Nepal: the underbelly of the beast

Kanak Mani Dixit Maryann Bird
12 April 2006

Ending a nearly two-month holiday, Nepal’s embattled ruler, King Gyanendra, returned to Kathmandu late on 12 April amid speculation that he might take the first step toward defusing days of violent clashes between security forces and pro-democracy demonstrators. The protests have been the most intense since Gyanendra seized power from the government of prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in February 2005, accusing it of failing to restore peace in Nepal, which has seen a decade of Maoist insurgency and thousands of deaths.

The king is due to deliver his traditional Nepali new-year message on Friday 14 April, prompting hope that he will use it to reach out to his opponents. “If the king is getting his information correctly, and if he is watching the situation correctly”, a Kathmandu-based diplomat told Reuters news service; “the common denominator in all the opposition against him is that it is he who needs to take the initiative to end this crisis.”

Gyanendra, however, has routinely taken a hard line against protesters – as the security forces have done over the past eight days. Curfews have been imposed, and many demonstrators have been held for violating them. Near the country’s supreme-court building on 13 April, troops baton-charged and tear-gassed a group of hundreds of protesting lawyers. They, like the seven-party alliance against the king, want to see a return to multi-party democracy, with executive powers vested in an all-party government.

Meanwhile, local authorities in Kathmandu have issued letters of detention to fifteen human-rights activists and civil-society leaders, following their refusal to pay fines stemming from their participation in the protests. Condemning the detentions, a “ceasefire monitoring civic group” demanded the immediate release of the fifteen, as well as the lifting of restrictions on peaceful assembly and an end to the curfews and arrests.

Those held include former supreme-court justice Laxman Prasad Aryal, former speaker of the house of representatives Daman Nath Dhungana, and several rights activists, doctors and journalists.

One of those journalists, Kanak Mani Dixit, the distinguished editor of the Kathmandu-based south Asian magazine Himal, wrote the following report for the Nepali Times from inside the Duwakot armed police barracks.

Maryann Bird

* * *

Taken in by Kathmandu’s royal regime with two dozen other protestors last week for wilfully (and with prior announcement) breaking the curfew order, this writer had an opportunity to see how a “militarising”, autocratic state machine can ride roughshod over some of the weakest members of Nepalese society. It was an opportunity to take a look at the underbelly of the monster that government can be. What we have seen during our incarceration is something that the privileged, with their contacts in high places or money to buy safe passage, rarely care to see or understand.

There are three types of inmates in this makeshift detention centre at the Duwakot armed police barracks outside Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. The human-rights activists, who are relatively well known, have little fear of violence once they are taken in. Then there are political activists, both senior and junior, who receive some protection from party affiliations and linkages.

But also here in Duwakot is an entire category of true innocents. Most of these young adults, some of them mere boys, are migrants who have left their families on faraway hills and plains to work at menial jobs. They represent the rural poor of all ethnicities and castes, but are united in their lack of influence anywhere in the state structure. This lack of agency is only matched by their absolute poverty. The trauma that these boys of Duwakot have faced, and are facing, exists at several levels.

openDemocracy writers analyse the crisis of democracy in Nepal:

Anuj Mishra, “Nepal’s war without end”
(April 2005)

Chandra D Bhatta “Nepal’s civil war: from security to politics”
(May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, “Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community’”
(May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, “Nepal’s political rainy season” (July 2005)

Dharma Adhikari, “Nepal’s folly: talking absolutes at high altitude”
(January 2006)

It starts with the police chase on the streets, the attacks with batons and staffs, the abuse, and the bundling into the back of trucks. Once in the holding center, toilet facilities are non-existent. Then the young men are transported from one detention center to another, and provided with no information whatsoever. They are given nothing to eat for more than a day, and when they finally are fed, the food is of the lowest grade imaginable. There is palpable fear that authorities in need of proving Maoist “infiltration” of the democratic movement can, with the flick of a pen, declare you an insurgent and do away with your life and prospects.

Who will tell your family, who will inform your employer, where is the lawyer or activist to speak for you? Who is to defend you, to charge the regime with wrongful imprisonment, to seek a writ of habeas corpus, to demand release and reparation?

Dambar Nepali is 14, and from Udayapur, in the hills of eastern Nepal. He works as a construction labourer and was taken in by the police and beaten while coming home from work. Ramesh Basnet, 23, from Dhading, just west of Kathmandu, was returning home from the printing press where he works. Ram Kumar Tamang drives a microbus, license plate 4266, and was crossing the road during a curfew when he was detained. Biraj Sharma, 18, was loitering outside a roadside shop in an area outside curfew limits. “The policemen were like demons”, he recalls. “They kicked my head as if it was a football.”

Others were resting inside a bus at the bus stop where they work as cleaners when they were dragged out: Dhruba Timilsina, 17, of Hetuada; Buddha Lama, 16, of Sindhupalchok; Ramesh Thapa Magar, 17, and Ram Lama, 20, of Chapagaon. From Duwakot, they have all been moved elsewhere.

Individuals who are in the lowest-class bracket in detention must use the toilet that is furthest away, and get the rice that is the worst. It will be important for the International Committee of the Red Cross to determine their fate and whereabouts.

Some policemen can be fine, sensitive individuals. But they take orders from an insensitive state run by a ruler who has sought again and again to prove his contempt for the people of Nepal. When autocracy and militarisation is combined with contempt, those without legal recourse suffer unseen and unheard. This is one more reason for a quick return to democracy, pluralism and peace.

Ramesh Basnet told me the other day, before he was taken away: “This turns out to be the kind of country I was born into. I love my country, but I hate the government. I have not picked up a stone; I have not burned a tyre in protest. Why am I here, and where will they take me?”

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