Today, Monday May 28th, 2012 is the fifth annual Republic Day in Nepal. Five years ago they ended the monarchy and became a self proclaimed Republic. Keep in mind that is five years on the Nepali calendar, in which today is the 15th of the month Jestha in 2067. Why was this Republic Day unlike any other? Well, because no one really felt there was all that much to celebrate.
You see for the past four years, the elected 601 assembly members in power have been working on a constitution. You would think that because they were selected for this very purpose, they would be more efficient. Unfortunately, yesterday marked the epic failure of this political system as the date for the new constitution came and went with no product to show.
Since I arrived in Nepal two weeks ago, politics have been at the tip of everyone’s tongues. “Nepal Bandh, Nepal Bandh” I kept hearing. This means “Nepal Closed” and refers to the strikes. All over the country various groups and organizations have shut down transportation, shops, and business to protest their causes they deem worthy of political attention. Especially popular here in the capital city of Kathmandu, sightseeing was out of the question while public transportation was ‘banh.’
I was reflecting on how this impacted great numbers of Nepalis’ lives, including Nirav’s family, because they do not have vehicles of their own. The motorbikes we have now been cruising around on are all borrowed from friends and relatives. In the US West it is almost necessary to have your own car. Very few cities have well planned, inexpensive public transportation and this really is a shame. Economically, socially, and environmentally I am a big fan of communal travel. It is going to be interesting to take Nirav home where four cars sit in our driveway. Infrastructure is always such an interesting reflection of landscape geography as well as societal ideals. Have you ever thought about the LA highway system as a big light-stream, traffic-jammed jumble of a symbol for American individualism?
Despite everyone talking about Nepal Bandh, I had not actually seen the strikes until I went with Nirav to the dentist. Several hundred protestors waving slogans, signs, and Nepali flags were gathered in the middle of the intersection. It seemed interesting, but not all that exciting as we did not understand what rights they were trying to ask for. Many spectators seemed annoyed that they were unable to carry on with their normal lives. Sharing these sentiments, the chamber of commerce and various high-power industry corporations organized a peace rally last Wednesday night.
Nirav and I skipped out on our mountain peak sunrise plans to join them in a district called Kings Way. Weaving through a sea of white shirts, it felt amazing to be a part of such real, historic movements. I had no idea what the announcers were saying, but the Nepali filling the road didn’t seem to be able to hear them either. I have always loved watching people in crowds, finding the little personal and stranger interactions absolutely fascinating. This was no exception.
A few of the largest observations I made were 1. I was the only foreigner I could see in the 360-degree viewpoint I had from the sidewalk, 2. There were a lot of people upset about the strikes that have been disrupting their work and ease of life, and 3. There seemed to be a wide range of ages involved in the peace rally, which I really thought was cool. Sharing all of this with Nirav, he made the most important observation – that everyone there was of definite middle to upper class status. Even the venue was chic; designer shops lined a pristine new mall with American brand names like Baskin Robbins and KFC selling products for well over the average monthly pay of an average Nepali. If the argument was to keep Nepal united, where were the other classes and representatives to show their desire for unity as well? Our riddles were not solved that night, but we happily soaked in the nationalistic music, dancing, cheerfulness, and candlelight.
This weekend we left all the growing protests and rallies behind. Escaping to the lakeside Pokhara we didn’t talk or hear of politics for two days. Then while visiting Nirav’s uncle at an army training camp, we got our media update of the progress. Sunday night the protesters were getting rough, and as the hours passed into the darkness, the number of casualties from police backlash proliferated. The last live update before falling asleep that I saw was the members of the assembly walking out of the ‘no-go zone’ government hall and themselves shouting protest slogans in the air… The Republic Day parade still took place with such high-ranking officials as the president present today. Other citizens’ attendance and interest was at an ultimate low, however. Like I said, yesterday they were supposed to publish the new constitution. They did not. As a popular news network keeps asking, “Where is our country headed?”