Insurgents and Innocents
From Himal Southasian, Volume 15, Number 6 (JUN 2002)
The soldiers’ fight against the Maobaadi since the Nepali Emergency was put in place six months ago has delivered an unacceptable volume of human ‘collateral damage’. The civilian government Mast maintain control over the Royal Nepalese Army as it goes about trying to purge the Nepali hills of Comrade Prachanda’s followers.
The hills of Nepal are alive with the sound of gunfire. While the last few years have seen mainly the Maoists on the offensive, since end-November 2001, with the deployment of the Royal Nepalese Army, there has been heavy combat between government forces and the insurgents. With the politicians all having fled the field to cower in district headquarters, roadhead towns or Kathmandu Valley, it is the peasantry that is caught in the crossfire and left vulnerable between ruthless insurgents and soldiers just learning to fight. So far, the level of abuse – summary killings, disappearances, torture – is only a matter of conjecture because no one is monitoring events on the ground. Civil society as a whole, and journalists and human rights groups in particular, have turned timid after the State of Emergency was imposed by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on 26 November 2001. There is no one looking out for the people when the army is out, whereas, earlier, the was quite a lot of watchdogging over the police.
The villagers of Nepal find themselves trapped between the demands of the insurgents and e soldiers’ imputations. A recent story published in a Nepali language fortnightly by the social critic Khagendra Sangraula sums up the situation — he tells of a man who hides from the Maoists, only to be forcibly conscripted. He escapes the Maoists’ ranks, and returns home to be confronted and killed by the soldiers. While fictional, Sangraula’s story was a composite based on information from the Maoist heartland district of Salyan, and captures the terrifying reality of a rural populace caught in a jam.
Simple peasantry living in subsistence conditions is being asked to provide food, shelter and recruits to an unflinchingly hard-headed insurgency that is feeling the pressure of stepped-up military activity. Then there are the soldiers, fighting for the first time in quintessential guerilla territory, with poor equipment and inadequate logistical support, and little in the form of intelligence to distinguish between innocents and enemy.
Nepal entered this blind alley in 1996, when far-left politicians who felt excluded in parliamentary democracy broke with the system and initiated an uprising. Without doubt, it was the civilian police that gave the initial momentum to the Maoist war when, following violent activities by the Maoists just beginning their underground activities, disgruntled policemen sent on “kalapani duty” to the western districts of Jajarkot, Rolpa, Rukum and Salyan went on a rampage. The state terror in these districts provoked a reaction in which were born the hardcore Maoists who today form the backbone of the ‘revolution’.
The cauldron of disaffection among youth all over the country that was lit in the west by dark Maoist romanticism soon set the whole country aflame. Visions of storming Kathmandu and wresting state power offer momentum to the insurgent rank and file, who unleashed their own brand of terror against the police as well as district and village-level politicians opposed to them. The violence meted out by the followers of Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Comrade Prachanda) in these far corners soon outstripped that of the policemen, who have been on the run since late 1999 and so fearful of the retaliatory rebels that they have dared not exhibit any bluster. The Maoists’ molestation extended to the full gamut of the possible, from blackmail, extortion and looting to summary executions, torture, maiming and use of civilians and child soldiers in combat. Their original promise of social reform lies in tatters as hooliganism has overcome the movement, with commissars delivering gruesome punishment to local politicians, teachers and others. This is Pol Pot terrain in the making, and no amount of revolutionary gloss and manipulative rhetoric can hide the reality of the socio-economic dead-end that would be the Nepali Maobaadi’s gift to the nation.
No doubt, the Maobaadi of Nepal engage in anti-humanitarian excess, but they are renegades, irresponsible and unaccountable. The government and its institutions must have a higher purpose and deeper responsibility. Nepal is still a functioning democracy. The security forces, answerable to the civilian government, must respect the rule of law and due process even in the most extreme of circumstances. But since the imposition of the state of emergency, the civilian government of Prime Minister Deuba has abdicated all responsibility for bringing the Maoists to heel to the security forces, and apparently does not hold them to a high standard.
Because so little investigation or documentation is being carried out, there is no comprehensive pool of data to confirm the level of human rights abuse in the hills and valleys. There is, however, enough evidence to indicate that the situation is dire. The people of the Maoist-affected hills, historically backward and deprived of the socio-economic advances that the rest of the country enjoyed in the last half-century of development, are those who have found themselves in the crosshairs. As perhaps happened more than two centuries ago during the expansionary wars of the House of Gorkha, subsistence farmers are burdened not only economically, but also politically, having to support one side or the other and fend off accusations of being quislings and collaborators.
There is little protection for the people, because the nongovernmental groups professing to be engaged in human rights work went soft during the decade following the restoration of democracy. After having been gifted democracy in 1990 by King Birendra with minimal activism, the human rights community reaped a bonanza of foreign aid meant to support pluralism in Nepal. However, the donors and recipients alike tuned off civil and political rights and preferred to invest their time and resources on ‘human rights’ defined indistinctly. The attention shifted to child rights, gender rights, dalit rights, indigenous people’s rights, environmental rights, refugee rights, water rights… In this flood, the right to life and liberty was relegated to the background, and the attention of the NGOs got diverted to such an extent that now when the people are bleeding there are very few to take up their cause.
