized. Perhaps its resolve came from pressure exerted by global humanitarian donors meeting to award earthquake relief; perhaps in the face of this national disaster Nepal’s citizens realized how desperately they needed clear governance.
The constitution, signed into law September 20, provides the essential framework for country-wide elections, introduces a proportional electoral system at the federal and state levels, and spells out leadership powers. Many compromises had to be made but across the country most citizens felt a sense of relief and stopped work for two days to indulge in a self-congratulatory holiday.
The final document is far from perfect and there were disappointments over many provisions. Even before celebrations had ended serious discontent surfaced. Notwithstanding hasty statements by some ministers that the constitution could be changed, opposition to the agreement in the south of the country turned violent. Eight police were killed; in the mayhem that followed another 45 people were dead.
Within days, India advised Nepal that its hard won sacred document should be amended; a border blockade went into effect preventing essential imports, mainly fuel, from Indian suppliers. This cutoff of fuel has disrupted life across the country and the resulting crisis is now in its second month. Although the embargo isn’t a stated Indian government policy, no one in Nepal doubts that Delhi is not fully supporting it.
Some say today’s emergency is as serious as the one which preceded the end of the monarchy in 2007. Except today there is no king to blame, or eject. This predicament is not new; it’s a manifestation of the entrenched imbalance of power between these neighbors. A dilemma that has confronted every leader in Nepal now challenges its newly elected prime minister, K.P. Oli. A Communist Party member, he relies on a coalition of minor parties when boldness and confidence are needed.
Nepal, although never occupied by a foreign power and enjoying the largesse of nations across the globe, has allowed itself to become perilously dependent on India for basic commodities. Every few years its vulnerability to Indian interests becomes painfully apparent.
Today, without India-supplied fuel, life across Nepal has been brought to a halt. Factories are shut, children and teachers cannot get to school; without propane gas businesses are idle, and intercity travel is impossible. Tourism (customarily at its peak during autumn months) is thwarted and projects designed to repair earthquake damage are suspended.
Why should India be unhappy with this harmless northern neighbor? Nepal poses no serious challenge to India. Barely a year ago, its people applauded Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a hero on his visit to Kathmandu, and following the earthquake Modi pledged $1 billion in relief aid.
But commentators on both sides of the dispute see Delhi’s hand in this crisis. It is seen as siding with a major block of Nepal’s inhabitants unhappy with the constitution. They are the Madhesi who populate the lowland strip of Nepal along its 1000 mile border with India. They’d wanted the constitution to demarcate a distinct Madhes province and to define Nepali citizenship to favor them.
Most Madhesi originated in the adjacent Indian provinces and they enjoy benefits from both countries. Moving freely across the frontier, they share more with India, including language, religion and economic interests than they do with Nepal’s hill people and Kathmandu residents.
With the fall of Nepal’s Hindu monarchy and the rise of democratic freedoms over the past decade, regional, religious, gender and language differences became the basis for ethnic awakenings across the country and these sentiments evolved into political interest groups, each demanding special rights constitutional rights. Indeed, competing interests of these communities was a major factor delaying the work of the constituent assembly.
Madhesi leaders, arguing that the new constitution marginalizes them in favor of other ‘ethnic’ groups, launched the current protest, employing their strategic position along the frontier to impose the blockade. Nepal’s Prime Minister (Communist Party) is a compromise candidate relying on a coalition of small parties and it’s already apparent that Oli lacks the personality to force a solution. His newly appointed foreign minister (from a small royalist party) returned empty handed from a meeting with India’s prime minister.
The United States, so active in fostering democracies across the world, shows little concern for Nepal’s struggling democracy. Perhaps that’s because of its close ties to India. Also, since the 1990s opposition movement that eventually led to the end of the monarchy and the creation of a republic was Maoist inspired, and with Maoists and Communists still major players in Nepali politics, the US may be less inclined to support this democracy. More reasons for new assertive leadership here. END
- October 07, 2015
Today’s story begins with a minor bureaucratic procedure but it ends with a human encounter that begs telling. Let’s start with the death of Robert and the survival of his elderly mother. After Robert died three years ago, his mother reregistered her house from his name (his father’s) to hers, the surname she’d adopted when she remarried. This simple act would have far reaching ramifications that would change her life, sort of.
Robert, who’d lived with his mother for the past 20 years was 63 when he died. Yvonne was 86 then and things looked rather bleak because she was now living alone and because of a recently diagnosed illness. Not long before his death, Robert noticed mental difficulties his mom was experiencing. She was awaking at night believing strangers were trying to enter their home or wandering through the rooms. Robert had new locks and a security system installed.
