On April 29 last year, Minister for Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation Padma Kumari Aryal tabled the Guthi Bill in the upper house of the federal parliament. The intent was to regulate Nepal’s guthis—the centuries-old local associations that take care of cultural sites and temples—by effectively nationalizing both the private and public guthis.The proposed legislation met with stern protests from the valley’s Newar community, who look after most of the guthis. The protests grew with public support from across the country, snowballing into the largest mass movement after the second Jana Andolan of 2006. Two months later, the government was forced to withdraw the bill.
Concerns are high again as the government is planning to table a new guthi bill.
“We are trying to table it at the earliest. If things go as planned, we will present the bill in the current parliament session,” says Janak Raj Joshi, spokesperson of the Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation. He says the ministry has been in constant touch with concerned people and organizations over the bill.
Minraj Chaudhary, the chairman of Guthi Santhan, the government body responsible for overseeing all guthis, seconds Joshi. “The ministry is frequently consulting guthiyars [trustees] and other concerned people on the new guthi bill,” he asserts.
But the ‘concerned people’ are not pleased.
Ganpati Lal Shrestha, a guthi campaigner, says the government has kept the stakeholders in the dark about the contents of the new bill. “It is true that the ministry has organized meetings with us and other concerned bodies. But we haven’t been told what’s in the bill,” says Shrestha, convener of National Identity Protection Joint Struggle Committee, a group that spearheaded last year’s guthi movement.
“We have asked the government to make the draft public before tabling it in the parliament. Surely, it’s better for everyone to know now than to see protests later,” Shrestha adds.
The committee has also warned the ministry not to call perfunctory meetings.
Last year’s bill drew widespread flak as soon as it was tabled. Sections 23 and 24 of the bill were most problematic, as they allowed for a new commission to take away all the rights of guthis and their trustees. Protestors claimed the government was trying to erase the 1,500-year history of guthis by subverting the Guthi Sansthan. They thought the bill benefited only ‘land mafia’ at the cost of Nepal’s cultural heritage. The government, for its part, was unable to come up with a convincing answer on why the bill was tabled to start with. Guthiyar Gautam Shakya, who heads Kathmandu’s Kumari Ghar and Indra Jatra Management Committee, is unhappy with the government’s hush-hush attitude.
“A few days back, the ministry had summoned the concerned bodies to discuss the bill. But we are yet to see the draft,” says Shakya. “We believe the guthi properties should be handled by guthiyars. The government should limit itself to the role of a guardian.”
Ministry spokesperson Joshi says rumors that the government would take away the guthis’ rights and assets are baseless. “The government has never thought of interfering with their assets.”
Campaigners agree that the government can help the guthis govern themselves better—even without exercising total control over them. Social activist Anish Baidhya says many people are misusing Guthi assets, “threatening our culture and identity. So we need some regulation to ensure transparency”.
“We should also be able to establish new guthis,” adds Baidhya. “We recently had problems managing a new Ganesh Mandir. We wanted to do it through a guthi, but existing laws don’t allow that.”
He thinks that if their concerns are overlooked people will once more have no option but to protest.