The few who remained focussed on “human rights” specifically defined, who might have mediated between the people, the Maoists and the state, were sullied by their ideological bearings, which made them look less than disinterested. Many from the human rights community had compromised themselves earlier before the public’s eye by criticising everything the government did and clearly regarding the Maoists as true ‘revolutionaries’. Given their anti-government stance, these activists should have really been protesting once it became clear soon after the emergency was imposed that the human rights situation was deteriorating. But they kept silent, and remain so today. Additionally, while it had been clear for some years that the reluctant army brass would ultimately be forced to enter the fray in a fight that was originally between the Maoists and the police, the human rights community did not do enough to prepare themselves and the country for the challenges that would crop up once soldiers were deployed. Says Prakash Jwala, journalist and Salyan’s member of parliament till its dissolution in 22 May 2002, “The activists should have shown some courage, but they did not even put up a weak front.”
Together with the human rights activists, the press too has been found wanting in its watchdog role. At the time the emergency was announced, much of the print media had already been compromised. It had for long pandered to the Maoist insurgency by providing breathless coverage of its activities in the field. This was accompanied by an unwillingness to challenge the insurgents’ deeper agenda of destroying the state structure. This attitude did an aboutturn when with the clamping down of the state of emergency, publishers and editors vowed to support the government’s fight against the rebels. Overnight, ‘Maoists’ turned into ‘terrorists’ in the news columns, only because the government now defined them as such. Thus compromised at their topmost levels, most of the newspapers were also unwilling to test the limits of the government’s restrictions on press freedom.
Apart from media and human rights organisations, other institutions of society too are not up to the task of providing an overview. The courts have been made irrelevant by the state of emergency because the rights contained in the constitution (to freedom of expression, assembly and movement, information, property, privacy and constitutional remedy and against preventive detention) have all been suspended. The civilian bureaucracy at the centre and in the districts in any case exercises little control over the security forces. Parliament was suspended by Prime Minister Deuba in late May 2002 — the fallout of the ruling Congress Party wrangle related to the third extension of the state of emergency, reflecting an intra-party power struggle between Deuba and the party president, former prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala. As a result the institution of last recourse in a democracy has itself disappeared.
“We have not been able to visit the major areas of confrontation between the military and the Maobaadi,” says Bhola Mahat, who runs the human rights group INSEC’s field office in Nepalganj. “Special efforts are needed in Kathmandu to persuade the army to allow human rights groups to go in.” But groups in the capital are not losing much sleep over the issue — the most one particular group did was to seek support from a foreign embassy to fly into the affected areas in a helicopter, but even this was not entertained.
The security forces
The security forces of Nepal today are made up of the Nepal Police, the newly raised Armed Police Force (APF) and the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). The civilian police have been on the run for at least three years, during which time they have served as sacrificial offerings to the Maoists as ‘representatives’ of the national establishment. The police force is today a weak player; most of its personnel have been withdrawn from posts in rural areas and are now concentrated in district headquarters and the larger towns. There is no doubt that the policemen will seek extreme revenge once the Maoists are on the run — and that in itself will be a matter of grave human rights concern when the time comes — but for the moment there is little fear of excess from this unmotivated force, the only objective of its members being to live to see another day.
The Armed Police Force was raised in January 2001 as a paramilitary unit, by a government that realised that the non-combatant Nepal Police were not up to the task of fighting insurgency. While the APF will ultimately have the numbers, weaponry and training to credibly counter the guerrillas, it is today an incipient force that will take a few more years to mature.
It was the debacle at Dang in November 2001, when the Maoists broke away from talks with Deuba’s government and attacked and decimated an army garrison, that finally forced the generals to enter the fray. It is the Royal Nepalese Army, with its logistics, automatic weapons, heavy ordnance and helicopter support that is now battling the rebels. However, the military did not do so before it got the ‘cover’ of emergency which would allow the soldiers to fight without shackles and accountability.
The soldiers, engaging for the first time in active warfare, find themselves pitted against battle-hardened Maoists who use all means fair and foul. While the RNA is a force of 50,000, various duties and obligations including guarding government installations, national parks, the royal palace, as well as serving in United Nations peacekeeping operations, leave a force of perhaps no more than 20,000 to directly engage with the rebels. Even though the primary focus of the Nepali military’s training over the years has been to fight a reactive guerrilla war against an invading army (which could presumably be either Indian or Chinese), against the Maoists it has thus far been a largely sedentary force that only responds to attacks.
The army is today spread out thinly over an impossibly large and complex mountainscape that is “designed for guerilla action”, according to one insurgency expert. Low budgetary allocation from successive civilian governments over the last decade has prevented the army from upgrading its equipment and conducting training exercises. In addition, the army began its battle with the Maobaadi with practically no intelligence, having done nothing to build up its own information sources during six years of the ‘people’s war’. This is a weakness the soldiers have tried to overcome by extracting information from captured insurgents.
