Triggering mistrustThe police must be sensitised on the need of exercising maximum restraint during public protests.
A three-member committee formed to investigate police firing in Sarlahi District's Barahathawa, in the first week of January, has recommended action against the erring police officer. On January 5, Jaya Shankar Sah, 29, was killed when police havaldar Sonelal Yadav opened fire during a protest as locals of Barahathawa Municipality called for upgrading the local primary health centre. The municipality’s executive committee meeting on September 26, 2023 had decided to upgrade the 15-bed primary health centre to a 50-bed hospital and hand it over to the Madhesh provincial government. However, the municipality backtracked on its decision, sparking protests. The protesters had set a thatched house on the premises of the Barahathawa Area Police Office on fire, and the police had responded by lobbing teargas shells and firing into the air, ultimately killing Sah.
That Nepal Police consider the lives of citizens disposable was evident in the fact that they opened fire at the slightest provocation. And it is the same old story repeating itself: Of police killing protesters at the slightest discomfort, the government announcing compensation and forming a committee to investigate the incident, and a police officer or two being punished to placate the victims’ families. This is what happened last month at Balkumari in Lalitpur when police opened fire on protesters demanding that they be allowed to take a Korean language test, killing two youths, Sujan Raut and Birendra Shah. Earlier, the police killed Sanjeev Aidee in Bajura in November 2022, Saroj Mahato in Sarlahi in June 2019, Nawaraj Thapa in Jhapa in October 2017—the list goes on and on. From the 2006 Jana Andolan for the restoration of democracy to the Madhes Andolan for the Madhesi people’s right to dignity, to every major protest in the past several years, the police have employed the same modus operandi.
Moreover, the police are known to have run out of non-lethal equipment for safe crowd control. This has led to them using lethal weapons even where the situation is under control. As per reports, despite the police repeatedly lobbying the government for essential crowd control equipment, including teargas shells, riot control gear, blank fires and rubber bullets, among others, it has failed to receive the same yet. This has led the police to use lethal weapons, a grossly inhuman act. The government should immediately equip the police with the non-lethal equipment they requested so that the police in turn can give more respect to citizens’ lives.
Most of all, the seemingly trigger-happy police need training on sensitisation all over again about their duty to value and protect citizens’ lives. A criminal apathy among police forces is bad news for a nascent democracy like Nepal. As we are a young democracy, there are bound to be more protests by people of all hues for a whole bunch of reasons. The only way to respond to such protests is with maximal restraint. On the other hand, if the police come to be seen as no different to criminals, an environment of vocal mistrust will be created about the institution of the police itself. The resulting anarchy in that case could be impossible to manage.