Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-NEPAL: Vigilante Justice Goes Astray

Akhilesh Upadhyay

KATHMANDU, Mar 21 2005 (IPS) - The international community and the Nepali government seem to be at diametrically opposite ends.

While tough action against Nepal has been proposed at the annual hearings of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, the Nepali government seems to be making matters worse by encouraging retaliatory attacks against Maoist rebels. This has resulted in new levels of violence.

On Mar. 17, U.N. human rights chief, Louise Arbour put Nepal alongside Sudan as prime locations, in the world, for gross human rights violations. The next day U.N. and donor agencies warned that the Himalayan kingdom is nearing a humanitarian crisis and urged security forces and Maoist rebels not to block vital aid and to protect civilians.

This comes at a time when vigilante justice has led to the deaths of as many as 31 alleged Maoists and their sympathizers in Nepal’s southern district of Kapilvastu, the birthplace of Lord Buddha.

In retaliation, the Maoists have killed 16 villagers to date. Thousands of villagers fearing their lives have fled across the border to India. Though the early flames have waned in recent days amid heavy security presence and local leaders appealing for amity, tensions still run high.

”It’s everybody against everybody,” says Narayan Prasad Poudel, a journalist based in Taulihawa, the main town in Kapilvastu.

But the vigilante justice has proved counterproductive.

More than 11,000 Nepalis have died since the Maoists lunched their anti-establishment ”people’s war” in 1996 to establish a communist republic in the impoverished Himalayan kingdom.

King Gyanendra, who sacked the government, jailed political leaders and seized power on Feb.1, said he was acting to end the Maoist rebellion. The power grab has been widely condemned internationally.

In Kapilvastu, the current narrative on the ground is one of high tension and extreme confusion. Nepali-speaking hill migrants who have settled in the flat and fertile plains of Kapilvastu, which borders India, fear the local ethnic communities, most of whom have kin across the border. On the other hand, members of ethnic groups accuse the Nepali-speaking population of targeting them.

Muslims fear their Hindu neighbors and the Hindus point out that Kapilvastu has a high Muslim population.

”It’s very volatile out there,” says Poudel.

It all started on Feb. 16, when the Maoists abducted a former police officer Prem Bahadur Bhujel from the village of Ganeshpur. Well regarded in the village, Bhujel was preparing for a family wedding.

The next day, some 300 villagers armed mostly with sticks began to scour for Bhujel and his Maoist captors. They found him locked up in a pen, blindfolded and with his legs tied up.

What happened next is murky. Some say that the villagers handed over Bhujel’s Maoist captors to a local army barracks before asking them back and killing the unspecified number of Maoists themselves. Another story has it that the angry villagers lynched the captors to death the moment they found them.

But all hell broke loose only after Feb. 21, when three senior ministers flew to Ganeshpur from the capital Kathmandu and urged villagers to retaliate against the Maoists. The villagers’ Feb. 17 retaliation against the Maoists was also widely publicised in the state media.

”That stoked the flames,” says Tilak Pokharel, a journalist who visited 10 Kapilvastu villages from Mar. 9 to 12, while angry mobsters set them on fire.

”Some 30,000 villagers or more fled across the border to India and many of them are unlikely to return home,” he adds.

Enthused by government support in Hallanagar, a supposed Maoist stronghold, the vigilantes burned down 305 out of the 323 houses in the village.

In his Mar. 15 news report for ‘The Kahtmandu Post’ daily, Pokharel pointed out that while revenge for years of suppression by the Maoists were evident motives behind the bloody retaliation, pressures from local vigilante groups and the military were the less obvious ones.

”The early retaliation (Feb. 18) against the Maoists was spontaneous,” says Poudel, who also heads Kapilvastu district’s Federation of Nepalese Journalists. ”But what happened later was not,” he stresses.

In Kathmandu, the government appears unrepentant. In its first full-fledged press conference since it took office on Feb. 1, the new government headed by King Gyanendra encouraged villagers to retaliate against the Maoists.

At the Mar. 18 press briefing, Minister for Information and Communications Tanka Dhakal, who is also the government’s spokesman, said that ”villagers had been forced to resort to courageous retaliatory action in their desire for peace”.

”In such areas where the people have taken action by themselves, the government will introduce integrated development packages as an inducement,” he told reporters. Days later, senior army officials arrived in Kapilvastu to announce that those targeted by the Maoists will receive relief packages from the government.

Villagers in Kapilvastu point out that a fragile peace will only hold for the next few days. They warn it could collapse like a house of cards any time if there is a minor incident.

It might seem that some of the 30,000 villagers who fled to India have come back. But dusk still sees many of them quietly crossing over the border to the Indian side.

While the landed Nepali class have property holdings in India and relatives to count on, it is the poor that’s a cause of concern.

”These poor Nepalis are rootless on both sides of the border – in Nepal and in India,” says a human rights worker. ”And these are the people that can be easily manipulated by various interest groups.”

For now, security has been beefed up to unprecedented levels in Kaplivastu. An estimated 1,000 to 1,200 Royal Nepal Army personnel remain stationed in the hotspots compared to only about 200 a month ago. But the villagers say the real test will come when security forces, already stretched thin battling the nine-year-old Maoist insurgency, start leaving for other troubled spots in the country.

A senior police official based in Kapilvastu admits that fanning the flames against the Maoists was a blunder. ”We quickly realised the situation had gone out of control.”

But weeks on, the government in Kathmandu still seems reluctant to admit just as much.

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