Four Fasting Citizens: Satyagraha & the Cul-de-sac of Accountability

From (21 January, 2014), Edited version

The four individuals on fast-unto-death in Nepal are reacting to the cul-de-sac of accountability the polity finds itself in, responding with self-sacrifice as the only way they think will be effective.

There are four individuals on fast-unto-death in Nepal today, even as the politicians put in responsible places by the people through the elections of 19 November struggle to form a government. The interim government is on its way out, and the responsibility for the demands made by the individuals who are fasting lies on the shoulders of the democratic parties (especially the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML) that have together been given overwhelming mandate by the voters.

All four citizens on hunger strike are in the fight for rule of law and accountability, by the tradition of satyagraha used by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Their crusade is to clear the cobwebs that ensnare our polity, created by years of constitutional derailment starting with the decade-long internal conflict and nearly eight years of transition – all of which weakened and polarised the political parties , civil society, bureaucracy, security forces and, finally, the judiciary. The four are citizens who understand the depth of the crisis in terms of absence of rule of law and of governance, and have decided on a peaceful course of protest that is personally dangerous to health and to life itself.

The triangular fast

The couple Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya Adhikary are fighting for justice in the 2004 murder by Maoists of their son Krishna Prasad. At a time when even the convicted murderer Bal Krishna Dhungel was openly walking about as member of the first Constituent Assembly, they were on lonely protest without support of activists and unrecognised by the media – sometimes dumped at points outside the Valley by the police, at other times outside the gates of the Bir Hospital Emergency Room, and once taken to the mental asylum at Jawalakhel.

Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad ended their first fast on the 47th day upon assurance by the government that action would be taken against the accused. They restarted their fast on the belief that the state was floundering in the investigations, and today are being fed proteins intravenously, on the 91st day at Cabin 16-17, Bir Hospital. (Civil/human rights activists, including this writer, have been urging the Adhikari couple to end their fast, the latest appeal being made on 10 January, after the welcome Supreme Court decision on transitional justice and following the government assigning a central police investigation on the Krishna Prasad murder. (See:

Dr. Govinda KC has been involved in delivering health to the poorest for decades, shunning positions of power-and-income in the medical hierarchy. He used his own resources to attend to disasters as an orthopaedist, in Nepal and internationally, avoiding media coverage with single-mindedness rather unique in a society where so many believe in blowing their own trumpet. As medical education in Nepal went into a tailspin, with high-grade corruption leading to poor quality in the graduating medical practitioners, Dr. KC decided to highlight the plight of the national centre of excellence that was his workplace, the Institute of Medicine at Maharajganj.

Dr. KC’s first fast brought positive change in the appointment of the dean at IOM, which was supposed to put a brake on the corrupt practice of awarding affiliations at great reward to individuals and political parties. However, the dean has since resigned and the clock turned back, and so Dr. KC went back to fast-unto-death. While this writer does not agree with the action of closing down medical services in support of Dr. KC’s cause, this in no way diminishes his battle for non-corrupt medical institutions, autonomy in their governance, quality in medical education, and medical service to the poor at affordable prices. (See also: Himal Khabarpatrika’s special issue on medical education in Nepal from a month ago.)

Sharada Bhusal Jha is an activist from Mahottari District engaged in an intense anti-corruption campaign, at a time when civil society stalwarts and assorted ngo’s merely mouth fine-sounding sentiments when it comes to the scourge of financial fraud. Exposing herself to the goons and goondas in a Tarai-Madhes made extremely dangerous and volatile by the politician-criminal nexus, she fought locally before bringing her activism to the capital. Sharada Bhusal has been alert to the corruption of the entire superstructure of representational government, assisted by the absence of elections for 16 years for the Village and District Development Committees around the country – and no elected representative at the helm of these local bodies for 11 years.

