The Americans amidst us

The Kathmandu Post (Sept 13, 2012)

The headlines of the past week were particularly America-maya. The US State Department de-listed the two Maoist parties from the “terrorist” roster, Peter W Bodde arrived as the new ambassador, the American Peace Corps resumed operation after an eight-year hiatus, and Assistant Secretary of State Robert O Blake came by, proclaiming the Maoists as “trustworthy” and reportedly suggesting that the only outstanding constitution-drafting issue was federalism.

The long innings of the United States in Nepal’s development effort, covering the entire six decades of our modern era, should have given the Americans a socio-political perspective better than other overseas partners. But there is the proverbial lack of institutional memory in the embassies and development agencies.

Like so many others, the US too seems to have been caught off guard with the rise of Maoism and fall of monarchy. It will be hard to sell Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai as “trustworthy” to the citizenry, against the demands of non-violent politics, democracy and human rights.

The Rapti concession

The Americans have been in Nepal the longest as donor, starting with providing educational support for the nascent nation-state in the early 1960s—the University of Oregon trained Nepal’s first crop of education administrators. The US was the primary backer of the Colombo Plan, which gave us our first cohort of engineers and doctors. It provided the Royal Nepal Airlines with DC-3 Dakotas, which was how our isolated geography first got connected.

The eradication of malaria as well as the clearing of the Chitwan Valley jungle were both American projects, as was the Hetauda-Kathmandu ropeway, whose cargo carriages can be seen even today dangling forlornly on the Bhimphedi-Chitlang tract. American aid was crucial for the spread of wheat cultivation around Nepal, and many of us eat roti today because of the Yankees.

The involvement was not always benign. With the acquiescence of the otherwise hostile Indira Gandhi, the US supported the Khamba rebels in Mustang. The CIA’s C-130 Hercules flew from Bangkok overflying Indian territory to make airdrops north of Kagbeni. Few will remember that the Americans even had their own airstrip at Siuchatar in Kathmandu Valley.

There was a time when the anchals were divided up by donor-country, and the mid-western Rapti Zone was the US “concession”. Some scholars will doubtless emerge to study the link, if any, between American projects and the rise of the Maoists’ movement in this, their udgham sthal (birthing ground).

Terror de-listing

For sure, it was past time to delist the Maoists from the US “terror” list. Whatever its true intent in fomenting insurgency, the party had already degenerated by the middle of the “people’s war”. The banditry only increased as the rebels emerged into open society, with the takeover of Kathmandu’s casinos signifying so much else. Meanwhile, Messrs Dahal and Bhattarai made haste to tell Western and Indian friends that they were fully behind capitalism and “mega projects”—hardly the stuff of terrorism.

Even as they threatened the citizenry with revolt, the Maoists became the dominant force in the national establishment. Today, they seek to capture state power “from the inside”, hence the continuing exercise of the Bhattarai-led caretaker to rule by ordinance. Preventing the slide will require the will and activism of our polity, which is why the crutch of the American “terrorist” tag is unnecessary.

The Assistant Secretary

Perhaps the State Department understands poorly the Nepali desire for peace and democracy because of its fixation on the Tibet matter. The primary responsibility to ensure that the Tibetan pilgrim-refugees are treated with dignity and fairness lies with the Nepali polity. And the correct response to the pilgrim-refugees requires first and foremost that we remain an open society, which is one more reason why it is important not to be lackadaisical on the constitution-writing.

Assistant Secretary Blake may have been taken in by some wily politicians assuring him that most of the issues in the constitution-writing have been resolved, other than the “names, number and boundaries” of the proposed provinces. This seems like a reading from the Maoist script, actually, and would help support Chairman Dahal in his desperation for a revival of the deceased Constituent Assembly—to support his fading hopes of a directly-elected presidency.

The Americans got themselves a fine constitution due to those who knew how to fight the populist tide and stand by principle. The land of Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Hamilton should know better than to seem to be advising Nepal to go the way of a quick-and-easy, unrepresentative process of constitution-writing. It is a wonder that overseas and Asian entities, so hyper-active during the constitution non-writing, are not there to support elections as the most elemental matter of a representative democracy.

Back to the village

The American Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) brought enlightenment to many, many Nepalis across the land in the era before district roads, television, FM radio and overseas travel. With society emerging unprepared into the modern era, the Peace Corps was a phenomenon in more ways than has been articulated, and it is good to have it back.

Numerous PCV alumni are today middle-aged or elderly US citizens, in a position to influence policy, drive tourism, and otherwise support Nepal. No other Peace Corps recipient country probably has so many “ambassadors” in the powerful United States of America. As Nepalis try to bring their polity back on the rails, the revival of the programme will help revive links with the alumni PCVs, which would be a bonanza.

The return of the Peace Corps should also spark the imagination of the Nepali authorities and activists to to start genuine “back to the village” programmes, to allow educated young adults of Nepal to serve marginalised locales and communities. There are some organisations already starting on this road, and we do need to revive the spirit of volunteerism that was so effectively harnessed by the National Development Service (NDS) in the 1970s.

The spirit of the Peace Corps is one area where the Nepal can learn from the United States. Another is the spirit of the Founding Fathers—how about starting with a translation into Nepali of selected essays of the Federalist Papers?

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