No Business, As Usual, In Nepal

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Nepalis are increasingly taking their grievances public by disrupting transport, schools and businesses.

Birendra Giri’s friends were incensed when a gang of youths attacked him with knives on Monday evening. Giri, a member of the Nepali Congress party-affiliated Nepal Students Union, was walking home from night classes at White House College. Giri’s friends did what every group with a grievance now does in Nepal: They called a chakkajam, a traffic blockade, in protest.

On Tuesday Nepal Students Union members armed with lengths of iron rebar from a construction site stopped traffic at a central bus park in Kathmandu and burned tires in the street. Their demand was for the immediate arrest of Giri’s attackers. When riot police intervened, the NSU cadres burned a microbus of the sort commonly used by commuters and students. After more than an hour of traffic disruption, baton-swinging police cleared the street.

Shortly afterwards the association of microbus owners and operators called their own chakkajam in front of the parliament building. Scores of microbuses were parked haphazardly in the street to demand action against the NSU protestors, compensation for the damaged bus and police protection against demonstrations. Traffic was severely disrupted for three more hours.

There was nothing at all unusual about Tuesday’s events. Public confidence in the authorities to handle problems is near zero in Nepal, as is the sense of civic responsibility and concern for the welfare of others. Three decades of broken promises and inaction from governments of all ilk combined with the widespread sense that the country’s leaders are corrupt and incompetent has pushed Nepal’s traditionally calm, polite and fatalistic people to the breaking point.

Two weeks ago a mob of locals beat three high-school students to death in the town of Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley, in the belief that the three were kidnappers. A wave of violent protest on behalf of the three slain students resulted in arrests, but most of those taken into custody were released after violent protests from Bhaktapur locals and families of the arrested.

With no concrete action since the July 7th incident, relatives and supporters of the three students have announced a protest program of blocking access to parliament on Wednesday, a shut-down of all schools in the Kathmandu Valley on Thursday and a general strike (forced business closure) in Bhaktapur on Friday.

Their demands are for a probe into the incident, punishment for the guilty, compensation to the families of the dead and an end to impunity for lawbreakers. There is no sense of irony to be found among the protestors over the use of illegal means to force the government to fulfill their demands for law and order. Instead they say that disruptive protests are the only way to force the government to act.

A prime example of that can be seen in last week’s protests by government employees. The civil servants’ union was incensed that the national budget announced a week ago raised allowances and benefits for government workers but did not provide for a salary increase. Five days of protests inside ministries and on government properties – clearly illegal under the law and civil-service regulations – resulted in a reversal of the decision and pay increases for all government employees, with no prosecutions or penalties for the protestors.

Civil disobedience and taking the law into one’s own hands works in contemporary Nepal, particularly in the face of politically-dependent police and feckless national leadership. There is much discussion of an all-party agreement to ban strikes, chakkajams and similar disruptive protests, but the likelihood of an effective agreement is small: a significant portion of the protests are called by the parties themselves or affiliated unions, student groups and ‘youth wings.’

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.