In a democracy, protesting is a rightGuided by the ‘best constitution’, we have to presume our current political system is not a sham democracy.
It did not take long for the red brigade to go on the offensive following the incident at Nepalgunj airport where irate passengers who had been kept waiting on the tarmac confronted the person responsible, Minister of Tourism Yogesh Bhattarai. The Kaski branch of the youth wing of the ruling party declared one Gyanendra Shahi, the most active protagonist in the ruckus, persona non grata in their fair district. Let alone the legality of the said ‘order’, hopefully, even the signatories have by now realised how their uncalled-for enthusiasm has backfired. For, it only succeeded in adding to the perception of intolerance the current government has been accused of. Of course, it did not help either that Shahi was also arrested ‘for security reasons’.
The net effect of such immature reactions was to generate even more publicity for Shahi, who I can vouchsafe many people would not have heard of till now. In fact, upon first reading about the airport confrontation, I looked hard at the video that triggered the news for a sight of his far more famous namesake, given the Maoists’ inexplicable penchant of yore to refer to the erstwhile king as ‘Gyanendra Shahi’. I was not quite aware that the younger Shahi had been proving a nuisance to the powers that be through his campaign against corruption, which probably was the main cause of their grouse against him among the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and its affiliates.
Incidents such as these give us cause to ponder over the various safeguards the 2015 constitution has guaranteed Nepalis, especially with the fourth anniversary of its promulgation upon us. Despite all the superlatives bestowed on it—the world’s best constitution, the most inclusive constitution, etc—the implementation aspect has left much to be desired. One key indicator is the gradual constriction of the space for dissent, as in the example above and countless others.
I was struck by the stark difference in how government authorities view protests by what happened a few days ago in Luxembourg as the British prime minister arrived for Brexit talks. As Boris Johnson walked in for a meeting with the Luxembourgian prime minister, Xavier Bettel, scores of anti-Brexit protestors drowned out the exchange of pleasantries as they booed Johnson and held up signs, including one prominent one that said: ‘Bollocks to Boris’. Afterwards, Johnson slunk away without addressing the scheduled press conference and Bettel famously gestured towards the empty lectern as he single-handedly soldiered on in the interaction with the media. In reference to the protests, Bettel said matter-of-factly: ‘Demonstrating is a right in a democracy.’
Such a scene would be unimaginable in Nepal, where foreign dignitaries are shielded from any kind of protests. The precedent appears to have been set in 1951 during the visit of the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on a triumphal visit following his brokering of the deal that ended the Rana regime. In the words of Arvind Rimal, then a young communist activist: ‘The moment Nehru together with Home Minister BP Koirala was waving to the assembled crowd with his natural smile than I took out a small black flag from inside my shirt and about to spread it with my both hands, I saw the dazed face of Nehru for a moment. It seemed he did not believe his eyes. Immediately after that I did not remember anything because the gendarmes called as “Rakshya Dal” pounced upon me and started beating with such brutality that they left me alone thinking me dead...’
It is not only when foreign visitors alight in Nepal that the authorities forget we live in a democracy. The late Shailaja Acharya of the Nepali Congress is remembered for many things. But nothing beats her courage in holding up a black flag to King Mahendra soon after his 1960 royal coup, and for which she spent three years in jail. In spite of all its protestation to the contrary, the 30-year-long royal rule was no democracy, and one certainly cannot fault the administration of the time in its treatment of Acharya.
Guided by the ‘best constitution’, we cannot but presume our current political system is not a sham democracy. Yet, the response from the state has remained the same. Just a few months ago, two individuals unhappy with the now-discarded guthi bill were arrested in Kathmandu for showing a black flag to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. These are incidents that happen with troubling regularity with hardly any attempt by the government to rein in those responsible. Even though highly undemocratic, it is one thing for supporters of political leaders to try to block such protests but for the government machinery itself to actively stifle peaceful disagreements is hardly the sign of a true democracy.
By far the most tragic outcome of the black flag incidents has to be the death in 2018 of Ram Manohar Yadav. A resident of Bardiya district and a supporter of the-then dissident, CK Raut, Yadav had shown a black flag to the Deputy Prime Minister, Upendra Yadav, as an expression of his group’s displeasure towards DPM Yadav having accepted the current constitution. Taken into custody, Yadav died in detention 12 days later. The circumstances leading to his death are disputed but what is not is that a citizen of Nepal was placed in a police lock-up for 12 days for simply exercising his right to free speech.
‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ the quotation often misattributed to Voltaire, captures the most fundamental principle of a democratic society, and is something our politicians, of all hues, have yet to embrace and internalise. To his discredit, as someone who claims to represent the voiceless, DPM Yadav seems neither to have made any attempt to get Ram Manohar released nor, as far as I could find, is he on record for having expressed any remorse over how the arrest played out. Political scientist Krishna Khanal, got it spot on when he asked, ‘Why most of the political parties and leaders did not decry the detention and killing of a youth Ram Manohar Yadav in Bardiya district because of mere show of black flag to a Minister? Does it suit democracy? State can’t seize citizen’s right.’
Intolerance can only breed intolerance, and democratic practices once discarded are very difficult to re-establish. Elections do have consequences and what goes around does come around. That is a fact that seems to be lost on every government that comes to power. Led as we are by someone who loves spewing home-spun wisecracks at every possible chance, it is probably apt to end this piece with a Nepali adage that appears to have fallen into disuse: Malai khane baghle talai pani khanchha (A tiger that can eat me can eat you as well).
What do you think?
Dear reader, we’d like to hear from you. We regularly publish letters to the editor on contemporary issues or direct responses to something the Post has recently published. Please send your letters to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Letter to the Editor" in the subject line. Please include your name, location, and a contact address so one of our editors can reach out to you.