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