Lessons from the fifteenth hunger strikeIssues of life and death should not be politicised; medical education is one of such issue
When Dr. Govinda K.C. finally broke his 27-day hunger strike last week, the nation breathed a huge sigh of relief. The government’s refusal to incorporate the core elements in the Medical Education Ordinance in their draft Medical Education Bill had triggered KC’s fast for the 15th time in recent years. The elements in dispute were: a 10-year moratorium on registration of new colleges in Kathmandu; limiting the number of colleges a university could affiliate, and the provision of 75 percent scholarship in government medical colleges. These elements represented the substance of concessions KC had won from previous governments through his past hunger strikes and the Mathema Committee’s recommendations on medical education.
The nation writhed with uncertainty and feared violence for the first 26 days of his fasting when the government battled KC’s outraged supporters, which included the youth and student wing of the ruling party. As the situation deteriorated rapidly, Prime Minister K.P. Oli personally intervened and led the breakthrough.
The misinformation campaign
The campaign to discredit KC started when Oli asked party members to unite against countering the opponents of the Bill. And the misinformation were centered around a few talking points: KC is a partisan anti-communist Nepali Congress lackey—he’s not and has fasted seven times protesting against the Nepali Congress-led government; street protests undermine parliament’s authority and are inappropriate—they’re not, and are allowed by the constitution; KC is a disgruntled civil servant, his voice need not be heard—KC is a civil servant and has every right to protest against social injustice; Kedar Bhakta Mathema, the chair of Mathema committee, is a hypocrite who approved the registration of a number of private medical colleges during his tenure as the Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University, and is now supporting KC. There is no evidence of Mathema registering any private college however. (Full Disclosure: Mathema is a relative of the writer.)
The television debate on the bill between the Minister for Information Gokul Baskota, and Dr. Surya Raj Acharya, a concerned citizen, revealed the shallowness of the government’s position. Baskota’s response to Acharya’s articulate, logical, evidence-based arguments was parroting the talking points. He was like a drowning man gasping for breath.
The campaign got increasingly desperate as KC’s health deteriorated and his support exploded. The Minister of Law, Sher Bahadur Tamang, and his comrade, Durga Prasai, an investor in private medical college, alleged in a public forum that Nepali female students trade sex for medical certificates in Bangladesh. Their point: a moratorium on new colleges will force our young people to go abroad and expose them to abuse. They had no evidence to support the allegation. Protests demanding Tamang’s resignation erupted across the country. And now Tamang is without a job.
On July 23, two days before the breakthrough, the ruling party’s top leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a man who has made his reputation on bombast, bluster, and self-serving lies, ridiculed KC’s protest. “The society has digested KC’s fasts,” he said. Dahal was aware of the growing street protests, but protecting the interest of his comrade Durga Prasai was more important to him.
It was then that Oli made an about-face and personally intervened. He met Mathema who was acting as a mediator between KC and the government. News reports following the breakthrough suggest one of the first questions Oli asked Mathema was, “ What is the justification for a moratorium on registering new medical colleges in Kathmandu?”
Politicians could learn from what happened this time around. First, they should understand both sides of the arguments before taking a position. Do not politicize issues of life and death—and medical education is one of such issues. Recognize that ordinary Nepalis are capable of seeing through lies, deception, and misinformation—Do not try it! Know that lies are costly. Remember the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Gopal Parajuli, and the Chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, Bhupal Man Singh Karki, tried to malign KC without evidence when he charged them with corruption. Both lost their jobs.
Prime Minister Oli is not as inflexible as his petty mockery of opponents would suggest. Despite the fact that he initiated the campaign against the fifteenth hunger strike, he eventually corrected the course and deserves praise.
Others who deserve credit are Kedar Bhakta Mathema, who convinced Oli to do the right thing; Gagan Thapa, who played a major role in securing the Nepali Congress’s support to KC’s cause; the media, which covered the progression of the hunger strike objectively, and most importantly, medical professionals and ordinary Nepalis, who took to the street against the hubris of a two-third majority government.
- Koirala is a geotechnical engineer and lives in Canada