Pukar Bam is coming to terms with Nepali politics

As an impressionable teenager, he imagined that a swift uprooting of the vanguard of the older, “inept” politicians was possible, he recalls. But real power remains elusive.

Rhishav Sapkota

  • Read Time 6 min.

Kathmandu: When Pukar Bam came to Kathmandu after finishing his SLC examinations, in 2003, he wanted to become a doctor. Born in Dododhara, Kailali, he was an ace student all through his school, came from a family with doctors, and so wanted to become one himself. But he couldn’t make it through the highly competitive medical entrance exams–an early setback. The setback also came along with a revelation: he realized that he was more interested in society, the lab of politics, instead of medical labs. He decided to join St Xaviers in 2007 to study social work. Life took a detour.

Soon he found himself joining and organizing protests, peaceful strikes and counter-strikes. He went on to co-found a political party, stage a hunger-strike, and organize relief-distribution during the pandemic. As an impressionable teenager, he imagined that a swift uprooting of the vanguard of the older, “inept” politicians was possible, he recalls. But real power remains elusive. Nepal is still led by the same “inept” politicos who he so loathed when he was younger. That, however, hasn’t deterred him from his mission. Bam, who is in his mid-30s, is now in active politics as the Secretariat Leader of the Bibeksheel Sajha Party, which is led by the journalist-turned-politician Rabindra Mishra.

Nepal bandai chha

During the 2000s, political parties, their wings and student unions used to frequently resort to street protests. Nepal bandhas–nationwide shutdowns–would be called almost every other month. Realizing that the shutdowns would hamper the country’s economy and set back its progress, young activists such as the late Ujwal Thapa and Anil Chitrakar used to lead counter-protests; their protests used to be more peaceful, in contrast to the ones led by mainstream political parties. Bam began to identify with the young activists and their motivation.

“The protests and showdowns made visceral impressions on me,” Bam recalls. “I got acquainted with peaceful protestors and their notions of what activism should look like.”

Whenever the political parties called a Nepal bandha, the activists would appear on the streets with placards labeled Nepal bandai chha, a pun that also meant “Nepal is being built”.

Bam was a regular presence in these counter-protests. He might not have embraced a political ideology then. “But I certainly was politically aware by then,” he says.

The conscientious party

In 2012, having failed to promulgate a constitution in time, the first of Nepal’s two Constitutional Assemblies was dissolved. The nation geared up for the second of the two elections. People under different banners started taking it to the streets both before and after the dissolution.

By then a group of Nepal-returned graduates, entrepreneurs, and students, among others, had started to get together in Kathmandu. As Bam was taking part in these protests calling out the expensive Assembly and demanding a constitution anyhow, he found himself on the opposite end of a discourse ongoing inside the group.

He, and a few other group members, believed that the protesting group needed to transform into a political party. On the opposite end were exclusive believers in social activism, the likes of Ujwal Thapa, Pradip Pariyar, and Anil Chitrakar, he recalls. The latter lot, Bam recollects, believed that active politics would undo even the staunchest idealists.

“The freely rented Godavari Alumni Association’s hall in Thamel started hosting many heated discussions on the topic around this time,” he says. The discourses culminated in the formation of a political party–the Bibeksheel Nepali Party. The choice of party name–Bibeksheel translates to “conscientious” in English–was carefully made, Bam recalls, aiming to “prevent moral evasion”. 

Trials and tribulations

The Bibeksheel Nepali party was formed in 2012, with Bam as a co-founder. The party merged with the Sajha Party in 2017, saw a split in 2019, and eventually merged again in 2020. Bam contested in the second Constitutional Assembly of 2013 and the first Federal Parliament elections in 2017. As the co-founder and Secretariat Leader of the Bibeksheel Sajha party now, which has 3 seats in the provincial assemblies, he is yet to win an election. 

He soon found out that mere zeal and energy don’t necessarily translate to success. That zeal might also be nothing more than naivety.

As the elections for the second Constitutional Assembly neared, the first of such revelations came when the group had to collect 10,000 signatures to register their party. They missed the deadline, having verified only about 8,000 when the deadline crept in.

“We were there wanting to run a party and many of us didn’t even know we had to collect signatures to register one,” he says.

The members, then, contested the elections as independent candidates. Bam contested in the Valley in constituency 8. He lost. 

Merger and re-merger

The Bibeksheel Nepali Party and the Sajha Party merged in 2017. 

Did the process feel sour for him, seeing a party he helped build from scratch undergo a change in reigns? His answer is a swift declination. “Our party was based on accommodation, the event was a continuation of that process”, he says.

He does, however, lament that the merger saw a split in 2019.

He discerns a core reason for the fallout: a contradiction in approach when it came to fielding candidates and forming ranks. The Sajha faction, he says, preferred older, experienced professionals. The Bibeksheel faction, he thinks, was more accepting of amateur and untested candidates.

“The split drew very strong criticisms from the press and from our own party members,” he admits. ”We could have dealt with it internally and prevented the projection of an image that we were just like the traditional mainstream parties.”

Enough is Enough

On June 26, 2020, Bam, Iih, and Subani Sijapati started a hunger strike in Patan Durbar Square, in front of the famous stone spout, Manga Hiti. They were protesting against the government’s neglectful response to curb the Covid-19 pandemic. They were demanding, among other things, that the government use PCR testing for people entering the country instead of RDT tests, provide personal protective equipment for frontline workers, and maintain proper quarantine facilities.

He remembers the police personnel involved in security nudging them to drink water and assuring them that no one would know. “At night, the sound of the water coming out from the stone spout would excruciate us,” he says.

Prime Minister KP Oli met them on the 8th day of their fast but in a hospital. After further negotiations, on the 12th day, they broke their fast after signing a 12-point agreement with the government.

Helping the helpless during the pandemic

Bam is currently involved in a philanthropic initiative called “Hamro Sano Prayas” with director Min Bham. It hasn’t yet been registered as an organization but they have been collaborating with other organizations too. The initiative, initially co-funded by Bam himself, has started to draw donations through crowdsourcing.

“Through the initiative, we were providing food packets to 2 to 3000 people a day in the midst of the lockdown,” he says. 

He is also coordinating the ‘Save Nepal from Covid-19—Global Alliance’, which also consists of celebrities such as the former national cricket team captain Paras Khadka and actress Manisha Koirala, among others. It recently handed over 100 oxygen concentrators to Nepal Police, which is the alliance’s deployment partner. Bam is also one of the lead campaigners in Dr Govinda KC’s movement for reform in the medical education sector. Currently, he is doing a Ph.D. in social work from the Tribhuvan University while heading the Department of Bachelor of Social Work at K and K International College.

Coming to terms

In many senses, Bam is similar to the young boy who stepped into Kathmandu for the first time after his SLC. He still carries lofty dreams of political transformations. But he is coming to grips with the complexity of the arduous process of organizing and winning.

In Nepal, people’s loyalty to traditional parties is hard to break, he says. The political affiliation of a person seeps into their private and public life. Their promotions, tender licenses, grey deals, among other things, depend on the party they are loyal to. 

“It seems to me that political change comes slowly and takes a lot of effort,” he says, “But one must not lose hope. And I shall not.”