Uproar over Maoist war anniversary holiday

Widespread outrage over Prime Minister Dahal declaring 13 February a national holiday

The decision by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal to declare 13 February as a national holiday to mark the start of the Maoist ‘people’s war’ in 1996 has sparked outrage in Nepal’s cybersphere and brought conflict survivors out into the streets.

Prime Minister Dahal, who was known as ‘Prachanda’ as a Maoist guerrilla commander, decided at Sunday’s meeting of the Cabinet to mark the first day of the Nepali month of Phalgun a public holiday. Finance Minister Bishnu Paudel, Naryan Kaji Shrestha and Rajendra Lingden, all three of whom are deputy prime ministers, were not present at the meeting.

Foreign Minister Bimala Rai Paudyal and Health Minister Padam Giri both spoke up against Dahal’s decision. They reminded Dahal about his statement just last week that Nepal had too many public holidays, and this was affecting the public, and the productivity of government offices.

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“The prime minister unilaterally proposed the holiday, and said he was under pressure to make the decision, he was not listening to us,” said one minister present at the meeting.

The 7-party coalition, like all governments before it, seems to have fallen into the same habit of declaring sudden holidays. Prime Minister Dahal had earlier declared a day of national mourning after the Pokhara plane disaster on 15 January which killed 72 people.

Last month, Dahal gave in to a demand by coalition partner the monarchist RPP to reinstate the holiday on 11 January, the birthday of Nepal’s founding king Prithvi Narayan Shah. Insiders say Dahal has been heavily criticised by his party members for abandoning the goals of the revolution to become prime minister by being in a coalition with royalist, anti-secular and anti-federal forces. He was also under pressure from his cadre base for agreeing to give a holiday on Prithvi Jayanti.

The Maoist-led provincial governments in Karnali and Bagmati had already announced a holiday on 13 February. Dahal struck while the iron was hot, when he knew that there would be little opposition from within his coalition and the opposition to his decision because of the forthcoming election for president.

The largest party in Parliament, the Nepali Congress (NC) is in the opposition but has given tacit support to Dahal’s government. The second largest party, the UML is in the coalition. The NC and the UML would have been opposed to declaring ‘People’s War Day’ as a holiday, but they are both angling for their nominee to succeed Bidya Devi Bhandari as Nepal’s president.

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Even so, second rung leaders of the UML voiced serious reservations about the decision, and said Dahal was trying to drive a wedge in society, and to reopen the wounds of war.

“February 13 should be marked as a day of mourning for the death of 17,000 Nepalis at the hands of fellow-Nepalis,” said Khem Raj Regmi, a former government secretary.

The most hurt by the decision are conflict survivors, and the relatives of those who were killed or disappeared during the 1996-2006 Maoist insurgency. Suman Adhikari is the son of teacher Muktinath Adhikari who was tortured and executed in 2002 in Lamjung, and he is now head of the Society of Conflict Survivors.

“Those who murdered, disappeared, raped and unleashed bloodshed in the country are being honoured by declaring 13 Feburary a public holiday, this is an insult to the survivors,” Adhikari says.

Besides the Maoists, other members of the coalition including the UML, RPP and RSP have also come under criticism for not just not opposing the decision, but also not officially speaking out against it. The NC has also been singled out, since its party members were especially targeted by the Maoists for execution and torture during the conflict.

Besides those killed, 3,125 people are still listed as missing during the conflict, tens of thousands were maimed for life and millions were displaced from their homes. There are thousands of testimonies submitted to the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission on Enforced Disappearances, but none of the atrocities committed by state security and the rebels have ever been investigated.

Even the phrase ‘People’s War’ has been rejected by the Supreme Court as an official description of the Maoist insurrection. The Society of Conflict victims held a rally outside Singha Darbar on Monday to protest the move.

The Society’s general secretary Renuka Poudel said in a statement: ‘This controversial decision is against democratic norms and the universal principles of non-violence.’

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