Impunity, memory and democracy

From The Kathmandu Post (17 Jan, 2012)

The life and death of Dekendra Raj Thapa is of enormous and compelling significance for the democratic evolution of Nepali society of mountain, hill and plain. The ‘story’ has caught the imagination of the citizens and, thus, become a potent force for political transformation towards rule of law and non-violent politics.
The ‘story’ is significant whichever way one looks at it: human, familial, moral, political, legal, ‘military’, administrative, diplomatic, justice- and human-rights related. An innocent person was abducted from his home and family eight years ago, kept over a period of 47 days, tortured and, finally, apparently buried alive.
We have with us the widely-reported statements of three of the nine accused, including a heartfelt confession by one of them, of a murder most foul. Through the sustained activism of the citizens of Dailekh, the sense of duty of the district-level police, the memory of the victim has come alive to energise the democratic populace. The exhumation of Dekendra Thapa, in both his material body and his humanitarian spirit, one hopes, will help Nepal get back on the tracks of constitutionalism.
It is important not to allow the murder to become privatised within the circle of family and friends, rendered unjusticiable, and kept away from public scrutiny. That is what the state establishment would want. As prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai has had the temerity to seek pardon for a convicted murderer and cancel hundreds of cases against alleged perpetrators. He actively sought a halt to the investigation into abduction, torture and murder of Dekendra Thapa.
The success or failure of the prime minister in his present track of aiding and abetting lawlessness has enormous implications for the kind of state we want to build. Will we have rule of law, or rule of the ruler?
The fullness of Dekendra
The tragedy that visited Dekendra Thapa exemplifies how lay citizens and community leaders were treated during the decade-long Maoist ‘people’s war’. Indeed, the attitude and actions of the present prime minister requires a re-visiting of the philosophy, agenda and implementation of the decade-long ‘people’s war’ itself. While that ‘war’ was played out in a multi-dimensional and complex setting, creation of terror and execution of unspeakable ‘exemplary violence’ was one of its pronounced components.
Dekendra Thapa was not only a journalist. He was an innocent citizen, an Every Man, an Aam Nagarik. He was killed not for his journalism as such but for seeking to repair a drinking water system wantonly destroyed by the Maoists. His mission was to bring water to the citizens of the district headquarters who were in great distress. He was a stalwart citizen imbued with volunteerism.
Therefore, while the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) and other media organisations must be praised for their effort to keep the investigations from being scuttled, Dekendra should not be bracketed within the narrow professional confines of a media professional. We must try and fathom the larger human and political significance of him as a citizen, a family man and a community worker. It is also unnecessarily constricting to bracket the case within the ‘human rights’ discourse alone.
We must view Dekendra in the fullness of his being, in relation to the very specific historical, geographic and political context in which he lived and worked, within which his body was exhumed in the village of Dwari, and has potentially become, even in his death, a lightning rod for rule of law and democracy. It is Dekendra’s ‘everyman’ quality that links him with all other citizens. This link, in turn, can potentially furnish the platform on which actions for the restoration of democracy can find a powerful voice.

A people’s campaign
The campaign for justice that that has been sparked by Dailekh District also has implications for the durability of Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and his coalition partners. Handled correctly and in a sustained manner, this campaign can snowball and result in the collapse of the coalition, which is clearly the initial requirement for restoration of democracy.
Success of the campaign for justice will also have implications for the nature and outcome of the forthcoming general elections, because it can reduce the appeal of the Maoists substantially. This is why Attorney General Mukti Pradhan and the prime minister’s henchmen, including the chief of police, have gone berserk trying to suppress investigation by duty-bound district-level officials and police. The prime minister and his cohort want a state without universalistic legal basis, which denies the principle of equal citizenship.
It goes without saying, of course, that the implications will not work out on their own; there has to be systematic effort over the coming days by individual citizens, coalitions of citizens groups based, international allies and, above all, political parties. The FNJ and the human rights fraternity have together ignited the fire. The actions of the citizens of Dailekh have reverberated across the land. It is vital that this movement for accountability and democracy now gather countrywide momentum.
The non-Maoist political parties (or at least most of them) constitute the best platform for sustained protests for a return to democracy. They have a reach that no other organisation can match, even in combination. Certainly, the political parties have some weaknesses, a relatively low level of legitimacy for one. They have shown themselves utterly incapable of fathoming the significance of politically-pregnant events, such as the prime minister’s attempt to muzzle the Dailekh investigations.
It is also true that, as we have seen, the political parties are ever-likely to trade democratic values for immediate political power. It is therefore necessary both to utilise the potential power of the parties and be on guard against their shortcomings. The growing distance between the UCPN-Maoist and CPN-Maoist on the one hand and the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and many of the Tarai-Madhes-based parties on the other, is important for this high purpose.
The trade unions and the association of government workers will be appropriate allies. College students acting individually and their unions are a powerful source of energy. Women’s organisations, professional associations, the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, faith-based organisations, social media networks and district-level stalwarts everywhere—must come together to create a foundation for democracy based on the platform of accountability.

The single bench
On Tuesday, a single bench of the Supreme Court quashed the order by the attorney general, who sought to obstruct justice on the Dekendra Raj Thapa case by demanding that the district police halt all investigations. The ruling by the single bench proves that we still have a foothold in this country in the battle for rule of law.

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