The army has kept a deliberate distance from the politicians during the 12 years of democracy, and the royal palace has helped maintain this separation for its own purposes. This lack of a relationship is all the more critical today, when the soldiers are in charge of the Maoist war and moves through the populated hinterland. The government has abdicated its own responsibilities of control and oversight, and there is no institution or individual holding the soldiers to any standard. Respect for humanitarian principles during the fighting is something that is now completely dependent on the uprightness and professionalism of individual officers in the field. A senior officer says that army training at Kharipati and Tokha training centres includes Red Cross courses on humanitarian principles and law, but he also admits that the entire six months of engagement with the Maoists has not seen one instance of a soldier facing reprimand for excesses committed. For being the commander-in-chief of a force that is out among the people, Gen Prajwalla Shumshere Rana has not made a single statement that indicates sensitivity towards the human rights of the people – his only public pronouncement consisted of a harangue against the political parties.
Prime Minister Deuba, as the head of government as well as defence minister, has not shown great enthusiasm to guide the generals. While he is vehement in expressing outrage at the “betrayal” of his effort by Maoists since he had gone the extra mile to talk to them upon taking up office last year, he seems unconcerned about the niceties of a respect for human rights in the larger battle that he has to fight as head of government. As someone who spent nine years in prison fighting the Panchayat system and who has himself suffered torture, it can be presumed that the prime minister has no stomach for state terror. However, he has done little to hold the military to humanitarian norms. It was only in an interview to The Kathmandu Post on 29 May 2002 that he responded to allegations by Amnesty International saying, “If we find that there are deliberate human rights abuses by the security personnel, we will take action against them after proper investigation.” Given the tussle he is currently engaged in with Koirala, it is not possible to read Deuba’s statement as anything more than an expression of intent by an otherwise preoccupied prime minister.
The lack of sensitivity of Deuba’s government to the finer issues of human rights was laid bare when a few weeks ago it placed a price on the heads of Maoist leaders caught “dead or alive” – NRs 50 lakhs for the top leaders, NRs 25 lakhs for the field commanders, and so on down the line. The fact that apart from a few murmurs of protest, the national human rights community did not vocally protest against such an outrageous pronouncement – in a country where the death penalty is actually illegal – shows both an exasperation with the Maoists as well as an ambiva-lence towards principles of civilised governance. One minister, in fact, announced that people seeking the bounty could bring the head of a Maoist in a bag, and take the cash back in the same bag.
Levels of sympathy
When the RNA was fielded a little over six months ago, the government did three things simultaneously – it declared a nation-wide state of emergency, promulgated a Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance, which granted wide powers to arrest people involved in ‘terrorist’ activities, and declared the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) a “terrorist organisation”. All these were what the army wanted in order to be able to engage the Maoists without the shackles of accountability.
During the first three months of the emergency, the average death toll of insurgents killed, as announced by the government, averaged about five a day. After the state of emergency was renewed for the first time in February, the deaths of alleged insurgents in defence ministry press releases have averaged 10 a day. The casualties during the first six months of the Emergency culled from official sources totals 2850 ‘Maoists’, 335 policemen, 148 soldiers and 194 ‘civilians’. Who really are the ‘Maoist’ dead? How much terror in the hills do these deaths represent? In short, what is the level of human security for the villagers in the hills of Nepal at a time when the army is out patrolling the terraces even while the Maoist have free range of large parts?
In the beginning, the soldiers were given the benefit of doubt from most quarters, and no one questioned the high calibre of the officer corps, whose presence it was believed would prevent excesses to a large extent. But, as the army’s engagement intensified and the soldiers began to suffer casualties in attacks by hardened Maoist cadre, the care with which civilians were treated seems to have decreased. Not-for-attribution discussions with army officers in the field, interviews with district and national-level politicians, talking with the odd human rights activist who has actually visited vulnerable areas, and with inclussi/ journalists close to the action, present a bleak scenario as far as the situation of the hapless peasantry is concerned. The picture that emerges is one of grievous and regular excesses by an army forced to battle a harsh insurgency.
In the course of reporting this article, human rights activists, international monitors, as well as journalists and politicians were asked a question: from all the information that they have access to, would they say that the human rights situation in Nepal now is: a) very bad, b) not as bad as might have been expected, and c) can’t say. All answered ‘a’.
“There are many grave instances of misbehaviour towards the people by the security forces,” says Mandira Sharma, a member of the group Advocacy Forum, who has visited the Madist heartland in western Nepal since the emergency was put in place and the army activated. “There is a state of terror in the villages, but the news is not coming out. There is little pressure on the army to improve its record. Hundreds have been held incommunicado, not receiving even the right to justice which is available under the emergency.”
Such observations extend beyond the human rights community. Sangeeta Lama, a journalist who has been monitoring media reports during the emergency period for the Khoj Patrakarita Kendra (Centre for Investigative Journalism) in Lalitpur, says that even with the subdued coverage, there is substantial evidence to prove that large-scale human rights abuse is the order of the day. “Often the stories are kept away from the front page, and the papers try to play it down so that the authorities do not crack down on them, but there is credible reportage pointing to lack of accountability among the soldiers.”
