Nepal's Nirbhaya moment

The article is jointly authored by Atul K Thakur, a New Delhi-based columnist and Kamal Dev Bhattarai, a Kathmandu-based journalist and political analyst.

 |  7-minute read |   24-10-2018
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The headlines in newspapers published from Nepal have different characteristics and usually don't shock, largely reflecting on the persistence of values in the country's socio-cultural fabric. While politics has been the major news-maker, now in changed times, the gruesome acts of rape and violence against women are disturbing not only for the pattern of news reporting, but for dismantling Nepal's tolerant, liberal and dignified social structure.

On the evening of August 30, a 13-year-old girl, a student of grade 9, suddenly disappeared.

She had informed her mother that she would return after meeting with her school friends — but she never made it back. Panicked by the disappearance of their daughter, family members approached the nearby police station, seeking help to find her whereabouts.

The police station, however, reportedly requested them to come the next day, saying it was not possible to carry out a search at night. Given the seriousness and sensitivity of the case, it is still not clear why the police was reluctant to carry out a search in the evening. Next day, the girl's dead body was found in a sugarcane field near her home. Her family members say there were chances of finding her alive, if a search was conducted soon after she went missing.

The preliminary investigation conducted by the police has shown that the girl was raped and killed in the sugarcane field. The incident took place in Kanchanpur district, in the far-western region of Nepal, falling in province no. 7, under the newly-formed federal structure, where violence against women has been rampant.

It has been almost three months since the rape and murder took place — but the culprit still remains at large.

oli-srory_102318052024.jpgThe girl's parents met Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to demand proper investigation into the rape and murder of their daughter. (Photo: Reuters)

The mysteriously slow progress in the investigation has dismayed the girl's family and rights activists alike, filling them with concern.

This has led to nation-wide protests and indignation, demanding justice for the girl.

A majority of social media users have expressed their solidarity with the campaign of justice. With short notice on social media, hundreds of people gathered in Kathmandu to pressure the government into finding the culprit. The protests kept to a purely apolitical nature and even party cadres from different political parties were allowed to participate, without their party flags.

In August, one person lost his life and dozens were injured when police opened fire on a huge crowd gathered at Kanchanpur, demanding proper and prompt investigation into the rape case. However, this act didn't stop the protests and a weekly protest has been taking place in Kathmandu, the capital, and regular protests in Kanchanpur district, to press the authorities to fairly investigate the case and ensure justice.

During this period, the girl's parents travelled to Kathmandu, met Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, and demanded proper investigation into the rape and murder of their daughter. The PM assured them that the guilty will be punished - but optimism is gradually fading due to negligence in investigation.

The government has already suspended more than half a dozen police officials, including the chief of Kanchanpur district, for sheer negligence in the investigation. The government committees, however, are failing to come up with concrete evidence. As police-level investigations did not find any clues, the government formed a high-level committee to look into the case, which has recently submitted its report.

Although the high-level investigation panel has identified several lapses in the police investigation, it also remains clueless about the identity of the culprits. The panel has stated there was negligence while collecting the evidence — and some of it was systematically destroyed, raising serious doubts over the intention of the police officials.

The reportedly systematic attempts to destroy the evidence also indicate that there could be involvement of people who have links with top politicians.

The investigation also shows that the police did not mobilise sufficient personnel and sniffer dogs after the dead body were found.

nepal-police_102318052041.jpgIn August, one person lost his life and dozens were injured when police opened fire on protestors at Kanchanpur, demanding proper investigation into the rape case. (Photo: Reuters)

Similarly, the girl's clothes were destroyed and her private parts were washed in the field where the dead body was recovered, making the DNA test even more complicated. The dead body was cremated by allegedly forcing the family members to sign a consent document. While the police have conducted DNA tests on some suspected people, including police officials, all the tests have failed to established anyone's connection to the crime. Similarly, there are also doubts about the process and methods adopted for the DNA test, including its transparency.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), a constitutional body, has directed the government to conduct a fair and effective investigation in the case. The commission has said that the victim's family was 'in despair' and has raised questions over the credibility of the investigation by the Nepal police.

With no progress in the investigation, there is pressure on the Home Minister and the police chief to step down, for their inability to properly investigate the matter. Some time back, the Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, a former Maoist leader, had said that rape cases have increased due to the 'capitalist system,' inviting sharp criticism on social media.

Subsequently, the government announced measures to block porn sites to curb increasing rape cases. The government is of the view that rape cases are increasing due to porn sites. Later, in an interview, Prime Minister Oli said it could take up to 12 years to find the culprits of such serious crimes. Such decisions and moves have also invited a lot of criticism.

Cases of rape and violence against women in Nepal have gone up in recent months. Recently, Samjhana Kumar Das, a teenage girl of Rautahat district, was attacked with acid on September 12, while she was sleeping in her house in Chandrapur Municipality. A spurned neighbour, Ram Babu Paswan, had carried out the attack. With the girl's case in the limelight, the local media is publishing news related to rape on a daily basis, which paints a very grim picture of growing violence against women.

Police records show that the number of rape cases in Nepal has sharply increased in the last 10 years. According to official data of Nepal Police, in 2016-17, 1139 rape cases were reported, while the number of attempt to rape was 536. In 2017-18, 1480 case of rape were filed in various courts.

In the year 2008-2009, the number of reported rape cases was 200, while in 1996-97, the number was 112.

Experts say due to the growing awareness and facilities of legal services, the reporting of rape cases has substantially increased in the recent years.

However, there can be no doubt that the cases of gender violence and rapes have risen exponentially in recent years — and have now reached an alarming level.

The newly implemented Civil and Criminal Code which came into effect from the second week of August 2018 states that the maximum jail term for anyone convicted on rape charges has been increased from previous 15 years to 20 years.  However, such acts would prove pointless if criminals continue to enjoy political patronage in Nepal - just like in its neighbour, India. The trend of growing violence against women, acid attacks, rapes and murders are disturbing and appears to be following a pattern where 'revenge' of some sort is at centerstage.

Mostly it is happening when Nepal is passing through a phase when its democracy is experiencing 'federalism' and 'devolution of power' at such a high scale for the first time. With localisation of politics, local issues are now shaping up quite differently and are being dealt with caution by the state agencies which work under the watch of local government.

With the outcomes derived from the new and failed Constitution, Nepal is heading towards a time where the newly formed states would host regional satraps and their wild aspirations — but without entertaining the causes for which the idea of decentralisation was brought in to the discourse.

Going further with the 'federal system' will be just too painful if the 'rule of law' gets caricatured like in the present context.

Nepal is fast losing its progressive social quality, and if its daughters are not safe at home and on the streets, there is no other option but to review its entire security system in place.

Now almost two months have lapsed, the rapist (s) and killer (s) of the girl is (are) still at large.

In this story of defeat and shame, humanity is getting shattered. A country that has been known for giving gender equality hope is now changing, for the worse. While justice has to be ensured at home, the world should also take notice of what's going unusually wrong in Nepal and must do its bit to keep it safe from the polluted winds of ugly power politics.

Also read: Nepal: Getting federalism right

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