July 25, 2020
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Nepal, The Rising

The editor of Himal penned this piece from prison: 'I want to be back on the streets, to be part of this history-making people's tsunami.' Updates

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Nepal, The Rising
Nepal, The Rising
Amidst an exhilarating people's movement that has suddenly spread like wildfire against the Gyanendra autocracy since early April, one develops a perspective a week-and-half into detention. Taken in with two dozen activists for defying the first day's curfew order, and kept here at the Duwakot armed police barracks on the edge of the Kathmandu valley, this has been a time to observe—with desperate detachment—the spontaneous combustion spreading across the country. I want to be back on the streets, to be part of this history-making people's tsunami.

The citizens of Nepal first tasted the elixir of freedom after the 1990 people's movement brought down the palace-run Panchayat system. And then came this self-destructive king with a medieval worldview. Though flaunting the name Gyanendra or the fount of knowledge, here was someone bent on proving his contempt for 26 million citizens.

The people kept their counsel for as long as they could, even as the political parties sought with difficulty to raise a movement, caught as they were between the gun held by the king's obsequious Royal Nepal Army and that of the Maoist rebels. But pressure was building from below as the people awakened to the loss of democracy, which they soon realised also blocked the path to peace.

A dozen years of freedom had developed in the public a willingness to challenge authority—something that Gyanendra was not able to grasp. When the dam burst in all its democratic fury, he responded with calculated brutality, but the wave was too immense to be stopped by batons and bullets. People streamed from villages to district towns, cities became gorged with demonstrators—peasants, daily wage-earners, housewives—demanding pluralism and rejecting the royal agenda.

What changed over the autumn of 2005 was the Maoist leadership providing credible assurances through a series of semi-underground meetings and interviews in New Delhi about their intention to abandon the 'people's war' and join mainstream multi-party politics. This gave fillip to the movement and energised the parties even while Gyanendra continued his corrupt, vainglorious rule with the help of all the low life it was possible to gather from Kathmandu's seedy mansions—appointing them ministers, administrators, judges and even anti-corruption czars. It would not take long for the andolan to translate into a jana andolan, from 'movement' to 'people's movement'.

Gyanendra actually misapplied the Constitution back in October '02, when he started appointing prime ministers at will and discarded the document completely when he conducted his full-fledged coup of February 2005. The last year has been marked by the destruction of the entire government superstructure, evaporation of development activity, and a loot of the exchequer. Militarisation has been the most cruel royal gift to the populace and with it a continuation of the army's dirty war. Gyanendra's endgame has been to order his henchmen security chiefs to harshly suppress the jana andolan. As one political cartoon had it, Gyanendra has his fingers on the harmonium keyboard as the country burns.

People will own the democracy that is being re-crafted in Nepal today because they have fought for it all over the land. That's what is so thrilling about this moment, for the polity being created will not be something handed down by fiat from Kathmandu's powerful cliques. For too long, these cliques have ruled the roost, denigrated democracy, sidetracked political parties, and supported the regressive kingship. It is this valley elite and the urban middle class on whose support base Gyanendra grasped at absolute monarchy.

The People's Movement of 2062-63 (as per the Nepali Vikram Sambat which transitioned into the new year on April 13) is turning Nepal inside out, and for the better. Already, the given Nepali term for democracy—'prajatantra'—has been rejected by the demonstrators for its reference to 'subjects'. Instead, the new coinage in currency is 'loktranta', and many are already pushing for 'loktrantic ganatantra', a republic without a kingship.

'Loktrantik Nepal' will be an edgy and raucous democracy, yet it will be stable. This stability will usher economic growth that will also benefit neighbouring populations, particularly in the Ganga plain. This stability will also promote the process of redefining and restructuring the state firstly by putting the renegade army in its proper place and handcuffing a kingship that has been such a tragic embarrassment, or doing away with it altogether.

Looking ahead, we need to undo everything that Gyanendra has wrought, and then work to reconstruct the infrastructure and rehabilitate a national psyche torn by a decade of internal war. Most importantly, the road is being cleared for constituent assembly elections which will help bring the Maoists into the mainstream and help draft a new basic law to deliver a participatory, inclusive state that corrects the wrong turns of history.

There is a real possibility of such a turn of page, because the citizens who have fought for this change will surely watchdog their political representatives. Thanks to the people's rebellion, Nepal might just do all South Asia proud. The reader will pardon my presumption, and good cheer, as I write this from inside, looking out at a transforming nation.

The writer is editor, Himal, Kathmandu.
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