Sushil Pyakurel is one of the four members of the National Human Rights Commission set up by the government in June 2001, an institution with little manpower and resources but which is nevertheless evolving as a repository for complaints against authority. Circumspect because of his public position, Pyakurel says, “The situation is not good, and we in the human rights community have not been adequately on guard to prevent abuse.”
“I fear there is a high level of abuse”, says a diplomat who monitors human rights for a Western embassy in Kathmandu. “There is no rule of law, and civil society has ceased to function. You arrest reasonably prominent people in Kathmandu and the rest shut up. In the villages, the Chief District Officer just has to tell people to shut up and they will. Under such circumstances, the conditions are ripe for maltreatment by the security forces.”
Referring to the Royal Nepalese Army, the same diplomat says, “The RNA was originally clean because it had never seen action. But once the rot sets in and mistakes begin to get covered up, the RNA will lose its lustre. It must learn to discipline itself in the new conditions. Unsystematic mistakes should never be allowed to become systemic.”
Meanwhile, one retired army officer is convinced that fielding the RNA has been a “set-up”, with the political parties sending in the soldiers to do the dirty job of “finishing off” the Maoists. Says the retired officer, “The RNA had better be careful, for the political parties will try to come out of it unblemished, putting all the blame on the soldiers. It is a trap, and the only way to respond is by ferreting out the real Maoists, otherwise it will lose the respect of the people in the long run.” Speaking of sympathy, there is a lot of it for the soldiers among the powerful diplomatic community in Kathmandu, particularly among those who have been helicoptered out and have seen the conditions in the field. Says one European diplomat, “Here is a country that is Serbia times twenty, readymade for insurgencies. And you ask the soldiers to fight on the cheap with inadequate and low-grade equipment, whether in gunnery, clothing, diet, communications or transport. Under such circumstance, of course the possibility of gross abuse increases. A well-equipped army fights more humanely.”
Adds the diplomat, “The Maoist strategy of attacking all over the country has forced the RNA to spread itself thin. The army cannot then spare officers everywhere, which means that trigger-happy foot-soldiers are patrolling the trails on their own, and they are more liable to take drastic action.”
Hari Roka, a leftist activist from Khotang district in the east of Nepal, says that while there is no doubt about the many problems confronting the soldiers, the impunity with which they are conducting their operations is unconscionable. “Many who are dying cannot be considered Maoists even in the wildest imagination. They are political activists of the mainstream parties,” says Roka, adding, “But no one is protesting because the activists have all abandoned their saahas (courage).”
In December 2001, a delegation from the main opposition group Communist Party of Nepal (UML) met with Prime Minister Deuba to alert him that the security forces had misused their emergency powers in Dang, Dolakha, Ramechap, Makwanpur, Rolpa, Sankhuwasabha and Solukhumbu districts. People visiting health posts for treatment, returning from the market, or simply participating in community festivals or pujas, had been targeted by the security forces, they said. Unfortunately, the expressions of concern – either by political parties, activists, community groups, or the diplomatic and aid community – have been sporadic and reflect the ambivalence they all share towards a group as renegade as the Maoists are increasingly proving to be.
Ways of the soldier
The level of violence and lack of accountability exhibited by the army is a direct reaction to the savagery of the rebels when they have attacked police posts and army garrisons. The RNA and the police both have an unstated take-no-prisoners policy as far as ‘hardcore Maobaadi’ are concerned. The officers in both forces are dismissive of the principles of war that demand the humane treatment of combatants, maintaining that this is a response to “Nepali reality”, excused by the brutality exhibited by the Maoists when they have attacked police and army posts. Red Cross instructors who have conducted courses with the soldiers say they find it a challenge to explain why the RNA cannot behave like the Maobaadi.
Using the letters of the Nepali alphabet, a police inspector serving in Dang Valley, the staging ground in west Nepal for the security forces, says, “We just don’t keep those who are in the ‘ka’ and ‘kiln’ senior categories, those Maoists in the central or regional command. We just kill them. But we tend to be more lenient towards those at the district level and even more so at the village or ward levels. But do not expect us to show mercy towards the hardcore when we know they are out to kill us.”
The fact that the daily ministry of defence news bulletins refer only to dead insurgents, and rarely to the “captured wounded”, is also proof enough that few prisoners are being taken. These killings often take place during staged encounters, and there are many incidents reported where individuals rounded up from a village one day are said to have been killed in an ‘encounter’ in another village the next day. According to one calculation, in the half-year of the emergency the government has announced the capture of only 60 wounded Maobaadi during action by security forces and the death of nearly 3000 ‘Maoists’.
“The soldier is taught to engage the enemy differently, in a way that is bound to raise the number of innocent deaths”, says a police officer in Dang. “As policemen, we have to live in the community and so we have to be selective even when we shoot to kill. The soldiers, on the other hand, will shoot first and ask questions later.” Whereas a policeman may flee or surrender – particularly under today’s conditions – soldiers socialised into a buddy system are more likely to become aggressive when one of their own gets killed or wounded. Trained to fight the invader, says the police officer, the soldiers shoot across the terrain with their automatic weaponry, whereas Nepal’s policemen cannot do as much harm even if they want to, with their World War II vintage single-fire rifles.