Yvonne was not comforted. Recognizing what he thought were signs of Alzheimer’s, Robert attended a local Alzheimer’s support group to learn how best to help his mother. An additional problem for Robert was own health; he himself was dying of cancer and he knew this. Unable to work fulltime for the past year, his visits for medical treatment were increasingly frequent.
While struggling with his own debility Robert accompanied his mother to a geriatric specialist; she indeed showed symptoms of dementia. Yvonne completely rejected this diagnosis and refused to take recommended drugs. Barely a week later, before Robert could resolve the matter, he collapsed and was hospitalized. Within three days he succumbed to his cancer. Relatives of Robert’s (from his father’s side, all living faraway in Georgia, Texas and California) converged in New Jersey for his funeral. Here they learned about Yvonne’s prognosis and discussed what might be done. Neighborhood friends met too, and we arranged to cautiously monitor Yvonne’s health. Meanwhile she insisted on remaining in her home, alone.
On the surface Yvonne had an undistinguished life. Born in France, she married an American after World War II and moved to the US where her son was born. When Robert was barely four, his father died. Yvonne rented a place near her son’s grandparents and they helped care for him while she went to work. She often talked to me about her good paying office jobs in New York City. She supported herself and her son most of her life.
Until a few days ago Yvonne she had never spoken about living in North Africa. Robert was seven when she left New Jersey to work for a US company in Morocco. Perhaps because of her skill in French and an expectation that Morocco might be more like her homeland, she thought it would be a good move. Robert went with her.
Two years later both were back in the US. Yvonne eventually remarried; unluckily, this partner too died after a few years. Robert and his mom were alone again. Little seemed to have changed. A hardworking single mom, Yvonne was able to buy a house for Robert and her. She resolved not to remarry; she continued to use the name of her second husband although their house remained listed in Robert’s name. If anyone needed to locate Yvonne by her first married name, it would be difficult. Who guessed she’d be the object of a search?
Six months after Robert’s death Yvonne’s was managing well alone but relatives expected they’d soon have to decide about her long term care. Friends living nearby were keeping a close watch over her. Discreetly exchanging news about Yvonne, we noticed that her Alzheimer’s symptoms seemed to be retreating. Not only was Yvonne’s health not worsening; she appeared to have regained her energy, good humor and mental balance. How could this be?
Visiting Yvonne a few days ago when her phone rang, I learned a possible reason for her recuperation. I heard her curtly ask the party to ring her after an hour; then she returned to me, shyly announcing, “I have a boyfriend”. Without my urging she quietly explained what was happening, pausing only to retrieve from the next room a small photo album this friend had recently assembled for her.
All the photos were of a smiling, tall man with a full head of hair—let’s call him Alan. In the early pictures he was in military uniform, usually posed beside an aircraft of some kind. Decade by decade they showed him aging, until the most recent snap at his current 83 years, still tall and proud. Sixty years earlier Alan was an American pilot stationed in Morocco, Yvonne said. They’d met there and fallen in love. They planned to marry but he withdrew his promise citing family obligations in the USA. She was heartbroken and as she recalled the episode to me I could see some lingering sadness.
Both returned to the US, she with her son to resume her suburban life and office job, he to marry and raise a family while continuing his military career. They had no contact, although now he claims he desperately tried to find Yvonne. For half a century, he told her after he’d finally traced her whereabouts, he’d never forgotten her. Only when Yvonne registered her house under the name by which Alan knew her, he succeeded.
“He betrayed me”, she said, and explained she was not very receptive when he first reached her at her home. That was six months after Bob died. Alan composed this album of snaps documenting his life and after that, when he insisted on visiting her, she could not resist.
He came to see her a second time to drive her to his home in North Carolina to meet his whole family. He’d been completely honest with them, Yvonne says. She found Alan’s wife cordial, although his grown children refused to meet with her. The final pictures in the album include two snaps of Alan and Yvonne and one with him and his wife.
Alan phones Yvonne every day, sometimes more than once. They talk for a long time. She can’t believe this. She can’t understand his wife’ generosity (or is it tolerance?). As she fingers through the small album, she smiles and talks about what he’s told her of his past 60 years and the details of his search for her. I don’t know if Yvonne is deeply happy about what’s happened. But I think this reunion does explain her improved health.
You tell me: a touching love story? A temporary cure for disease, or exploitation by a scoundrel trying to atone for a 60-year-old mistake?[ A love story? A cure? Atonement? ]
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