| Soldiers stand guard in Kathmandu on Friday. (AFP)
Kathmandu, Jan. 20: Streets emptied of people and traffic, shops shuttered down, markets closed, rolls of concertina coil across the main roads, armed police and army pickets at every crossing mark the beginning of a season of protests in Kathmandu valley where a day-long curfew brought Nepal’s political desolation into sharp focus.
The king of Nepal is not in Narayanhiti Palace. He is touring the eastern districts but his security forces have clamped down with a heavy hand. The Kingdom of Kathmandu has locked out the Republic of Nepal.
The curfew is a huge government failure and a massive administrative success.
Protesters mobilised by the seven-party democracy alliance from far-flung districts, thousands of whom have done arduous 15- to 20-hour journeys by road, were literally locked in the dharamshalas and shelters they have been camping in.
For the political leadership that mobilised the people has failed to implement its programme. Without a shade of doubt today’s lack of dissent in the streets of Kathmandu after a high-decibel campaign from top leaders highlights the organisational failure of the seven parties, the largest of which is the Nepali Congress.
Nepal’s political parties have fallen out of the habit of protesting, leaving the Maoists in the countryside to mop up the dissent against the king. The rebels attacked two security checkpoints in the western Nepal town of Nepalgunj today, killing at least six policemen.
There is a touch of dark humour in the method used to quell dissent. Take, for instance, this picture in Gaushala (cattleshed) Dharamshala, opposite Kathmandu’s pilgrim centre at Pashupatinath, where, Nepali Congress sources said, 2,000 of their supporters had assembled for today's demonstrations and a kind of ding-dong battle was building up in the morning.
The potential protesters were simply locked in. After some minor slogan shouting from inside the locked gates in the morning, the police went in, lathicharged the people, broke some doors and windows in the afternoon. About 200 supporters were said to have been picked up in three raids by the police.
They caned supporters in the evening too after curfew was lifted for three hours. But the protesters by then had mostly tired and had queued up for the community dinner sponsored by the party.
“I admit there is a failure of organisation of some kind but things will change,” said Madhav Nepal, UML leader, shouting from the first-floor balcony of his house in Koteswor where he was put under house arrest last night.
The seven-party alliance, backed by the Maoist rebels, are likely to again try to stage a rally tomorrow. Some alliance leaders said protesters would converge on a locality called Basantapur around 2 pm and march to Durbar Square near the palace. It is also possible daytime curfew will be renewed.
On the western edge of the city, at the Kalanki checkpoint, which was the limit of today’s curfew, a 6-km-long queue of vehicles had formed. “I have driven from Hetauda (about 210 km) in the Terai and have been stranded here since eight in the morning,” complained Madhav Atre.
Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were stranded because the police and the army were not letting them cross the Ring Road into Kathmandu. Half an hour before curfew was lifted at 6 pm, a 28-year-old heart patient, Shyam Shreshta, who was being escorted by his family in a taxi from Kalanki, was arguing with the forces to seek permission to go to a hospital.
“This is the first time a daytime curfew has been imposed,” said Shekhar Koirala, senior Nepali Congress leader early in the morning. He is in hiding fearing arrest and was coordinating the mobilisation that never really took off through the night.
Through the day, the leaders claimed that a show of strength was inevitable once curfew was lifted at 6 pm. Kathmandu burst to life with impatient citizens pouring out on the main roads, but there was little evidence of large-scale demonstrations.
Near Madhav Nepal’s house, there was an incident of minor brickbatting between protesters and the police. “Gyane chor, desh chhod” (“Gyane” ' a derogatory term for King Gyanendra ' “the robber, quit the country”) was the most popular slogan.
But today’s incidents have left little doubt that the understanding between the parliamentary parties and the Maoists is now taking root. Foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey, in a speech to Kathmandu-based foreign heads of mission, described the Maoists as terrorists.
Leaders of the seven-party alliance, however, repeatedly said the Maoists had to be brought into the mainstream. Some like Shekhar Koirala said they had been forced to choose the “lesser of two evils” ' Maoists over monarchy.
“They are a political force and cannot be excluded from any political process,” said Arjun Narsingh KC, a Nepali Congress leader in hiding.
As the first anniversary of last year’s February 1 royal coup approaches and the parties promise to foil the February 8 municipal polls called to give the monarchy some democratic “legitimacy”, the seven- party arrangement with the Maoists will be more prominent.