Off the Record 021: The trauma of Tikapur

Issue 021 • 27 August 2021

It’s August 27, 2021, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal. 

I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week. 

You can read Off the Record for free by visiting this link or subscribe on our website to receive this newsletter in your inbox every Friday. 


Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from gloomy Kathmandu bracing for the rains. It has been raining intermittently over the past week but the Meteorological Forecasting Division has warned that heavy rains are expected across the country through Saturday. As is usual, there is risk of flooding in the Tarai and landslides in the hills.

Besides the rains, there is little that is fresh among the happenings of the past week. Politicians have continued to politik, as is their wont. Ever since the downfall of the two-thirds majority government of KP Sharma Oli, Nepal is right back to the kind of politics that has marred this country ever since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990 — coalition politics. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is still running the country with a barebones Cabinet of just four full ministers and one state minister while his coalition partners try to hammer out who gets to become minister. Governance and the national interest appear, once again, to have taken a backseat to internal squabbling.

So it is with a heavy and painful heart that I must attempt to relate to you what has happened politically over the past week.

Politics

When the Nepali Congress’ Deuba was named prime minister on July 13, he was allied with Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s UCPN (Maoist Center), the Janata Samajbadi Party, and the Madhav Nepal faction of the CPN-UML. Just over a month later, the Nepal faction has split from the UML to form the CPN-UML (Unified Socialist) while Mahanta Thakur of the Janata Samajbadi Party has applied for a split to form the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party Nepal.

The internal turmoil within the major parties has manifested in new chief ministers in three out of the seven provinces. At the federal level, former prime minister and UML chief KP Sharma Oli has been at loggerheads with House Speaker Agni Sapkota over the latter’s failure to abide by the former’s request to dismiss 15 of the party’s lawmakers, including Madhav Nepal. Now that the party has split and Nepal has registered his own party, Oli’s dismissal will no longer apply.

Madhav Nepal’s new party was formally registered by the Election Commission on August 25, Wednesday, and while many had claimed that this would finally allow Deuba to expand his Cabinet, there has been no movement towards that end yet. Currently, two ministers — Pampha Bhusal (Energy) and Janardan Sharma (Finance) are from the Maoist party while two others — Bal Krishna Khand (Home) and Gyanendra Bahadur Karki (Law) — are from the Congress. Madhav Nepal is also likely to demand at least two ministries for his party, which is now finally possible with the split formalized. It remains to be seen who will be a part of the fifth Deuba Cabinet.

Covid-19

On the Covid-19 front, daily cases seem to be declining. The dreaded third wave does not seem to have arrived yet but I believe we are all collectively holding our breaths. There’s no telling when things could escalate and we might find ourselves in the midst of another lockdown. But given the broad trends of the past week or two, there is definitely a decrease, as can be seen in the graph below:

As of Friday, there were 1,577 cases over the past 24 hours, compared to 2,052 on Thursday. So far, 10,663 Nepalis have died from the coronavirus.

Behind the declining cases is possibly also the vaccination campaign, which is proceeding well enough. Nepal has adequate vaccines in stock for the time being but it will need to acquire more if it is to vaccinate at least 70 percent of its 30 million population. So far, Nepal has received over 13 million vaccine doses; half of these are the Chinese Verocell vaccines purchased by Nepal. Nepal has purchased 10 million doses of the vaccine from China, out of which around 6 million have arrived. Most recently, on Friday, Nepal received 130,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the UK.

While any assistance is welcome, these AstraZeneca doses from the UK seem too little, too late, especially given the close relationship that Nepal and the UK have had over 200 years now. One would’ve thought that the UK might have gone out of its way to help a country whose citizens still serve the British crown as soldiers. These 130,000 doses would’ve been very useful a few months ago, when the 1.6 million elderly who had received just the first dose were awaiting their second. As things currently stand, 1.6 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from Japan have been deployed to vaccinate the elderly, months too late.

Still, we must thank our glorious benefactors.

As of Friday, roughly 5 million individuals had received at least one dose of a vaccine while 4 million had been fully vaccinated with either two doses or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine, according to the Health Ministry’s daily update. Nepal is well on its way to vaccinating its population but there is still a long way to go.

