I’ve now been in the city of Birganj, in Nepal’s Parsa district for a month and half and I’ve yet to post anything. This is in part because it has taken me a bit of time to absorb this place, I’ve been hectic with both field research and writing projects, and I’ve had an entertaining, yet distracting, adventure getting settled into my living quarters. (This adventure is not something I can elaborate on at the moment, but I’ll write a short story about it someday.)
Parsa district is a southern district in the Tarai plains that borders the Indian state of Bihar. The district’s geography, culture, and languages are more reminiscent of North India plains than the Himalayan country that Nepal is most known to be. Even though it spans the southern half of Nepal and is home to over half of the population, the Tarai has never featured centrally in the national image that is projected to the world. This is because the Shah monarchy that centralized the modern state of Nepal was from the mid-western hill area of Gorkha and they established their centralized government in Kathmandu valley. Over the last two hundred and forty-five years, Nepal has been governed by upper-caste men from the hills who have encoded the culture and values of hill-based Hinduism into law. From the late the 1950’s until recently, this elite group executed the project of nationalism, an attempt to make the inhabitants within Nepal’s borders first and foremost identify as Nepali citizens. To give some examples, Nepali was enforced as the national language being taught in schools and used in government, the history that was taught was the story of the ruling hill elite, the topi and daura suruwal became the official state dress code, government policies were based on the values of hill-based Hindi practice, and particular religious rituals were instituted as national holidays . The native Tarai population has been looked upon with suspicion because of its kinship, linguistic, and cultural links to North India that transcend the nation-state boundaries and are seen as undermining the nation-state project.
Nonetheless, Parsa and the other Tarai districts have been the life blood of the contemporary nation-state. Being flat and arid, the Tarai has become Nepal’s bread basket as well as home to more than half of Nepal’s population over the last fifty years (see my previous post on hill migration during USAID’s malaria eradication project). It is the most industrialized region in Nepal and is the gateway for the closest seaport, Calcutta, India. The history of political and cultural marginalization of the Tarai gives weight to the argument that Nepal may have never been colonized by a European power, however, it has been internally colonized by the Shah and Rana dynasties. (I’ll be filling in more details regarding the political, cultural, and social marginalization of the Tarai region in posts to come. In the meantime, here are some good sources: Frederick Gaige, Arjun Guneratne’s,Tatsuro Fujikuro’s, Krishna Hechhethu’s,Prashant Jha’s and Chandra Kishor Jha’s work ).
Parsa is one of the most industrialized districts in Nepal, with industries ranging from cement, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, household products, and cigarette manufacturing (it also had the largest sugar refinery in Nepal but it was closed in 2001 because of government mismanagement). 4,047 cottage industries were registered in Parsa in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, producing goods worth 1.09 billion rupees annually. Birganj is Parsa district’s most populace city and the seat of district administration. It is about 3 km from the neighboring Indian city of Raxaul. It is the point through which goods from India and from the rest of the world enter into Nepal via the Calcutta seaport (except for Chinese goods). Birganj used to be the main entryway for all goods, but in the last couple decades China has expanded its exports into Nepal via Tatopani, the Nepali town bordering Tibet. Birganj and Raxaul were the places to shop, but now Kathmandu is a destination for Tarai residents to get the cheap Chinese goods that have become a part of everyday life.
Birganj is considered to be the second largest city in Nepal with a population of 300,000. This claim, however, incorporates inhabitants from the surrounding semi-urban areas beyond the Birganj municipality. According to the 2011 census the Birganj Sub-Metropolitan City has a population of 139,068, making it the sixth largest municipality in Nepal. The most dominant community is Hindu, the second is Muslim (which makes up 14.5% of Parsa’s overall population), and there are small pockets of Buddhist, Sikh and Christian populations. One could see all of the tourist sites of Birganj in a day, which include: the Clock Tower at the center of the city (which is referred to as the hour house “ganTa ghar”), Shankar Acharya Gate (the entry way into Nepal), City Hall, Ghadiarba Pokhari, the Durga Temple, Gadi Mai Temple, Maisthan Mandir, Vishwa Budda Vihar, and even the dry port! It is not a high destination point on the tourist route, but rather a transit from India to Chitwan national park or up to Kathmandu. Just like goods, most people tend to transit through Birganj.
