Nonviolent Uprising in Nepal Restores Democracy
Alyson Lie is an intern with Peacework.
"Peace and human rights must be the priority now. The politics of violence must end." — Human rights activist Krishna Pahadi, upon his release with other prisoners of conscience, following King Gyanendra's agreement to reinstate Nepal's Parliament.
New Year in Nepal is celebrated in April. Bikram Sambat is traditionally a time for friendly gatherings, well-wishing, and preparing for the year ahead. This year, Bikram Sambat fell on April 10, 2006. Instead of celebration, a massive nonviolent political protest rocked the streets of Kathmandu, Chitwan, Pokhara, and hundreds of other cities and towns throughout Nepal.
Beginning Friday, April 7, despite government warnings of violence and "shoot on sight" orders, crowds thousands-strong marched through the streets of Kathmandu, calling for the end of absolute rule by the monarch (King Gyanendra), and the return to democracy.
Online photos began appearing on eKantipur.com: first, eerily empty boulevards — signs that the general strike (called by the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and supported by trade unions, professional associations, and academics) — was, indeed, being honored. Then, later, scenes of protestors bloodied by police batons; soldiers of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) holding phalanxes of students at gun point; clouds of tear gas obscuring the cityscape.
The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and "security" forces responded by rounding up and arresting party activists, human rights activists, and journalists. Reporters Without Borders announced after six days of protesting that 97 Nepali journalists had been arrested and 23 injured.
On the night of April 11, RNA soldiers entered a medical student dormitory and beat students with batons, boots, and fists, in reprisal for their involvement in an earlier protest gathering.
As the demonstrations continued, the EU, US, India, and the United Nations, among others, began putting pressure on King Gyanendra to stop the police crack-down on the protestors and return control of Nepal to the political parties.
Protest tactics included the general strike, mass marches, sit-ins, and vigils, and despite isolated cases of rock-throwing, remained almost entirely nonviolent. Protesters faced reprisals, house-to-house searches for suspected Maoists, and widespread police brutality. Nepalese police and "security" services killed 17 people and injured over 6000 during the uprising. In spite of these risks, partially motivated by the growing sense of outrage at the violence of the government, pro-democracy demonstrators returned to the streets each day in larger and more diverse numbers.
On the night of April 24, after seventeen days of protest, King Gyanendra announced to the people of Nepal that the parliament would be reinstated. Gyanendra's proclamation said: "Convinced that the source of State Authority and Sovereignty of the Kingdom of Nepal is inherent in the people of Nepal and cognizant of the spirit of the ongoing people's movement as well as to resolve the on-going violent conflict… we, through this Proclamation, reinstate the House of Representatives which was dissolved on 22 May 2002."
Kantipuronline reported that immediately after the king's announcement, people ran out into the streets in their bedclothes, cheering their victory and the end of the general strike.
On April 27, hundreds of thousands gathered in Kathmandu to join a massive, celebratory, pro-democracy rally called by the SPA. Now, after suffering three weeks of no income, increased prices, shortages of consumer goods and fuel, and restricted access to health care — the Nepali democracy movement enjoyed the victory. News that the Maoist rebels had initiated a cease-fire and intended to join in the political process added to many demonstrators' sense of joy following the protests.
However, the rumble of discontent could still be heard. On April 25, editor of Kantipuronline, Akhilesh Tripathi, wrote: "Officially, the general strike has been lifted by the SPA… But everything is still not "normal" in the streets. Fully aware of the past, thousands are still chanting slogans cautioning the SPA leadership that it's not just Prajatantra (democracy) they want now; they want Loktantra (true democracy)." After 13 governments in 16 years, the Nepali demonstrators are asking for a more secure footing this time around.
The King's Coup
On February 1, 2005, King Gyanendra, claiming that the party in power was unable to control the Maoist uprising in the countryside, declared a state of emergency, deposed the prime minister, and placed political party leaders under house arrest. All phone communication, local and satellite, was cut off; all airports closed; all media censored.
With the declared "state of emergency" in effect, the monarchy's security forces were given the freedom to round up anyone speaking out against the king. Journalists, human rights leaders, trade unionists, and political activists were arrested and held without trial. Just three days after Gyanendra's announcement, RNA helicopters fired on student protestors in Pokhara, injuring 15. Amnesty International reported that over 3000 political prisoners were taken during the first few months of Gyanendra's takeover.
Because of the monarch's abuses of power, the Nepali democracy movement insisted (as did the Maoists) on the formation of a constituent assembly to draft a new "totally democratic" constitution.
The Accelerating Dalit Movement
News of the New Year's uprising and celebration in Kathmandu Valley has traveled around the world. Many major papers in the US began picking up the story. The New York Times gave day-to-day coverage from Kathmandu; BBC's online site hosted a portal for reports and photos from people in the streets of Nepal.
Meanwhile, in remote villages and farming communities scattered throughout the foothills of the Himalayas, farmers are likely to have heard little about the New Year's uprising. Many farmers focus on the arduous work of tilling the steeply terraced hillsides, barely harvesting enough to feed a family.
The United Nations ranks Nepal among the 50 poorest nations in the world. Eighty percent of Nepal's 27 million people are subsistence farmers. Many live below poverty levels — they are the Dalit (the oppressed), and they comprise nearly a quarter of Nepal's total population.
Though declared unconstitutional in 1990, caste discrimination is common throughout Nepal. In the cities, Dalits are discriminated against in housing, employment, and public access. Dalits are prevented from sharing the same dining quarters as other castes; are not allowed to enter Hindu temples; and are conscripted into working for higher castes for little or no compensation.