An officer who has seen action in the western districts disagrees with this assessment: “In our case, the major or colonel himself .leads his men, whereas among the police you rarely find an inspector in vulnerable posts in the field. The higher motivation of the officers, from the lieutenant level up and their broader worldview means that they exhibit more responsibility in the field. The automatic weaponry makes the soldiers more confident, so there is less possibility of mistaken deaths.”
The killing of innocents
While the effectiveness of the army against the Maoists is already being demonstrated, the military man’s assurances are not borne out at all times in the field where innocent villagers and Maoist ‘supporters’ are being killed in large numbers together with the militants. The critical problem is the difficulty of distinguishing between ‘villager’, ‘left supporter’, ‘Maoist supporter’ and ‘Maoist’.
All the army officers interviewed suggested that the reporter not be taken in by the rhetoric of Nepal’s left politicians in particular, and that, barring a few exceptions, those killed by the soldiers are all Maoists. Said one soldier based in Surkhet Valley in the west, echoing the sarcasm of his fellow officers, “They are all innocent villagers or UML supporters by day and Maoists by night.” The fact is, it is difficult to distinguish between villagers who may have by force of circum-stances become Maoist supporters, and who are actual Maoist cadre. There is also an understanding among many that Maoist supporters are fair game, even if they do not carry a gun, for the sustenance they provide the cadre.
Many villagers who are being killed for being Maoists are peasants with no ideological grounding to be class warriors, roped in as supporters through coercion and blackmail. Others have turned to the Maoists only because the state — in the form of the administration and police — has been absent for so long from their villages that they have had no choice but to turn to the Maoists. Many village headmen have been unilaterally declared heads of the “people’s government” at the village level by the rebel leadership in the districts. These are all considered Maoists by default, individuals who do not by any stretch of the imagination deserve to die at the hands of the security forces. Says Hari Roka, the left activist, “Are we to call all villagers ‘Maoists’ because they give support to the rebels in the total absence of the government in their areas for years on end? Just because a poor villager responds to a plain-clothes soldier’s ‘lal salaam’ greeting with a ‘lal salaam’ of his own, does that justify taking him in for torture and abuse?” Howsoever difficult it may be, the army is duty-bound to make the distinction between who is a fighter and who is not, says Roka.
While the loose understanding of ‘Maobaadi’ leading to death and abuse is a matter of major concern, what also must get attention are the numerous incidents where innocent villagers have been killed by security forces in the pursuit of the real Maobaadi fighters. These instances (perpetrated by the army as well as the police) add up to a regular, if not as yet systematic, killing of innocents, and there are just too many of these instances for them to be brushed aside as exceptional incidents.
- 30 November 2001 In Khumel village of Rolpa, a group of peasants was doing communal puja to the deity Baraha when some Maoists nearby shot at an army helicopter flying overhead. The army helicopter, one of those which have attached machine guns to the fuselage, swooped down and opened fire on the villagers, killing six, including a child and two elderly.
- 24 February 2002 At Kotwara village in Kalikot, more than 34 labourers working at an airport site were pulled out of their dwellings and shot for being Maoists. Many of them were from the Tamang and Chepang communities, brought west from Dhading district by a labour contractor.
- 27 April 2002 At Chieuri Danda village in Khotang district, a group of four Maoists were fleeing an army Platoon. Two slid into the jungle, while two joined a group of Rais fishing on the Sapsu River. Everyone put their hands up in the air, but the guns opened on all of them. All six present died, including the two Maoists. Among the dead were the supporters of the Nepali Congress and the UML. “What is the sense of this anti-Maoist action when only one in four killed are Maoists?” asks a politician from Khotang. “Why do we have to be part of a country called Nepal, if this is the kind of atrocity we have to suffer?”
- 1 May 2002 In an incident reported both by Scott Baldauf of The Christian Science Monitor and Gunaraj Luitel of Kantipur daily, a group of soldiers and policemen arrived at the village of Thulo Sirubari, Sindhupalchowk district dressed as Maoists. They called out with the Maoist greeting of “Lal salaam, comrade” and took away those who responded, regarding them as Maoists. Altogether six men were shot in the woods nearby while trying to escape, said the security forces. Villagers at Thulo Sirubari say that those killed were just farmers, shopkeepers, and family men with no interest in either the Maoists or the government.
These examples, say activists, reflect the general picture of large parts of the hills where confusion, terror and heartbreak have become the order of the day. Many of those killed as Maoists may be non-combatant Maoist sympathisers, but an equally large number may not even be that. “How is it that 15 people get killed in an incident and only three guns are recovered and a few socket bombs?” asks one activist, referring to the homemade grenades used by the Maoists.
