Sarbendra Khanal: Nepal Police’s lapses were exposed in the Nirmala Pant caseThe Inspector General of Nepal Police on the department’s public image and what reforms he has introduced to improve them.
Inspector General Sarbendra Khanal was appointed to lead Nepal Police in April last year. Before heading the department, Khanal had a reputation of being an officer who could get the work done—from managing the chaotic traffic in the Capital to exposing Nepal’s national sports personalities for their involvement in match-fixing. The citizenry had high hopes, but the handling of the rape and murder of Nirmala Pant unmasked Nepal Police’s incompetence. The horrific violence meted out to the 13-year-old and the lackadaisical approach to the investigation naturally sparked angry protests, first in Kanchanpur and gradually in other parts of the country, including the Capital. The case is yet to be solved. Similarly, with the Oli-led government in place, police brutality has been on the rise and there are allegations that criminals are increasingly being sheltered. The Post’s Shuvam Dhungana and Anil Giri met with Khanal to find whether or not he thinks the above-mentioned attestations are true and what he has done to improve the public’s perception of Nepal Police.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Of late, the police department has come under fire. Take, for example, the incident in Kohalpur or more lately in front of Dashrath Stadium, which has led to public outcry. Is the department struggling with its image?
I don’t think Nepal Police’s public image has been tarnished due to these incidents. During the conflict in Kohalpur, the situation escalated quickly, and that was unpredictable. It was not just the students who were involved in the protest. If there were only students, police would have controlled the situation by coordinating with them. But it was others who joined the protest, and the situation spiralled out of control. We tried to handle the situation calmly but despite that, 23 of our officers were seriously injured. Police were trying to disperse the crowd to prevent any untoward incident. But talking about the incident at Dashrath Stadium, police had to use force to maintain peace as the situation could have gone worse. All the tickets were sold out. Yet, despite knowing it, thousands of people gathered and tried to demonstrate demanding tickets. Nepal Police is not responsible for providing tickets to everyone. Also, it is normal to sometimes use force to disperse the masses. However, kicking someone and thrashing a journalist was not appropriate at all. Nonetheless, if we look at the overall performance, our force has been working round the clock to maintain peace and security.
But the failure of the Nepal Police was largely exposed in the Nirmala Pant case. What do you have to say?
I admit that Nepal Police’s lapses were exposed in the Pant case—from responding immediately to evidence gathering. Kanchanpur District Police was not able to do the job as per the standards. Soon after we knew about the incident, the department sprang into action and booked the officials who were at fault. But police were neither trying to eliminate the evidence nor save the culprit(s); it happened due to lack of seriousness. It looked as though police were trying to destroy the evidence intentionally, which is wrong. We have attached high priority to the case, and not only Kanchanpur police, but the Central Investigation Bureau is also involved. It could take some time, but we are quite hopeful that the culprit will be in police custody soon.
Everywhere in the world, it’s about trust that police earn from the public, but here at home, the public’s confidence in the Nepal Police is on the wane. Why so?
I believe the citizenry has more trust in the police now than they had before. A good relationship between police and public has made it able to launch various programmes including a community-police partnership programme, which is working for a peaceful and secure society by coordinating with local levels, communities, schools and social organisations. We receive around 2,500 calls a day at our emergency number. People call as they believe police will respond to their complaints and pave the way for justice. People now have started filing complaints against suspicious activities too. All this was possible due to public confidence and trust in police. The increased crime rate concerns Nepal Police, but it's important to note that it's not the rate of crime that has risen. People are reporting crimes more often. Police have always been prompt to respond to first information reports filed by the public.
That the police department has been politicised has largely come into the public domain, which we often see during the appointment of the chief. Would that not have any bearing on the department’s impartiality?
If we let our biases surface, it will affect the impartiality of the investigation. However, as the chief of Nepal Police, I have made it clear that everyone should work professionally and there should be no space for biases. People sometimes do try to use their political connection. However, it is my responsibility to make sure that the buck stops with me and the investigation is not influenced otherwise.
So far, I haven’t been under any pressure. Nepal Police does not give any pressure too, but there could be some officers who choose to be influenced by themselves to get certain benefits. If we get a whiff of something like that, Nepal Police will surely take strict action against them.
Since you assumed the top post, what measures have you taken to bring reforms in the department?
My efforts are concentrated on making internal reforms. The results are visible now since almost everyone is concerned about their career growth, and during my work period, we did postings and promotions of thousands of officers. This has encouraged and motivated them to work impartially. It is owing to fair promotions that our officers’ trust in the department has increased.
Similarly, we have taken strict action against the personnel who were found involved in unethical work. We are even running a programme called zero-tolerance against corruption wherein we arrested many people for attempting to bribe on-duty police officers. It is small changes like these that have sent a positive message to the public. This makeover in Nepal Police’s image is one of the biggest internal reforms. The department was resource starved and there were no proper infrastructure in place either.
There weren’t enough CCTVs in the past. Now, there are thousands of CCTV cameras that operate 24 hours across the country. Similarly, we have built two police schools and have provided better accommodations for our officers. Our work is transparent and to keep our officers motivated, we have also worked on the increment of salary and promotion. There has been a better mobilisation of resources during my working period.
What are other immediate changes that you think the department warrants and why has the government not been able to do so?
There are many areas that require immediate reform to enhance the capacity of Nepal Police. Much needs to be done in the technical field. We need more data centres, forensic laboratories and investigating experts. We have these things, but it doesn’t suffice the present context. The government has put in the effort but those efforts are not sufficient to bring immediate reforms in the department.
There have been reports of corruption in the procurement of some equipment by the Nepal Police. Why do such purchases almost always land in controversy?
Buying adequate resources is essential while providing security to high profile guests visiting the country. Procurement of motorcycles had landed in controversy but at the end, it was cleared that there was nothing wrong. There are many who are always looking for places to blame the police and it’s them who try to downgrade the whole organisation. There is no personal involvement of officials in purchasing resources for police. There is a system and there are people in the committee who after thorough discussions approve procurements, so there is no chance of corruption.
Recently, a Congress lawmaker Aftab Alam was arrested in a case that dates back to more than a decade. While systematic failure is to blame, did Nepal Police also fail? How do you view this entire episode?
If I am not exaggerating, I don't like pending cases. Any environment is created by people’s leadership. I am not one to point fingers but when it comes to me, even in the past, I have dug up such hidden cases. In fact, exploring hidden crime has been my forte and after becoming the inspector general, it is my duty to investigate cases impartially.
How do you think you will be remembered by police officers or your successor?
I think I will be remembered for providing an appropriate environment for every officer and for making it easy to execute laws. I have always stressed that it's the duty of any police officer to conduct investigations impartially and without worrying about the criminals. If we work transparently, the people we have sworn to serve will support Nepal Police. Officers need to be role models for everyone and it will happen only if they work sincerely. This is what I have taught them and will be in effect for a long time.