EDITORIAL: Government needs to hold public discourses before introducing changes to the Guthi system

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - The police’s handling of the situation is telling of the state’s increasing intolerance of protests.

In yet another example of the growing intolerance of state agencies to democratic norms, the police on Sunday employed a water cannon and baton charged peaceful protestors at Maitighar Mandala. The protest was against a proposed bill that activists say will dismantle the centuries-old Guthi tradition of the Kathmandu Valley. This is not the first time that the police have used excessive force on peaceful protestors fighting to conserve cultural institutions or lands that connect to their heritage. The use of such force against peaceful protestors not only contravenes the spirit of democracy and encroaches on the right to free expression, but it also points to the apathy of the state towards indigenous heritage and culture.

The protests on Sunday came after the government tried to push through a bill aimed at severely changing the Guthi system in the National Assembly--without public consultations with stakeholders. The Guthi system is an ancient cooperative structure that ties income from land that the guthis own to the protection and perpetuation of socio-cultural rituals and norms, or religious institutions and infrastructure. The guthis can be further divided into public and private ones--with the latter consisting of members picked from a single family or community. All public guthis currently fall under the umbrella of the Guthi Sansthan, a regulatory authority.

The current controversy has many aspects. Private guthi members are worried about the loss of their culture since the new bill provisions for all private guthis to be converted into public ones. Public guthi members are protesting what they see as an attempt by the government to provide land mafias access to guthi-held lands. Currently, people can build houses and buildings on guthi lands but the income--such as taxes and lease monies--are used by the guthis to support the cultural practices or infrastructures they were created to maintain. The land still belongs to the guthis. The new bill attempts to allow for the permanent transfer of guthi lands to private hands. It was under this context that the concerned protesters gathered at Maitighar Mandala to voice their dissent peacefully.

The police’s handling of the situation is telling of the state’s increasing intolerance of protests. Last year, the government received a lot of flack for attempting to limit protests to just seven places in the Kathmandu Valley, banning public protest everywhere else. And Prime Minister KP Oli has publicly implied many times that nothing is as important as development, and achieving ‘prosperity’. Then, in March 2018, the Nepal Police had fired tear gas and used water cannons against people protesting against the road development projects in Kokhana and other local areas that affected the locals’ cultural sensibilities and rights. In Sunday’s protest, the police used high-velocity water cannons and batons, injuring at least six people while doing so. This use of force to control a peaceful demonstration is wrong.

The government and its agencies need to understand that protest is an essential part of democracy. Protests are especially important for minority groups and the indigenous population, like the Kathmandu Newars, to have their voices heard in the face of a majority that largely turns a deaf ear to their demands. In cases such as the current one, where a majority government is attempting to push through a bill without holding consultations, protests can help to bring a topic to public attention and start a discourse.

Moreover, the prime minister needs to understand that, although development and prosperity are essential, they cannot be achieved while suppressing the rights and freedoms of the people, even if the people are in the minority. If the government believes that the new bill will be beneficial, it needs to make amends and hold debates with all concerned stakeholders and the larger public.

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