In the criticism against the Oli administration, Nepali youth are eerily silent

KATHMANDU (The Kathmandu Post/ANN) - Many young people fear the might of the current government as it is the strongest in decades while others have their own interests to protect, say youth activists.

In neighbouring India, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, via two back-to-back elections, has rendered the Congress party almost irrelevant. As the party in opposition, the Congress should have been at the forefront of criticism against the Modi administration’s controversial decisions on Kashmir and the new citizenship law. But India, the world’s largest democracy, suddenly discovered a new opposition—its youth.

Students and young people are leading demonstrations at universities and on the streets ever since the Indian parliament, on December 11, endorsed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. The youths are not only questioning the Modi government’s citizenship law but also its Hindu-nationalist propaganda and its failure to deliver on various fronts.

The BJP government may be unconcerned by the opposition in Parliament but it cannot ignore the youth.

In Nepal, the KP Sharma Oli administration too does not face any real opposition from the Nepali Congress, which faced its biggest electoral defeat in the 2017 elections in the party’s history. With a thumping majority, Oli’s Nepal Communist Party has been emboldened, taking controversial decisions and introducing legislation that threaten civil liberties, freedom of expression and press freedom.

Criticism has mounted, with the press questioning some of the most controversial bills, including the Information Technology Bill, which was passed by a House committee two weeks ago. The bill proposes a hefty fine of up to Rs 1.5 million, along with a jail term of a maximum of five years, for digital content that harasses, bullies or defames others.

But unlike India, Nepali university students and youth are largely silent.

Pradip Pariyar, a youth activist associated with the Samata Foundation, agrees that Nepali youths have failed to step up on political matters of late.

“It’s because of various factors,” Pariyar told the Post. “A majority of youths are associated with the political parties, which only speak or protest after calculating their political gains and losses.”

Large numbers of young people are also abroad, either for work or their studies, said Pariyar.

According to the national census 2011, young people comprise over 40 percent of the total population of 26,494,504. Those between the ages of 16 and 40 are considered youths by the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

But it hasn’t always been this way. The People’s Movements of 1990 and 2006 were both led in large part by students and young people. Colleges and universities like Tribhuvan University, Tri-Chandra College and Amrit Science Campus, were hotbeds of political activity. Many of today’s established leaders got their start in student politics. So it is slightly unnatural to see the youth not speaking out on matters that could directly affect their freedoms.

According to leaders from the ruling party’s student wing, it is difficult to speak out because the current structure of the party leadership does not facilitate feedback.

“There is a small circle of leaders that doesn’t allow the top party leadership to listen to our voices,” a central committee member of the Nepal Communist Party-affiliated All Nepal National Independent Student Union told Post on condition of anonymity as he feared reprisals. “The incumbent leadership both in the party and the student wing doesn’t have a culture of consultation. There wouldn’t have been much controversy if these bills were presented after proper consultations.”

But youth leaders, especially from the opposition party, admit that they haven’t played the roles required of them when it comes to speaking out against unjust laws.

“The youth will suffer the most when these laws are endorsed, so it should be to objecting to them,” Jit Jung Basnet, chairperson of the Tarun Dal, one of Nepali Congress’ youth wings, told the Post. “But I admit that we have failed to play a critical role.”

According to Basnet, both the ruling party and the primary opposition are mired in factional infighting, which has permeated down to their sister organisations. The ruling party has yet to complete the unification of its constituent UML and Maoist parties while the Congress is locked in a rivalry among its senior leaders.

“We will be on the streets once we sort out our internal differences,” said Basnet.

Then, there is also the advent of social media, which has made it easier for many to go online to express their views. Young people actively rallied behind comedian Pranesh Gautam when he was arrested for a critical film review and they did the same when rapper Vten was taken into police custody for “offending” moral sensibilities. These instances, however, are rare and tend to be limited to certain socio-political classes.

Pariyar said though youth activists have discussed the bills informally, they have yet to sit formally to take a position. But in the absence of a strong, organised opposition, whether from a political party or unaffiliated but politically conscious youth, the Oli administration has been pushing through one bill after another.

The majority government that is currently in power is possibly the strongest government, with a comfortable majority in Parliament, ever since democracy was instituted in the country. And according to Pariyar, many young people are afraid.

“The incumbent government is very powerful and many youths are afraid that it will take action against them,” said Pariyar. “They have interests and ambitions of their own and they do not want to compromise.”

But scholars who studied social movements caution against dismissing the youth so early. According to Dambar Chemjong, head of the anthropology department at Tribhuvan University, young people these days are more focused on their jobs and their studies.

“The youths have immense power to bring changes, but, the young people of today won’t come to the streets unless they encounter problems,” said Chemjong. “Controversial bills have yet to get approval from Parliament and it will take time for them to be implemented. Young people will be on the streets the day the government starts taking action based on those laws.”

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