Not getting a hearing despite her activism in the districts of the Tarai-Madhes, Sharada Bhusal took her fight to Kathmandu Valley, where she staged a hunger strike in early 2013. Today, she is once again on a unique fast, at the Open Air Auditorium (Khula Manch), in solidarity with the Adhikari couple and Dr. KC. Her intention this time is to draw attention to the campaign for accountability and rule of law being waged simultaneously at the Bir and Teaching (IOM) hospitals.

The keyboard critics

The campaign for justice being waged by the four citizens is quite unlike the opportunistic ‘fast-unto-death’ of so many politicians, who quickly seek excuses to start eating once managing to attract attention. This is also quite different from the ritualistic ‘relay fast’ done every so often by all kinds of so-called activists – nothing more than a dieting exercise and of limited social value.

It is also true that, sometimes, individuals on a fast-unto-death may be doing it unreasonably. However, no one can doubt the cause of the four who are in fast, whose fight is for constitutionalism and rule of law. This, after all, is the track that leads from human rights to accountability in government, to rule by law that not only protects citizens but guarantees investments and makes economic growth possible (which then should lead to equity through watch-dogging by an alert civil society). Fighting for different causes and in different locations, most likely not knowing each other, Dr. KC, Gangamaya, Nanda Prasad and Sharada Bhusal are engaged in individual crusades to extricate society from the deep well it finds itself in.

The social media is, of course, abuzz with critics of these citizens who are in hunger strike for a cause. Among the commentators are those social critics who piously announce that fasting-to-the-death is nothing more than suicide, that it is both immoral and illegal. But this is an easy positioning vis-à-vis the individuals who are willing to give up their very consciousness and existence for a cause they believe to be important to themselves, their families, and society at large.

There can be people who will go on a fast on this or that issue, unreasonably, so the best way to ‘evaluate’ the ongoing fast of the four citizens is to check whether their demands are important for society’s stability and advance (the much-abused term ‘agragaman’). On this count, there can be no doubt that the battle to cleanse the IOM and medical education generally, to bring accused murderers within the bounds of criminal procedure, to ensure clean government from the village council to Singha Durbar – are urgent matters in the life and running of the nation-state.

The correct reaction for those who would question fasting as the proper response would therefore have to be – provided they find the cause as just and only the method faulty – to take up the agitation themselves and add to its strength. If one believes in the cause, one should be active in the fight before gaining the right to question the method used by Nanda Prasad, Gangamaya, Dr. KC and Sharada Bhusal. And so each of us, rather than taking the easy path of armchair- or keyboard-criticism, is required to add to the voice and raised fists of defiance: against rampant corruption that has swept our society; for application of criminal procedures against killers; and for addressing the demands of those who take the extreme step of fast-unto-death.

This writer is not in favour of fasting as a method for correcting wrongs in society – anyone who believes so would have to go without eating him/herself on the issues at hand – but feels that it is important to respect the decision of those who have come to believe that this is the last resort in a country where impunity is rife. So, simultaneously with asking for the individuals concerned to break their fast, one must engage with the cause they espouse, each according to the possibilities at hand. There is no sense in over-intellectualising and waylaying the discussion, ‘philosophising’ on the appropriateness of ‘suicide’.

We must be active on the terrain that Nanda Prasad, Gangamaya, Dr. KC and Pushpa Bhusal are engaging – for accountability, against corruption, for the procedures of criminal justice, and for diligent response by the political powers to the demands. This leaves the need for institutional response on the shoulders of those in the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML preparing the take the helm of government, and to each and every member of the new Parliament/Constituent Assembly.

Democratic spirit

This triangular fasting by four citizens – at the Bir Hospital, Teaching Hospital and Khula Manch – provides a barometer to the level of impunity in Nepal and the inability of political institutions to respond amidst the chaos and befuddlement. The people of Nepal have spoken in the November elections, and the real burden of accountability has shifted to those who have been elected to the new Parliament/Constituent Assembly. However, we cannot wait for the government to be formed and the House to sit. The lives of the individual citizens on hunger strike hang on balance. All of civil society must come to their side without delay, to understand their fight as one waged for the entire country, by four individuals of the finest democratic spirit.



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