Member of the Constituent Assembly, the Nepali Congress
Member of the Central Working Committee of the Nepali Congress
Kamala Panta was born in Gaptar of Tangichowk VDC in Gorkha district in May 1964.
Kamala Panta was born to be a politician. She proved it by winning in the parliamentary election with a ticket of the Nepali Congress at the young age of 30.
She was born in Gaptar of Tangichowk VDC (Village Development Committee) in Gorkha district in May 1964. Her mother, Hari Maya, gave birth to nine children, of which only six remain alive today. Her father, Bhawani Prasad Panta, was a well-known educationalist in the village. He sheltered Krishna Prasad Kattel, a local teacher, in his home for 22 years.
Panta began her education at the Bhagwati Himalaya Primary School which was established by her father. She later joined Bijaya Bhawani High School at Makai Singha, situated about two hours’ walk from her home. But when she completed the 8th grade at the age of 11, Panta was stopped from going to school and her family began to look for her future husband.
She was forced to suppress her zeal for further education for the next three years, before she was able to join the 9th grade. Like all girls in her village, she had to do her domestic chores before going to school, bringing fodder to the cattle even on the day of examinations.
“One day my mother cried all the night when she saw me unmarried even at the age of 11, thinking that I would never get married. Still, my father was a progressive person and had political awareness too. He supported me to realize my will to be educated,” she remembered, adding that the situation there is now so different as enrollment is higher among girls than boys.
On the contrary, Panta`s male siblings were always encouraged to continue their studies. Her elder brother, Giriraj Panta, studied in Germany and worked as a nuclear engineer in the United States. All members in Panta’s family were brilliant students and now hold responsible posts in various government and social sectors.
Panta passed her School Leaving Certificate in 1982. She then came to Kathmandu to join Padma Kanya Campus. Prior to the People’s Movement of 1990, there was no educational calendar and everything was chaotic, even after the movement officially ended. But Panta still completed her master’s degree in Nepali in 1994.
As many of her family members had been involved in politics for years, nobody batted an eyelash when Panta became active in student politics. Soon after she joined the campus, she became a member of the Nepal Student Union (NSU), the student wing of the Nepali Congress. She was elected chairperson of the campus unit of the NSU by 1989. It was the time when massive preparations for the people’s movement against the party-less Panchayat system were going on. She had an opportunity to organize the students as a member of the central action committee of the NSU. The union played an important role in the movement and she had a chance to prove her capacity of leading and organizing the masses.
Panta passed many tough days during her student life due to her active involvement in politics. As a student leader she participated in various movements which were launched by the then outlawed Nepali Congress during the Panchayat period. In 1989, she was in the front row of a dharna (sit-in) program at Tribhuvan University, where she was arrested and detained in custody for four months. Being placed in custody had become routine for her. At that time police used to arrest political activists like Panta for small reasons. “I had been put in police custody countless times,” she said.
Panta’s brother financially supported her when she was a student of Padma Kanya Campus but he was not happy with her involvement in politics. “After I participated in the famous Satyagraha (non-violent) movement in 1986, it became very difficult for me to give up politics.” Panta was among those activists who went underground to help during the 1990’s movement, when many senior leaders of political parties were arrested and jailed. Students played the most crucial role in the movement which brought multi-party democracy to the country.
In the first general election following the 1990 political change, Panta was almost given a ticket from her party to contest in a constituency of her district Gorkha, but it didn’t materialize as some party leaders opposed, claiming she was too young to win the position. Although democracy came to the country, time was not yet favorable for women. Women could have got five of 205 total seats in that election
In the general election of 1994, Panta’s party finally decided to give her a ticket. But several leaders of her own party could not tolerate her candidacy. Instead of supporting her, a dissident candidate was sent to her constituency. Panta still won the election in her constituency in Gorkha district and became Member of Parliament at the age of 30. She said, “Actually, top leaders of my party wanted me to be harassed so that I would give up that opportunity. I was not ready to do so. I have some friends helping me and eventually won the election, to many party leaders’ surprise.”
