Off the Record 027: The long walk to justice
Issue 027 • 22 October 2021
It’s October 22, 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.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from gloomy Kathmandu. We at the Record are back from Dashain holidays and I wish I could say that the past weeks were a time of much-needed merriment — and just that. But sadly, a great many developments before, during, and after Dashain have dampened the festive spirit. Dozens of Nepalis had already lost their lives traveling home for Dashain in crowded buses amid dangerous terrain. And immediately after the festival, over a hundred deaths have now been confirmed in floods and landslides resulting from this past week’s unseasonally heavy rains.
Dashain this year was unusually warm when it is usually cool and breezy. That heat was perhaps a sign of things to come as heavy rains immediately hit the country once the festival was over. Beginning in the Far West of the country on Sunday, rains swept through to east Nepal by Wednesday, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. The monsoon usually ends in late September/early October, which had led farmers to harvest their crops, primarily rice, and leave them out to dry. The unexpectedly heavy rains destroyed much of that harvest, especially in the rain-growing regions of Province 1 and Sudurpaschim Province. Even unharvested paddy fields were flooded and the rice stalks washed away. Preliminary estimates from the Agriculture Ministry has placed agricultural and livestock losses at around Rs 10 billion, reported The Kathmandu Post.
And all of this in addition to the hundred or so lives lost, with many more still missing.
This year’s Dashain, much like last year’s, was marked with death, not just from accidents and rain, but also from the ever-present coronavirus. New Covid-19 infections, which had slowed heavily before Dashain, are now slowly climbing back up, like many had feared. The increased movement across the country has meant that infections too have increased and are likely to do so in the days to come. As expected, the highest number of new cases are in Kathmandu, likely from the host of people who’ve now returned to the capital from their home districts but also from the increased movement during the festival.
The festive season also meant that vaccination drives were put on hold for about a week but are now restarting. In the last 24 hours, as of Friday, 58,853 people were vaccinated, up from 23,568 on Thursday. As of Friday, 6.5 million people had been fully vaccinated with either two doses of a vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But as The Kathmandu Post pointed out recently, Nepal might have to purchase booster doses of the J&J vaccine as recommended by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration. Nepal had received 1.5 million doses of J&J’s single-dose Janssen vaccine as a grant from the US in July. But given the FDA’s recommendation, all those who received that vaccine might require a second booster dose in order to be ‘fully vaccinated’.
Politically, there is not much to report. The Sher Bahadur Deuba administration completed its 100 days in office and has very little to show for it. For a party that was ceaseless in its opposition to the KP Sharma Oli government, the Nepali Congress, while in power, has shown that it is just as inept, corrupt, and intolerant of criticism. It took Deuba over three months to cobble together a viable Cabinet that satisfied all members of his coalition government. And one minister, allegedly appointed on the direct lobbying of Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana, resigned almost immediately.
Deuba has failed to take a clear foreign policy stance, even recalling all ambassadors appointed by the previous administration. The fate of the Millenium Challenge Corporation’s Nepal Compact remains uncertain, despite a furor in the public sphere. Looking back, Deuba doesn’t seem to have done much at all.
Those are the inept and corrupt parts, as for intolerant, I’ll get into that with our long read of the week — the saga of Ruby Khan and the long walk to justice.
The deep dive: The saga of Ruby Khan
Ruby Khan being arrested by the Nepal Police. (Photo: Prakash Chandra Timilsena/TKP)
On October 6, 14 individuals — 11 women and 3 men — arrived in Kathmandu after walking for 20 days from Nepalgunj. The women and men were led by Ruby Khan, a human rights activist from Nepalgunj, and were demanding that the administration investigate the suspicious death of one Nankkuni Dhobi and the equally suspicious disappearance of one Nirmala Kurmi. After repeatedly being ignored and sidelined by the local administration in Nepalgunj city and Banke district, the individuals, comprising of local rights activists and family members, had decided that the only way to seek justice was to travel to the capital and address the federal government directly.
Their march to the Capital brought them attention from the media and garnered much public support on social media. It also embarrassed and exposed the administration for failing to provide justice, especially under the new federal model of the state. And so, much like many other administrations before it, the Deuba government swung into action — not to help the activists obtain the justice they sought but to arrest them from their protest site in Maitighar Mandala.
The manner in which these protestors, primarily women, were arrested was shameful in itself. On October 8, the activists had just settled down to a well-earned evening meal when they were rudely interrupted by police personnel who did not even allow them to finish eating. Photojournalist Prakash Timilsena of Kantipur / The Kathmandu Post captured them eating while surrounded by police and then, police manhandling the women who haven’t finished their meal. The police argued that the protestors were planning to spend the night at Maitighar Mandala, which is not permitted as it is a public protest site. The excuse is flimsy at best.