The long read

Six years ago, on August 24, 2015, a horrific incident occurred in Tikapur, Kailali district whose repercussions continue to this day. During the incident and its aftermath, nearly a dozen lives were lost. The Tikapur incident has left an indelible mark on Nepal’s modern political history but it is disputed in terms of narrative and who is ultimately responsible for the carnage that took place. Today, I’d like to revisit what happened on August 24, 2015 and the remains of the day.


The deep dive: The trauma of Tikapur

Citizen from the land of inequality, acrylic on canvas, by Lavkant Chaudhary, 2019

In early August 2015, as the draft of the new constitution was being finalized, tensions were high in the Tarai. In the eastern plains, Madhesis were upset that their demands for an Ek Madhes, Ek Prades (One Madhes, One Province) had been disregarded and in the western plains, Tharus were upset that their demands for a separate Tharuhat Province had been similarly dismissed. Protests and Nepal bandhs were declared across the plains as both Madhesis and Tharus took to the streets in protest against the six-province model of federalism.

But in the Far West, where the Tharu heartland is located, there was a separate, competing demand for an Akhanda Sudurpaschim (Undivided Far West), which comprised of all districts in the Far West, including the Tharu-majority districts of Kanchanpur and Kailali. Akhanda Sudurpaschim was largely a demand of the Khas-Arya landlords, and the Tharus were afraid that their inclusion in any state where they were the minority would, once again, strip them of all political power. It didn’t help that some among the Khas-Arya were advocating a return to the kamaiya system of bonded labor. The kamaiya and kamlari systems had only been formally outlawed very recently, in 2002 and 2013, respectively.

The two demands were at odds and tension was already building between the two groups. On August 13, three Madhesi leaders — Upendra Yadav, Rajendra Mahato, and Amresh Kumar Singh — made reportedly inflammatory speeches in Tikapur that angered the Akhanda Sudurpaschim supporters. A Tharu rally planned for August 17 was obstructed by Akhanda supporters, leading to even more tensions. But it was really the decision of national politicians on August 21 that really set tensions aflame, quite literally.

On August 21, 2015, national-level politicians, many of whom were from the Far West, acceded to the Akhanda demands, redrawing provinces to include a seventh province in the Far West. Tharus were rightly furious that their demands had been ignored while those of the largely Khas-Arya protestors had been listened to. That very day, Akhanda supporters conducted a 100km motorcycle rally from Dhangadi to Tikapur in a show of force. Tharu protestors obstructed the rally, leading the police to intervene. According to Human Rights Watch, Akhanda supporters allegedly burned a dozen Tharu homes in retaliation as the police looked on.

Tharus planned a protest of their own for August 24, with permission from the chief district office. As thousands of Tharus from neighboring areas began to stream into Tikapur for the planned protest, a small contingent of Nepal Police and Armed Police Force personnel, led by Senior Superintendent Laxman Neupane, went to meet and speak with the protestors. The contingent of between 15 to 30 men was only lightly armed with batons, a few guns, and teargas launchers. The security forces met with the protestors outside Tikapur and began talking.

Even six years later, it is unclear what exactly happened in the moments that led to the carnage. At around 1pm, the security forces found themselves surrounded and were forced to fire teargas to disperse the crowd, which reportedly consisted of thousands of protestors. After the crowd failed to disperse, the security forces, outnumbered, attempted to make a hasty retreat. SSP Neupane took shelter in a nearby house but was pulled outside by a crow of protestors hundred strong. According to witnesses, five or so men wearing masks and helmets and armed with spears and sticks with nails embedded in them beat Neupane to death. Nearby, Armed Police Force constable Ram Bihari Chaudhary, a Tharu himself, was beaten and then set on fire, allegedly while still alive.

Seven security officers died on the spot in the violence and one succumbed to injuries later in the hospital.

But the violence would not end there. Netra Saud, an off-duty Armed Police Force officer whose home was near the incident site, had managed to rescue some injured police officers and was sheltering them in his compound. Again, according to Human Rights Watch, between 3 and 3.30 pm, Saud was standing outside his home, speaking on his mobile phone, when he heard a single shot ring out. Saud’s 18-month-old son, Tek Bahadur Saud, who was standing nearby, was struck on the head by the bullet and died instantly.

The repercussions of these murders would be swift. Despite a curfew imposed at 6pm that August 24 evening, a group of non-Tharus began rioting through Tikapur at around 9pm. The rioting lasted until the next day’s afternoon and by that time, a dozen homes and other Tharu-owned buildings had been burned.

