It was the eve of the Indra Jatra festival when Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai, in his budget speech, cut the government's funding and subsidy for festivals like Dasain and other jatras. Protests began around Hanuman Dhoka the very next day, and the areas of Indrachok, Asan, New Road and Teku grew tense. Bhattarai's logic was that since Nepal is now a secular state, it would not be right for the government to support any particular religion.
Some compared the decision to Prithbi Narayan Shah's attack on Kathmandu's Newar community when he invaded the Valley during Indra Jatra in 1769. They say Bhattarai, a native of Gorkha, did the same thing by attacking Newar culture and beliefs. The protesters claimed that to withhold money, no matter how small the sum, was an insult to their traditions and customs. Animal sacrifices are crucial in concluding the week-long jatra, but by funding these sacrifices, the government also saw itself endorsing activities that violate animal rights.
The protests, henceforth called buffalo riots, weren't very unique. Cars and buses were vandalised, traffic blockaded, shops forced to close and tyres burnt. Bowing to the pressure, the Finance Ministry signed a 10-point agreement on Sunday night and the protests were called off when it was decided that the government would continue to bear the expenses for religious ceremonies.
There are those who argue that, with the king gone, all traditions related to the old regime need to be slowly discarded. But Indra Jatra in particular has been celebrated in the Valley from the time of the Malla kings, before the Shahs took over. Such a decision by the government was sure to have repercussions, especially during a delicate time like this. It was bound to upset the feelings of people who, proud of their own culture, have been celebrating this ritual for centuries. A mature government would not make an irresponsible decision such as this?to cut funding from an important cultural ceremony?without first consulting the community.
Since the buffalo riots, responsible people of new Nepal have been asking themselves some serious questions. When a large number of people around the Kosi area and the far west Nepal have been made homeless, to protest over a small sum of money so that animal sacrifices can continue seems rather petty. In some parts of Nepal there'll be no Dasain, Tihar or Chaat because people will be surviving in temporary shelters and dreading the long cold Tarai winter which is just around the corner.
This could be the year when we say no to animal sacrifices and give that money away to a better cause. Already many Nepalis no longer sacrifice animals during Dasain and other festivals for moral and practical reasons. Why not donate that money to the flood relief fund this year? Perhaps start a kitty so that the money can be replenished every year, to be used for relief and rehabilitation during natural disasters.
Some of us had hoped that in the new Nepal, Kathmandu would have less influence on how the government made its decisions, but the buffalo riots have dashed our hopes. No other population in Nepal can protest for a few days and get their way. Only the people of Kathmandu can bully the government to agree to their demands, no matter how trivial, if they burn tyres, coerce businesses to close down and intimidate people. Very few things have changed in this new Nepal.