By Manjushree Thapa
Nepal’s democratic forces appear quiescent but beneath the surface they are gathering strength and confidence.
Nepal’s people in their great majority, around 80%, rely on agriculture as their main source of livelihood. The seasons dictate the rhythms of life in this country. There is a season for everything here, even for political movements.
As the political analyst Hari Roka explains, the country’s small commercial farmers (who constitute its political base) are mostly occupied in the monsoon months planting and weeding the year’s main crops. “The political parties cannot ask people to come out on the streets right now”, he says. And after the rains, the crops must be harvested. Then come the autumn festivals of Dashain and Tihar, when the entire country shuts down. “That lasts till mid-October”, says Roka.
He explains that it is only in the following months – from November to the next year’s monsoon, in mid-June – that people have any free time. Many poorer Nepalis cross the border and work as field hands in India during this lean season. But those who remain at home, idle, can be tapped for political activism. This is why the People’s Movement, which brought Nepal democracy in spring 1990, gathered pace in the winter. Since then, the most effective street demonstrations and rallies by opposition parties – and also the armed Maoist insurgents’ bloodiest attacks – have been waged in the winter as well.
If you find this material valuable, and if you can afford it, please send openDemocracy a donation to help us continue our work and keep it free
Roka knows how movements move in Nepal: he spent more than seven years in jail as part of the pre-1990 democracy struggle. He says that when effecting a coup in February 2005, King Gyanendra must have previously calculated that he would have to quell his opposition only till the start of the rains:
- “By the end of the monsoon and the festivals, the international community will assume that Nepalis have resigned themselves to the king’s rule. Military aid will resume. The king will steer things back to business as usual.”
Indeed, with the start of monsoon showers in July, Nepal has seen the release of senior democratic activists detained since February. As trade-off, presumably, India’s first allotment of military aid to the king’s regime, suspended in February, also reached Nepal. The UK and US will likely follow India’s lead, releasing “non-lethal” aid to Nepal’s military, despite the democratic forces’ ardent pleas not to.
But the international community and Nepalis observe different seasons. The former will mistake a seasonal lull in political activism for acquiescence. And it will ignore the fact that there has been open evidence that the military has been violating human rights, and extending its hold over what should be civilian branches of government: the administration, the ministries, the judiciary. (There has been no parliament or other elected branch of government since 2002.)
Almost every day in Nepal now, the king’s cabinet passes some new ordinance (which carries the force of law for six months). These ordinances are invariably aimed at controlling or co-opting what used to be autonomous commissions, non-government organisations, the media and civil society groups. To use an American turn of phrase, democratic institutions are being demolished “on a war footing”. By the end of the monsoon and the autumn festivals, the king’s control over all aspects of public life in Nepal will be total.
Are Nepalis doomed, then, to wait until late October before the democracy movement can gain vibrancy?
I have heard a “yes” vote here in New Delhi, at a recent meeting of Nepalis living across the border to evade government harassment back home.
Rajendra Mahato is a former parliamentarian and the general-secretary of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party, one of the eight political groups that have jointly called for the restoration of democracy in Nepal. He explained to a largely unaffiliated audience that the political parties fully intend to press for the restoration of democracy. “Of course, during the monsoon”, he added, “it is hard to make people come out onto the streets. We will keep up the pressure now. But the movement will intensify only after the rains.”
His colleague Hridesh Tripathi said much the same in passing when I met him by chance a few days later: “The movement looks slack because it’s the season for farm work. But it will gain momentum when the rains end.”
The movement so far
Yet the seasons alone may not explain the present lull in the democracy movement.
The movement (the present one is the third so far in Nepal’s history – the first one developed in the 1940s and the second in the 1980s) began two months after King Gyanendra sacked the last elected prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, in October 2002. Citing Article 127 of the Nepali constitution, the king appointed a cabinet of his own handpicked loyalists. (The article does not, in fact, allow the king any such authority. But legalities did not get in his way).
