Not yet at peace: disappearances and the politics of loss in Nepal
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The return of a body, alive (sas, lit. ‘breath’) or dead (las) is a recurring demand of relatives of the disappeared in Nepal. Hundreds of people were disappeared by state security forces or abducted by the Maoists during the armed conflict (1996-2006). Uncertainty surrounds their whereabouts and their fate remains unconfirmed. Not knowing for certain whether someone is alive or dead is a painful predicament for relatives. Their loss remains ambiguous: there is no body, only an abrupt rupture in their lives. This thesis explores how the effects of disappearances reverberate in the details of relationships within families, with local communities and with the state. The disappeared person’s absence becomes a disruptive and unsettling presence, and has had particular effects for women whose husbands have disappeared. When people ‘disappear,’ the fragile line between life and death is disrupted: lives and deaths are held in limbo. This thesis explores the social repercussions and the political uses that have been made of this. Ambiguity is both what makes disappearances a particularly difficult kind of loss to bear for relatives; and what makes ‘the disappeared’ a potent political and moral symbol in continuing contests over the state in the aftermath of the war. The relationship between the personal experiences of relatives and the projects of actors seeking to influence the state is complex and over-layered. For relatives, the gap between life and death is paradoxically both a source of hope and of despair. On a political level it becomes a space of ambiguity upon which statecraft is performed. In Nepal, the search for disappeared relatives developed into collective campaigns demanding truth, justice and compensation from the state. This thesis examines how these campaigns, directed by the Maoist party on the one hand and human rights organisations on the other, whilst advocating for relatives of the disappeared have simultaneously utilised the ‘disappeared’ for their own projects to transform or reform the state. The appropriation of the disappeared as political symbols, has involved inscribing them with new identities as ‘conflict victims’ or as ‘disappeared warriors’. The thesis suggests that the absent bodies of the disappeared have been drawn into different contests of sovereignty. It explores how this politicisation both influences the ways in which relatives come to interpret and experience their loss, and is ultimately often rejected by them. In demanding the return of a body, relatives seek to retrieve the person from the political entanglements of contests over sovereign authority: to reclaim the personal from the political.