Maoists lose religion battle in Nepal

September 22nd, 2008 - 1:45 pm ICT by IANS  

Kathmandu, Sep 22 (IANS) Nepal’s former Maoist guerrillas, who had fought successfully against the state army in the past and brought about the end of the Shah dynasty, were forced to bite the dust before the powerful Newar community of Kathmandu valley and pledge not to interfere with traditional religious festivals.The once armed Maoist party, which also abolished Hinduism as the state religion and transformed the Himalayan kingdom into a secular republic, had to Sunday backtrack on an ambitious budget that sought to usher in an economic revolution and cut down on religious allocations allotted by the Hindu governments in the past.

Maoist deputy chief and Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s Nepali Rs.236 billion ($3.7 billion) budget tabled in the interim parliament Friday had sought to implement austerity measures by stopping the allocations earlier made for religious festivals, most of which ended with animal sacrifices.

Unfortunately for the new Maoist government, the new budget came at a time the Newars - a community who were the original inhabitants of Kathmandu and still dominate Nepal’s business and industrial sector - were celebrating their annual Indrajatra festival that honours the rain god and is attended by the head of state.

The slashing of funds for the festival triggered a two-day uproar that saw chaos in pockets of the capital with hundreds of baton-wielding protesters forcing shops to down shutters and transport to vanish.

“The protests will continue till we get a public apology from the finance minister,” said Ananda Shrestha, a 30-year-old Newar who took part in the protests in the posh Durbar Marg area of the capital. “We regard the curtailment of the budget an attack on our culture and religion.”

The dispute gathered heat with Newar MPs from the opposition Nepali Congress party as well as other non-Newar lawmakers from other parties flaying the move in the interim parliament Sunday.

Newars, who had voted for Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda in the April election, warned that the mistake could cost the party dear in the next election.

“If the elections were held today, even the prime minister would be likely to be defeated,” said Adarsha Tuladhar, a member of the outraged community.

Veteran columnist Shyam K.C. Monday asked the government to begin austerity measures at home - with the ministers.

“The PM, just over a month after assuming office, has gone on three foreign outings, none of which were really necessary,” K.C. wrote in his weekly column in the Kathmandu Post daily. “Does anyone know how much it cost the country to send the PM on his journeys even as parts of the country burn?”

In the beginning, the government tried to suppress the protests by deploying riot police.

However, after the situation started going out of control, the finance minister was forced to open negotiations with the protesters which ended in a five-point agreement late Sunday night.

The blockade of key roads in the capital was lifted Monday after the Maoist-led government agreed to restore the slashed allocations, pay for the medical treatment of the protesters hurt in clashes with security forces and form a commission to study the socio-religious traditions prevalent for centuries and recommend within a month what to do about them.

The protests indicate Nepal still remains deeply religious and other plans of the Maoists, especially ambitious ones like scrapping the Kumari or living goddess system, are now likely to be quietly abandoned.

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