KATHMANDU, JAN 31 – Sharada Bhusal Jha has her detractors, but the anti-corruption activist says she is determined to stick it out.
On Saturday last week, a group of youths carrying a ‘corpse’ walked out of Khula Manch chanting “Ram nam satya ho, bhrastachar antya ho”. A barefoot lady seated in a wheelchair, head swaddled in white cloth, incense in hand, led the procession. Many bystanders nearby believed the funeral procession to be a real one, until they parsed the slogans. The lady in the wheelchair, Sharada Bhusal Jha, was silent, her eyes fixed in a stare, as if in mourning.
It was the sixth day of Jha’s silent hunger strike—the third one in the last three years. The mock funeral procession—which started out from Khula Manch, went around the city and returned to the manch—was being organised to highlight the failure of the government’s delivery system. “Justice died, injustice and corruption is everywhere,” read the slogans on the flex accompanying the procession around the city. When the procession returned to Khula Manch, the youths poured petrol over the ‘corpse’ and surreptitiously threw lit matchsticks at it after the police restricted them from burning it. As the effigy caught fire, and with the police caught offguard, Jha then clambered onto the stage and shaved her head—to mourn the death of all accountability in governance.
Jha hasn’t always used such dramatic methods to bring to light the issue of corruption. She has been protesting it for a long time, though. For over a decade, she has been taking on the authorities in her hometown of Banauli-Danauli, Mahottarai.
“There were many issues related to violence against women in Banauli-Danauli,” says Jha. “I reported those cases faced by women at the CDO office. But at the office, I saw there was much corruption. I found out the police could easily dismiss a rape case if a bribe was paid by high-profile leaders, for example.”
She said she was dismayed by the proceedings, but instead of simmering down, she decided to redouble her efforts and take on even more problems that she saw plaguing her hometown. She went on to file several cases, most of them related to the irregularities she says were taking place in the local development projects. To gather information on how the people in her village were suffering, she went door to door in the villages, talking to people about their problems.
But the thick red tape and the indifference of authorities forced her, she says, to change her tactics, and she decided to go with hunger strikes. In 2011, she went on a hunger strike for 13 days, and in 2013, nine. She was demanding investigations into corruption cases in her VDC. To pacify her when she staged a strike in Kathmandu, a 13-point agreement between Jha and the then-Chief District Officer (CDO) of Kathmandu, Chunamani Sharma, was signed on March 2, last year. Similarly, on September 23, 2011, an agreement was signed between the then-CDO, Shankar Aryal, and Jha in the presence of the then-Secretary, Dr Trilochan Uprety, from the Prime Minister’s Office.
But according to Jha, these agreements haven’t been implemented. “Why should I sign a third agreement when the two earlier agreements haven’t been dealt with?” she wrote on a piece of paper recently—she’s not just on a hunger strike, she’s now on a silent hunger strike.
Over the years, Jha’s list of grievances has grown and she’s now trying to take on not just corruption in her district but in the nation as a whole. She has a list of demands that she says the government needs to look into: the issues run the gamut from problems to do with corruption and bureaucratic intransigence to the problems of political interference and human trafficking. She also has a longer list, of 25 point demands, which asks that her past agreements be fulfilled.
She has her supporters. “Her demands are genuine,” says Pradeep Baral, a BBA student at Minbhawan Campus. “These demands are not just hers, but
also the demands of all the people in the country for a corruption-free society.”
Santa Das, who broke his left thumb during a scuffle with security personnel during her hunger strike in Baunauli-Danauli in 2011, says more people should express their solidarity with Jha.
There’s no doubt that Jha has, over the years, learned to use what some say is mere theatre to draw attention to her cause. This strike-session, for instance, will be brought to a close amidst a programme where the Garud Puran will be read in Baluwatar this Saturday.
“We are doing the last rites of the death of justice. Saturday is the 13th day. I’ll postpone the hunger strike after eating the fruits of the Garud Puran
and from then on we will stage monthly and yearly rites as per the Hindu tradition,” she recently wrote.
But perhaps because the country has seen so many such hunger strikes, there are many observers who wish she went about things differently.
Kedar Khadka, president of Good Governance Foundation, says, “From a human-rights perspective, we suggest activists not go on a hunger strike. There are 163 tools to create pressure on the government, but in Nepal only two tools are used: general strikes and hunger strikes.”
“A hunger strike shouldn’t be used to gain recognition. These two tools should be the last option. We suggest that people use other tools to create pressure,” he adds.
But in a country where corruption is rife—Nepal ranked a lowly 139th among 176 nations, according to last December’s rankings released by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index—Jha does have supporters who think she’s fighting the good fight.