Open spaces and open society
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Nepal’s politicians are engaged in political one-upmanship as they pack people into public spaces, particularly the streets of Kathmandu and other cities in shows of strength.
There is ‘my crowd is bigger than yours’ contest between factions of the Nepal Communist Party, one led by Prime Minister K P Oli and the other by Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Madhav Kumar Nepal. This is also a contest for who can display more control over the public space in terms of significance and size.
Prime Minister Oli’s mass assembly venue on 5 February, a closed-off Darbar Marg, was symbolic because of the gentrified public space with a backdrop of palace-turned-museum. The message seemed to be clear: ‘we have control of both the sadan (Parliament) and the sadak (street).
Lest we forget, Darbar Marg is not just any street. Whether during the Panchayat, the Maoist insurgency, the states of emergency, or countless political shutdowns, Darbar Marg has always remained the most protected street in the capital. Addressing ‘the people’ from this particular venue was synonymous to Oli stepping into the buffer zone, or what anthropologists would call a ‘liminal space’.
The prime minister was speaking from an ambiguous space that belongs neither here nor there, which can be interpreted as a dress rehearsal, as though he had traversed a rite of passage for what is about to happen next.
And, amid the shows of force by the rival Communist factions, the next action may be marked by control of more public spaces, not just in Kathmandu, but across the country. So, the obvious question is: What does the control of public spaces by those in power, especially the government, mean?
Public spaces are an important part of urban life. If designed, built, and sustained thoughtfully, they serve as the infrastructure of democracy, inclusive cultural setting, and powerful social fabric. In developed countries like Canada, public spaces like parks, community halls, libraries, art and recreation centers are designed and built through inclusive processes in consultation with the public. The exchange contributes to increasing accountability and ownership of public infrastructure both for the government and the public.
Public spaces and infrastructure are not just material spaces, they also have their own social and political lives that are instrumental for a democratic governance. As Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta argue in The Promise of Infrastructure, public infrastructure also ‘serves as an important locus for the evaluation of the morality and ethics of political leaders and the state’.
For example, broken infrastructure like dug-up roads and uncompleted bridges reveal as much messy politics and failed governance as they do the unfulfilled needs and everyday suffering of citizens.
One example of the loss of a vibrant public space is the Khula Manch, which became a dumping ground for post-earthquake rubble and stalls, forcing demonstrators to spill into neighbouring streets in Kathmandu. Once a centre of historic pro-democracy rallies since 1990, the space is finally being cleared under direct orders of the Prime Minister’s Office and will likely resurrect into its previous avatar of an open space for rallies.
The occupation of public spaces, including major streets and intersections like Mandala by the government as well as political parties, is a denial of public space to ordinary citizens. It also impedes the culture of democracy and civic engagements.
Spatial divisions are important for governance because there is always a moral boundary between the state and citizens in terms of which space they occupy. Generally speaking, if sadan is related to the government, sadak is where the public can politic. That boundary plays a role in a cultural and political order.
The government should deal with the agitating parties in a democratic way, which involves initiating a dialogue, working through the various government branches, and treating the public with dignity, respect, and recognition. It is not a democratic step for the government to get on the street, draw on tit-for-tat tactics, and occupy public space.
Anomalies inside the Parliament, like the passing of an unconstitutional, undemocratic, discriminatory, and exclusionary bills should be addressed by the voices and actions of people on the street. These democratic actions do not include resorting to violence, vandalism, blocking off streets, arson, or other forms of coercion and harassment.
Neither the public occupying the legislature, nor the government occupying the streets is democratic practice. The occupation of the US Capitol by the supporters of Donald Trump on 6 January, and the control of public spaces by the military in the aftermath of the recent coup in Myanmar are both examples of the transgression of democratic and spatial order.
The rival rallies by competing factions of the Nepal Communist Party in Nepal’s public spaces in the name of ‘mass mobilisation’ is a signal that the political leadership of whatever hue just want to control public spaces to fulfil their political ends. Control of this nature borders on moral and ethical transgression, that threaten the citizenry and civic engagement required for a vibrant democracy.
Bicram Rijal is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Simon Fraser University, Canada.