Besides deaths during patrols or in ‘encounters’ that are real or faked, the majority of the deaths occur during offensives by Maoists on police and army positions. While it cannot be said with certainty that the Maoists make blatant use of a “human shield” of innocent peasants from nearby villages during their assaults, there is no doubt that they do field untrained supporters in the front line (often plied with drinks and drugs, say army sources), who are followed up by the militia and trained fighters. In such instances, during the heat of battle, it would be impossible for the soldiers to distinguish between the insurgent and the innocent.
There are, certainly, examples of ‘close encounters’ where the alertness of army officers has kept innocents from falling to the bullet. At the Kulekhani reservoir southwest of Kathmandu Valley a few months ago, some Tamangs coming down a hillside at night with flaming torches in their hands after a puja were nearly mowed down, but for the presence of mind of the commanding officer. Last month, in Rolpa, soldiers were keen to use long-range guns against a suspicious looking group coming up the trail. The army officer asked his soldiers to hold their fire against what turned out to be a group of villagers walking single file. While in themselves heartening, these two examples set out a scenario showing how easy it is for innocents to get killed in the trails and terraces of Nepal.
Nepal Television footage of the ‘Maoist dead’ shows many in non-combat gear, indicating that at least some of these may have been mere ‘supporters’ and not Maoist fighters. But in the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil atmosphere of Kathmandu Valley, these deaths – if indeed innocent to whatever degree – are seen as acceptable collateral damage in the fight to finish off the Maobaadi and get the country back ‘on track’. While government would like the people to believe the figures announced daily by the radio and television as to the Maoists killed in action, there is increasing scepticism about these reports in the urban centres of Nepal, and particularly so in the affected hill regions.
According to Mandira Sharma, in the hills of Dang where the Maoist ‘jana sarkar’ continue to function, there is no credibility attached to the numbers. “They do believe the number of people announced as dead, but not that they are Maoists”, says Sharma. “So many have been killed in those villages, who everyone knows to be non-Maoists, and yet the radio announce them as rebels.”
The military’s attitude towards the Maoists is clear in the way that the bodies of the dead Maoist are handled. In a country where there remains a sensitivity and respect towards the bodies of the departed, the footage on nightly Nepal Television news – said to be edited and packaged by a military officer on duty at the station – has been grievously insensitive. Bodies of dead rebels in shallow graves, hastily buried by their comrades after battles, are dug out with picks, turned around by boots, slung on poles, dumped like sacks of salt, and left to putrefy in the open until, often, villagers themselves rally to bury them.
Says an officer at the army headquarters, “The army is able to see the Maoists for what they are, whereas the politicians’ opportunism keeps them from being honest.” This officer says that the motivation level among the soldiers is high: “We used to be a ceremonial army, but quickly we have realised that we do have fighting ability. There is a sense of purpose and achievement among the rank and file. They realise the Maoists are pests out to destroy our nation, and that they are not wanted.”
There are those who say that the behaviour of the army in the villages is better than that of the policemen before they fled the Maoist onslaught. Even so, the treatment at the ground level seems to depend on the rank and character of the commander in the field. In general, the more senior the officer, it is said, the higher the possibility that he will be cool-headed and hold fire during tense moments. There are instances of capable officers building bridges to community leaders, being sensitive to local concerns, and sowing enough confidence among locals to be able to recruit them in the fight against the Maoist. “But that is the exception”, says a reporter from the far west who has trekked extensively in the western hills meeting Maoists and armymen alike. “The army officers tend to be haughty and keep a distance from the people, so the villagers will never trust them nor share with them the information they have in their possession which would finish off the Maoists in two months.”
The army, while it might have its own internal mechanisms to check abuse, has not opened up to human rights defenders. Neither has it indicated – more than six months into its deployment as the all-in-all force in the Nepali hinterland – an understanding for the human rights concerns that are rapidly building up among Nepal’s national- and district-level politicians. Human rights activists based in west Nepal, where the army is headquartered for the all-important western front at Nepalganj town, say that they have not once been approached by the military. Once, the army did provide a helicopter tour of the western and central hills to American and British journalists, and later to a group of parliamentarians (those that oversee the army’s budget and expenditure), but Nepali journalists and human rights monitors remain shut out.
So, who will the army listen to? In a country as beholden to foreign aid as Nepal is, it is the donors who would seem to have significant clout – in peacetime and wartime. An European Union statement, representing the view of all parties did caution the government on the excesses. The Americans are said to have been vehement, that human rights abuse is a “no-no” even as the government goes about battling rebels. The United States does hold inordinate clout over the army because of the moral support it has provided the men in fatigues in their war against the insurgents, and, more so, because the RNA would be the primary beneficiary of the USD 20 million that the Bush administration has requested from Congress for a beleaguered Nepali government fighting the Maoists. And yet, the concern of the embassies and the donor institutions does not seem to be enough to move the government or the military top brass to take a second look at their actions and reevaluate their strategy 101 bringing the Maoists to heel. In the latest instance, on 29 May 2002, the US Senate Appropriations Committee, while expressing support for the request by the Bush Administration, said that it “remains concerned about human rights violations by the Nepalese Armed Forces”.
