Siddharth Varadarajan

"We are here to tell the parties the people are watching you"

Kathmandu: Thousands of people gathered outside the Singha Darbar, seat of Nepal's government, as parliamentarians met on Friday for the first time in four years.

Less than a kilometre away, the student front of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) held a large meeting calling for an unconditional constituent assembly and a republic. Thousands attended the rally, which took place in the same park as the Seven Party Alliance programme a day earlier. Leaflets bearing a message from Maoist leader Prachanda were distributed and the speakers who spoke from the dais including a prominent student leader, Lekh Nath Neupane, who is wanted by the police warned the SPA not to betray people's expectations. Though a working relationship of sorts between the Maoists and the SPA is looking increasingly likely, the abduction of 22 Royal Nepal Army soldiers by Maoist insurgents on the day Prachanda declared a three-month ceasefire has taken observers here by surprise. Human rights groups have demanded that the trainee soldiers, who were unarmed when abducted, be released immediately.

Marginalised groups

Demonstrators outside the Singha Darbar demanded that the Royal Nepal Army be converted into a Nepal National Army. Besides the janajatis different ethnic and tribal groups other marginalised groups too converged on Parliament to make sure their voices were heard. There were Dalit activists as well as three wheel chair bound representatives of the Disabled People's Struggle and Self-respect committee. "The new constitution must be inclusive in every way, and recognise the rights of the disabled too," said Bhojraj Shrestha, convener of the committee.

Gagan Thapa, a prominent student leader of the Nepali Congress, said it was remarkable how quickly the political mood in the country had changed. A convinced republican, Mr. Thapa had been reprimanded two years ago by the NC high command simply for talking about a constituent assembly. "I still remember how I was summoned to the party office to explain myself," he said. "But things have changed now." Asked whether he was still apprehensive about the possibilities of real change, Mr. Thapa said that more than the King, he was sceptical about the political will of the parties. "If the situation on the streets becomes more normal, they may try to make the constituent assembly conditional, or reach a deal with the palace. That is why we are here, to tell the parties the people are watching you."

Questions over swearing in

With Nepali Congress leader Girija Prasad Koirala indisposed, there is still some debate about how exactly he should be sworn in Prime Minister. "Ultimately, this is up to the will of the individual leader, isn't it?" Jhala Nath Khanal, a senior leader of the CPN (UML) said when asked how his party would react if Mr. Koirala is sworn in by King Gyanendra. "If Girija babu decides to chart a new course for Nepal, he can insist that the swearing-in ceremony be conducted before the public, by the Chief Justice, or even in Parliament."

Acting on their own, MPs on Friday did rid the House of some if its royalist trappings. Most of the UML representatives, for example, flouted the requirement that they wear national dress.

Also, MPs warmly applauded CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury who attended the sitting of the House as a guest.