State of impunity wrecking our university systemThere is a criminal gang that benefits by extorting the university. They work for the mafia in education.
Prem Chalaune, assistant professor at the Department of Sociology of Tribhuvan University, had to nearly pay with his life for opposing the months-long padlocking of his department. In October 2020, students affiliated to Nepali Congress assaulted him and left him to die. Luckily, he survived. But instead of heeding Chalaune, many of the top political leaders including the prime minister, home minister and law minister seemed intent on blocking his path to justice. Post’s Tika R Pradhan talked to Chalaune on his prolonged struggle for justice. Excerpts:
Can you please elaborate on what happened to you?
I was assaulted by a group of some unknown and a few known people on October 6, 2020. Four professionals were hired to beat me up. They kept me under vigil for weeks and followed me around. It was a planned attack. Two of the professionals hired told the court that they were given Rs20,000 in total to assault me. They wanted to kill me.
Why do you think they assaulted you?
They had padlocked my department for over 60 days. My only mistake was that I insisted on opening the lock. None of those locking the department were students. They all were professional criminals. We must be clear that the four people who attacked me—Rupesh Shah, Rabin Kumar Lama, Sayuj Shrestha and Niraj Rana Magar—were not admitted to any of the colleges of Tribhuvan University. Lama had arrived here from Malaysia two days before the incident. Hari Acharya and Yogendra Rawal, who padlocked the department, were also not students. Their padlocking was aimed at spreading fear among the people and their objective was to make personal gains from the university by bargaining for appointments, transfers, promotions, college affiliations and for other financial benefits. The lock was just a tool to create an environment of fear for that. I insisted that the lock be opened. What more can a professor do when his department is locked for months? I kept on speaking against their wrong step. And I will keep on doing so. Maybe my behaviour angered them.
Why do you think the leaders from the student wing of a party that professes to be the custodian of democracy in the country attacked an academic?
Being known as a student wing of a democratic party is just a cover. Among the four factions of the Nepal Students Union that have their presence in Tribhuvan University, Hari Acharya and Yogendra Rawal are the self-declared chair and secretary respectively—and close to the Krishna Sitaula faction in the Nepali Congress. Four others were professional goons. They committed the crime by misusing the banner of Congress’s student wing.
It’s a sad incident. The students of such a democratic party should sort out issues through discussions when there are differences. Even if I did them injustice, they should have conducted peaceful protests. They hired professional goons instead. It is the biggest irony that the most democratic of the student organisations tried to murder a professor for insisting that classes should not be obstructed.
Could there have been other reasons too?
They accused me of breaking the lock but I was not involved in doing so. I had continuously insisted on opening the lock. But they wanted to shut the mouth of those who were speaking in favour of opening the lock. There is a criminal gang that benefits by extorting the university. They work for the mafia in education.
Can you please explain how the governments and the powerful parties tried to protect those who attacked you?
It’s another never-ending story. The whole state came after me— an innocent and helpless teacher. The state treated me as an enemy when I reached the court, begging for justice. Big people like the prime minister and law minister came to fight a helpless teacher. You have heard what the prime minister and the law minister said. Former Home Minister Balkrishna Khand had also tried hard to withdraw the case against my assailants. They even had a kind of setting at the court to make me suffer and deprive me of justice.
They used the Congress-affiliated Democratic Lawyers Association (DLA) to obstruct hearings for three years and then the government started the process to withdraw the case. They came forward publicly to defend the criminals. To defend the Cabinet decision to withdraw a sub judice case, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal even argued that my wounds have been healed and students should not be kept behind bars for long. He is the chancellor of my university and my guardian.
How do you defend yourself against the recent accusations of Law Minister Dhan Raj Gurung?
Law Minister Gurung made a serious allegation that I removed the biography of BP Koirala from the course and broke the lock with a hammer to invite conflict. The minister publicly implied on national television that it was natural for someone to be killed in a clash. There is a “setting” in the court and even in the government—you see how the whole system gangs up to save criminals. Sometimes I feel this country belongs to criminals.
But in the end the judiciary did thwart the Cabinet's decision to save the assailants, right?
Due to the constant questioning and vigilance of the media, of the civil society and people from all over the world on social media, as well as of my colleagues and students, the Supreme Court listened to our pleas. My friends in the legal profession pursued my case without taking any fees. The Supreme Court, respecting our feelings, put a brake on the government decision to withdraw my case and clearly told the world that the judiciary is not beholden to politicians.
But I believe this verdict was made possible because of the long and untiring vigilance of everyone. I believe in a collective form of justice that includes pressure from all the sections of the society including the intelligentsia. Our criminal justice system works properly with the help of their pressure.
You received threats even when you were recovering from your severe wounds. Do they still threaten you?
I have spent every moment of the past three years in fear. After my assailants were released on bail, they started to threaten me again. Those criminals used to scold me whenever they met me at the court using the vilest words. Acharya threatened to throw me out of the university and said he had my transfer letter in his pocket. They closed most of the offices of my university for 342 days. Acharya still keeps scolding me in media interviews—and to try to assassinate my character. Acharya has understood that he can shut the mouth of his opponents if he can shut mine.
Did you get any support from the intelligentsia?
Actually the media was at the frontline of my fight. In the early days after the incident, nobody listened to my woes and pain—whether they were from the civil society, teachers or others. Only later did they come to my rescue. They took time. Had they come forward in my defence right from the start, I would not have suffered so much. If I was a resident of Kathmandu or from some major place of the country, my woes could have been heard sooner. But I come from a remote place in Achham district.
There is a kind of disorder and anarchy in the university. Increasing impunity in the country is reflected there. In my case, initially, no action was taken against anyone. Teachers would not dare to protest. They were divided along different lines. After he was released on bail, Acharya continued to threaten people not to support me. Now he has fled to the US. But he continues to call and threaten the people who are supporting me.
What do you think has contributed to the mess at the university? Is it only poor student politics or are teachers also responsible?
I cannot blame student politics alone as we also have some responsibilities to make the university better. But the state of impunity is mainly responsible for the current mess. Anyone can padlock the offices for months without a reason. Yogendra Rawal padlocked the principal’s office for five months and padlocked the university service commission for three months. It’s all because of impunity. No one will be punished even if people take things into their own hands. Student leaders have turned into goons of the educational mafia.
If you look at the student leaders of the past one decade, not one of them has emerged in the national political scene. The university produces leaders for the country but they are nowhere to be seen in the past one decade. They could not rise due to their affiliation to the educational mafia. Teachers are also divided. Over-politicisation among teachers has prevented them from asking the right questions. Another problem is the division of administrative positions in the university along political parties. The group that attacked me wanted to implement such a system.
What do you think is the solution?
Action against those who try to take the law into their hands. All those involved in criminal activities must be booked and punished in line with existing laws. Anarchy in the university rose as the state continued to ignore its problems. The state must take stern action against those flouting laws. We can also discuss long-term reforms.
How do you think incidents like yours affect the educational environment not only in the TU but also in academic institutions across the country?
Universities are for discourses on various issues. But our universities resemble fighting rings. How can you teach Gandhi, Marx or Buddha in such an environment? I think this is the greatest irony of our university system.