If nothing else works in sensitising the ‘Nepalese Armed Forces’ from reworking their present strategy of containing the Maoists and the collateral damage that it is exacting, in a condition where a prime minister is busy with power politics and all governmental and nongovernmental institutions are supine and silent, the only recourse may be the royal palace. While playing scrupulously by the book and remaining above politics as demanded by his role as constitutional monarch, King Gyanendra could perhaps play a part, given the importance the monarchy holds in the RNA’s scheme of things. Having just emerged from his one-year ritual mourning following the massacre of 1 June 2001, the monarch may consider having a talk with the generals about the safety and security of the Nepali people. Given the incongruous situation in Kathmandu, where even the human rights community is sitting back and waiting for the Western governments to speak up for human rights in Nepal, the new king may feel that this is an area where his role may come into use on behalf of the people.
The killings during the Kilo Seirra II police operations in the western hills in 1998-99 were “modest” compared to what is happening all over the country today, says one human rights monitor. “The nationwide activation of the security forces has multiplied manifold the chances of non-combatants and innocents being killed”, he says. During Kilo Seirra II, police units from Kathmandu moved into Rolpa, Rukum, Jajarkot and Salyan districts, and the instances of disappearances, summary killings and torture increased dramatically. There is little doubt that it was that period of state-sponsored terror that gave fillip to the Maoist movement. Thereafter, it was the Maoists who converted the whole country into a terrain of mass death. Today, with the Nepali army being allowed to conduct its activities without challenge, it can be presumed that unless there is indeed more circumspection, the very nature of Nepali society and culture will change as the seeds of deep-set and long-term animosities and hatreds are sown.
Ingrid Massage, who has followed the happenings in Nepal for Amnesty International for the last decade, is extremely worried about the long-term implications of the killing of innocent villagers. “It may not ever be possible to make a full assessment of how many unlawful killings are happening in breach of international humanitarian or human rights standards. In most investigations of killings, it is the body that will provide most of the clues, but in Nepal there are no bodies or post-mortems.” The absence of investigation, according to Massage, means that Nepal will find it that much harder to return to normalcy when the Maoist problem has been ‘solved’. “This also means that at least parts of possible future truth processes, which have been so important in other countries to reinstate peace after a conflict is over, will not perhaps be very meaningful here. The truth about these killings will never be able to be told, which in itself could be an obstacle to peace and a contributor to further violence.”
The fact is, Nepal never was a human rights Shangri La to begin with, as far as authoritarianism is concerned. Historically, the public-at-large was once removed from centre so that it did not suffer directly from ctat, terror – but they were exploited instead by the administrative satraps appointed by Kathmandu’s rulers. The Panchayat era, all too easily forgotten, was a 30-yearperiod where the population was cowed down by the weight of the autocracy. After the People’s Movement of 1990, a kind of a ‘truth commission’ know as the Mallik Commission was established to study human rights abuses during the end-run of the Panchayat era. The commission submitted a report and recommended action against police, administrators and politicians who had abused power.
Implementation of the Mallik Commission’s report would have cleansed the polity, but instead it was buried, mainly because Kathmandu’s establishment is too small with familial and other inter-connections. A clear message was thus sent out, that human rights violations could and would be condoned under the new democratic dispensation. This pattern of unaccountability continues, and the primary reason the RNA was unwilling to come out and fight in the absence of a state of emergency was also that it did not want its hands tied by any future accounting process. It is a measure of the failure of the political class that, while the Maoist problem was still on the rise, it was unwilling to use all its efforts – in particular, overcoming the reluctance of a king who held the key – to have the army do the civilian government’s bidding without the cover of an emergency.
It is against such a background of historical unconcern for human rights that the Maoist war visited unexpected violence and abuse on the people. This conflict has by now had myriad effects on the countryside. Religious festivals and age-old rituals that provided identity to the hill people have been disrupted, crops have gone unplanted, and increasingly large numbers of young men slip across the southern border into India to escape Maoist kidnappings and/or army action. As despair sets in, progress in education and public health has been forgotten, and the overall socioeconomic development of society has been set back by years. However, despite these broader tragedies, the most critical issue remains that of life and liberty of the populace.
“There is a question that keeps nagging me”, says Sushil Pyakurel of the NHRC. “What will the world say when it finds out of what is happening in Nepal? We will be shamed.”
Outside observers tend to be nonplussed at the lack of righteous anger among the Nepal’ educated classes against clear evidence of excesses committed by the security forces. For all their bellicosity when the going was easy, civil society, human rights-wallahs and politicians have not made the kind of remonstrations one would have expected of them. While this may partly have to do with the lack of saahas, there is another reason for this ambivalence.
To begin with, one does not hear enough reaction against human rights abuse by the army because it is still a relatively new phenomenon, and under the conditions of the state of emergency credible information is hard to come by. But, more importantly, the ambivalence has its roots in the fact that the state committing the abuse itself is threatened by collapse because of the Maoists. Unlike dictatorships that can easily be upbraided for threatening the life and liberty of the people, here is a democratic state, still in its incipient stage, forced to battle a extreme-left insurgency for its very survival – in the process of which it is trampling on human rights. Many of those who understand the issues seem to have decided to support the government whole-heartedly until the Maoist problem is tackled, even if some innocents get caught in the middle – as the lesser of two evils.
