Nepal, like all nebulous democracies, has its fetishes. When Himal Southasian magazine of Kathmandu declared, on August 24, that it will cease publication owing to tacit hounding by the government, my first reaction was that of disbelief. As a contributor and a well-wisher of the magazine, perhaps I should have known better.
In the recent past, Himal has found itself in some ostensibly minor controversies. In April 2014, the Maoist party had charged the South Asia Trust — which publishes Himal Southasian — of misusing funds worth 60 million Nepali rupees from the Norwegian Embassy to derail the peace process and of using the grant without accountability. Back then both the embassy and Kanak Mani Dixit, the publisher of Himal, had issued clarifications, and the matter was put to rest.
The real issue then, as now, had little to do with Himal’s journalism, but with the activism of its publisher. Dixit, who is also a popular human rights activist, had then criticised Nepal’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Bill, apparently aimed to record the human rights violations during the period of insurgency in Nepal. He argued that the law was weak and would not provide justice to the survivors and relatives of affected people. Like human rights activists anywhere, Dixit has in the recent years become a polarising figure, having made enemies across political parties as well as sections of the Nepali media.
Almost two years later, on April 23 this year, Dixit was arrested by the anti-graft body CIAA — Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority — for alleged irregularities in handling the property of Sajha Yatayat, a cooperate body he heads. This was a more clear case of personal vendetta: in 2013, Dixit and a few other civil society activists had bitterly opposed the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki as the CIAA chief, who had earlier been indicted by a judicial commission for suppressing the people’s movement in 2006.
Dixit was released 10 days later, but the magazine he publishes with external funding continued to be targeted.
Crucially, though, it’s more an offence of omission than commission. Himal had received a grant from the Open Society Foundation for one year — from February 2016 to February 2017. “There was no official reason given for not giving a clearance for this grant,” Aunohita Mojumdar, the editor of Himal, told me. “But we were informally told that there were pressures from above.” Mojumdar said the magazine had repeatedly asked for written documentation, but was told that the regulatory authorities were acting on verbal orders.
The magazine was also harassed in more subtle ways. As a regional magazine with an international footprint, Himal has in the past employed several non-Nepali staff with the permission of regulatory bodies, and had obtained work permits for all such staff up to December 2015. Applications made from January onwards, however, were not processed. Though the magazine had sought and obtained the necessary recommendation for one staffer from the Ministry of Information, the file got stuck subsequently and the permission was neither given nor formally denied for several months. “Staff expansion plans had to be put on hold, which left the organisation hobbled,” Mojumdar said.
After waiting for seven months for the grant to be cleared, the executive board of the South Asia Trust sat down on August 22, and decided to shut the magazine.
At the time I began to write for Himal, in the latter half of 2012, I was an aspirer, desperate to get published alongside people I read and admired. (I had churned out a few ambitious blogposts here and there — including one for the once-funny Faking News — but that was that.) While working with the development sector over the previous few years, I had travelled to small towns across the country. On such travels, I frequently stumbled on quirky stories that captured the cultural transition in India in a way that remained undocumented. By then I had discovered magazines like Granta and the New Yorker (and many others, thanks to the Internet) that allowed writers to try out seemingly unglamorous stories of varying lengths across genres — narrative reportage, review-essay, travel writing.
It was around this time that Himal, which was planning to relaunch its print edition, accepted some of my pitches. I vigorously applied myself to writing for Himal. After the first piece was published, Mojumdar would frequently encourage me to try out lengthy pieces on diverse topics, even as she gave me considerable flexibility to play around with the theme and the overall tone and voice of the piece.
I later found out that Himal had, over the last 25 years, mentored many more youngsters across professions and nationalities, even as it published first-rate reportage and essays from best-known writers and academics. I got acquainted with Himal, in fact, when I stumbled up on its website to read Amitav Ghosh’s scarily beautiful 1998 reportage on the nuclear tests of India and Pakistan: how an anxiety driven by superpower aspirations risked pushing the two neighbours into wiping out millions of their own population.
There also lay Himal’s most singular contribution. Not only does it holistically cover all of South Asia, especially smaller countries — Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka — its treatment of the region is extraordinarily unsentimental, far away from the petty chauvinisms that plague national media everywhere, reminding the region every now and then of its shared destiny.
Himal’s closure raises questions about the innovative new ways that the state invents to silent the autonomy of press. Less directly, though, it’s also reminder of our collective moral failure at not being able to promote a culture of paying for quality news and analysis — that makes all media dependent on corporate advertisers and donors. Himal’s consolation for now is that it has a successfully carved a space over the decades that will most probability remain vacant for now. I’ll await the news of its republication.