Six years after Tikapur incident, Tharus still wait for justiceThose who were tortured and sent to jails but acquitted say the state has failed them and their entire community, with no political party willing to take up their cause.
On August 25, 2015, Prem Chaudhary was at his medical store, like any other day. At around 11 in the morning, a group of police officers arrived and asked him to visit the local police station at Bhajani Municipality in Kailali district “for some inquiries”. He was kept at the station for a couple of hours without being told the reason. Then he was moved to another police station in Sukkhad.
Then suddenly, police started beating him up, asking him to confess that he was one of the persons behind the protests the previous day, in which nine people, including a senior police officer and a toddler, had died.
Only then did Prem, 45, realise why he was arrested.
It was in the lead-up to the constitution promulgation. Protests had intensified across the Tarai plains. Tikapur, an area where Tharus have lived for centuries, too was simmering.
People from different indigenous communities, including Tharus, were pressuring political parties to include their agendas in the constitution. Tharus from western Nepal were demanding a Tharuhat province. But there was huge resistance from the Pahadis, the people from the hills. They were demanding Akhanda Sudurpaschim or an undivided Far West.
Some prominent leaders like Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress, the incumbent prime minister, Bhim Rawal from the CPN-UML and Lekhraj Bhatta from the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) had either tacit or open support to the Akhanda Sudurpaschim idea, as all came from the region.
Tharus worried about losing their say unless they were given a separate Tharuhat province. Tharus, however, lacked the heft in comparison to those championing the Akhanda Sudurpaschim cause. Nor did Tharus have a strong representative in Kathmandu to speak and fight on their behalf.
Tensions were building up. On August 24, 2015, the protest turned violent, and nine people—eight police officers and a toddler–were killed in ensuing clashes.
From the very next day, police launched an indiscriminate crackdown, arresting whoever they wanted.
Prem was one of them.
After failing to extract a confession from him, he was taken to the District Police Office, Dhangadhi at midnight.
“Until we reached the District Police Office, I was taken to every police station on the way, and I would be beaten with batons, kicked and punched,” Prem recalled. “Police would ask me to admit that I was one of the organisers of the protest. They wanted me to name others. Every time I said I did not know, the response would be thrashing.”
By the time he was taken to Dhangadhi, he had almost lost consciousness, he said.
“I was forced to sign a statement the police had prepared, even without getting a chance to read it,” he told the Post over the phone from Bhajani, Kailali.
The police torture continued for weeks.
Prem, an auxiliary health worker by profession, was a village committee member of the then Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Loktantrik) led by Bijay Kumar Gachhadar. He, however, was inactive in party politics and had his focus on his medical business when the Tharus’ protest intensified.
“I learnt about the Tikapur incident from television and radio and the second-hand narrative from those who were there,” he said. For around a month until he was sent in judicial custody, there wasn’t a single day he was not tortured at the hands of police. He would be kicked, beaten with bamboo sticks and even pierced with spears in his legs.
The torture has left him fragile. He has a blurry vision. He cannot stand or lie down for an extended period due to pain.
By the time he was released following a court order after serving three and a half years in jail in March 2019, his store’s medicines worth around Rs1.5 million had expired. The bank was in final preparation to auction his property.
Prem says his loan has reached around Rs10 million, as he has not been generating any income. “I have no option but to sell my remaining property to clear the debt,” Prem told the Post. “My life has been ruined at the hands of the state. Where do I go for justice?”
At times he wonders if his precious three and a half years, which he spent in jail, could ever be returned.
Kailali Police had filed cases against 58 people for their involvement in the Tikapur incident. The police arrested 27 of them, while 31 others were on the run. Those who were arrested say they were tortured and were forced to admit their involvement. They were pressured into signing the statements at gunpoint without even getting to read what they were signing on, they say.
Ram Prasad Chaudhary, 50, from Joshipur Rural Municipality in Kailali, too, was arrested on the charge of organising the violent protests.
