Khula Manch was closed in 2016 for six months. Plans are finally afoot to open itAs the City plans to open it next week, it will reduce traffic snarls during political protests, and the open area will give people space to express themselves in a democratic society.
Spring has traditionally been the season of political protests in Nepal. The people’s movement of 1990 to abolish the three-decade old one-party panchayat rule took place in the spring. The 2006 people’s movement that ultimately ended the centuries-old monarchy also took place in the spring.
As spring approaches this year, it seems like political protests are going to be a frequent occurrence. So far political mass meetings, ever since Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli dissolved the House of Representatives on December 20, are being held on the streets to the dismay of the people as traffic chaos lasts the whole day.
The latest of these shows of strength by the two factions of the warring Nepal Communist Party factions took place on Wednesday. The Pushpa Kamal Dahal-Madav Kumar Nepal faction of the Nepal Communist Party bussed people from different parts of the country for a mass meeting at Bhrikutimandap. Earlier in the day, rallies began from different parts of the city to converge at the site of the mass meeting where leaders addressed the gathering.
Getting from one place to another for the common people was a nightmare as traffic could hardly move.
Last Friday had been the turn of the Oli faction of the party to hold a mass meeting. The assembly was held at Durbar Marg and public buses were not even allowed inside the Ring Road for the day.
According to the Metropolitan Traffic Police Division if only the political parties have their mass gatherings in Khula Manch, nearly 40 percent of traffic jams in Kathmandu can be controlled.
But since 2016 the historic Khula Manch, where leaders like Bishwesor Prasad Koirala, Ganesh Man Singh, Man Mohan Adhikari and Madan Bhandari held the masses spellbound with their orations, has been a dumping ground for construction materials for the extension of Bir Hospital and the reconstruction of Durbar High School.
"That space was never meant to be used for stocking building materials,” said Birendra Bhakta Shrestha, former politician turned cultural activist. “It was a valued space and they couldn't keep up with its value.”
But whatever may be the symbolic value of Khula Manch, for practical purposes, the re-opening of space would be a relief to the traffic police.
“If the city removes all those structures and makes the Khula Manch a place for political gatherings, this is going to be great relief for traffic police,” said Superintendent of Police Shyam Krishan Adhikari, also a spokesperson at the division.
This is what the Kathmandu Metropolitan City is planning to do.
According to Ishwor Man Dangol, spokesperson at the City, it is clearing it because China funded Durbar High School reconstruction is completed and over 90 percent of the Bir Hospital extension construction has been completed.
“They had kept their construction materials, now they are done with it, so we are clearing it,” said Dangol. “We will be clearing the half portion of Khula Manch by next week.”
For civil society, this is welcome news.
“I think it's a good decision that KMC is thinking of opening the space to people and although their decision comes very late, it's good that they made that decision,” said Daman Nath Dhungana, a prominent member of the civil society “People have the right to speak out and we need more spaces where they can present their views and Khula Manch is one such space."
Khula Manch, to the south of Ratnapark and east of Bir Hospital, holds a great political significance.
Since the 1990 people’s movement the spot has become a place for political gatherings. For the past three decades the place has seen different changes in the country from throwing away of the one-party panchayat system to the abolishment of the monarchy.
“The government has the responsibility to provide such democratic spaces, instead of prohibiting public spaces,” said Dhungana.
The City used half of Khula Manch, once 48 ropanis (24,406 square metres) of public land, to construct a temporary bus park while the old bus park was emptied to construct a view tower in 2016. The bus park was to be shifted for only six months, but half a decade have passed but the City is not concerned about taking back the buspark to its old place.
Heritage activists, local residents and conservationists in 2019 had organised a series of citizen-led programmes with a slogan ‘Occupy Tundikhel’, to regain the open space of Tundikhel and one of the demands had been to make Khula Manch free of encroachment.
But Kathmandu Metropolitan City Mayor Bidya Sundar Shakya had dismissed the citizen-led movement as political propaganda started by some individuals to gain political favour.
"Ever since Khula Manch came under the KMC's supervision it has limited people's interaction with the space,” said Shrestha. “We see KMC's carelessness and indifference in all issues including Kamal Pokhari, Rani Pokhari, and even Khula Manch—they have been creating one issue after another, and we don't have enough people pointing this out to them.”
Another conservationist Alok Siddhi Tuladhar who has long been fighting to preserve the cultural heritage and one of the leading campaigners of ‘Occupy Tundikhel’ welcomed the city’s move.
“Though it’s late, the city has made this announcement, the city must shift the temporary bus park back to the view tower’s basement, and let flourish this open space” said Tuladhar.
But heritage activists are suspicious of the move to free up the space at Khula Manch.
“It looks really fishy. The city can’t make its independent decision,” said Ganapati Lal Shrestha, one of the campaigners of the Occupy Tundikhel.
Some right activists suspect that Prime Minister Oli himself might have ordered to clear Khula Manch, so that he can address from there at the next mass meeting to counter the disgruntled Dahal-Nepal faction.
When Oli had organized a mass meeting at Durbarmarg on Feb 6, with the Narayanhiti Palace as the backdrop there had been criticisms of Oli trying to reclaim the seat of the Hindu monarchs.
“This might be another tactic from the Oli government. He will do a mass gathering from Khula Manch and announce that political parties are not allowed to do mass gathering obstructing the road,” said one of the participants of the citizen-led movement, who didn’t want to disclose his name.
The traffic police had earlier been asking the Kathmandu Metropolitan City to make Khula Manch available for mass meetings.
“Earlier also we had reached KMC numerous times to request it to make Khula Manch open, but it didn’t listen to us,” said Adhikari. “If the city really clears the Khula Manch, that would be a sigh of relief for citizens and the traffic police.”
But sooner or later authorities must open Khula Manch as public space, say activists.
"The decision to finally open the space may be for political reasons but it is for the better because the demonstrations we saw yesterday in Bhrikutimandap and in the past months have affected the people of the city,” said Birendra Bhakta Shrestha. “Demonstrations like that are not for the road. And Khula Manch was a space for such demonstrations in the past as it provided people with a democratic space where they could freely express themselves."
Srizu Bajracharya contributed reporting.