Kathmandu is uncharacteristically silent today. The air is a much cleaner than usual and the roads seem a bit safer as vehicles (which are infamous for spewing soot laced fumes, swerving drastically, and honking for dear life) have altogether disappeared. There are random groupings of policemen and army officials lazily sitting under trees near the sidewalk. And, to my dismay, nearly all the businesses on New Baneshwor Road, including my favorite restaurants, did not even bother opening this morning.
There is a citywide bandha today. The mere mention of this word – which technically means “closed” – introduces a confusing mix of thoughts and emotions in my head. The bandha is a very formidable form of civil disobedience where roads are forcibly blocked off, preventing the flow of food, medical supplies, and passengers. Also, if properly planned, a bandha can shut down all commercial activities in a given area indefinitely. This form of protest is extremely damaging to the economy and the everyday lives of individuals who rely on transportation. In short, they should not be taken lightly. But who instituted today’s bandha? It may come as a surprise to many, but the Dalit Citizens’ Movement (in cooperation with a few other indigenous citizens’ movements) planned and executed this city wide shutdown.
(And my internal debate commences…)
Even before coming to Nepal, I was familiar with the Indian concept of bandh – which is, in essence, the same as the Nepali bandha minus the extra “a”. Having studied South Asian history in college, I know that bandhs were very effective in India and Pakistan’s independence movement in the early 20th century. These “strikes” shut down major cities and seriously crippled local and international economies. I always – perhaps naively – idealized these history-altering bandhs as they required great deal of strategy, unity, and sacrifice from local citizens and national leaders in their intense battle of wills against the British Empire.
From what I understand, many of the contemporary bandhs that occur in India have lost the same spirited quality as those that carried out by freedom fighters a century ago. I cannot personally comment on this matter because I have never experienced a bandh during my time India over the past few years, and was certainly not alive during the Independence Movement. All I know is that they have technically been banned by the Indian Supreme court because, when not conducted responsibly, the bandh can be an unwanted enemy to a productive society.
It’s a new millennium and this time Nepal is the nation that is tackling intense political changes. In turn, it is also facing hundreds of bandhas. A majority of the bandhas that I witnessed (and I have witnessed quite a few in the past 10 weeks) have failed to demonstrate any positive purpose or tangible results. (This is especially true of bandhas outside of the Kathmandu valley.) These detrimental demonstrations seemed less motivated by principle and more by greed, revenge, and boredom. Many of these bandhas were conducted by a select few with only their individual interests at heart. They rarely made a point and they seriously impacted countless innocent citizens… all as a consequence of petty, selfish circumstances.
For instance, a group of truck drivers blocked a major highway near the western city of Dhangadi – leaving tons of fresh produce to rot in the sun and hundreds of passengers (including Devin, Prakash, and me) stranded in the town for days. They instituted this bandha because the Young Communist League (YCL) had damaged a vehicle that a fellow driver operated on the other side of the country. (To my knowledge, the driver was not harmed.) Even though no one in their group actually owned the vehicle, they still insisted that they should receive financial compensation for it and would not lift the road block until their demands were met. They were, however, reluctant to mention that the reason the YCL damaged the vehicle in the first place was because the truck’s driver plowed through a previous YCL organized roadblock/bandha.
In another small town near Nepalgunj a group of young men placed large rocks and rustic cement barriers on the road while refusing to let traffic pass until they too received financial compensation from a reckless driver who injured a young girl. (Most of those men were clearly intoxicated and I often wonder if they even knew the victim.)
And about a week ago near the Chitwan National Park, a group of 10 year old boys, realizing that anyone and everyone could organize a bandha, decided to block off a road near the village of Sauraha. To this day I have no idea what those kids were “protesting” but they seemed to be enjoying themselves in the process.
Earlier this week, when I heard that the Dalit Citizens’ Movement was going to coordinate a Kathmandu-wide bandha, you can imagine my confusion and frustration. While I wanted to picture the courageous and meaningful bandhs of the Indo-Pakistani Independence movement, I couldn’t help but keep the memories of previous, pointless bandhas out of my head.
Also, for months Dalit leaders have been insisting that they want to use peaceful, non-disruptive methods of demonstration. Granted, until this point, all of their demonstrations were just that – peaceful and non-disruptive. I was personally able to witness sit-ins, a hunger strike, a National Citizen’s assembly, and even a cultural rally where musicians and artisans marched the streets while playing music and chanting. But as the Constituent Assembly elections are approaching (and these elections could very well determine the future of the nation and the Dalit people) many of the Dalits’ social and political demands are still unmet. Maybe drastic times call for drastic measures, but I have never seen a bandha lead to anything good. What would make this particular demonstration more worthwhile than others?
I can’t give a complete answer to this question, but the more I think about it the more I see how today’s demonstration is more meaningful, effective, and perhaps history-altering than all of the other bandhas I experienced in Nepal. First of all, it is not centered on personal gain but, instead, serves a huge portion of the Nepali population which has been ignored and marginalized for centuries. It seeks to ensure that Dalits (as well as the respective indigenous groups involved) will play a role in the political process here and have their voices heard for generations to come. Also, one can already see that this bandha is extremely effective in getting a strong, well-articulated message to the current leaders of Nepal’s political parties as well as the international constituency here in Kathmandu. This demonstration is personally affecting those leaders who currently make the decisions in this country, and the demands from the Dalit community are becoming more and more difficult to ignore. Finally, it is now apparent to members of the Nepali public that this bandha is part of a larger process that will continue until the situation for Nepal’s poor and disadvantage communities improves.
Decades from now, the hunger-strikes, sit-ins, cultural rallies, and yes, even bandhas organized by the Dalit Citizens Movement will hopefully be judged in a positive light by historians. Despite my initial frustration with the whole idea of a Dalit organized bandha, I hope that it makes a constructive, history-altering impact much like the bandhs of early 20th century India and Pakistan. And I hope to look back and be able to say “I remember the day that Kathmandu basically shut down. I remember that most of the businesses were closed and that I couldn’t even find a restaurant for a quick meal. I remember the impact that particular banda had…. I remember because I was there.”
Posted By Ted Samuel
Posted Aug 23rd, 2007