Mahara’s acquittal and Tumbahangphe’s elevation to minister will have lasting effects, analysts sayWhile Krishna Bahadur Mahara was acquitted of attempted rape charges, Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe was appointed minister for law, both on the same day.
Monday saw two dramatic political developments. Hours before former Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara was acquitted of attempted rape charges, Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe, who served as Deputy Speaker during Mahara’s tenure, was appointed minister for law and justice.
Both Mahara and Tumbahangphe have recently made headlines for reasons that were interlinked—not just because they were Speaker and Deputy Speaker but also because Mahara had resigned after allegations of attempted rape while Tumbahangphe had been denied the Speaker’s position due to what she had alleged to be patriarchy in the ruling party.
Monday’s decisions by the executive and judiciary may have brought down the curtain on two political controversies, but they are certain to have a lasting effect and remain talking points for long, say analysts and politicians.
Mahara might have gotten an acquittal from the court but moral questions remain, especially given his stature in politics, said Rachana Khadka, a central committee member of the Nepal Communist Party.
“On legal grounds, he got a clean chit but the moral questions will continue to haunt him,” Khadka told the Post.
Mahara resigned on October 1, five days before his arrest and two days after a police complaint by a woman who works at the Parliament Secretariat, accusing him of attempted rape.
Once Mahara’s case went to court, Tumbahangphe had demanded that she be elevated to the Speaker post, as she was qualified and the Deputy. But with the House out of session, the party was in no hurry to elect a new Speaker and it refused Tumbahangphe.
By the time the House session recommenced on December 20, new developments had emerged in the ruling party, with the two chairs KP Sharma Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal both making a pitch for persons of their choice for Speaker—neither wanted Tumbahangphe.
Oli favoured Subhas Nembang while Dahal wanted Agni Sapkota. Dahal emerged victorious in the month-long negotiation, which led to Tumbahangphe resigning.
In an interview with the Post, Tumbahangphe said she had become a victim of political violence by the Nepal Communist Party leadership. Mahara, one of the top leaders of the ruling party, was then standing trial for an alleged act of violence against a woman.
Tumbahangphe, who had repeatedly said that she would not exchange her desire to become the Speaker for any ministerial berth, assumed office on Monday.
Political analyst Rajendra Maharjan expressed disappointment with Tumbahangphe’s acceptance of the ministerial berth, especially given her strident criticism of the patriarchy.
“Given her decision, it appears that she wasn’t fighting against patriarchy,” he said.
As per parliamentary regulations, Mahara had not lost his seat as a Member of Parliament; he was just deprived of the perks and facilities he was entitled to as a lawmaker and his participation in the House proceedings. With his acquittal, Mahara is set to return to Parliament now.
It may not be difficult for Mahara to make a political comeback, as he holds a prominent position in the party and has close relations with party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal.
“Mahara remained a dominant figure in his party and he could make a revival after a short break,” said Maharjan. “The party can show the clean chit given by the court as grounds for bringing him into politics again.”
But Maharjan cautioned against taking the acquittal on face value, especially given the stature of the lawyers defending him. Mahara’s defence team consisted of former attorney general Raman Shrestha and senior advocates Sher Bahadur KC, Lava Mainali, Dinmani Pokhrel and Bhimarjun Acharya.
Though there was no concrete evidence to support, many had speculated that Mahara was framed because of a political conspiracy within the party. Despite the merger, there was deep suspicion between the former CPN-UML and Maoist leaders, including two chairs Oli and Dahal.
Since the insurgency days, Mahara has been a close and loyal ally to Dahal. But Oli has not concealed his unhappiness with Mahara for not moving the Millenium Challenge Corporation Nepal Compact bill forward in Parliament.
Even Dahal had once remarked that Mahara had indeed made a mistake and that since the case had already reached the court, it needed a judicial settlement. “It may not have been a criminal act but it was definitely morally wrong,” Dahal had said in Chitwan while the court was hearing Mahara’s case.
Baburam Bhattarai, a former prime minister and Mahara’s conflict-era colleague, also said on Monday that Mahara’s case was more moral than legal.
“The court judgment is in line with my presumption that Mahara's case was moral rather than legal. That's probably the truth,” Bhattarai wrote on Twitter. “Nonetheless, those holding public responsibilities must be careful about their conduct in personal lives.”
While acquitting Mahara, Kathmandu District Court Chief Judge Ambar Raj Paudel said that there was not enough evidence to substantiate allegations of attempted rape.
According to Ananda Kumar Shrestha, registrar at the Kathmandu District Court, there was a lack of ground to implicate Mahara as the plaintiff's statement did not support her initial claims and instead matched the defence. Much of the evidence, including Mahara’s eyeglasses and his thumbprints on the glass, was also found to be inconclusive.
District Attorney Umakanta Poudel, however, said that his office would be challenging the case at the High Court.
“The state has lost its case but we will certainly challenge it at the High Court once we receive the full text of the decision,” Poudel said.
Chances of the case not reaching a high court are higher, as Kathmandu District Court itself said in its judgment that the victim, while recording her statement before the bench, had denied that Mahara had ever come to her Tinkune apartment.
Earlier on November 21, Mahara had moved the Patan High Court, challenging the remand order of the Kathmandu District Court. But the Patan High Court on December 19 had quashed Mahara’s plea and upheld the district court’s decision. Citing the urgency of the case, the high court urged the district court to finalise the case within a month. The district court judgment, however, came after two months.
After his acquittal, Mahara was released on Monday.