The 12th day of a hunger strike by youth protesters demanding better government handling of the COVID-19 pandemic ended with a 12-point agreement on Tuesday. Loosely grouped activists organised under the ‘Enough Is Enough’ banner took it as a victory.
The two young activists, Iih and Pukar Bam, who had been on hunger strike at Patan Darbar Square and moved to hospital on Friday, broke their fast unto death after the agreement was reached.
The Ministry of Health has agreed to demands to amend its directives for the management and control of COVID-19 by ensuring adequate RT-PCR testing, providing personal protective equipment for frontline health workers, as well as the proper management of quarantine facilities and contact tracing.
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‘This agreement has set a precedent for a youth-led movement not affiliated to any political party to bring about policy change through peaceful protest,’ as press statement by the Enough Is Enough group said on Tuesday. ‘However, we will remain vigilant and will monitor the government’s compliance to the agreement because failure to do so could have serious public health implications.’
The movement was launched last month with street demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence and at Mandala, which the police broke up with baton charges and water cannons. The group then decided to take the satyagraha route, and after 12 days without food and water, hunger strikers got the government to agree to most of their demands.
Besides the immediate focus on the government’s ineffective response to COVID-19, the Enough Is Enough campaign has highlighted growing disaffection of the younger generation of urban Nepalis to politicians, political parties and failed governance of the past.
The educated and often privileged youth mainly from Kathmandu spontaneously organised themselves through social media, but have been surprisingly cohesive in putting out their central message. The street action is the latest in a series that began with Nepal Unites (2010-2015), Occupy Baluwatar (2012), Justice for Nirmala Panta (2018) where young Nepalis protested everything from corruption in high places to impunity and gender-based violence.
Most of Nepal’s political agitations in the past have been student-led, mainly by unions affiliated to political parties. During the Panchayat era, underground political parties carried out their activities through their student wings like the Nepal Student Union affiliated to the Nepali Congress, All Nepal National Free Students Union affiliated to the Communist Party of Nepal.
However, unlike those student protests, Enough Is Enough is not affiliated to any mainstream political party, does not involve aggressive sloganeering, stone throwing, vandalism of government property or forced shutdowns. The campaign asked participants to take precautions like wearing masks and maintain physical separation.
Bhawana Raut, one of the organisers of the Enough Is Enough campaign says social media provides the group with the ability to network, develop ideas and communicate even though most participants did not know each other, and were only brought together by a common cause. Enough Is Enough now has more than 200,000 members on its Facebook group, making it possible to have nearly 100 solidarity protests to take place all over the country.
Nepal’s youth activists seem to have been influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. Says Raut: “It sparked protests all over the world, and could have raised awareness to question the authority in Nepal too.”
Globalisation and social media have also seemed to have influenced an evolution from protests that are violent outbursts to more creative ways to express dissatisfaction and demand action. Internet and mobile connectivity has magnified the impact of the protest far beyond the street or square where they were happening.
Social entrepreneur Raj Gyawali says the protests are “a breath of fresh air” because of the imaginative ways in which the youth voices have been raised. The unique aspect of the protest is that while it is deliberately not affiliated to any political party, it is still deeply political in its demand for change.
“Politics is embedded in everything, even if you are not affiliated to any specific political party,” says journalist Kanak Mani Dixit. “The new generation of activists may lack an in-depth knowledge of history and the current political landscape of Nepal, and just depending on social media can be the cause of this.”
Indeed, even though the movement itself may not have been political, some individual members of the groups had political affiliation especially with the alternative parties like Bibneksheel or Sajha.
Tripti Giri, a young volunteer with Enough Is Enough says, “Urban youth have always stayed away from protests and national issues because they think politics is just a dirty game. But this is different. It is not affiliated to parties, we don’t want everything to be politicised.”
Many were young Nepalis who have returned to Nepal from studies abroad because of the pandemic. Giri is one of them. She says: “I had never been involved in any protests before because I was always outside the country studying or working.”
While many say it is a positive development that young Nepali men and women who have returned want to have a say in the way the country is run, some wonder if the movement can have long-term impact.
If the youth took this opportunity to understand as well as critically analyse politics in Nepal, it can be a force for change. More informed and critical youth casting their votes in the next election could be a platform for political reform.
The great achievement of the Enough Is Enough hunger strike this time is that it forced the government to sit up and take notice. Even Prime Minister K P Oli visited the hunger strikers at the HAMS hospital last week.
Says Ujwal Thapa, the former president of Bibeksheel party: “The new generation of activists are not only changing the country but they are also transforming themselves. Finding unique ways to express disapproval, even being part of the movement has really shown the will to change in all shapes and forms.”