Dateline Kathmandu: In Nepal, novel forms of protest and familiar ones too
From a peoples' referendum to clashes with the police and even talk of petrol bombs, Nepal today is seething with anger.
25 April 2006
In Nepal, novel forms of protest and familiar ones too
Kathmandu: The rest of Nepal may yet be wondering whether and when it will get a chance to vote for a Constituent Assembly but for the students, staff, faculty and patients of one hospital in the Nepalese capital, the moment of reckoning is now.
As their own contribution to the ongoing mass upsurge for democracy, the Free Students Union at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Maharajgunj organised a little referendum, in which anyone who made it through the hospital gates during curfew on Monday could cast a ballot indicating his or her preference for ganatantra (republic), lokatantra (ceremonial monarchy), or rajtantra (monarchy).
A similar open referendum in Pokhara, King Gyanendra's preferred retreat from Kathmandu, saw 22,000 votes cast in favour of a republic, 14,000 for a ceremonial monarchy and only 53 for a monarchy of the kind that exists now.
By the time this correspondent dropped by the T.U. Hospital in the morning, several hundred ballots had been cast. "We are mostly for a republic," a student replied to my question what early trends indicated. I asked a fourth-year medical student who had just voted what he had to say to those who said Nepal's unity would be endangered if the monarchy were abolished. "Please see what's going on in the streets," he shot back. "All are united, except the King." I asked the student what his name was. "Paras," he replied, to the mocking laughter of his friends. Paras is also the name of King Gyanendra's son, a crown prince much reviled on the streets of his country.
The mood in the hospital is particularly angry for two reasons. A few weeks ago, the police stormed the campus hostel, beat up pro-democracy students and fired tear as shells in the courtyard between the teaching hospital and the children's hospital. And on Monday, the hospital was treating a steady stream of patients injured in the police crackdown on demonstrators. A senior doctor, who asked not to be identified, said the worst cases were of those injured by rubber bullets. "Of the eight cases we have received in the past few days, I am sorry to say, four people have lost their sight in one eye."
In the ophthalmology ward, we saw the most recent victims. Ram Bahadur B.K., a 16-year-old boy, had lost his left eye. "We operated on him this morning but could not save his eye," the doctor said, lowering his voice. Ram had not woken up yet and did not know he was blind in one eye.
Meanwhile, a short distance away, a large crowd of demonstrators braved curfew to march towards Narayan Gopal Chowk barely 400 metres away from the gated compound, where Prince Paras lives. The crowd taunted the police and also appealed to their sentiments "as Nepalese" to side with the people and not fire tear gas. Then they began to chant `Paras gunda, rukma jhunda (Paras is a thug, let's hang him)' and `Gyane chor, desh chhod (Gyanendra the thief, leave the country)'.
The police commander argued with them for a while before signalling his men to charge. Within seconds, dozens of policemen waded in swinging lathis and firing tear gas. The crowd ran as fast as it could, only to regroup some 100 metres away. A fusillade of stones came raining down on the police from all sides, as the residents of houses in the side streets joined in the fight. Reinforcements were rushed, tear gas and rubber bullets were fired and the crowd was eventually driven back several hundred metres.
We caught up with the same demonstrators several hours later on the ring road near Banasthali. They were now holding aloft two magnificent but slightly comic effigies of Gyanendra and Paras. This time, they were allowed to pass by a police picket peacefully. "If I can find a leader," the police commander told me, "I can make sure the demonstration remains peaceful. It is only when the protesters are without a leader that things get difficult."
Two Western photographers, wearing helmets, suddenly alight from their vehicle. "I think ever since Bush invaded Iraq, you journalists have started wearing helmets," he said. "I was stationed in Kosovo during the invasion and saw all the journalists on TV. And now I see this happening in Nepal."
I asked the police commander whether he knew the United Nations was considering banning the Nepalese police and army from lucrative peacekeeping operations until King Gyanendra handed over power. "I am not bothered," he said, adding sotto voce, "It is the Army who should be!"
Further down the ring road, towards Halchowk, headquarters of the armed police, a small group of youths has set up a burning barricade. A stick dressed in a shirt is hanging from a tree and a tyre is set on fire under it. "We are performing the last rites of Gyanendra," said a youth who gave his name as Ashok. "We are here spontaneously," he declared. "We don't have any leaders and we will not really trust anyone. Except if the seven parties and the Maoists come together. What we are doing today is just a preparation for tomorrow," Ashok said, referring to the massive demonstrations planned along the ring road for Tuesday. "My friends and I have decided we will try and stop at least 12 or 13 police trucks from crossing this spot." Are you going to put up barricades like this one, I asked. "We have had enough with barricades," he declared. "This time we are going to throw petrol bombs."