The other protestors were eventually let go but Ruby Khan, their coordinator, was arrested on polygamy charges. According to Khan, the police initially did not have an arrest warrant for her but later produced one on trumped-up polygamy charges. She was accused of marrying a man who already had a wife and children. Let’s put aside the absurdity of charging a woman for the man’s polygamy for now. The police alleged that Khan had married Sher Bagban while he was already married to another woman. But Khan and Bagban both had documents that showed that the latter was divorced at the time he married Khan. This entire turn of events is quite confusing but very illogical. I don’t believe it is necessary to go into all the details here but in case you’re interested, Onlinekhabar has the scoop on how a fraudulent case was built up against Khan. You can read it here (link is in Nepali but Google translate works fairly well now).
Khan was whisked off to Nepalgunj by the police, with rights activists rightly concerned for her safety. Activist and former National Human Rights Commission member Mohna Ansari filed a habeus corpus writ at the Supreme Court, which duly ordered the police to present Khan in public. The police responded that they had no idea where Khan was. The Court then ordered both the Nepal Police and the Attorney General’s Office to make Khan’s whereabouts public within 24 hours. On October 14, they finally acquiesed, releasing Khan.
Khan detailed her experience in police custody to NepalKhabar.com:
The police took me to Bir Hospital’s Trauma Center to bandage my wounds. The boils [from walking] had burst and there was blood and pus. But my wounds were not bandaged. They took me straight from Bir Hospital to Sohrakhutta [jail]. They seized my phone and I was not allowed to make a call. They did not present me with an arrest warrant. They did not care about me or my wounds. I did not believe that I would appear again in public. That fear only increased when they quickly, and without informing me, took me to Nepalgunj. At that time, I did not think I would reappear alive.
I was taken on the plane like a prisoner. At the airport, there were 40-50 police personnel before me. When the plane doors opened at Nepalgunj, there were five police cars around me. It felt like I had committed a grave crime. The DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] had invited the media and they all took pictures of me.
I was taken to the cabin of an inspector. I asked to be allowed to call my lawyer but they did not allow me to do so. They also did not allow me to call my fellow protestors. They instead tried to bargain with me, saying that they would release me as soon as I called off the protest. I did not agree.
They hid me away. My bed did not have a mattress or a blanket. I heard from somewhere that the Supreme Court had ordered that the police present me within 24 hours so I had some hope but that never happened. When the Supreme Court gave the order again, I was treated like an object rather than a human being.
I was left overnight at the Bheri Hospital. People would come and watch. The police even tried to defame and character assassinate me in front of everyone. I still don’t know where all my belongings are.
Upon release, Khan immediately went back to the hunger strike she had started before she was arrested. On October 19, Tuesday, Khan finally called off her strike after reaching a deal with the Home Ministry. As per the deal, a six-member committee, led by Joint Secretary Hiralal Regmi, will look into the death of Nankunni Dhobi and the disappearance of Nirmala Kurmi and produce a report within seven days.
Those are the facts of the matter but there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, chief among them is why didn’t the police investigate Dhobi and Kurmi’s cases? The answer, as always in Nepal, appears to be political.
According to Kantipur daily, the role of former Constituent Assembly member and Nepali Congress politician Badshah Kurmi is suspect. Badshah had allegedly seized Nirmala Kurmi’s property after the deaths of her husband and two sons, the latter two also died under mysterious circumstances. Badshah reportedly beat and abused Nirmala in public in 2006, leading many in the district to protest against him. Badshah publicly apologized but continued to harass and hound Nirmala. Eventually, all of Nirmala’s property was transferred into Badshah’s name and Nirmala herself disappeared. Since 2010, her whereabouts have been unknown.
Badshah Kurmi allegedly assaulting Nirmala Kurma (Photo: Women’s Rights Forum Banke via Kantipur)
The involvement of a Nepali Congress politician provides some insight into why the Home Ministry, led by Nepali Congress member Bal Krishna Khand, and under the Deuba government would come down as hard as it did on the protest and Ruby Khan. The Congress is attempting to protect its party member, who is an influential local leader, no matter how heinous his crimes. The Congress, which never ceases to harp on about its democratic legacy and its adherence to the rule of law, has in the past attempted to release Mohammad Aftab Alam, who is accused of burning nearly a dozen people alive in a brick kiln in Rautahat during the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. Nepali Congress President and current Prime Minister Deuba publicly assured that he would free Alam, according to Republica.
