Four deaths in Rupandehi put spotlight on Nepal’s trigger-happy copsLaw enforcement agencies tend to show discriminatory behaviour against protests and crowds in the Tarai and by the underprivileged, rights activists say.
Shuvam Dhungana & Tika R Pradhan
Deaths of four people in Motipur Industrial Corridor Area in Rupandehi district in police firing on Sunday has once again turned the spotlight on Nepal’s trigger-happy security forces. Questions have once again arisen over why the law enforcement agencies in the country tend to be too quick to react leading to fatalities, especially when the protesters constitute underprivileged people and when protests and clashes occur in Tarai districts.
While security personnel have defended their move as an act in self-defence, rights activists say the pattern shows there is a lack of restraint, training and orientation among members of the law enforcement agencies on handling protests and crowds.
Charan Prasai, a human rights defender, said Sunday’s incident once again shows how security forces discriminate against the underprivileged and tend to use excessive force in the name of “controlling the situation”, and this tendency is often seen when security forces have to deal with a situation in the Tarai region.
“This is not the first time such an incident has occurred. Similar incidents of indiscriminate action by police have been reported in the past too,” Prasai told the Post. “Until the government or higher authorities make individuals involved accountable, such incidents will continue.”
Nepali and international rights organisations have frequently raised the issue of police excesses in the Tarai region in the past too. During the Madhes protests, in the lead up to the constitution promulgation in 2015, many protesters had died in clashes and police action. The government had formed a commission under Girish Chandra Lal, but it has not made the report public yet.
Human Rights Watch in its report chronicled several cases of serious crimes by police against protesters and bystanders, including disproportionate use of force and extrajudicial killings when protests broke out in various Tarai districts.
In October 2019, the international rights body called on the Nepal government to release the Lal Commission report, but it has not been made public yet.
“Suppressing Lal Commission findings denies justice to Tarai victims,” said the New York-based rights organisation.
Former chief justice Anup Raj Sharma said there is a huge difference in actions police personnel take when it comes to dealing with the people in the Tarai compared to those in Kathmandu.
“The National Human Rights Commission should have immediately mobilised its people and issued strong statements recommending action against those involved in the killings,” said Sharma, who also headed the National Human Rights Commission from 2014 to 2021. “Security forces tend to use bullets against protesters immediately saying they came to destroy others’ properties but the innocent people were mostly harmless.”
Sharma said he had visited different parts of Tarai after the movement in 2015 and locals informed that police even kicked them with their boots.
“I returned with an impression that police are intolerant when they treat people from the Madhes,” Sharma told the Post. “Using bullets should be the last resort... only when there are no other options left to save the lives of many people and properties. And even during such a situation they can only fire below the knees.”
There are a number of incidents in the recent past that show how police have failed to exercise restraint.
In December 2019, a truck hit 12-year-old Prakriti Chand in Banke’s Kohalpur and crushed her legs. Irate students began to pelt the truck with stones. Police arrived, only to chase the students into the school and drag them out, further incensing students and locals. Over two dozen people, including students, teachers and locals, were injured in the incident. Soon after images of police baton-charging students in school uniform went viral on social media and were widely condemned, with many asking if this is what the Nepal Police meant when they began their ‘police, my friend’ campaign.
In August 2018 also, a person was killed and 24 others were injured in Kanchanpur after police resorted to force when protesters took to the streets over the unresolved rape and murder case of Nirmala Panta.
On June 30, 2019, Saroj Mahato was killed by the police at Ishwarpur in Sarlahi during a protest over the death of a minor by the locals on the East-West Highway. The then home minister Ram Bahadur Thapa had told the meeting of the House of Representatives that Mahato was killed because he was standing at an elevated surface while police fired into the air.
“The incident took place while the police were performing their duty to maintain law and order,” Thapa said while responding to lawmakers.
As far as Mahato’s death is concerned, “he died because he was standing on higher ground and when police fired in the air, the bullet hit him,” said Thapa, inviting criticism for his remarks.
The Nepali Congress, which was the main opposition party then, had demanded a fair investigation into the incident and a parliamentary committee to probe the incident. The party even obstructed the House proceedings.
Bal Krishna Khand, who was then the chief whip of the Nepali Congress, said that his party “does not believe in [Thapa’s] baseless clarifications.” Khand is currently the home minister in the Sher Bahadur Deuba government.
Repeated attempts to reach Khand on Monday for comments on the Motipur incident went unanswered.
The Motipur incident took place two days after the government deployed police to evict a group of protesters from Maitighar in Kathmandu. A group of villagers had walked for 20 days to Kathmandu all the way from Nepalgunj, to seek justice. One of the protesters was detained and sent to Nepalgunj, saying a case against her is pending in Banke district.
Mohna Ansari, a former human rights commissioner, had filed a habeas corpus petition at the Supreme Court, which asked the authorities to present Ruby Khan, one of the protesters, in person. An official at the Supreme Court said since Ruby had been taken to Nepalgunj, the court will write to Banke police to present her before the court.
