Foreigners are often puzzled why Nepalis never take to the streets despite the chronic failure of the government to provide basic services. It is true, Nepalis are a tolerant lot. But this week, something snapped.
Citizens have been gathering on the streets, braving water cannons and tear gas to oppose a bill in Parliament that would dismantle the centuries-old tradition of guthi community trusts to manage religious sites and festivals.
Coming soon after the Media Council Bill, and detention by police of a YouTuber for posting a satirical review of a bad movie, the slew of recent street protests reflects growing disillusionment with and defiance of a powerful Nepal Communist Party (NCP) government that is perceived to be corrupt to the core and uncaring of the public interest.
Scripted arrest, Masta KC
Nepal has press freedom, but no freedom after press, Shashank Shrsetha
In the past months, citizens of Chapagaon, Baudhha and Thali have spontaneously risen up to blockade roads, demanding that they be repaired. Journalists took to the streets last month to protest provisions in the draft Media Council Bill that could lay hefty fines on journalists found to be violating officials guidelines.
But the most organised protests so far have been against the Guthi Bill, and clips of Police attacking demonstrators with batons, kicks and water cannons have gone viral on the very media that the government seems intent on controlling.
Suppressed, Om Astha Rai
Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai
There are more than 2,000 guthi all over Nepal, and they collectively own nearly 150,000 hectares of prime real estate. The management of such entities is traditionally passed down from one generation to the next.
The Guthi Bill would create a central government authority to manage community trusts all over the country. It would have more executive powers than Guthi Sansthan, the current body that oversees trusts. Guthi members and heritage conservationists say the government is working with the land mafia to take over Guthi property.
“The government doesn’t understand how the guthi system works,” said activist Alok Tuladhar, “it just want to usurp the land. The government’s intention is total control, not just the guthi but also free speech and other rights enshrined in the Constitution.”
The protests that began on 9 June have snowballed with more groups and activists joining in. In Parliament, the opposition Nepali Congress halted proceedings on Tuesday, calling for the bill to be scrapped.
Minister for Land Management and Cooperatives Padma Kumari Aryal defended the Bill in Parliament, saying it was intended to bring uniformity to guthi administration in order to protect heritage and culture. She says many trusts do not keep proper accounts and are not answerable to anyone.
Minister for Home Affairs Ram Bahadur Thapa said the government accepted moral responsibility for the street violence, and promised to investigate. But protests escalated Thursday with a large demonstration in Patan’s Mangal Bazar (pictured above).
Long Shadows, Sewa Bhattarai
Creeping control over the press in Nepal, Ajay Pradhan