Birganj is an intense environment that to the undiscerning may seem hostile. The heat is intense; before the rains, the highs were up to 42 degrees (107.6) and now that the monsoon has arrived, a hot day is 38 (100.4) degrees and a balmy day is 34 (93.2). The mosquitoes are relentless. I was eaten alive before I got a mosquito net to sleep under and I’m continuing to itch at my appendages. I have not found using a fan as a low tech mosquito deterrent to be effective; Birganj mosquitoes are stronger fliers than their U.S. counterparts. The plug-in poison that’s supposed to paralyze mosquitoes is not very effective either. The streets are dusty and dirty, with all matter of creatures going about their lives. Even though vehicular traffic is relatively light, drivers use their horns in lieu of braking or signaling, which causes a surprising amount of noise pollution. It is also a very conservative town both politically and religiously. Caste traditions and patriarchy feature dominantly here. The modern forms of blurring of family, community, and background with education and class do not seem to exist the way they do in Kathmandu.
Another thing one must learn to adjust to is the degree to which people stare. In the time I’ve been here I’ve seen five other white people (one of which is the senior research on our project), so as one can imagine, I get stared at a lot. Now that I’ve been here awhile, I’ve gotten used to the stares and people have gotten used to me. Some students explained to me the local mores regarding staring. They said people think, these are my eyes and I can look at whatever I want with them. It is an interesting perspective. In America our freedom is central to our national identity, however, we do not have the right to stare. Doing so is considered bad taste, intrusive, not minding one’s own business, and perhaps in some states might be considered threatening enough to invoke the “stand your ground” law. Another Birganj friend asserts that it is not staring, it is “gazing” (which in Nepali translates very similarly). He says if the gaze is more than five minutes, then it becomes “observing” or “studying.” People study me because most everything about me is different, not just my outward appearance, but also my lack of obvious connection to anyone or anything in this place. This is not a city where people untethered by community seem to stay. When outsiders do stay, they are regarded suspiciously, or at least with curiosity.
Birganj is also notorious for being a dangerous place. There continues to be a heavy armed police presence here unlike other metropolitan areas of Nepal, where security forces have been scaled back since the institution of the 2008 postwar government. Birganj and Parsa are still considered to be a security threat for a few reasons. Like most border areas, it is a thriving locale for illicit activity as much as it is for official commercial activity. I find it hilarious that shopkeepers justify an expensive price by saying it was procured legally. There are two paths by which things come into Nepal through Parsa, the official one, known as “the first path” (ek # baato), and the smuggled one, “the second path” (dui # baato). Of course guns, drugs, and people are trafficked across the border, but more often it is edible and durable goods like electronics, clothes, machine parts, fertilizer, rice, and fish that are smuggled to avoid import and export taxes. Often the sources from which people get these goods are family across the border. (For more see Kristen Zipperer’s description of her 2010 research on smuggling in Birganj.)
Another reason why Birganj and Parsa district are considered to be high threat locales is because of the prevalence of kidnappings for ransom during the civil war and immediate post-war period. Kidnappings were exacerbated by two things: the political crackdowns led by chief minister of Bihar, Nitesh Kumar, which caused Bihari criminals to take refuge across the border; and the second, but related factor, was a rise in quazi-political armed groups that took advantage of the 2006-2009 post-civil war uncertainty, filling the vacuum that was left by the state security forces and Maoists. Kidnappings also occurred during Ramesh Kharel’s tenure as Parsa’s Superintendent of Police (6/2011-1/2013). During his tenure, he cracked down on corruption, drug cultivation and smuggling. Kharel was embraced by many citizens for enforcing rule of law. However, he disrupted business, which caused upheaval, including retributive kidnappings for snitching or trying to get out of the game. It has calmed down since he was transferred back to Kathmandu Valley to serve as the Bagmati zonal police chief. Parsa has returned to business as usual (although there is less marijuana growing in Parsa, but it still gets sent from Makwanpur (district directly north) to be processed before being sent to India). I’ve heard that Kharel’s transfer was politically motivated because he was disrupting the order of things in which everyone plays their part and profits. Kidnappings, however, have declined in the last couple years because of Nitesh Kumar’s employment policies in Bihar, Ramesh Kharel’s success at instituting law and order, and the weakening of armed groups. Nonetheless, there is still a moral panic concerning kidnapping lingering in the public imaginary, causing socially enforced curfews and limiting mobility.
