This week marked a temporary victory for all campaigners out on the streets against the proposed Guthi Bill. The victory is only temporary, because the bill is being considered for amendment. It hasn’t died down and you can be sure that it will be back in a new avatar – either cosmetically amended or repackaged as something else entirely.
The protestors out in force at Maitighar happened to share the same sentiment and almost all of them – without exception – were for scrapping the proposed bill altogether. The show of strength on Wednesday (after the government had already agreed to withdraw the bill for amendment) was intended to drive that point home.
What all of them believe – and rightfully so – is that these changes will make ‘guthis’ a plaything for the rich and powerful, aka the land mafia. Whatever happens in the near term, we can be pretty sure that we haven’t seen the last of this particular issue as yet.
The government for their part withdrew the bill because, according to our PM, there was a need to discuss and consult with stakeholders and get expert opinion on it, before and if it is tabled again. And here we all were laboring under the illusion that this was the sort of thing that governments did before people took to the streets and not after. Trust our government to do things in reverse order! Just what the lawmakers from the ruling party were thinking while all this was under consideration is anyone’s guess.
Our PM’s assertion that the parliament was there to discuss the bill and his lament on Maitighar being used for all sorts of protests is a bit sad – when his autocratic leaning government and all that hubris from their two thirds majority leave no room for anything other than street protests. Whether it is journalists and civil society members decrying encroachments on personal freedoms or the kin of rape victims seeking justice, the streets are the only option left to the very people who voted them in.
Many campaigners have been quick to laud “people power” and this victory as an example of democracy in action. While that may be true to a certain extent, one should remember that this was an attack on one of the largest ethnic groups in Nepal against a socio economic system that still remains fundamental to their way of life. Many of us would have been really surprised had the bill gone through in its current avatar. While this bill may or may not be rubber stamped into existence, there are several others that are just as insidious and will have far reaching consequences on our way of life.
The general theme running across all of them are encroachments on personal freedom and tightening of the state’s grip on individual liberties. It was laughable to hear PM Oli harp on about individual liberties and his knowledge of them on his tour of the UK when his government has been bending backwards trying to suppress those very rights. And for the first time in what seems like ages, the Nepali Congress seems to have grown a backbone and remembered that they are not supposed to give their communist friends an easy ride. Gagan Thapa summed it up wonderfully in his articulate speech in parliament in which he ended by quoting German pastor Martin Niemoller and his ‘First they came for the socialists….’ speech.
Anything this government does in the near future will probably be met with skepticism and perhaps rightly so. Every legislative initiative has been controversial primarily because most common folk feel that it is being done for the governors and not the governed. Our PM seems clueless while the kleptocrats behind the scenes continue to make hay while the sun shines.
In two separate press conferences, the Minister for Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation Padma Kumari Aryal and PM Oli took pains to point out that the purpose of the bill was to make ‘guthi’ land more productive and prevent misappropriation. And such is the reputation of this government for shamelessly backtracking on all their promises – those made to Dr KC, the pledges to eradicate syndicates, the assurances to bring Nirmala Panta’s killers to justice, the promise to bring the corrupt to justice to name a few – that these appeals found no takers among not only the Newar community but also the general populace.
In the longer term, while this may only be a temporary setback, it’s a sweet victory not only for the Newars but also for the long-suffering public. The battle may be won but the war is far from over – not only the struggle for preserving culture, tradition and a certain way of life but also for freedom of expression, justice and rule of law, which are all under threat. And that particular struggle will probably take a lot longer than this.
The writer loves traveling, writing, and good food when he is afforded an escape from the rat race. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org