“What is wrong with that argument is that democracy cannot be saved by shutting yourself off to villagers who are dying”, says Prakash Jwala. “The government as well as the army have a duty to take care, and they cannot get away by pointing to the record of the rebels.” Indeed, no one doubts that large numbers of innocent villagers and ‘Maoists by default’ are being victimised in the hills and valleys even as of this writing. Says Jwala, “An unwillingness to consider the issue as serious will vitiate the atmosphere throughout the kingdom for the long term. When elections are held and a new government comes into place, those who hold the reins of government will find it very difficult to control a populace which has had such a horrific experience at the hands of authority.”
As experience from all over the world indicates, killing of thousands of innocents creates lakhs of disaffected, who tomorrow will rise as different kinds of militants, though not necessarily ‘Maobaadi’. In The Killing Terraces, a documentary on the rise of the Maoists in Rukum, Rolpa and Jajarkot by filmmaker Dhurba Basnet, a child of eight whose parents were killed by the police during the Kilo Seirra II operation says to the camera, tears flowing down his grimy cheeks, “I want to drink the blood of their hearts”, referring to the police. Revenge and despondency will rule the land if the army, the government and the educated classes do not wake up to the need to fight Maoists rather than target simple villagers.
The blame for today’s ‘collateral damage’ can, in some ways, be laid at the door of the privileged and their rush to restore order. The killing of innocents has its origins in the impatience of the elite who, distraught at the way that the economy has crumbled following the boom period of just a few years ago, want it back. There were many who believed, with reason, that the Maoist organisation would collapse the moment the army was released to tackle them, after which the country would coast back to normalcy with minimal bloodshed. That is not quite how the scenario has played out and the quick-fix military solution has also proved to be somewhat more difficult than expected. The reality is that the Maoists had been allowed to become too big over too long a period by the time the establishment woke up to the need to tackle them with its full force.
Kathmandu has always looked away, and it does so now, while violence continues to extract a price from the rural society to a degree thought unimaginable even just a year ago. Today, Nepalis look askance at their own souls, to see how they have lost the ability to empathise. The large death toll from a criminally opportunistic insurgency and an army in singleminded pursuit has made the inhabitants of towns and villages lose the sensitivity they thought they had. As the police inspector in Dang explained, “The Nepali people have become like goats at the temple courtyard awaiting sacrifice, which show no concern even as their companions are getting slaughtered all around.” The conclusion is inescapable — the life of the villager is considered expendable in Nepal by those who ‘matter’. The Maoists do not value the lives of ground-level policemen, the soldiers and politicians, and the army and police in return do not value the lives of the Maoists or whoever is caught in between. Given that the Maobaadi are underground, the death of innocents is made possible when the military goes after them. The lives and livelihood of poor villagers are simply seen as the necessary price to pay for ridding the country of insurgents.
The government of Sher Bahadur Deuba today — out of preference — exercises little control over an army whose soldiers only quite simply go about the task asked of them. It has asked the generals to deliver a country where the Maoists have been decimated, and a negotiating window does not seem to have been kept open. Perhaps Prime Minister Deuba has a plan, and perhaps he understands the long-term repercussions of the forces he thus unleashes, which go far beyond the current bout of Nepali society versus the Maobaadi. It is, of course, impossible not to blame the Maoists for having started it all. They have weakened Nepal economically and geopolitically as no ‘anti-nationalist’ could have, and they have created the conditions for soldiers to emerge from the barracks, to be used in allout war against their fellow citizens. By forcing the army to become so overwhelmingly active, the rebels may have helped create a place for the army in the national equation that it did not have before. The upshot of this history may be that the soldiers and the executive in government will become unacceptably more powerful in the future.
There was perhaps a way out of the cul de sac if Prime Minister Deuba had decided to activate the army on the basis of existing anti-terrorist provisions rather than imposing the state of emergency. By retaining the political institutions of state right down to the local level, and taking the civil society and the press along with it, the government would have been able to isolate the Maoists through a judicious mix of military and political approaches. This would not have exposed the RNA to the thankless task given it, and the credit would have been shared across the institutions of state. By having let one institution — the military — monopolise the war against the Maoists, the soldiers become the fall guys if things do not work out quite as planned.
The next six months, till the general elections announced for 13 November, are critical for Nepal and Nepali democracy. This will be a period when there are no institutional safeguards in a country that will be dealing with both a state of emergency and an election campaign. There is no parliament and there are no courts; the bureaucracy, civil society and media have proven ineffective as checks on authority. History will therefore judge the period up ahead on the basis of the action and inaction of the government and its army. They can still wake up to the need to fight a war in which the insurgents are differentiated from the innocents, however difficult and time-consuming it may be. They owe it to democracy and to the people, and quick fixes and mass deaths will not work. There is a nation and a population in trauma out there, in need of healing.