By that time, news of the massacre had spread outrage across the country and many, especially those in the security forces, were baying for blood. Then Home Minister Bamdev Gautam declared the massacre premediated, although he lacked any evidence for such an assertion at the time. In the days to come, dozens of Tharus would be arrested, often summarily and without a warrant. Many of those arrested reported being beaten and tortured. Hundreds of Tharus fled their homes to India, fearing arrest.

The security forces embarked on a campaign of terror, threatening random Tharus with arrest, beatings, and even implied threats of rape, according to Amnesty International. Many illiterate Tharus were forced to sign ‘confessions’ and ‘witness statements’. Even those who were able to read were denied any opportunity to go through the documents they were signing, according to Human Rights Watch.

In the years since, many such experiences have come to light. Human Rights Watch details one Tharu family reporting that the police said:

“We’ll come back at night and get your daughter-in-law.”… We were so scared that we locked the door and went to the toilet indoors all night [the family toilet is outside the main building]. They threatened to take away the children if we didn’t produce my husband, but he has gone to India to work.

Reema Chaudhary, wife of one of the men arrested and eventually charged, recounted the night her husband was arrested to Abha Lal in 2019:

She remembers the night vividly. Her family was asleep when around midnight, men knocked on their door, saying,  “Open the shop, we need to buy some things.” Confused and scared, Rajesh got up and, without opening the door, said, “The shop is closed right now.” The men started banging on the door and swearing, and eventually, Rajesh relented. There were policemen outside, and they dragged him out, beating him with sticks.

Gokarni Chaudhary, the wife of another man charged, said:

“They have tortured him so badly that it is difficult for him to sit, stand, do basic things. Even if they let him go, he’s not in any condition to work.” Gokarni claims that on the day the police killings took place, her husband was not in Tikapur but on his farm in Nawalpur, picking grass from the paddy field.

In an excellent report published on August 21 in Nepali Times, Tufan Neupane writes:

Santa Kumar Chaudhary, who ran a liquor shop in Bhajani, was one of them. His wife Yamuna Devi Rasaili remembers the police buying alcohol, getting drunk and beating both husband and wife.  

The inebriated policemen led by Inspector Bharat Shah then kicked down the door to the home of Brijmohan Chaudhary, who lived nearby. He told us: “Around 12 drunk policemen broke in at 1AM and began beating me and took me to jail.”

Kisan Lal Chaudhary remembers the torture in custody. “They used sticks and even their gun butts to beat us senseless,” says Kisan Lal, who still needs treatment. Vegetable vendor Rajesh Chaudhary was also arrested that night, and severely tortured. Santaram Chaudhary, a teacher from Bhajani, had to be taken to hospital after the torture shattered his right eardrum. 

Cases were filed in Kailali District Court against more than 50 people in connection with the murders, but only 27 were arrested. It took three years for a verdict to be delivered. On March 6, 2019, the Kailali District Court handed life sentences to 11 men and three-year sentences to 12 men for their alleged roles in the incident. But Tharus and many human rights activists disputed those sentences, saying they were given to individuals who were not involved in the incident at all. The police cases themselves were full of circumstantial evidence and statements extracted through torture.

The sentences were appealed at the Dipayal High Court, which, in December 2020, overturned the life sentences of four individuals. But the court also handed a life sentence to Laxman Chaudhary, who had only been given a three-year sentence by the Kailali District Court. Among those whose life sentence the court upheld was Resham Chaudhary, a flamboyant Tharu activist alleged to have masterminded the Tikapur violence. Tharus dispute that there was never anything to mastermind and that the violence was spontaneous. In fact, Kailali residents had elected Resham Chaudhary to the federal Parliament in the 2017 elections in a landslide vote. Resham is currently in jail, serving his life sentence.

It is evident from the stories of many of those arrested that the police were exacting revenge on the Tharu community, picking up, beating, and torturing any Tharu unlucky enough to cross their paths. In the aftermath, stories have emerged of unlawful conduct and time spent in prison despite being innocent. Tufan Neupane in Nepali Times details the case of Ram Naresh Chaudhary, a mathematics teacher arrested on August 25, 2015 while he was teaching. Although the school principal showed the police records that Ram Naresh was nowhere near the Tikapur incident site, the police refused to listen. Even his bail was denied. Ram Naresh was found innocent by the Kailali District Court in 2019 and again by the Dipayal High Court in 2020. By that time, he had spent more than three years in jail as an innocent man.

