Nepal loses rare purpose-driven leaderUjwal Thapa led by example to nurture leaders to make public service their highest calling in life
Ujwal Bahadur Thapa, an influential social activist and the founder of Bibeksheel Nepali Dal -- Nepal’s first values-based and youth-led political party -- passed away on the 1 June in Kathmandu from Covid-induced complications. He was 44. He is survived by his parents, wife Erica and a younger brother who lives overseas.
Born to a middle-class family from Syangja in central Nepal, Ujwal completed his secondary education at Budhanilkantha School in Kathmandu. Classmates nicknamed him “maverick” after he outscored them by submitting cartoons and sketches as answers in an O-level English literature final exam.
The sciences were his strength, and he soon earned a full scholarship to study astrophysics at Bennington College in Vermont.
“For a deeply conservative teenage boy from the hills of Nepal,” he once said, “I found Bennington’s ultra-progressive, liberal values both intriguing and jarring.”
He became a serious computer gamer “often playing it to the wee hours of the morning”, studied Buddhism, rediscovered his passion for the arts, changed his major to focus on the design side of computer science, and even flirted with the idea of dropping out altogether to join a monastery in Berkeley.
After graduation, he returned to Nepal, “without a clear idea about what to do next and probably as a disappointment to my parents and relatives”.
Nepal’s civil war was its peak, and he thought he would be useful if he became a mediator to resolve political conflict at the local level. He traveled to Rolpa, Surkhet, Syangja offering mediation training programs.
He later recalled this experience as an eye-opening one, for he got to work with community members and listened to their concerns and hope for a better future. Emotionally, the work was nourishing, but it did not pay much.
And so, putting his degree to work, he started a computer design company, which, at its peak, had 35 employees, and was among the first Nepali firms to take order from and ship completed IT work to clients in the United States.
Others would attempted to take such a company to greater financial heights, but Ujwal said he derived enormous satisfaction that many of his employees left to start their own companies – creating, in the process, more entrepreneurs, more skilled jobs and more income for many.
He quickly realized that that there was hardly any mentorship support for young Nepalis in market linkage, funds and wider network. To assist them, he started Entrepreneurs for Nepal (E4N) in 2007 to host monthly talk programs, training and link investors with entrepreneurs.
He kept the group going through thick and thin, ensured that the finances were clean and the organisation was lean. He collaborated with other like-minded institutions and roped in sponsors to pay for the activities. Thanks to his seeding, the initial model of operations, the group now has its own active Facebook page with almost 120,000 members. It is credited with having kick-started Nepal’s innovation-driven entrepreneurial movement, which gets stronger with each passing year.
Ujwal later said that he nurtured this group with a belief that successful entrepreneurship in our part of the world remained one of the most overlooked democratising forces, for it paid little attention to the privileges of caste, family origins, education and connections.
In this, so far, he has been proven right, for many young and diverse Nepali entrepreneurs, armed only with their determination and hard work, have launched and grown successful businesses through the support of E4N and similar networks.
With the Maoist war coming to an end, violent street agitation was common in Nepal. On the flimsiest of excuses, political parties routinely shut down and paralysed the entire country, making movement impossible and making life difficult for ordinary people.
The shutdowns or bandhs often went on for days. Declaring that enough was enough, Ujwal with friends, led rallies and campaigns against shutdowns. At a time when engaging in violence and vandalism was the default state for most Nepali political parties, it was courageous of him to encourage and lead people in a silent manner, out on the street to defy the forced shutdowns. Emboldened by Ujwal’s repeated public rallies, citizen groups sprang up in many parts of Nepal to counter shutdowns and the attendant violence.
Read also: Ujwal Thapa's light shines on, Kunda Dixit
At around that time, disappointed that the first Constituent Assembly (CA) of 2008 had failed to deliver a new Constitution, Ujwal wondered what sort of political leadership Nepal needed. He gathered like-minded young people for weekly meetings. Over time, these led to the birth of Nepal’s first youth-led alternative political party called Bibeksheel Nepali Dal.