Ram, a regional coordinator of Kailali Constituency-3 of the then Forum (Loktantrik), was on medication for typhoid when the Tikapur incident took place.
He says it’s not that he did not participate in protests demanding an autonomous Tharuhat province and that he had his full support for the cause.
“But I was not there when the August 24 incident happened in Tikapur,” Ram told the Post. “I learned about the incident through a local FM station.”
However, he was arrested by the police at around 2pm on August 25 without reason. The torture began as soon as he was hauled into the police van, he says.
His wrist bone had cracked by the time he was taken to Dhangadhi District Police Office at midnight. Under pressure, doctors at Seti Zonal Hospital prepared a report that said he was alright.
“They would beat me up and pierce my body with sharp objects. They even ripped my moustache off and pulled my hair,” he told the Post. “But what pained more was their words against my ethnicity and identity.”
According to Ram, when the police prepared the fake statement, they asked their colleagues injured in the Tikapur incident to say they had seen him.
“I heard a DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] coercing the injured police, saying ‘don’t you want to continue your job’ when they said they hadn’t seen me,” he told the Post.
Those who followed the Tikapur incident and its aftermath say the police made random arrests targeting the Tharu people rather than trying to find out the real culprits.
“Those who were arrested were not at the site [Tikapur],” Mohna Ansari, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission who was in Tikapur recently, told the Post. “The police action was motivated by revenge against the entire Tharu community.”
The court verdict in some of the cases also proves that.
Bishram Kushmi from Tikapur Municipality-7 was known locally for his banana farm. On the day of the incident, Bishram was working on his farm, and no one from his family was part of the protest. However, eight months after the incident, he was arrested on April 5, 2016, on the charge of his involvement in the murder of nine people. After staying in jail for three years, he was acquitted by the District Court on March 6, 2019. The decision has been upheld by the High Court as well.
“I had taken a loan to expand my farm and agrovet business,” he told the Post. “My business had been ruined when I walked out of jail. The loan has increased,” said Bishram. “I am selling my property to pay off the loan. But who will compensate for my sleepless nights of three years, the stress my family went through and the loss I have suffered?”
Bisharam Chaudhary from Nawalpur of Janaki Rural Municipality and Nural Jaga Musalman from Joshipur too were acquitted by the court after spending three years in jail. They all faced brutal torture at the hands of police officers who forced them to admit their involvement in the Tikapur violence.
“We were forced to sign the papers without getting to read them. The government attorneys too didn’t listen to us,” says Ram Prasad Chaudhary.
Different human rights organisations investigated the incident and its aftermath while two panels formed by the government carried out separate probes.
A report by Amnesty International says contrary to Nepal's obligations under international law and domestic constitutional and legal provisions, none of the detainees were informed of the reasons for their arrest. It also pointed out the coerced confessions as claimed by those who talked to the Post. It called upon the Nepal government to establish an independent, impartial and effective investigation into the allegations of torture and other ill treatment, coerced confessions and arbitrary arrests and detention and carry out prosecution against the officials suspected of responsibility for torture and other ill treatment. However, that never happened.
While there is constitutional protection against torture, the National Penal Code-2017, which came into force in August 2018, also criminalises it.
Section 167 (1) of the code says no authority that is competent under the law to investigate or prosecute any offence, implement the law, take anyone into control, or hold anyone in custody or detention in accordance with law shall subject, or cause to be subjected, anyone to physical or mental torture or to cruel, brutal, inhuman or degrading treatment. A person who commits the offence referred to in subsection as per the section is liable to a sentence of imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding 50,000 rupees or both, according to the penal code. However, not a single prosecution on torture has been made so far though very few have received the monetary compensation.
While police officers were involved in the indiscriminate torture, the people from the Pahadi community too burned down the houses, shops, restaurants and radio station owned by the Tharus.
A report by the National Human Rights Commission had recommended the government take actions against those involved in the arson. However, no successive governments took steps to implement it.
