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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Why #HimalSouthasian's demise is our collective intellectual murder

And why we should fight for its continued survival

I have had a rather emotional attachment with Himal Southasian magazine.

I used to write poetry and essays even during the school years but my dream of being published somewhere remained unfulfilled for many years after I left school. In 2008, my brother was already internet savvy and had discovered the virtue of blogging. He then advised me to do the same. He opened my gmail account, created a blogger blog and mailed me the email id and password. Bang! suddenly I was not only a writer but editor and publisher too. This enthusiasm didn't last for long because soon it turned into something of an online archive where I would keep piling the material but no one would come from outside my circle and read my works.

Suddenly able to read Indian magazines like Frontline and Outlook, a new horizon had opened for me after I joined a medical school near the Indian border in Bhairahawa. Those were my real formative years when I grabbed anything other than textbooks and sat to read for hours at end on days other than pre-examination and examination time.

Himal Southasian was one among the magazines subscribed by the college. One day, I was so riveted by a story that I wrote a brief response and mailed it to the editors. On a subsequent issue, it was published and my joy was boundless. For a person with the blog readership of less than half a dozen, the name being PRINTED and circulated all over South Asia and even outside, it was a moment of euphoria. Reading again and again the slightly edited version of my response, I came to a discovery: my writings, even though brief, made sense to others. That discovery stretched to something more: I can write workable English, and when I imagined myself as a writer, I was not deluding myself completely.

That was followed by two or three similar letters to editor and the thrill of seeing my name in an accomplished paper never came down. Three of those letters can be read here.

So Himal Southasian was the first ever work of print to have faith on my writing. With that confidence at hand, I started writing and sending to other online and print magazines and newspapers. The second to have faith in me was Asia Times Online (AToL) which unbelievably published my combo review of Avatar and Three Idiots, my first ever full-length article to be published anywhere. Sadly, I could not retrieve that piece later because AToL has long suspended its subscribed version (atimes.net) which had a section called 'Speaking Freely' that entertained guest authors.

Without the confidence imparted by HSA, I doubt I would have ever dared to pitch for an international publication like Asia Times. The next breaks in other outlets like Foreign Policy Journal (FPJ) and The Hampton Institute were all the results of my confidence, and of course the writing acumen, that kept on building from HSA and AToL. When a Spanish reporter based on Delhi contacted me after reading my article about slavery and poverty in India in FPJ, he took a detailed email interview with me on the issue. That was later published by US-based outlet The Hampton Institute. The Spanish reporter would later contact me to ask my opinion on botched polls in Bangladesh. (His report in Spanish Newspaper El Mundo, which quotes only me as 'our political analyst' can be read here). I was also surprised to find one day that one of my FPJ pieces about the fall of secularist forces in South Asia was translated to Turkish and published by a reputed outlet named 'The World Bulletin'. 

Thus, even before getting a 'letter to editor' published in a Nepali newspaper, I had something to show in international media in English. For a boy who started his English at fourth grade and passed SLC from a remote government school (which had a nil result the following year with everyone down in English subject), that was rather unusual. If HSA had not helped me discover my writing ability then and started the chain of events, I doubt the events would have turned precisely on the order they did. 


It would be totally unjust to conclude that HSA is a great magazine just because it gave me or people like me the breaks we needed. For years, I read it cover-to-cover, ordered it to remote place like Dadeldhura when I worked there and submitted a couple of full length pieces (none of which was published!). Frontline fortnightly published from Chennai by The Hindu group is the only other magazine I followed as closely and Outlook weekly was the third one I preferred. 

The other two focused on India but HSA was the one that reached the darkest and most neglected parts of Asia and did meticulous journalism. What set it apart from the other magazines was its scholarly touch. Exploring subtlety and nuances was its core strength, diversity of covered issues its defining feature. From Gujarat riots to Bhopal gas tragedy, it spoke the language of those who were doubly victimized, first cheated and ditched by the pro-rich and pro-powerbrokers system; and then overlooked by the mainstream media. 

During the early days, I was confounded by the diversity of contents in the paper given the image of its publisher/editor Kanak Mani Dixit fed by the communists. As I am the one who only recently escaped the stifling totalitarian cage of pseudo-Utopian communist ideology, I had a tendency to believe them during those early years. They said, Dixit was the biggest threat to Nepal's existence as he worked for foreign powers. 

When HSA carried the radically anti-establishment pieces of CK Lal among others issue after issue, I started doubting the communists. In fact, it is hard to find anything pro-establishment in HSA's journalism. First ever letter to editor that I sent and was published seems to be my brief excoriation of neo-liberalism espoused by World Bank and IMF.  Their conspiracy theory about Dixit soon unraveled when I attended some of his talk programs.

First ever time I saw Dixit face to face was in a lecture organized by Alliance for Social Dialogue (ASD) in 2011. Renowned Pakistani physicist and liberal activist Pervez Hoodbhoy had come for the lecture. I had already read some of Hoodbhoy's articles in HSA and was familiar with his criticism of radical turn the Pakistani society had taken under Mohammad Zia-ul-haq. I had just entered Kathmandu valley for my 3-year PG studies and that was the first ever program of intellectuals that I attended. As it was the aftermath of a chilling murder of Punjab governor Salman Taseer in Pakistan (and only days after assassination of Syed Saleem Shehzad, Pakistan bureau chief of Asia Times Online) the lecture (full text here) revolved around the growing intolerance and the increasing grip of fundamentalist ideology in Pakistan. Little did I know then that similar forces would suffocate a magazine like HSA in Nepal only five years down the line!