Ujwal was elected as its leader, and he contested a seat in the CA elections in 2013. Though he lost, he left memorable impressions on many voters who found his brand of engaging citizens to hold politicians to account, his way of organising people to the dream of a better future for themselves and their children, and his way of promoting younger people to take leadership positions refreshing and optimistic.
Ujwal led the Bibeksheel Nepali Dal till 2017. He learnt and mastered the nitty-gritty of running a political party on a shoe-string budget and while managing many conflicting, contradicting personalities and the media that hardly gave him much thought. But he was able to attract many young, driven and idealistic people to the party.
Asking them to figure things out by themselves and by seeking help from others, he gave them leadership responsibilities that were often beyond their immediate capabilities. But he always supported and challenged them to do their best – which they all did -- and taught them to set up an accountable and transparent system of internal party governance.
In the summer of 2017, he led the merger of that 4-year-old political party with Sajha Party, which had just been started by Rabindra Mishra, a former BBC journalist. Ujwal was unanimously chosen as one of the two Co-ordinators of the resulting Bibeksheel Sajha Party.
Ujwal contested from KTM-5 in the 2017 general elections against traditional politicians who not were years senior to him, but were also deeply entrenched in the old clubby system of the political machinery.
Ujwal collected funds from urban professionals, released daily videos, and made his campaign’s financial transactions public. Many young people, tired of the same old political faces, flocked to serve as interns and volunteers.
After losing the elections, Ujwal traveled across the country to engage with citizens, and to drum up support for his vision of inclusive leadership that put public service above self-service, public welfare above corruption, and fought against ‘loot-tantra’, a term he coined and made popular.
Quiet yet public-spirited and unassuming yet keenly observant, Ujwal loved to create what he called “tribes and groups”. Once a group got going, he would hand over the leadership to someone younger. This was evident in his creating the entrepreneurs’ groups, campaign groups that worked against violence against women, and groups that rallied against bandhs.
He believed that with a critical mass of people doing good work in different groups in various public spaces, connections should be made among them to fuel bigger social and political movements that could eventually make change happen for the better.
As such, he was persistent about going from one group to another, learning from one and sharing in another, getting to know people and then introducing them to others, and always looking for ways to knit and stitch together a shared vision for a society that put the Bibeksheel values of servant leadership at the center.
Indeed, when he led his breakaway faction out of the merged Bibeksheel Sajha Party in 2019, his primary concern was that the new party had not only discarded Bibeksheel’s participatory decision-making system, but also lost its experimental culture which valued encouraging the young to take initiatives and adapt with agility than have them wait to carry out instructions from the top.
The year 2019 was Ujwal’s transition year from being a public figure to someone who wanted time alone to figure out what he wanted to do next. He handed over the Bibeksheel leadership duties to Milan Pandey, who later led the re-merging of Bibeksheel with Sajha in a bid to create unity among the alternative political forces.
Ujwal spent a month at Stanford University as a Draper Hills Fellow, where he learnt how autocrats around the world used seemingly democratic methods to derail democracy to hold on to power. He worried that this was exactly what was happening in Nepal too.
In the last year and half, Ujwal was deepening relationships with alternative politicians in India and elsewhere, while taking part in public protests for better medical care of the returnee migrant workers. After more than a decade in voluntary public service, he was also looking for ways to financially sustain his family, and wanted to commercially scale up his smallholder coffee farm in Syangja.
In early May, he was on a trek back from the Everest region when he caught the virus. His untimely demise, after two weeks in three hospitals, came a shock to all his supporters and well-wishers. With him gone, Nepal has lost a rare purpose-driven leader who never sought credit for his work, and whose sole mission in life was to patiently but surely help create a constellation of Bibeksheel political and social leaders who would go on to bring about positive change by making public service their lives’ highest calling.
Ujwal Thapa’s thoughts can be found here: https://www.whynepal.com/