The last reason Parsa is considered a high security risk is because of its role in the 2007 Madhesi Movement, Birganj was one of the cities where clashes and ethnic tensions erupted. This movement lasted twenty-one days from January through February 2007. It was a reaction to the promulgation of the interim constitution, which did not comfort Madhesi activists that the interim government was taking the steps needed to make the constituent assembly elections broadly inclusive. The Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MJF), an umbrella non-government organization turned political party, organized the outpouring onto the streets. The MJF worked together with other Tarai-based political parties to launch mass protests demanding election redistricting, a proportional system in the upcoming Constituent Assembly Elections that more favorably represented the national population, and the declaration of federalism. Tensions intensified quickly after Maoists shot a young MJF activists in Lahan, causing a massive outpouring onto the streets in all major Tarai cities. There was heavy police crackdown, which caused a violent reaction from people of Madhesi origin across the political spectrum. Protestors were fueled by grievances of historical marginalization and targeted of businesses, neighbors, and political infiltrators (mainly CPN-Maoist cadres) seen to be of hill origin (pahadi) and thus closer to the state. Ultimately, the official death toll was 28, however, estimates of up to 50 killed by the state are claimed by Madhesi organizations. The movement was successful in the sense that it was a wake up call for the major political parties and Kathmandu elite that they could not rely on the Madhesi population to remain loyal based merely on historical patronage relations, it also resulted in 178 additional proportional seats in the constituent assembly, election redistricting, and a recommitment to a federal system and state restructuring as the central priority of the the constituent assembly. Nonetheless, the security forces have not retreated from Birganj. There is still fear amongst the central government and the migrated hill populations that communal violence remains a threat. I’m not sure to what degree this is true or if it is a manufactured fear that justifies increased security forces to suppress a supposed “unruly” population (one that has had little incentive to invest in a government that has historically marginalized it). As I spend more time here, I hope to unravel this issues and get a more nuanced view of the situation.
Regardless of the intensity of this place, I’ve come to enjoy it. It is rich in many ways. The linguistic acumen of people here is stunning. Educated people speak at least four languages (Hindi, Nepali, and their mother tongue, which is typically Maithili, Bhojpuri, or Newari, and then English with various degrees of fluency) and uneducated people speak at least two languages (Hindi and their mother tongue) and partially understand Nepali and other local languages. I definitely represent the outside, speaking only the languages of the colonizers, English and Nepali. The most intense thing I’ve experienced here is the hospitality. Everyone I’ve met has been incredibly accommodating and helpful. The assistance I’ve received has allowed me to delve into my research at an expedited speed. And people are curious about me and America. The questions I have been asked are quite thoughtful because there is no presumption that my life is anything like theirs. I appreciate the mutual sharing and curiosity in these conversations (often with me speaking in Nepali and them retorting in a mix of Hindi, Maithili, and Bhojpuri). Furthermore, being here reminds me of the reality experienced by most of the world: how much we need each other. Being a product of american culture, I’m pretty individualistic and like to do whatever I can on my own. Here that is just not possible, especially is as a non-local woman. It is very difficult to accomplish things as simple as stocking a kitchen without having connections. I’m being humbled by the degree to which I’ve had to rely on others in order to get settled here. Submitting to people’s generosity has allowed me to build relationships and become entrenched in local networks quite quickly.
The Second most intense thing I’ve come to enjoy are the sunsets. This heat creates the most amazing sunsets.
This is a pretty general overview of Birganj. I’ve scratched the surface of a lot of issues, many of which I’ll delve into with more detail in posts to come. Readers can look forward to future posts on political context of the Tarai and Parsa district, political economy and the security situation, how patriarchy works here as a social system, garbage disposal, and some of the necessities one needs to survive in this intense environment.
The blog post originally appeared on Amnda Snellinger’s blog.