Bishram Kushmi too was jailed for more than three years despite his phone’s geolocation data showing that he was nowhere near Tikapur on August 24. By the time he was released, the bank had already begun auctioning off his agro-vet store.

Six years later, many non-Tharus, especially those in the mainstream media, believe that justice has been done. The alleged perpetrators, especially Resham Chaudhary, have been jailed. But Tharus are not convinced. For them, the trials were conducted opaquely and based on insubstantial evidence. In its dogged quest to punish any and all for the murders of the police personnel, the state swept up innocent Tharus and sacrificed them on the altar of justice. Much of the mainstream media has either been quiet on this issue or has taken a nakedly partisan role. Just note the wording and the tone of this Republica report.

Earlier last week, Tharus and activists had protested in Kathmandu. Among their demands is the release of the Lal Commission report. The Lal Commission, set up in 2016 under former Supreme Court justice Girish Chandra Lal to look into incidents of violence leading up to the promulgation of the new constitution, submitted its report in 2017. That report was never made public, despite the Supreme Court ordering the government to do so.

In her 2019 report for The Record, Abha Lal writes:

A former senior judge told the Record that the verdict of the case appeared to be an attempt to dodge “trial by media.” Because the police deaths sparked such outrage among Tikapur residents, pronouncing anyone, particularly Resham Chaudhary, not guilty would make the judge in question unpopular. “The judge would be hounded with accusations by media that he was corrupt. In the current climate, it is easier for judges to pass the verdict that will be popular. Speaking for justice requires a lot of courage.”

An old adage goes, justice cannot just be done, it needs to be seen to be done — that the public at large must see and feel that justice has been done. A large majority appears to have accepted that justice has been done but what of the Tharu? Can justice have really been done when innocents have been jailed for a crime they never committed? Confronted with everything we now know — the refusal to release the Lal Commission report, how flimsy all the evidence was, how many were jailed for years only to eventually be found innocent, how revenge rather than justice was the motivating factor — can anyone say with certainty that justice has really been done?


On The Record this week:

Ramesh Bhushal on Nepal’s controversial move to cash in on wildlife farming

Birat Anupam on the central role of Everest in Nepal-China diplomacy

Aishwarya Baidar profiles Muni Bahadur Shakya, widely considered Nepal’s first computer scientist

Rubin Ghimire on how just how unprepared Nepal is for the coming digital transition


Happenings this week:

Saturday - Kantipur daily reported that the government of Sudurpaschim Province is planning to build a motorable road through Khaptad National Park, an environmentally fragile protected area. Conservationists and locals say that the road and subsequent traffic could harm the park’s fragile ecology.

Sunday - Vijay Chauthaiwale, chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s foreign affairs department, met with Sher Bahadur Deuba, in the latter’s capacity as president of the Nepali Congress. Chauthaiwale was reportedly in Nepal on the Congress’ invitation and went on to meet other party chiefs, including KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal.

Monday - Nepal received the final tranche of the 1.6 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine donated by Japan. The consignment had arrived in four tranches and was primarily used to give the elderly their second shot of the vaccine.

Tuesday - Five former Nepali ambassadors — Hiranya Lal Shrestha, Deep Kumar Upadhyay, Durgesh Man Singh, Suresh Chalise, and Mahesh Maskey — released a joint statement calling on Nepal, as current chair of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to initiate dialogue with the relevant countries, presumably meaning Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, among the SAARC countries.

Wednesday - Madhav Kumar Nepal formally registered the CPN-UML (Unified Socialist) at the Election Commission, finalizing his faction’s split from the KP Sharma Oli-led CPN-UML.

Thursday - JB Tuhure, a popular revolutionary singer and member of the second Constituent Assembly, died due to complications from a stroke.

Friday - Lieutenant General Prabhu Ram Sharma was named new Chief of Army Staff by President Bidya Bhandari. Sharma, who will formally take over on September 10, was acting chief of the Nepal Army ever since former chief Purna Chandra Thapa went on leave a month before his retirement.


Read of the week

The Araniko Highway conundrum’ — General Sam Cowan is back on the Record with another meticulously researched piece, this time on the feasibility of the Araniko Highway and Kodari as a major trade point between China and Nepal.


That’s all for this week. I shall see you Friday on the next edition of Off the Record

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