Pukar Bam wanted to be a doctor when he arrived in Kathmandu after finishing his SLC exams in 2003. He was born in Dododhara, Kailali, and was an ace student throughout his school years. He came from a family of doctors and aspired to be one himself. However, he was unable to pass the highly competitive medical entrance exams, resulting in an early setback. The setback came with a revelation: he realized he was more interested in society, the lab of politics, than medical labs. In 2007, he decided to enroll at St. Xaviers to study social work. Life took a turn for the worse.
He quickly found himself participating in and organizing protests, peaceful strikes, and counter-strikes. During the pandemic, he went on to co-found a political party, stage a hunger strike, and organize relief distribution. As a naive adolescent, he imagined a swift uprooting of the vanguard of older, “inept” politicians. However, true power remains elusive. Nepal is still governed by the same “inept” politicians he despised when he was younger. That hasn’t stopped him from carrying out his mission. Bam, now in his mid-30s, is the Secretariat Leader of the Bibeksheel Sajha Party, which is led by journalist-turned-politician Rabindra Mishra.
Nepal bandai chha
During the 2000s, street protests were frequently used by political parties, their wings, and student unions. Almost every other month, Nepal bandhas (national shutdowns) would be called. Recognizing that the shutdowns would harm the country’s economy and impede progress, young activists such as the late Ujwal Thapa and Anil Chitraker used to lead counter-protests; their protests were more peaceful than those led by mainstream political parties. Bam began to identify with the young activists’ motivations.
“The protests and clashes left a visceral impression on me,” Bam says. “I became acquainted with peaceful protestors and their ideas about what activism should entail.”
When political parties declared a Nepal bandha, activists took to the streets with placards reading Nepal bandai chha, a pun that also meant “Nepal is being built.”
Bam was a regular at these counter-protests. He may not have supported a political ideology at the time. “But I was certainly politically aware by that point,” he says.
The conscientious party
The first of Nepal’s two Constitutional Assemblies was dissolved in 2012 after failing to promulgate a constitution on time. The country was preparing for the second of two elections. People began taking to the streets under various banners both before and after the dissolution.
By that time, a group of Nepal-returned graduates, entrepreneurs, and students, among others, had formed in Kathmandu. Bam found himself on the opposite end of a debate within the group while taking part in these protests calling out the expensive Assembly and demanding a constitution in any case.
He and a few other members of the protesting group believed that the protesting group should be transformed into a political party. On the other end of the spectrum were ardent supporters of social activism, such as Ujwal Thapa, Pradip Pariyar, and Anil Chitrakar, he recalls. According to Bam, the latter group believed that active politics would bring down even the most ardent idealists.
“Around this time, the freely rented Godavari Alumni Association’s hall in Thamel began hosting many heated discussions on the topic,” he says. The discussions resulted in the formation of a political party, the Bibeksheel Nepali Party. Bam recalls that the party name, Bikeksheel, translates to “conscientious” in English, was carefully chosen in order to “prevent moral evasion.”
Trials and tribulations
Bam was a co-founder of the Bibeksheel Nepali party, which was founded in 2012. The party merged with the Sajha Party in 2017, then split in 2019, before merging again in 2020. Bam ran in the second Constitutional Assembly elections in 2013 as well as the first Federal Parliament elections in 2017. He has yet to win an election as the co-founder and Secretariat Leader of the Bibeksheel Sajha party, which now has three seats in provincial assemblies.
He quickly discovered that zeal and energy alone do not guarantee success. That zeal could also be mistaken for naiveté.
The first such revelation came as the elections for the second Constitutional Assembly approached, when the group was required to collect 10,000 signatures in order to register their party. They missed the deadline because they had only verified about 8,000 people when the deadline approached.
“We were there wanting to run a party, and many of us had no idea we needed signatures to register one,” he says.
The members then ran as independent candidates in the elections. Bam ran in Valley District 8 as a candidate. He was defeated.
Merger and re-merger
In 2017, the Bibeksheel Nepali Party and the Sajha Party merged.
Did seeing a party he helped build from the ground up face a change in leadership sting him? His response is a quick declination. “Our party was based on lodging, and the event was a continuation of that process,” he explains.
He does, however, express regret that the merger was broken up in 2019.
He identifies a central cause of the fallout: a schism in approach when it came to fielding candidates and forming ranks. He claims that the Sajha faction preferred older, more experienced professionals. He believes the Bibeksheel faction was more accepting of inexperienced and untested candidates.
“The split drew harsh criticism from the press and our own party members,” he admits. ”We could have dealt with it internally and avoided the perception that we were the same as the traditional mainstream parties.”
Enough is Enough
Bam, Iih, and Subani Sijapati began a hunger strike in Patan Durbar Square on June 26, 2020, in front of the famous stone spout, Manga Hiti. They were protesting the government’s sluggish response to the Covid-19 pandemic. They demanded, among other things, that the government use PCR testing instead of RDT tests for people entering the country, provide personal protective equipment for frontline workers, and maintain proper quarantine facilities.
He recalls security personnel nudging them to drink water and assuring them that no one would notice. “The sound of the water coming out of the stone spout would excruciate us at night,” he says.
On the eighth day of their fast, Prime Minister KP Oli met with them in a hospital. After further negotiations, they broke their fast on the 12th day after reaching a 12-point agreement with the government.
Helping the helpless during the pandemic
Bam is currently working on a philanthropic project with director Min Bham called “Hamro Sano Prayas.” Although it has not yet been registered as an organization, it has been collaborating with other organizations. The initiative, which was initially co-funded by Bam, has begun to raise funds through crowdsourcing.
“Through the initiative, we were providing food packets to 2 to 3000 people per day during the lockdown,” he explains.
He is also the coordinator of the ‘Save Nepal from Covid-19—Global Alliance,’ which includes celebrities like former national cricket team captain Paras Khadka and actress Manisha Koirala, among others. It recently delivered 100 oxygen concentrators to the Nepal Police, the alliance’s deployment partner.
Coming to terms
In many ways, Bam resembles the young boy who arrived in Kathmandu for the first time after finishing his SLC. He still harbors lofty aspirations for political transformations. However, he is recognizing the complexities of the arduous process of organizing and winning.
People’s loyalty to traditional parties is difficult to break in Nepal, he says. A person’s political affiliation pervades both their private and public lives. Their promotions, tender licenses, and grey deals, among other things, are determined by the party to which they are loyal.
“It appears to me that political change is slow and requires a lot of effort,” he says, adding, “but one must not lose hope.” And I am not going to.”