The people’s voiceThe government needs to look at Wednesday’s protest as a warning
Thousands of protesters marched from around Kathmandu Valley to convene at the Maitighar Mandala yesterday. The protesters had come out in full force even though the government had announced its decision to withdraw the controversial Guthi Bill on June 18. Although the Guthi Bill controversy seems narrow in scope, the thousands who joined the protests on Wednesday were fighting for a larger cause. They were protesting the way this government has time and again refused to follow the established democratic norms before attempting to push through legislation. They were also marching to highlight the state’s seeming indifference towards the concerns of the country’s minorities—in this case the Newar community.
The government has recently come under controversy for attempting to pull the same trick repeatedly in pushing bills concerning multiple sectors. Among the many, the few to have received prominent coverage have been the Guthi Bill, the Media Council Bill, and multiple amendments to the laws governing the public procurement process. In each of these cases, the government has attempted to pass legislation that would have severely affected respective stakeholders. Oftentimes skipping debates in various parliamentary committees, let alone consulting on the matter with the larger public, the government has had to backtrack on its plans to push through votes because of the outrage of the respective stakeholders.
Prime Minister Oli has made multiple public statements implying that nothing is as important as development and boasting of the over two-thirds vote the government can amass should it wish to in Parliament. Moreover, Oli’s disdain for federalism has also been well documented. However, as the people have shown in the recent protests, Oli can use the majority boast as a shield all he wants but the public will hold the government accountable for attempting to forgo discourse and the democratic norm.
But the recent protests have also shown how tired the people are of the state’s disdain towards the heritage and culture of its minorities. The Valley’s Newars have, in recent years, had to fight to save their cultural heritage many times against the state’s attempts to push through ‘development’ and ‘modernity’, without asking the people in question what they really want. They are also sick of how the government has attempted to use a heavy hand to quash legitimate and peaceful protests demanding heritage conservation. In March 2018, the police had fired tear gas and used water cannons against people protesting peacefully against the road development projects in Kokhana and other local areas that affected the locals’ cultural sensibilities and rights. And perhaps the current protests against the Guthi Bill would not have escalated to the point it did had the government not used force against the group of protesters first assembled on June 9. The use of high-velocity water cannons and batons had injured at least six people then.
The government needs to understand that, no matter the size of the electoral mandate, the public will not tolerate authoritarian tendencies anymore. After all, these are the same people that deposed a dictatorial monarch and subsequently supported the move towards a democratic federal republic. Minister for Land Management Padma Aryal, when announcing the Guthi Bill’s withdrawal, has maintained that the Bill was aimed at removing inefficiencies in guthi land management. This stems from the government’s flawed understanding that guthis are all about the land; they are not, and guthis have a broader scope encompassing culture, tradition and religion. If the government is serious about beneficial regulation, it needs to hold larger discussions with the public and also especially with the ones most affected by this—the Newar community. The government only needs to review footage from Maitighar Mandala from Wednesday afternoon to understand that the people will not stay silent any longer.