The Gaur Incident And Its Message : Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
The mayhem and chaos that Gaur, the headquarters of Rautahat district, staged last week and the meekness with which the government security mechanism responded to the situation show that impunity is still a norm, not an exception in the Nepalese society. The violent flare up at Gaur, which started over a minor issue regarding a government decision to extend the land revenue and land survey offices to Chandranigahapur, a rapidly developing town located on the East-West Highway about 50 km from the restive town, may pass off as a coincidental localised event, but it has far reaching ramifications requiring serious attention.
The Gaur incident has taken place hot on the heels of similar incidents that took place at Kalaiya and Simara of Bara district in February 2015 over Nepal Government’s proposed extension of the land revenue, survey and land reform offices from Kalaiya to Simara, a town located 27 km away from Kalaiya, the headquarters of Bara district. There is a striking similarity in the cause and the pattern of the violent protests in all the three places.
Majority of the people living in Kalaiya and Gaur are Nepalese of Terai origin whereas the people of Chandranigahapur and Simara are predominantly of hill origin. The political mobilisation over the past decade for and against single ethnic identity-based federalism has divided the people, increased distrust among communities and has built a psychology of entrenched positions for the safeguard of their parochial interests. In that psycho-social context, what has happened, therefore, is neither in conformity with the ideals of federalism nor the democratic principles of decentralisation of power and services.
At present, all the service delivery institutions are concentrated around the district headquarters, requiring people from remote places to travel long distances to avail themselves of different public services. In the case of Rautahat, Bara and Sunsari, there are additional security challenges for the people in the northern part of the district while visiting the service delivery agencies like the land revenue office located close to the unregulated Indian border. Transactions during the purchase and sale of landed property are fraught with risks. Criminal groups operating from the border pose constant threats to the security of the service seekers. The land revenue office is a place where huge transactions of money take place, and there are chances of looting and robbery, transforming the service delivery sites into places of intimidation, extortion, deception and blackmail.
In every country of the world, the practice of shifting and extending service delivery agencies to any part of its territorial boundary is quite common. It is the right of the people to seek service at their door step for reasons of safety, convenience and economy of time. It is also the duty of the government to streamline service delivery, obviating the need for the people living in faraway villages to travel to the district headquarters to seek the services. Extension of government offices is part of the process of strengthening decentralisation, devolution of authority and exercise of democratic principles. Obstructing such initiatives is not only undemocratic, it is also an attempt to substitute popular governance with mobocracy.
The extension of service agencies to more densely populated areas not only enables them to give easy and efficient services to the people, but it also helps reduce serpentine queues at the land revenue and other service delivery agencies. In this situation, only those who hold some diabolical agendas up their sleeve can contemplate organising protests, a violent one at that, to defeat such a proactive initiative from the government.
In a democracy, mobilising people for achieving access to resources, representation and public services is not a new practice. But such mobilisation should be well within the legal framework and be forwarded with peaceful means. But the agitation that took place at Gaur last week did not honour the legal norms nor did it remain peaceful. The agitators revealed their hideous mindset of defying the democratic authorities, resorting to arson and vandalism, using agitation as leverage for gaining power rather than using it as a tool for defending public interests.
The incident at Gaur is worrying not only because of its penchant for playing with violence and transmitting communal intolerance towards their own compatriots living in more disadvantaged locations, but also because of its past notoriety in orchestrating a grisly carnage on March 21, 2007 in which 28 young Maoist cadres were murdered in cold blood by hired hoodlums who later escaped across the border with impunity. The Gaur massacre had taken place at a programme organised by the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF) and UCPN (Maoist). The unspeakably horrendous crime was committed with the involvement of the MPRF cadres. The difference this time is that the victims and perpetrators are together in unleashing the forces of anarchy and communal violence.
The violent incident that took place at Gaur last week can never be taken as an ordinary isolated phenomenon. If not subjected to accountability, it has all the potential of a fresh flare up by triggering the ire of the population whose rights to the facilities of public services have been denied because of the attitude of some groups to monopolise over public utility services. If such a backlash is provoked, it does not take long for the country to plunge into a new vicious cycle of communal violence.
These incidents have occurred at a time when the country is bracing up for restructuring itself after a federal model. If simple administrative acts of relocating certain offices or extending service centres to the areas considered appropriate by one community is opposed by another community of the area, where the service delivery agencies were originally located, with violent agitation, it is not difficult to imagine the scenarios that might emerge in the wake of demarcation of provincial borders, designation of provincial capitals and allocation of resources as per the federal structure of the future.
The slogan for a federal republic was first raised by the people of the Terai during the 2007 Madhes uprising. But it is ironic to see that the very messiahs of federalism are now opposing the distribution of services, opportunities and decentralisation of authority. Federalism was not the demand of the people of the hills, but they appear to have a more balanced sense of equality with regard to distribution of resources and decentralisation of power.
In Nepal’s history, there are cases of government offices being shifted from one place to another. Bhimphedi was the district headquarters of Makawanpur till some decades ago; it was shifted to Hetauda. The people of Bhimphedi cooperated with the government. Bandipur was the district headquarters of Tanahun; it was shifted to Damauli. The people of Bandipur, despite being pushed to isolation, did not mount a violent agitation against the decision of the government. Similarly, Dharan was the district headquarters of Sunsari district. It was shifted to Inaruwa. The people of Dharan did not resort to violence to oppose or stop the decision of the government. In sharp contrast with the response of the people of Dharan, the community leaders of Inaruwa demonstrated a savage force when the government tried to relocate the land revenue office some years ago.
Punishment for ill deed
This shows that the leaders of the Terai-based parties and UCPN (Maoist) are inciting the people to exercise communal prejudice against their own compatriots for gaining unequal access to public services, at the same time rendering the democratic government non-functional. They might rejoice for the time being over the short-term benefit from their uncalled for agitation. But the damage they have done to the age-old culture of social collaboration and harmony will haunt them like an albatross of Coleridge’s poem The Rime of Ancient Mariner, which was killed by a mariner and the killer was obliged to carry the carcass of the bird hung around his neck as a punishment for his ill deed.