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Kathmandu Letter

Philip Raphael McCann writes: Like a monstrous corpse, Kathmandu lay sprawled out on the sandy earth. I was in a swarm of congested traffic: ten-year-old motorbikes; trucks, buses, minivans from the 1960s. I gasped in dust and gusts of thick black diesel fumes. I reached the red bridge north of the city an hour late for the environmental law specialist. I heard my name called in the cacophony of vehicle horns.

“LB Thapa”, as he dubs himself these days, straddled my bike and directed me along an oozy riverbank to a building in construction where his family occupies a bare room: two beds, planks stacked in an alcove, jars of water against the partly plastered wall. His standard of living is typical of those Nepalese lawyers “who won’t lie”, he told me as we removed our shoes in the dank staircase.

“Pollution in the Kathmandu Valley is like an earthquake every day, beyond an emergency,” is the forthright view of the high-profile public interest litigator, a man once notorious in the city and under death threat. “But there is no judicial enforcement, no redress for denied justice and corruption, no rule of law. So there can be no civic responsibility in Nepal. Look at it, collapsing all around us. Here it’s just – what the hell!”

I wouldn’t have guessed, sipping tea on a cement floor, that I was a guest of a member of the “caste of kings”. He is forty-eight but looks much older as he speaks proudly of his distant relationship to those who ruled in Nepal and India in former centuries. His wife, who follows our English from the edge of a pull-out bed, is, it seems, of the “business caste” beneath him and a Newari speaker. They both understand well the need for translation of official documents so that speakers of minority languages can understand and scrutinise how government institutions act, or more often fail to act. Tackling the environmental emergency is impossible, he explains, without an end to the overwhelming sense of public helplessness and this requires inclusion of all through official use of minority languages.

Nepal experienced a rare eruption of public violence when the issue of minority language rights was contested twenty years ago by Thapa himself. Government was taken aback by the strength of feeling on the issue and in 1996 Kathmandu’s mayor recognised other languages as official; regional government followed; soon taxpayers’ money poured in to fund a mountain of translation. Monday will be the first anniversary of the new Nepalese constitution, which allows for any language to be granted official status by a government authority.

In the country’s most notorious legal case, and the first to be reported daily in print, Thaba and five plaintiffs challenged at the supreme court the office of the mayor and local government across the country for acting unconstitutionally on the issue of language rights. At the time government had no jurisdiction to address this popular demand as the constitution provided for a single official language.

Nepal has had a long period of political instability, with governments rarely lasting longer than a few years, swings from democracy to monarchy and back again, massacres, states of emergency, political impasses. According to many, this heightens the importance of constitutional law, which endures. Conversely, the government’s arbitrary action on language status was unsatisfactory to Nepalese speakers, afraid of being dominated by loud minorities. The previous census report showed only 35 per cent of Newari speakers in the Kathmandu valley. Nor did minority language rights on an unconstitutional basis provide long-term protection for them. These fine points, however, were lost on vociferous crowds and this case marked the peak of Thapa’s life troubles.

The Young Taman Tigers Association, backed by the Communist Party, had already circulated pamphlets offering a 500,000 rupee reward for Lal Bahadur Thapa’s severed head for opposing their rights. Now it was too risky for him to continue fighting for environmental responsibility. He went into hiding, adopted his current moniker and gave up on the legal profession. “Anyway, I was tired proving government neglect to no avail. Finally when it did seem to act in the public interest, it did so illegally. It’s a cruel joke.”

It was getting late for me and I needed to return my motorbike to the rental store before it closed. Thapa rode with me in the rain shouting out directions. In our last few minutes together we strolled among crowds through Thamel, the grimy tourist area. This active Nepalese citizen who compelled the supreme court to clarify minority rights in a new constitution was clearly an anonymous man today, neither hunted nor revered. 

28/9/2016