Perhaps the Congress government believed that it could nip the issue in the bud by imprisoning Khan on fraudulent charges. It doesn’t seem to have accounted for the public support that is behind Khan and the attention her case had already garnered. For now, Khan has called for her protest in lieu of the administration promising an investigation. But if past experience is anything to go by, such committees usually produce little of substance. Let us wait to see what happens in this case.
A heartening silver lining in this entire saga is the leadership of Ruby Khan and the 11 or so women who walked all the way to Kathmandu in search of justice. Mallika Aryal of Nepali Times had profiled Khan in 2013 when she was just 25. This is what Aryal had written then:
Ruby believes in role models: someone pioneering women can look up to so that they don’t feel alone. “It is still very difficult to be an independent-thinking woman,” she admits. “We need more positive role models, some kind of a support system, or even a sounding board.”
Khan has perhaps become that role model now. Kantipur daily attempted to put names and faces to the other women who accompanied her from Nepalgunj call her ‘didi’ and credit her for leading them. These women destroy the stereotype of the meek, submissive Madhesi woman who is always oppressed by her husband. These women have put all aside to fight for justice and in a field (human rights) that is dominated by Khas-Arya activists from the cities, it is refreshing to see rural women from the Madhes take charge. Perhaps these women in turn will inspire others in their communities, much like Khan and her legal counsel, Mohna Ansari, have done.
The broader issue at hand is one of justice and how Khan and her compatriots felt the need to march all the way to Kathmandu just to be heard. Federalism was supposed to bring Singha Durbar to every doorstep and yet, it seems justice still remains the province of the capital city. It is a shame for any country — and any government — when citizens must protest and beseech the federal government for help when existing bodies, like the local police, are unwilling to do their jobs. The problem, as always, is with institutions and how Nepal’s institutions have been so hollowed out by corruption that an ordinary citizen’s chances of obtaining justice against a more powerful opponent are next to nil. All should ideally be equal before the law but in Nepal, some are more equal than others.
This reminds me of that old adage: Nyaya napaye Gorkha janu (Go to Gorkha if you don’t get justice). In the olden days, this saying was meant to impress upon the populace the fairmindedness of Ram Shah, ancestor of Prithvi Naraya, akin to someone like Vikramaditya or King Solomon. As it was then, so it is now. Justice still appears to be something that Nepal’s citizens need to come to the capital to obtain.
In December 2019 too, a group of sugarcane farmers was forced to come to Kathmandu from Sarlahi in order to protest after not being paid for their crops by sugar mills.
The saga reminds me of something else, a parable by Franz Kafka, the great chronicler of bureaucracy and how it saps humans of their humanity. It is called Before the law and it is the story of a man who comes to seek “the law”. Before he can gain access to the law, he must pass through a doorway and the doorway is guarded by a doorkeeper, who tells the man that he cannot enter at this time. The law should be accessible to everyone,” the man thinks but decides to comply and wait by the door. He waits for years, interrogating and bribing the doorkeeper but to no avail. He waits until he grows old and infirm. Almost at death, he asks the doorkeeper one final question:
Before his death he gathers up in his head all his experiences of the entire time into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the difference between them has changed considerably to the disadvantage of the man.
“What do you want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.”
“Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?”
The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”
Make of this parable what you will.
On The Record this week:
Shrijan Pandey on gambling addictions during the festive season
Warren Ward on death, meaning, and the good life
Akhilesh Upadhyay provides writing advice for both aspiring and stagnating journalists
Happenings this week:
Sunday - Nineteen Dalit organizations and individuals from Bharatpur city released a joint statement alleging that the culprits in the beating death of Bhim Bahadur BK be prosecuted. BK was verbally abused and beaten to death on October 14, a day before Bada Dashain, over an altercation at a temple, allegedly regarding entrance for Dalits.
Monday - Rains began to batter the Far West’s Sudurpaschim Province, destroying crops and taking dozens of lives.
Tuesday - Over a hundred domestic flights were cancelled owing to rains that continued to spread across the country from west to east. The death toll has now climbed to over a hundred from across the country.
Wednesday - The Deuba administration completed its 100 days in office with very little to show for it. Assessments in the media were very critical.
Thursday - Rajesh Kushwaha, chief of Janakpur’s Department of Drinking Water and Sewerage, was publicly assaulted and smeared with mud for failing to repair a ditch in the city. The assailants were identified as cadres of CK Raut’s Janmat Party.
Friday - The Former Judges Forum of Nepal has asked for an investigation into Chief Justice Cholendra SJB Rana, as his recent decisions have been mired in controversy, especially his alleged role in the appointment of Gajendra Hamal as Minister of Industry, Commerce and Supplies. Hamal resigned days after his appointment.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes on Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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