“We found that the arson was done under police protection and recommended actions against everyone involved. It was wrong that it never happened,” Prakash Osti, a former member of the National Human Rights Commission who led the probe team, told the Post. “The nine people were killed in cold blood using spears and other domestic weapons while some were even burnt alive. However, it is the responsibility of the police to carry out a fair investigation into the matter.”
A report by Human Rights Watch says while the houses and shops of the Tharu people burned, the fire brigade, whose building is just 500 metres away, refused to come without orders from the police. Police orders were not prompt.
Tharu activists say carrying out persecutions against the Tharu people alone and detaining and torturing them and imposing false charges against them show the state’s discrimination against the indigenous people.
“We filed a complaint against 19 people involved in setting fire to houses, looting shops and sexually assaulting women and girls,” Shravan Tharu, acting coordinator of Tharuhat Tharuwan Rashtriya Morcha, told the Post. “The people from the Pahadi community were protesting for Akhand Sudurpaschim when we were protesting for a Tharuhat province. Their demands were addressed while we only suffered at the hands of the state authority.”
The immediate fears that there would be more conflicts between Tharus and Pahadis, however, have died down, and there is a semblance of reconciliation.
Despite the protests along the Tarai plains, some violent incidents like the one in Tikapur, Nepal’s political parties rushed the constitution on September 15, 2015. While half of the country celebrated, the Tharu community was still struggling to come to terms with what had happened a month ago.
Life appears to have returned to normalcy, by and large, but many of the demands of the Tharus continue to remain unaddressed.
Even today, over a dozen people, including Resham Chaudhary, a member of the House of Representatives, are serving jail terms in connection with the Tikapur incident. The leaders of Morcha say the Tikapur incident was purely a political movement, and it should be treated accordingly. They say if the armed conflict by the Maoists, which claimed the lives of 13,000 people, is a political movement, the protest by the indigenous Tharu people cannot be treated differently.
As this week marked the sixth year of the Tikapur incident, leaders of the Morcha resorted to a three-day protest in Kathmandu, demanding the release of those in prison. They are also demanding that past agreements forged with them be implemented.
“There is clearly a discriminatory approach by the state when it comes to Tharus. The Tharu protest was political in nature, and it should be treated accordingly. The dissatisfaction will only grow if the state continues to demonstrate a dual attitude while looking into cases of similar nature,” Bhanu Ram Tharu, an adviser to the Morcha, told the Post. “The government should immediately release the report by the Sharma committee and the Lal Commission which will give a clear picture on the Tikapur incident.”
The government had formed a panel led by Deviram Sharma, former chief of National Investigation Department, to probe the Tikapur incident while a separate commission was formed under the leadership of former Supreme Court justice Girish Chandra Lal on September 18, 2016, to investigate the atrocities committed during the protests in Tarai/Madhes prior and post constitution promulgation.
Lal Commission submitted its report in December 2017 to then prime minister Deuba, who has retaken the government reins. The Sharma panel had submitted its report in October 2015, a little after a week before Sushil Koirala resigned as prime minister following the promulgation of the constitution.
However, reports of both the panels haven't been made public.
Tharu activists say the truth will never come out until the probe reports are made public. While the Tharus’ struggle for their rights will continue, the reports must be made public first for justice to prevail.
The Mahantha Thakur faction of the Janata Samajbadi Party, which has now split to form Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, had decided to support the KP Oli government in May this year after assurances that the Lal Commission report would be made public. Now it is incumbent upon the Deuba government, supported by the Maoists, to make the report public, Tharu activists say.
Making public the Lal Commission report is one of the points of the Deuba government’s Common Minimum Programme, which was unveiled on August 8.
“We had visited Tikapur and conducted a thorough investigation into the incident and its aftermath and prepared the report accordingly,” Lal told the Post. “Let the government make it public as per its commitment. Everything will be clear then.”
(Ganesh Chaudhary contributed reporting.)