Numerous individual lawyers, journalists and intellectuals immediately deemed the king’s takeover unconstitutional as a matter of principle. It took the parties three months to do so. Even then, it was only the parties’ student unions who came onto the streets. The students began to demand that Nepal become a republic state, echoing a demand that only the Maoist insurgents had made so far. The parties themselves joined the movement only in February 2003. Their leaders promptly silenced the call for republicanism.
In March 2003, there was a ceasefire between the king’s regime and the Maoists. The parties announced then that their movement was going to be “decisive”. Yet their protest – variously called a “stir” or an “agitation” – did not inspire ordinary Nepalis to join in. When the ceasefire broke down in August 2003 (after the military massacred nineteen unarmed Maoists detainees, sabotaging peace talks) there was a real possibility for the democratic movement to become “decisive” at last.
But at this point the Indian, British and American ambassadors to Nepal visited party leaders in their homes and offices, and lobbied them not to be too confrontational with the king, lest they unwittingly strengthen the Maoist insurgents’ hand. When the parties acquiesced, and ceased their stirs and agitations, their leadership became irrevocably tainted with an air of compromise. The parties were not adhering to the principle of democracy. This compromise was further reinforced in May 2004, when the Nepali Congress Party (Democratic), the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) and other parties agreed to sit in a cabinet formed by the king under Article 127. Their stirs and agitations were discredited as mere power-grabs.
The Nepali Congress Party alone refused to endorse this ‘reconciliation’ with the king. Thus, when King Gyanendra formalised his coup last February, arresting thousands of party activists across the country, only the Nepali Congress Party appeared steadfast in its principles. It has since taken leadership of the democracy movement.
Eight parties have now pledged to restore “full democracy”. They have asked for a return to the October 2002 parliament, which will oversee the election of a constituent assembly, which will in turn draft a new constitution. They have ignored the American ambassador’s pleas to reconcile once again with the king. And they have met Maoist leaders in India, seeking their support for a non-violent means to a new constitution.
Presumably, this means that they can now be trusted not to waver on their goals. But ordinary Nepalis are loath to extend themselves just yet. “Let them come up with new, younger leaders”, a Nepali man said to me recently in a casual chat. “If the parties had new leaders we could support them. But it’s the same old people saying the same old things. Do they really expect us to believe them?”
Ordinary Nepalis throughout the country echo his view.
Dry roots and green shoots
The political parties are, of course, the life force of the democracy movement. But they are not its only sustainers. There is in Nepal an urban elite, professionals whose lives are not dictated by the seasons. Arguably, two independent professional groups – the lawyers and the journalists – have, since February, done more to move the movement forward.
Sushil Pyakurel, till last May a fiery and high-profile member of the National Human Rights Commission, has temporarily settled in Delhi, taking a hard-earned reprieve from the risks of exposing atrocities committed by both the government and the Maoists. Immediately after the February coup, his house was surrounded by the military, and all his movements were tracked. Several times he was barred from visiting the sites of alleged human rights violations.
In March a group of eight United States senators – including Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein and Edward Kennedy – invited Pyakurel to Washington. The night before he was to leave, the head of the military human-rights cell called on him at home, and reminded him that he must not jeopardise Nepal’s image. The next day airport officials, who said they were acting on order, detained him at the airport. He was allowed to leave only upon the intervention of a European diplomat.
Pyakurel went on to lobby in the US, Britain and Geneva for the suspension of military aid to Nepal and the passing of an Article 19 resolution at the annual meeting of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights. At the latter meeting, he was obliged to publicly air his differences with the head of Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission, who defended King Gyanendra’s coup. The meeting ended with the passing of the resolution and the establishment of an international monitoring unit in Nepal.
The international lobbying of such human-rights defenders, supported by a small but very dedicated network in Nepal, has been of critical use in preserving some open space for dissent. Professional groups such as the Nepal Bar Association had, until February, sat on the fence vis-à-vis the king’s growing power. Since then it has expanded the space for opposition, its President Shambhu Thapa (no relation to the author) leading a series of street protests in between filing habeas corpus writs on behalf of those illegally detained and disappeared. The lawyers have doggedly exposed the unconstitutional nature of the king’s regime, and demanded the rule of law.
