Chand’s banda is a dud, but the general public is at the receiving endGeneral strikes are a thing of the past and such old ways of protest must be shunned, observers say.
On Tuesday, Radhika Karki, who is six months pregnant, had to walk on foot from Gongabu to Paropakar Maternity Hospital in Thapathali, about 6.2 kilometres.
“It took me about an hour and a half to reach the hospital,” said Karki in front of the hospital, who was carrying a folder of her medical report.
She did not want to miss her appointment with the doctor for her regular checkup. But she could not find any public vehicles or taxis. The Communist Party of Nepal led by Netra Bikram Chand, a former Maoist leader, had enforced a general shutdown.
“I was left with no option than to walk,” said the 33-year-old woman who did not know why there was a banda.
The Chand-led party had called the banda on Tuesday to “protest the recent fuel price hikes”.
But people like Karki in Kathmandu and across the country had to suffer.
General strikes or Nepal banda used to be a common way to express dissent and protest, adopted by Nepal’s political parties. But such forms of protest had become a thing of the past, with the last such banda experienced in February this year. On February 3, the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Madhav Kumar Nepal faction of the then Nepal Commuist Party (NCP) had called a general strike to protest then prime minister KP Sharma Oli’s decision to dissolve Parliament.
Until a few years ago, Nepal bandas were so popular that there is barely any party in Nepal that has not resorted to this form of protest. But as years passed by, the public started growing frustrated at such frequent general strikes, which not only inconvenienced their daily routines but also affected the livelihoods of millions of people. Bandas also cost the country dearly.
After the promulgation of the constitution in 2015 and subsequent elections in 2017, the country stopped seeing such protests where normal life would come to a standstill.
The Chand-led group’s Tuesday banda, however, did not have much impact.
According to police, private vehicles and motorcycles were on the road since morning.
But the poor and those from low-income groups suffered the most.
This is the first general strike by Chand’s Communist Party of Nepal since it signed a three-point agreement with the government on March 5. The agreement meant Chand would stop his underground politics. The deal was that the Communist Party of Nepal would seek to resolve all its political issues through dialogue and carry out all political activities in a peaceful manner, and the government, in return, would lift the ban imposed on the party’s activities and initiate the process to release the party’s cadres and withdraw cases against them.
On Tuesday, police detained over 60 demonstrators from across Kathmandu Valley.
According to Senior Superintendent Ashok Singh, chief of the Metropolitan Police Range Kathmandu, no untoward incident was reported.
“We had mobilised over 2,000 police personnel across the Valley to maintain law and order,” Singh told the Post. “There were no reports of vandalism or property losses as the police detained those who were making such attempts.”
According to data provided by Nepal Police, at least six vehicles were vandalised by cadres of the party across the country, while 129 demonstrators were rounded up for clashing with security personnel or trying to vandalise shops and vehicles.
Senior Superintendent Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, spokesperson for the Nepal Police, said the demonstrators were released in the evening.
“A majority of schools and colleges were closed and the number of vehicles on the roads was less early in the morning, but later in the day, things returned to almost normal,” said Kunwar.
People, however, still suffered.
At around 2 in the afternoon, Gopal Basnet, 55, his wife Parbati, 44, and their 19-year-old daughter were waiting for a public vehicle at Maitighar to reach their home in Kandaghari, northeast of Kathmandu. Basnet said they had come to Kathmandu for their daughter’s check-up at Bir Hospital.
“Since we didn’t get a vehicle in front of the hospital, we walked up to Maitighar hoping that we would get something to reach home,” he said.
The Basnets had paid Rs1,000 for a taxi to reach the hospital earlier in the day.
“My daughter had a severe stomach ache. We rushed her to Bir Hospital, but then we found no taxi to return home,” said Basnet, who owns a tea shop in Kandaghari.
Chand’s one banda does not necessarily mark the return of general strikes, but why his party resorted to such an unpopular form of protest does raise some questions and concerns.
Since signing the peace deal with the government, the Chand’s party, which was involved in sporadic blasts and arson when underground, appears to be in a bid to establish its relevance. Chand in recent days has been meeting with a host of politicians, including his former boss Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
In February 2019, a blast in Nakkhu of Lalitpur carried out by Chand’s cadres had led to the death of one person. Two others were injured.
Months after the deadly blast in Nakkhu, Kathmandu had witnessed a series of explosions. In May that year, at least four people were killed, all of whom turned out to be members of Chand’s party trying to rig gas cylinders into explosives. The cylinders went off accidentally. In January 2020, in another similar incident, an improvised explosive device went off at Sano Bharyang in Kathmandu.
The explosion, which was targeted at the house of Shova Kanta Dhakal, allegedly a key person in the Lalita Niwas land scam, was also quickly claimed by Chand’s Communist Party of Nepal.
Chand left the Maoist party in 2012, six years after the end of the Maoist insurgency. Ever since, he has been trying to prove the relevance of the “people’s war” and for some time, he tried to launch what he called “unified revolution”.
“The general strike was organised today by Chand’s party largely to show his presence,” said Rajendra Maharjan, a political commentator. “But it was a failure and it’s high time all political parties understood by now that general strikes are the wrong way to make their presence felt. When the approach is wrong, the result is obviously wrong.”
Nepali political parties stopped resorting to general strikes after a lot of complaints from the public as well as the business community, as such bandas were having a profound impact on the country’s economy.
According to a paper published by the Nepal Rastra Bank in 2013, the average direct cost of general strikes stood at Rs1.8 billion per strike day and Rs27 billion per year during 2008-2013.
The lost output per year accounted for 1.4 percent of the annual gross output, according to the paper. The total accumulated output loss due to general strikes in the five-year period amounted to Rs117 billion.
In 2015, the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) said that strikes, blockades and protests against Nepal’s new constitution cost the economy more than $1bn.
Pashupati Murarka, former president of FNCCI, agreed that general strikes and bandas have a direct impact on the economy. He, however, said that Tuesday’s banda didn’t have much impact on the industrial sector.
“Nonetheless, people did suffer. Daily life was impacted,” Murarka told the Post.
“But the return of the banda culture would have a devastating impact on the economy that is on its way to recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic.”