Work as a student leader and work as a parliamentarian was quite different and Panta had to shift her role to that in regional politics, which was indeed difficult for her to practice. She worked hard to make her voters happy, and at the same time tried to establish herself in the party hierarchy. She lived in the capital but had to go back to her district frequently. As a result, she got a ticket to contest in the general election held in 1999. Again, Panta won.
The 1999 election was held in the middle of the Maoist insurgency. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) boycotted the election and its campaign was carried out in an environment of ‘terror’. Her political career was in jeopardy as her constituency of Gorkha district was one of the centers of the insurgency. “I would like to say that the result the Maoists brought during the election of the Constituent Assembly last year was in fact the result of the decade-long torture and intimidation,” she claimed.
In 1999 she was made assistant minister at the Women, Children and Social Welfare Ministry. In the same year, she was promoted to the post of Minister of State for the same ministry. While she held this portfolio several structural developments took place in the ministry. The National Women’s Commission and Central Committee for Children’s Welfare were conceptualized, programs to promote the Convention of Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) were introduced, a provision for free legal support for women victims was established in the ministry, and a juvenile tribunal was introduced.
Panta experienced the bitterness of being a woman politician when she joined the cabinet. There was no help from above to intervene, and she was confined into the position of assistant minister under male ministers for a long time until she was made an independent Minister of State. “I saw that many male politicians who came to this field later than me were given higher positions than mine. I could not understand why it happened, but the party always took time to send women to some noticeable position.”
The bill on parental property rights for women remained hung in Parliament for many years since it was tabled in 1995. It was a collective contribution of women from various sectors to bring that bill to today`s status.
“Since 1995 we had to tolerate direct criticism as well as indirect irony from male members of Parliament because of the property bill. Sometime we were laughed off and sometime we were provoked for debate. And the bill remained there as a hot potato. After that, we made a kind of achievement that a daughter would be able to share her parental property if she remains unmarried until she becomes 35-years-old. It also included abortion rights and many more. The bill was, of course, not perfect. But I think we have to accept it as an achievement,” Panta said.
Panta played a vital role in having passed the provisions of women’s rights in the House on various dates. First, she worked to include the 11th amendment in the Country Code on 26 September 2002. On 30 May 2006, she worked with some other women members of the House to have the government announce a four-point declaration. It guaranteed that a person can obtain a citizenship card through either their father or mother’s name (earlier, it was only through a father’s name), it guaranteed 33 percent women’s participation in state structures, it nullified discriminatory laws and rules, and it commits to ending violence against women. Panta was criticized several times in the party for being ‘too active’ in women’s issues, and at times crossing the party’s line on women’s issues.
She married Madhu Acharya in 1996, an engineer as well as a politician with the Nepali Congress. “We knew each other but the proposal came from both families. It is obviously difficult to carry on dual responsibility, to take care of the family and to be a responsible activist in the party. In my case, however, I did not have to sacrifice my political life because both my husband and his family are very supportive of me,” she said.
Panta sometimes had to sacrifice her family due to her involvement in party politics. She could not attend her father’s funeral ceremony even though she was in Nepal. She had a daughter but had to leave her with her family 15 days after she was born. She also had a son who died at the age of four. She was pregnant when the street movement was going on against the direct rule of the king. Tear gas infected her unborn son and he was born physically weak and constantly suffering with pneumonia. “My son died at the tender age of four. I should say it is a ‘prize’ of doing politics, an agony that cannot be replaced,” she said with tears in her eyes.
Panta has an aggressive opinion on the peace process and the role of Maoists in Nepal. “I am happy that the People’s War culminated and the peace process brought the country to a new beginning. But still, I don’t believe the Maoists will fully come to a democratic path. Whatever you see today is only a drama. They are bound to take the country to a misery,” she said, expressing her doubt over the country’s largest party.
Panta is not very hopeful Nepal’s situation will improve after the new constitution is finally drafted. “New constitution is not a big issue. We have now a very good interim constitution. But what we need is a government which is ready to follow the constitution. What is important is how to move the issues forward. Law itself is an abstract thing, and you can turn it into any way if you do not have sincerity,” she said.