Many Dalits living outside Kathmandu Valley are landless sharecroppers, farmers who work the land of a higher caste owner for a portion of the food. Even Dalits who are property owners must perform labor for higher caste families in the community, and suffer the same indignities as other lower caste-members. Dalits who try to defy their social status are publicly humiliated, sometimes murdered.
For Dalit women it is worse. According to Empower Dalit Women of Nepal (EDWON), "Dalits and especially Dalit women fare worse than the general population in every way. The 2.5 million Dalit women of Nepal are at the very bottom of the hierarchy of class, caste, and gender."
Young Dalit women are sometimes sold into the sex trade by their parents. EDWON reports: "7,000-10,000 women and children are trafficked to India every year. An estimated 100,000 Nepali women are sex workers there, over 80% of them Dalits. The practice of untouchability does not apply to sexual exploitation."
In the past ten years, advances have been made for Dalit human rights.
This is due partly to the 1990 constitution, partly to increasing protest and organization by Dalit Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), and, perhaps, partly to the response to the uprising by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN(M)) uprising.
Many Dalit NGOs started in the past 15 years. Among them: The Feminist Dalit Organization (1994), and EDWON (1996), both working to improve the lives of Dalit women; the Dalit Development Society (2001) promoting education for Dalit children; and the Dalit Welfare Organization (1994), working to eliminate caste discrimination throughout Nepal.
Some International NGOs stayed in Nepal, despite the "tightrope" conditions of government repression and the continuing insurgency. International organizations providing assistance with literacy, agriculture, human rights, health care, and water treatment include: UNICEF, UNESCO, Child Rights Information Network, Doctors Without Borders, Mercy Corps, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.
The Maoist Rebellion
The most dramatic influence on the Dalits and the anti-caste movement began in 1996 with the CPN(M) rebellion. In 1994, the Maoists were a part of a parliamentary alliance, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) Unity Center. The split from Unity Center is believed to have focused on the question of armed rebellion. Following the split, the CPN (Maoists) pulled out of the political process and went underground in the Rolpa District, northwest of Kathmandu.
In November of 1995, government police launched "Operation Romeo," in the Rolpa district in an attempt to capture the CPN(M) leaders. Police marched through Rolpa, conducting door-to-door searches, and beating and threatening innocent civilians,
Overall, 132 people were arrested, among them party activists, teachers, and human rights advocates. Many of those arrested report being tortured (hung by the feet; beaten with sticks; burnings). Six thousand people fled their homes. Mercy Corps estimated that police officers raped 40 women.
A 2004 Human Rights Watch report describes the impact of the Rolpa attack: "Operation Romeo drove the already disaffected and impoverished rural population toward the Maoist fold...."
One of the primary focuses of the CPN(M) strategy has been to fight against the caste system and the exploitation of women. The Center for Global Justice and Human Rights at NYU reports that the CPN(M), "built considerable support amongst Dalits and women, as their campaign included public humiliation and punishment schemes against those who practiced caste and gender discrimination. Men who committed sexual abuses against women, squandered money in card games, or behaved like drunkards were humiliated in public view. Similarly, the Maoists punished "upper-caste" community members who prevented Dalits from entering temples, selling their goods, drawing water from public wells, or otherwise subjected them to humiliation or abuse." The NYU report also notes that the CPN(M) offered free literacy courses to villagers of all ages.
Human Rights Watch reports that since the beginning of the rebellion, 13,000 have died, the majority at the hands of the police and RNA. As many as 50,000 Nepalese have been displaced, according to Tej Sunar, Director of the Dalit NGO Federation (DNF).
Though the police and RNA are most often implicated in human rights abuses in Nepal, the CPN(M) has also perpetrated atrocities.
Amnesty International has called for an end to CPN(M) human rights violations.
These include: summary executions; the torture and murder of civilians, human rights activists, and journalists; the bombing of schools; the abduction of children; and the use of children in army support positions.
As the war continued, the toll has been heaviest on the Dalit community. Dalits are forced to house, feed, and clothe CPN(M) rebels, though they can barely feed themselves. When the rebels leave, the villagers are visited by suspicious RNA soldiers or police. Because they are Dalit, they are assumed to be CPN(M) sympathizers and many have been beaten, tortured, and killed by RNA forces.
The front line of the CPN(M) rebel forces are made up of Dalits. The Center for Human Rights and Global Justice reports, "…a disproportionate number of Dalits may be dying on the front lines in clashes with security forces as very few assume positions of authority or decision-making in the insurgency." According to Democracy for Nepal, Dalit women make up half of the front line of the insurgency.
After the Uprising
On April 24, 2006, King Gyanendra acceded to returning the government to a Parliament. On April 27, the CPN(M) called a three-month cease fire.
If history can somehow manage not to repeat itself all of Nepal stands to benefit. The Nepalese pro-democracy movement is filled with hope: that the political parties will gather a constituent assembly and produce a document that wrests control of the government from the monarchy for good; that the civil rights of all Nepali people will be restored; that all Nepalese will be equally represented in the new assembly; that the CPN(M) will be true to their word and work peacefully within the process of a constituent assembly; and that the rest of the world is prepared to support the Nepalese in their struggle to govern themselves.
News from Nepal: www.insn.org, ekantipur.com; Dalit and Dalit women's organizations: Empowerment for Dalit Women of Nepal, Edwon.org; Feminist Dalit Organization, fedonepal.org; Dalit NGO Federation, DNFnepal.org.
Jagaran Media Center: jagaranmedia.org.np.