Resham Chaudhary won election from hiding. His 5-month-old party claims Tikapur when he is in jailTharus who feel they were shortchanged by the state have spoken through the ballot, activists and analysts say.
In the run-up to the promulgation of the constitution, Nepal’s southern belt was burning—on the eastern part, Madhesis were protesting, and in the far-west region, Tharus were up in arms. And on August 24, 2015, less than a month before major party leaders adopted the constitution in Kathmandu, the Tikapur incident happened. Thousands of Tharus had gathered against politicians’ decision to address the demand for an Akhanda Sudurpaschim, which meant keeping the entire “Far-western Development Region” as a single province in the new federal setup. Tharus felt they were short-changed.
Thousands of Tharus gathered in Tikapur to protest. Security personnel were caught unawares. Nine people—eight police personnel and a toddler—were killed in ensuing clashes.
The local administration pinned down Resham Chaudhary, then a leader of the Rastriya Janata Party, as the mastermind of Tikapur violence. Police launched an indiscriminate crackdown, arresting whoever they wanted to on the charge of their involvement in the violence, from the very next day.
Resham went into hiding. Two years after the constitution’s promulgation, Resham ran for a parliamentary seat. He won despite being in hiding.
In February 2018, he turned himself in. On March 7, 2019 Resham was convicted by Kailali District Court. He is currently in jail.
In the lead up to the local elections this year, Resham formed his own party—Nagarik Unmukti Party (NUP). His wife Ranjita Shrestha on January 3 registered the party.
The five-month-old party has fared exceptionally well, winning four local units out of 13 to become the largest party in Kailali. The ruling Nepali Congress is in the second position winning three local units. The party’s Ram Lal Dagaura Tharu secured 9,642 votes to defeat Nepali Congress’ Nawaraj Rawal by a margin of 3,000 votes.
Indu Kumari Chaudhary, an activist advocating the rights of indigenous people, says NUP’s victory is a clear indication that people believe injustice has been done to Resham.
“Tharus have always been exploited. Even the regional parties used them as their vote bank. By voting for the NUP, people have expressed their dissatisfaction,” she told the Post over the phone. “Tharus have expressed their voice through the ballot box.”
People who were victimised and tortured at the hands of the police in the aftermath of the Tikapur incident openly came in support of the NUP.
Bishram Kushmi from Ward 7 of Tikapur Municipality is one of them. He was arrested on April 5, 2016, on the charge of his involvement in the Tikapur violence. After staying in jail for three years, he was acquitted by the Kailali District Court on March 6, 2019. The decision has been upheld by the High Court as well. He was tortured inhumanely in the police custody to extract confession from him.
“As other parties just used us as a vote bank, we voted for the new party with a hope that it will stand for our cause,” he told the Post. He was quick to clarify that he is not a member of the party.
Even though the issue of justice to Resham or others who have been detained does not fall under the jurisdiction of the local government, votes to the NUP at the local level will build a foundation for the party’s prospects in the general elections, according to Kushmi.
“I believe the party will fare even better in the provincial and federal elections,” he said.
Police had filed cases against 58 people from the Tharu community accusing them of their involvement in the Tikapur violence and arrested 27 of them. Those arrested by police say they were tortured indiscriminately and were forced to admit their involvement.
The 2017 general elections installed CPN-UML chair KP Sharma Oli as prime minister. The UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) merged in May 2018. The Rastriya Janata Party (later merged to become the Janata Samajbadi Party), from which Resham had won the elections, also joined the government in June 2021. It joined the government after Oli agreed to form a taskforce to recommend revisions in the constitution, release party cadres jailed on various charges and revise the Citizenship Act.
However, the Rastriya Janata Party did precious little to ensure justice to Resham. While the party’s top leaders became ministers, Resham languished in jail.
Local intellectuals say there always has been a strong feeling among the people in Kailali that Resham and several others were framed by the state.
“Not only Tharus, but even the non-Tharu population also believes the Tikapur incident happened as part of a political movement and that it was not a criminal act,” Hari Chandra Kamali, an associate professor at the Kailali Multiple Campus, told the Post. “Through the local elections the people have given their verdict of innocence to Resham. I can confidently say even non-Tharus have voted for the party.”
Tharu leaders say that in the last five years neither the state nor the party Resham belonged to, took concrete steps for his release. The Janata Samajbadi Party led by Upendra Yadav is still part of the Sher Bahadur Deuba government. The then Mahantha Thakur faction of the Janata Samajbadi had also joined the Oli government. Though it raised Resham’s issue, it was largely meant for political consumption. Thakur split from Janata Samajbadi in August to form Loktantrik Samajbadi Party.
Shravan Tharu, acting coordinator of the Tharuhat Tharuwan Rashtriya Morcha, said Tharus don’t have trust in the two parties which didn’t even take a single concrete step in making public the report of the Lal Commission.
On September 18, 2016, the government had formed a commission under Girish Chandra Lal, a former justice at the Supreme Court, to investigate the atrocities committed during the protests in Tarai/Madhes in the run-up to and after constitution promulgation.
The Lal commission submitted its report in December 2017 to then prime minister Deuba. However, the report hasn’t been made public yet despite a ruling from Parliament. Human Rights Watch, an international rights body headquartered in New York, on October 1, 2019 also had called on the Nepal government to make the report public.
“Tharus have understood that they will have to fight injustice on their own. The NUP victory is a beginning,” Shravan told the Post. He says the party will be further strengthened in the upcoming elections as the Morcha too will extend its support to it.
Kamali, the associate professor, sees the Tharu votes consolidating in favour of Resham’s party if the state continues to ignore the genuine concerns of the indigenous community.
“The result of the local elections is a wake-up call for major parties, at least here in this region,” he said.