Empowered through battle, a victorious people savour their moment.
26 April 2006
Now for a Constituent Assembly
Empowered through battle, a victorious people savour their moment
WHAT NEPAL has witnessed over the past three weeks is a show of popular defiance unique in the world. Unlike the "velvet" and "colour" demonstrations in the former Soviet bloc countries which received so much moral and financial support from Western Governments, the people of Nepal have had to stare down the advice from Western chancelleries — as well as India — to give up their struggle for democracy mid-course. And as the residents of Kathmandu reclaimed on Tuesday the streets from which they had been beaten back a few days earlier, they seemed very clear that even now final victory was still months away.
Throughout the city, groups of people walked up and down in small and large spontaneous processions, each with their own set of placards, banners and slogans. The Democratic Tourism Forum, an association of tour operators, held aloft banners warning the leaders to be careful and demanding elections to a Constituent Assembly. The Nepal Central Bank employees federation banner read, "For democracy and peace, we want a Constituent Assembly now." Two young men on motorcycles drove side by side slowly, holding a banner which said, simply, "Thank you, journalist comrades." And then there was a group of students whose main preoccupation seemed to be to hang Kamal Thapa, King Gyanendra's Home Minister, who has emerged as the fall guy for having faithfully implemented the monarch's orders to shoot at demonstrators.
Crowd turns nasty
It was on Darbar Marg, near the historic clock tower and within visibility of the gates of the Narayanhiti Palace, that the mood of the crowd turned nasty. Youthful demonstrators from the suburbs who had come downtown to savour their victory turned their attention to four large hoardings emblazoned with quotations of King Gyanendra. First they defaced the words "Shri 5" from the name of the Nepal Government, declaring that the country belonged to the people and not the King. Then they blackened Gyanendra's name. Egged on by others in the crowd, the youths proceeded to batter the hoardings and wrench them from the poles to which they were attached. As each strip of painted metal came free, it was flung on the ground and trampled over by dozens of angry protesters. "Long live the republic," they shouted, "Netaru, savdhaan [Leaders, be warned]."
Despite the menace inherent in the proximity of more than 100,000 people to the palace gates, the atmosphere festive, even carnivalesque. Vendors of "Mount Ebherest" ice cream did brisk business as Ratna Park nearby slowly filled up. Families had come with their children. Communist and Nepali Congress flags were everywhere. "We want to burn the crown and rule the country ourselves," they shouted.
I asked one group of particularly enthusiastic slogan shouters whether they intended to try and cross the heavy police picket line and march towards the palace. They were from the suburb of Kalanki, scene of some of the heaviest fighting between demonstrators and police these past few days. Three residents had been shot dead in police firing. "I swear, if Gyanendra had not said what he did last night, we would all be there, not here today," one youth declared, pointing towards the palace. "But one day, we will definitely go there too," he added. "Now, if the party people betray us, we will finish them off," another declared.
An older man said that there was no need to get injured storming the police line. "As soon as we get our constituent assembly, we will walk into the palace ourselves."
Though the slogans against Gyanendra and his son, Paras, were virtually non-existent on Tuesday, there was no weakening of the republican sentiment so evident on the streets. "Today we are celebrating victory day," said Devendra Bista, a third-year college student.
"We can't be coming onto the streets everyday but if the parliament does not quickly decide a date for elections to a constituent assembly, all of us will be back." Another student, Sanjeevani Shreshta, said the monarchy had to go. "The monarchy here goes back to Kulmandan Shah and now there is Gyanendra. From `ka' to `gya', we have covered the entire Nepali alphabet. This is now the end." But what about Paras, I ask. "To go from `gya' back to `pa', they will need to invent a new script. But the people are the ones who are going to do be doing all the writing from now on."
Back at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital, where a mock referendum was held on Monday, the results were announced at a meeting on Tuesday morning: 55 per cent of ballots cast were in favour of republican status for Nepal, 42.5 per cent for a ceremonial monarchy, and 2.5 per cent for traditional monarchy.
Outside Girija Prasad Koirala's house in Maharajgunj, the scene was chaotic. Large crowds gathered from early morning, urging the leaders to push for constitutional change. When Madhav Kumar Nepal emerged later in the morning, people cheered loudly but soon started shouting, Netaru, savdhan. Some held aloft banners warning the parties not to repeat their previous mistakes. Several banners also urged the Maoists to be heed the people's sentiments for peace. Some placards pointedly warned the MPs against collecting their allowances for the four years Parliament remained suspended.
Prahlad Kumar Oli, a member of the pro-UML General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions, said the people's voice had emerged the strongest in the past few weeks. "Of course, people still feel they can be betrayed. I am sure that if the King does not agree with the parties' agenda once parliament meets, the movement will resume. Change can be postponed but not stopped." The parties, he said, also have a responsibility to be transparent.
On Thursday, the Seven Party Alliance will hold a large rally in Ratna Park where they intend to announce their programme once parliament is restored.
Promise to continue struggle
At the T.U. teaching hospital, the local pro-democracy coordination committee promised to continue the struggle till a constituent assembly was elected and peace established. Dr. Arun Sayami, president of the Cardiac Society of Nepal, said now was not the time for people to take out a victorious sindoor yatra. "This is just the beginning of the revolution." "Until yesterday, people lived at the mercy of the King but from today, it is the king who has to live at the mercy of the people," he declared to loud applause. He drew even louder applause when he said that the ball was now in the court of the parties and that if they betrayed peoples' expectations, "the people will hang them."
But Dr. Sayami also had some words of advice for the Maoists. "What has happened today is also a victory for the Maoists," he said. "The slogan of constituent assembly was their slogan and most people used to oppose them on this. Today, the whole of Nepal is for a constituent assembly. So the Maoists should give up violence and join the peaceful process. What their armed struggle could not achieve in 12 years, people have achieved peacefully in 19 days."
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