Rights activists say even if the people marching towards Motipur were committing an illegal act, police should have exercised restraint. Locals say some people have been trying to “capture” the land in the industrial area for quite a while. There are also reports that some organised groups were instigating people, not all of them landless, to thwart the government plan to build the industrial area in Motipur by capturing the land there.
The government in 2018 proposed developing an industrial area in Motipur with a provision for 150 new factories. A preliminary detailed project report suggests 150 medium and large factories can be established in the area. The report proposed separate buildings for such factories inside the industrial zone. The industrial zone in the unused land was supposed to sprawl over 814 bigha (545 hectares approximately) along the banks of Tinau River.
In March this year, the then finance minister Bishnu Poudel had laid the foundation for the Motipur Industrial Corridor Area amid protests. Protesting locals had pelted stones at Poudel and vandalised the foundation stone laid by the minister.
Locals argued that the industrial zone would affect more than 2,000 families and that they would lose their land.
Authorities say they have earlier also dismantled some illegal constructions in the industrial zone. On Sunday, when people, in their thousands, marched towards the area, the local administration had deployed security personnel in huge numbers. According to eyewitnesses and police, those marching towards Motipur threw petrol bombs and attacked security personnel, forcing police to act in self-defence.
But police’s action in self-defence has come into question, as people have died.
Hemanta Malla, a former deputy inspector general, says personnel deployed in the field do have the authority to open fire, but they can only if they feel unsafe during protests.
“There is a clear guideline which must be strictly followed,” Malla told the Post. “If police strongly believe that the situation is getting out of control, the field officer should first warn everyone. Police can then baton-charge to disperse the crowds. If the situation does not come under control, police fire tear gas shells.”
According to Malla, if the situation continues and there is a possibility of violence, police resort to some strict measures.
“They start with firing in the air,” said Malla. “Even if security forces have to resort to real firing, no one should target above the knees.”
Malla, however, admits that it is difficult to duly follow the guidelines in the field.
“The sole purpose of firing, however, during any protests should be dispersing the crowd with minimal harm caused to anyone,” said Malla.
Senior Superintendent Basanta Bahadur Kunwar, spokesperson for Nepal Police, said security personnel resort to firing only when it is a “do or die” situation.
“We have issued clear instructions to our personnel not to open fire to the extent possible,” Kunwar told the Post. “In the Rupandehi incident, dozens of police personnel were already injured and the situation was getting out of control and more violent, so police had to open fire.”
Kunwar claimed that what security personnel did was purely an act of self-defence.
“The personnel in the field were trying to disperse the crowd and bring the situation under control,” said Kunwar. “It’s unfortunate that people died.”
Chief District Officer Rishiram Tiwari said that police had to use force after “land encroachers” attacked security personnel with petrol bombs. “Security personnel had exercised restraint to the extent possible. That’s why more from the security side have been injured than the encroachers.”
As many as 16 people, as many personnel from Nepal Police and 15 members from the Armed Police Force were injured in Sunday’s clashes.
Of the four people who died in police action, only three had been identified as of Monday. According to Superintendent Manoj KC, chief of Rupandehi District Police Office, of the four people who died, police have identified three–Birendra Prasad Purne, 38, Yujal Kumal, 18, and Ramesh Pariyar, 20.
Ansari, the former human rights commissioner, said authorities have invariably failed to handle such protests properly, especially those happening outside the Kathmandu Valley.
“It seems that they (authorities) want to give a message to everyone not to speak or protest against them, creating terror among the people as they barely care about human rights,” Ansari told the Post. “I have also felt that authorities do not handle the protests happening outside Kathmandu properly and they tend to resort to force quickly.”
A day after the Motipur incident, the government took a decision not to allow anyone to “encroach” upon the Motipur Industrial Corridor Area.
A meeting of the Central Security Committee led by Home Minister Khand decided to make necessary security arrangements to ensure security in the area.
The meeting was attended by Home Secretary Tek Narayan Pandey, Nepali Army Lieutenant General Bal Krishna Karki, Inspector General of Nepal Police Shailesh Thapa Chhetri, Inspector General of Armed Police Force Shailendra Khanal and Chief of the National Investigation Department Ganesh Adhikari.
“Earlier we were taking a soft approach, but now we have decided to take strict measures to ensure that the government’s property remains safe,” said one of the participants in the meeting. “The situation is gradually coming under control in the area.”
Authorities have imposed a curfew in the Motipur Industrial Corridor Area for an indefinite period to avert any untoward incident.
The question, however, remains whether Nepal’s security forces are going to improve when it comes to handling protests, demonstrations and an incident like Motipur where thousands of people gather, even if the action is illegal.
“Police resorting to opening fire resulting in deaths of people, the unprivileged people, is a very serious issue,” said Prasai, the human rights defender. “The government must show some seriousness.”
Ansari, the former human rights commissioner, said it is quite concerning that Nepal’s security forces tend to kill people rather than maintain law and order and make sure people are safe under their watch.
“Many of our studies show that police personnel used for controlling such crowds are not properly trained and they even don’t know how to use weapons properly,” Ansari told the Post. “I don’t understand why security personnel use excessive force in the name of quelling protests and demonstrations.”