The journalists have been just as dedicated. The Federation of Nepali Journalists responded swiftly and effectively to the military monitoring of the media houses and the censorship and gag rules enforced after February. Their task, too, has been twofold. Internationally, they have reached for support from the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and visiting correspondents. Within the country, they have staged emotive demonstrations, reading the news out on loudspeakers (as FM stations are banned from airing the news), blowing whistles in street protests, or pushing the censors’ limits by reporting news on the king.
They have also continued to report, fearlessly, on the wrongdoings of the king’s regime. In June, a Kantipur exposure revealed that Tulsi Giri, the vice-chair of the cabinet is a bank defaulter: he has owed the government over 20 million rupees for more than two decades. (He says he did not know.) There is not a little risk in publishing such an exposé. Cheap-hire hooligans are easily available in the murky (and expanding) underworld, and the Maoists are conveniently blamed for all wrongdoings. Recently, the bank documents on willful defaulters have disappeared. And the owners and editors of Kantipur have received a slew of anonymous threats.
Nevertheless, defiance is proliferating. United We Blog is a site opened by Kantipur journalists in February, after they were no longer allowed to report the news freely. Many of its bloggers have come of age in a democratic era. Before February, they had only heard hoary legends about such figures as the cabinet’s vice-chair. (Tulsi Giri had distinguished himself as a turncoat in 1960, abandoning the Nepali Congress Party to help the present king’s father end Nepal’s first experiment with democracy.)
A recent entry by journalist-blogger Ghanashyam Ojha reflects the attitude gap between the king’s regime (what the Maoists have dubbed “the old power”) and the younger, modern generation of urbanites: “I was very much anxious to meet and talk to the person who forsook Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala, founding president of the largest democratic party, (the) Nepali Congress, and joined the autocratic Panchayat system in 1960”, Ojha writes. “While reading history books during my schooldays, I had a question; how come such (a) person who had sacrificed so many years in strengthening and consolidating democracy in Nepal could mortgage his ideology for (a) partiless autocratic system.”
United We Blog’s bloggers, overwhelmingly young and male, tend to get goofy on matters related to women; but otherwise they are sharp, spirited, and up for a fight on matters of principle. Some of them are plain puzzled by the king’s regime, others are angry.
The same independent spirit moves other Nepali bloggers around the world, who have opened internet sites such as Web Chautari, Free Nepal, the International Nepal Solidarity Network and Samudaya. The debates on these sites are bracing, sometimes aggressive and even nasty. But their ethos – of preserving the space for free expression – shines optimistically through. The king’s regime, naturally, is vexed with these sites. The latter two were blocked by the military in June (they can be viewed internationally, but not in Nepal). Organisers had foreseen this, and had disseminated information on how to access blocked sites via proxy servers.
Making a movement move
What makes a movement move? People, of course: individual personalities taking a principled stand, and groups working intelligently together.
Other independent groups – professors’ unions, teachers’ unions, associations of doctors and engineers – are following the lawyers and the journalists. These urban elites are keeping up the moral pressure for the restoration of democracy.
What remains now is for the political parties to match the independent forces’ principled stand and intelligence. For though independents can lead the way for a while, their efforts alone cannot win back a democratic polity. Hari Roka puts it this way: “The forces with real heft are lacking clarity, and the forces that are clear have no real heft.”
- Sushil Pyakurel says:
- “The parties must adhere to their beliefs. They can no longer compromise. They must take a stand for democracy.” This is, he adds, a debate that is going on right now within each party. “They are all in ferment, addressing these issues.”
The internal pressure for more visionary leadership is strong, he confirms.
This is what all democracy-minded Nepalis are now waiting for. They will extend themselves to the parties as soon as the parties throw up new leaders and an uncompromised vision.
It seems to me, from observing all the dynamics that are in play, that by the time the parties rise to the challenge before them, the rainy season may well have passed.
It will be easy, then, to bring people out into the streets.
And then this movement will truly move.
Manjushree Thapa is a novelist, translator and writer. Her books include The Tutor of History (Penguin, 2001) and Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy (Penguin, 2005).