On Sunday Mar and I decided to put off other obligations by indulging in a bit of the culture DC has on offer with a visit to the Renwick Gallery. But, as the title may suggest, that’s not the subject of this post. (OH DON’T WORRY THOUGH, WE TOOK HUNDREDS OF PHOTOS AT THE GALLERY BETWEEN THE TWO OF US AND THERE’LL HOPEFULLY BE A REALLY FANTASTIC POST DEDICATED TO THAT AS WELL. BECAUSE THE WONDER EXHIBITION WAS OFF THE CHAIN.)
No– for before we made it to the gallery, we were distracted by a bit of brouhaha at the Renwick’s humble neighbor: the White House. We followed some people brandishing Nepali flags (recognizable in that Nepal joins Ohio in flipping the proverbial middle finger to conventions such as rectangles. For a more educated run-down on the flag and its history, click here!) to what turned out to be a pretty impressive gathering of Nepalis protesting a blockade we’d never heard of before.
There was essentially a parade of people circling Lafayette Park waving signs and shouting, “Back off, India!” A few men manned microphones at huge speakers chanting, “What we want?! Lift blockade! When we want?! Right now! Nepal is landlocked! Transit is blocked!” They also, from time to time, warned the marching protesters to continue moving and to stay off the White House sidewalk with their signs. Indeed, it was a very well-organized protest, and one that seemed to be fairly effective in its outreach– we noticed a number of people pulling out their phones and looking into this mysterious global event as they passed by. (And it captured at least one local blogger’s heart enough to post about it :).)
But of course, my heart had been captured by Nepal some years ago. I cite Kathmandu as my favorite city, and though I stayed fairly silent on the issue, when I allowed myself to really think about the terrible earthquake that devastated the country earlier this year (in the midst of distractions like my move to DC, and neighboring Baltimore being embroiled in its own turmoil) it struck me very deeply. I felt sort of ashamed to be so ignorant to the blockade that seemed to be putting the little country in its second state of emergency of the year.
Turns out, it just hasn’t been very widely reported in these parts, and while some of the protesters would like India’s backing off to be the simple solution, the story’s actually a little more complicated than that (as you might imagine).
The nutshell version, as I understand it following a bit of brief research, is as follows: A new Nepali constitution was drafted in September. It disenfranchised one of Nepal’s ethnic minorities (the Madhesi), and so the Madhesi began to strike and block the main thoroughfares along the Indian border. As the men-with-microphones noted, Nepal is landlocked and the Indian border is paramount: the vast majority of Nepal’s resources, to include fuel and medicine, are brought in by that route. Oh, and the blockade has been going on for three months.
India’s true involvement with the blockade seems to be up for debate, and I won’t pretend to grasp all of the complexities in the countries’ relationship and history. The Madhesi have close cultural ties with northern Indians, and some are saying India has merely supported what is an otherwise Madhesi-run blockade. Others have alleged that the Indian government demanded that changes be made to the new constitution, and then acted on its own to intercept fuel trucks. Whatever the back-story, on Saturday, things escalated during the border protests and four Madhesi protesters were killed by Nepali police.
For non-nutshell versions, I refer you to the following:
From the Guardian: “Nepal border blockade ‘threatens the future of the country itself,’ says UN”
From Al Jazeera: “India’s ‘blockade’ snuff’s out Nepal’s medical lifeline”
From the Daily Signal: “Anti-India Protests in Kathmandu Reflect Frustration With Blockade of Nepal”
Wikipedia’s article on the 2015 Nepal fuel crisis
And this DNA India article on the White House protests: “Madhesi issue: Nepali-Americans stage rival protests outside White House” (Yeah, it was a little hard to differentiate in the moment, but critics of the Nepali government were definitely present as well. I think that’s what you see in the above photo.)
It’s hard to know who’s really to blame in this issue, but if you’re inclined to blame India perhaps you’d like to sign this petition. (Personally, I’m wondering where the petition against drafting constitutions that disenfranchise your ethnic minorities is.)
I found this picture on Instagram’s #BackOffIndia and thought it provided an interesting first-hand insight into this crisis. It was from six weeks ago, so keep that in mind for any time references.
The caption read:
Living in a country entrapped in political turmoil has been an eye-opening experience. Western media has failed at reporting on the current crisis in Nepal, so I will give a quick summary. In result of India’s disproval of Nepal’s new constitution, they have created an unofficial blockade on all imports coming into Nepal along the 1850km border separating the two countries. Because Nepal is a landlocked and developing country, it depends on India for almost 100 percent of their fuel- cooking gas, petroleum, and aviation fuel. Along with fuel, food and consumer items also come through the border multiple times a day. A country that was just getting back on its feet after the April earthquakes that killed thousands and displaced millions, is now finding itself close to another humanitarian crisis. Children are not able to get to school, as there is no gas for their school buses. Restaurants and tea shops are closing down due to the lack of cooking gas to make their food. And most importantly people aren’t able to make a living and get to work, since the lines to get petroleum for their vehicles take at least 7 hours, and the result is only a rationed 2.5 liters. This has been occurring for three weeks now. I am nervous about the food shortage, especially in rural areas and Himalayan villages. The streets were almost completely empty this evening. However, since this is Nepal, the country is persevering through this political issue with such strength and positive spirits. Today a new Prime Minister was voted into office, with future plans of making Nepal more of a self-sufficient country, decreasing the amount of debilitating dependency on neighboring countries of India and China. There are Facebook “carpool” groups being created left and right- where the few individuals with little fuel left post their starting locations and destinations, offering others *free* rides. And peaceful “Walk Kathmandu” protests have taken place. I am constantly in awe at the way everyone around me is looking out for each other, at every moment. Nepalis have hearts about 12 times bigger than the average human, and I have no doubt that we will come out stronger than before.