At the end of the lecture, I was so overwhelmed that, I stood and with my trembling voice, wished Hoodbhoy a good luck and said: 'All of us wish that people like you do not meet the fate of Taseer and Shehzad for your bravery.' Little did we realize at that time that similar sinister forces in Nepal would attempt confiscation of all property and expulsion of a reputed journalist and publisher in an attempt to stifle his voice! It is outrageous that an institution like ASD, which provided a platform to debate on how to fend off isolationist and fundamentalist tendency of Pak society is now facing its own existential crisis in Nepal.

My relationship with Dixit remained that of one-sided admiration ever since. Along with Kunda Dixit, I have been always awed by the duo's flawlessly white hair and equally flawless English which are matched by their intellectual acumen. Both HSA and Nepali Times remain the publications whose columnists I keep envying. After couple of failed attempts to get published, I gave up thinking that my English might not have been polished enough. 

That was until Kanakji was ferociously hounded by the Commission of Thuggery and Bigotry, sorry, Commission of Investigation of Abuse of Authority. In the ensuing cemetery-like silence and evolving Dixit-bashing orchestrated by the same commission, I wrote a long piece enlisting the stances of thuggery and bigotry perpetrated by the head of the commission. After Kanakji was freed, he naturally read that piece, we met and became friends. 


Why are Dixits hounded in Nepal? Why is any institution even remotely related to them being tried to decimate? I think, answer to this question will help us understand why a magazine like HSA is now at the verge of closure.

I think the greatest fault of the duo is that they didn't turn to power-brokering. With ample of ancestral wealth, they did not follow the path expected for them: using that for political leverage, multiplying it, acquiring power, using the power to exponentially grow the wealth and so on. Naturally, they didn't become the part of the syndicate that runs the country now. Being a part of that would have purchased them the required immunity from law of the land and a license to impunity. Then they would have not only extended their empire of wealth and power, they would have also cultivated powerful friends by doing favors of one kind or the other. 

They didn't go to casinos. They didn't run brothels. They didn't go to politicians' houses begging for public posts. 

Instead, they took the thankless job of making the society saner by indulging in intellectual activities. They chose journalism as their career. They organized film festivals. They held talk programs and lecture series. They published books. They went to literature festivals, moderated panel discussions. Et cetera. 

The opposite camp of thugs and bigots was furious: it had tens of billions of rupees in Nepal and millions of dollars abroad, it had businesses that had monopoly throughout the country, it had power to make and break governments, it had power  to stifle competitors and even to shut down their enterprises. For petty financial gains, they could bankrupt an enterprise as big as the nation's flag carrier. They could bankrupt the people by setting exorbitant prices of goods and services. They could evade taxes in any pretext and so on. 


But it was the Dixits who were known, admired and respected by many people. They were a kind of celebrity. This much could have been acceptable but they did not stop there with the celebrity status.

They started doing and promoting things that challenged the syndicate. They have promoted free speech. They have taught people how to see the nuances. They have nurtured an entire generation of young people who would simply refuse to be silenced and would keep questioning the status quo. A generation that would refuse to view the world in black and white as promoted by these thugs of borderline sanity and believe their version of what constitutes white and what black. 

I am proudly one of those voices and I refuse to be silenced. And to their chagrin, they've discovered that it is exceptionally hard to silence the people like me who have fully understood the virtue of open and liberal society. 

As people like me are multiplying in the streets, the sense of urgency at the other camp has reached its climax. With the situation almost out of hand, they are desperate and they are looking for vulnerable targets. A scholarly publication sustained through foreign grants, Himal Southasian has been the prototype of vulnerability. They have been after the magazine for long but finally they are able to rejoice its closure. 

If their IQ were slightly better, I would teach these goons running the syndicate that shutting down a publication or stifling voices of any kind is like breaking a magnet into pieces hoping to end its magnetic activity. Every new piece now becomes a complete magnet in itself. Only one exception to this is a system like the one in Saudi Arabia with provisions to chop off people's heads in the public if they refuse to conform. 

Without that, such half-hearted measures to stifle dissent are destined to fail. Even a country like China with a draconian apparatus to silence the dissent is unable to completely silence it. Nepali people may be unable to institutionalize the gains but they are unlikely to tolerate any kind of excess for long. And the discontent towards the excesses of the politicians-thugs-bigots cartel is already boiling. It is only the matter of telling people who is the real culprit. After that, no one can save the culprits from the wrath of people. 

So, this design to shut down Himal Southasian is an attempt at the murder of our conscience as the citizens of a free and open society. This sinister project is destined to fail but even its temporary success would be a terrible loss for all of us. 

So, we should be doing everything in our capacity to ensure the failure of the project at the earliest. Nepal should change within coming few months so that the continued publication of scholarly magazines like HSA becomes a reality beyond doubt. The stakes here are so high that, if our passivity and our love for our 'comfort zones' keeps us within our cocoons of daily lives, we may well be heading to Saudi Arabia via Philippines and China. 

Our children would never forgive us if we let that happen.

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