In Nepal, A New Kind of Rebellion

Jun 30, 2010

Keep your head down, and break the rules. In Nepal, it seems, to be disciplined means to rise in opposition.


 In a society where rules are made to be broken, following rules and respecting them appears almost a rebellion.

In a society where rules are made to be broken, following rules and respecting them appears almost a rebellion.

When the traffic police seized my license recently, I had no reservations about throwing a tantrum. If there was one thing I had learned from my three years in Delhi, it was that in South Asia, tears are a valuable bargaining tool for women. An ordinary person hates to see a woman in tears, and no man wants to be the one responsible for it. So I told my friend who was sitting behind me to keep absolutely quiet, lest I hear her voice and burst into laughter, and concentrated hard on producing some very real looking tears. Unfortunately, I discovered that the scenario plays out somewhat differently in Nepal.

Riding my scooter on the wrong side of the street is a misdemeanor that must occur a dozen times every hour in this city and people rarely get punished for it. Yet, I had to get caught, had to get my license taken away, had to pay a fine, and had to suffer the humiliation of having broken the law – the injustice of it stung me.

But if I look at it another way, how many times have I broken traffic rules? In a city like Kathmandu, it’s ridiculous not to. I have broken so many traffic rules that I don't even remember that some of them are rules anymore. In that sense, maybe it wasn't so unjust – a single penalty for having broken a hundred rules a hundred times.

My regular breaking of rules does not make me feel guilty. It doesn't make me feel isolated or different. Breaking rules, and not just ones related to traffic, has become the norm in my city and, in a larger context, my country. It's not just drivers and pedestrians that are negligent of rules, but traffic police themselves. Students bunk classes, politicians make a mockery out of the power they're vested with, politically affiliated student organisations burn down cars and buildings, shopkeepers swindle, leaders exploit citizens, citizens look for an easy way out of everything. Nepal has become a haven for anarchists, and this is the only direction in which it seems to be making progress. For anarchists are rising in number and it looks like they’re expanding their repertoire. In Nepal they're enterprising, entrepreneurial, and even artistic when it comes to this burgeoning culture.

In my everyday life, I seem to be fighting the system without really being aware of it. I bunk classes all the time, I try to show up late for work and leave early. When I read for my assignments, I only skim through the important bits. I haggle with a cobbler over five rupees, and I pay five rupees more than what the taxi meter shows. I pretend to be sick when I'm lazy so I don't have to go to work. I act like I'm not near my phone when someone I don't want to (but need to) talk to calls. And yes, I break traffic rules. The list is endless. On a daily basis, we make allowances for our negligence of the law ever so casually, and the more we do this, the less seriously we begin to take the rule of law.

But if it ended just there, it might not be as harmful. In dismissing the system, are we beginning to take ourselves less seriously? What is more worrying is that our attitude towards the system seems to reflect our self-perception.

This morning, a good friend of mine casually said, "We need a dictatorship in this country. For at least a decade, people need to be forced into practising discipline."

Discipline isn't so much the more difficult path as much as it is the more tedious path, and we've all become seekers of convenience. When an average citizen gives himself minor, relatively innocent concessions, there are people out there who want a bigger bite out of this tasty pie of lawlessness.

A recent rape case of an 11-year-old Dalit girl in Dhanusa district has led to an outcry because the police have abandoned investigations that implicate upper-caste teenagers. My attempt to pressurize the traffic police to return my license comes to mind and somehow I feel implicated in the more heinous crime. Although the degree of the crime is vastly different, our attitude towards what's right and wrong converges towards the same things: disregard, disrespect and a feeling that we’re above the law.

In a society where rules are made to be broken, following rules and respecting them appears an aberration of the norm, almost a rebellion. But perhaps we need rebels that are submissive, disciplined, ones who listen and heed what they listen to, who obey law and order, who rest their faith in the system and transform it through obedience. Nepal no longer needs destructive rebels. This new kind of rebellion deserves a chance. It may be the only quality we as citizens ought to nurture in ourselves to salvage the country we live in.


This article was originally published on V.E.N.T! Magazine in May 2010.


Related Stories:

Saving Nepal's Peace Process

Can Burma Learn from Nepal?