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Sunday, March 9, 2014
- Inspired by Indian socialist leader Anna Hazare’s celebrated public fast against corruption in the Indian capital of New Delhi, starvation protests have sprung up in Nepal to press for a timely new constitution. Diverse groups, ranging from former ministers and members of parliament to women’s organisations and college freshmen have been fasting in public places to press the new government to shape up on a post-monarchy reforms mandate.
“There is growing pessimism among young people in Nepal,” said Saurav Bikram Thapa, a 20-year-old student of Kathmandu’s Kadambari Memorial College, who, along with six of his peers, sat on a two-day protest fast in Patan, the site of an old kingdom.
“The new constitution has been delayed (by 15 months) and corruption is growing. To battle this, we are advocating the empowerment of young people.”
In another part of the capital, close to parliament, former MPs and ministers had pitched up a marquee on Aug. 24 to undergo a five-day public fast.
“We were influenced by Anna Hazare’s fast in India,” said Jhalak Nath Wagle, who was elected to parliament 17 years ago from the Nepali Congress, the second largest party in Nepal after the Maoists, and became a junior minister before losing the next election.
The nearly 50 protesting former legislators have a manifold manifesto: restoration of law and order, an end to corruption, reining in inflation, a guarantee of peace and other demands.
However, the legislator’s protest lacked the same compelling power of Hazare’s fast, which forced Indian parliament to pass a resolution to bring in a strong ombudsman capable of checking corruption in high places.
Wagle blames it on the 10-year civil war that he says taught Nepal that might was right.
“People have little faith in peaceful protests here,” he rued. “They increasingly believe in aggressive protests: padlocking institutions (like universities and government offices), forcefully detaining officials and even smearing targets’ faces with ink.”
Female protestors are having far better luck with non-violent protests. Their marquee is full of people, music and even vigorous dancing that draws passersby so that their small huddle swelled during the 12 days of their peaceful public fast.
“We began our fast from Aug. 18, asking the government to give us at least the draft of the new constitution,” says Tulasa Lata Amatya, executive director at Community Action Centre Nepal, an NGO working to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among sex workers.
“There are over 100 laws that discriminate against women and we want the new constitution to be women-friendly. We also want it to be inclusive and providing for proportional representation in all spheres.”
Seven networks of women’s rights organisations began the public protest under the banner of Women’s Pressure March for Peace and Constitution after caretaker Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khanal resigned on Aug. 14, tacitly admitting that the new constitution would not be ready within its Aug. 31 deadline.
It was the third time that Nepal’s parliament, elected in 2008 to write the new constitution, failed to meet a deadline.
Women have suffered from political instability. Though an earlier government had announced that 2010 would see an end to all forms of violence against women, incidents of domestic violence, rape and murder shot up.
Women’s groups began coming together when the second deadline for promulgating the new constitution was dawning on May 28. They held a vigil in front of parliament till the government enforced a ban on all meetings within a 50 metres radius of the house.
“This time, we are sitting outside the prohibited area as ours is a peaceful protest,” says Amatya, who was arrested briefly last time.
“Unlike Anna Hazare, who fasted continuously for 12 days (in August) we are fasting for 12 hours a day. Our protesters are women who have families to cook for and children to look after. But, in spite of that we kept up our protests for well over four months, which is an achievement.”
The women’s networks decided to call off their protest on Aug 29, a day after a politician with a brilliant academic record and clean image – Baburam Bhattarai, the deputy chief of the Maoist party – was elected Nepal’s new prime minister.
“The new prime minister has promised he would conclude the peace process in 45 days,” said Amatya. “So we have decided to give him time till then. Meanwhile, we are meeting to discuss our next strategy, and if he fails to deliver we will be back on the streets.”
In 2006, Nepal created history with a peaceful public protest that approached the proportions resorted to by Mahatma Gandhi in compelling the British to grant independence to India in 1947.
After King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah seized power with an army-backed coup in 2005, political parties and civil society came together to stage peaceful protests throughout the country for 19 days that forced the king to step down.
But, this time the parties and civil society failed to ignite a mass movement, with isolated groups trying valiantly to keep the flame alive.
Veteran journalist and social commentator Yubaraj Ghimire says it is due to the parties and civil society losing credibility.
“Though civil society played a considerable role in the pro-democracy movement of 2006, its leaders then became discredited because they showed double standards,” says Ghimire, editor of The Reporter weekly. “They failed to speak out against the continued killings and violence.
“Only the women stuck to the same issues. They are the ones who did not give up,” Ghimire said.