Satyagraha, 324 x 2 days

From The Kathmandu Post (12 September, 2014)

The politics of constitution writing has blocked the fasting Adhikari couple’s search for justice

For a country that revels in mostly meaningless feats for Guinness world record recognition, there is one ongoing satyagraha that everyone would rather forget. This is because Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad Adhikari make us all uncomfortable. Not one but two individuals, husband-wife and father-mother, are today on the 324th day on their hunger strike. Together, that makes 648 days of not taking food or drink, being kept alive through saline drip and intravenous protein feed.

Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad make us frustrated about our own incapacities. Their achievement is the singular ability to endure personal pain and accept the possibility of death in protest of the unwillingness of the state establishment and civil society to ensure justice on the 2004 murder of their son by Maoists in Chitwan. The failure of society is writ large in its inability to reassure the couple that justice will be done.

Sacrificial lambs

This writer has long wondered at what explains the apparent insensitivity of the leaders of the CPN-UML and Nepali Congress (NC) presently in government towards the couple and the goals of their fast-unto-death. My conclusion is that the disregard is linked to constitution-writing and the attendant Maoist blackmail.

The single biggest fear of Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Kamal Dahal in terms of their political career is the loss of cadre, which is in turn linked to many of their closest associates having been involved in conflict era excess, including killing, abduction, disappearance, and maiming. In the immediate instance, Bhattarai cannot do without his supporters from Phujel village of Gorkha, who stand accused by the Adhikaris, and Dahal stands with him in stonewalling the judicial process.

For Bhattarai and Dahal, criminal procedure holds the threat of political eclipse, which in turn explains their vehement opposition to the prosecution of conflict-era perpetrators, whether it be the accused killers of Dekendra Thapa in Dailekh or Krishna Prasad in Chitwan. No case can proceed as far as Dahal and Bhattarai are concerned—theirs is a party where loyalties are based on blatant opportunism, and dark secrets are widely shared.

If the NC and UML were to try to be proactive rather than ritualistic in pursuing the case of Krishna Prasad, both Dahal and Bhattarai would threaten to walk out of the constitution writing. The NC and UML have the numbers but not the willpower to call the Maoist bluff. As I see it, Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad have become sacrificial lambs—they come in the way, as it were, of the writing of a constitution. That document is being written by individuals who do not hold dear the highest principle that guides rule of law, which is justice, first and foremost for the weakest and the voiceless.

Law and morality

Who is to explain to the Adhikari couple in the ‘old ICU’ of the Bir Hospital that it is the politics of constitution writing that has blocked their campaign for justice and pushed them to the very precipice of life? Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad are by now reduced to skeletal frames made up of bones bound by mere skin, reminding one of the emaciated survivors in concentration camp photographs. And yet, their minds are sharp and their eyes questioning, even in their despair.

Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad know how their child was brutally murdered in Bakular Chowk in Chitwan. They wanted the killers and conspirators to be tried, and for years, they have fought alone, outside the media limelight and without seeking political patrons or the support of human rights groups and NGOs. The couple did what forlorn citizens do when they decide to take on an unfeeling and inaccessible state—dharna and ansan.

Over the last year, pressured by human rights individuals and groups, the government has theoretically done what it needed to do. It reluctantly took the case up to the Chitwan District Court, and it wrote to Interpol for the repatriation of one of the alleged Maoist killers said to be in Northern Ireland. However, the government’s spirit is lethargic, with the politicians fixated on everything else but the delivery of justice.

While all this was going on, the passage of the law for a perpetrator-friendly Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)—one that defies international convention and Supreme Court directives—has accelerated state apathy. The prospective (and flawed) TRC has become the fig leaf for politicians unwilling to rise on behalf of Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad.

Who is to tell the couple that their fight for justice is stuck on the shoals of the unformed TRC, that their campaign is trapped by constitution writing?

Lifeline feed

There exists an intense debate on the rights-and-wrongs of force-feeding a person on hunger strike, whether doctors are required to place a nasal tube to keep an activist alive, and whether the activists themselves have the right to inflict the ultimate damage to themselves while fighting for a cause. Some swear by the individual’s right to life, including the right to die for a cause.

This writer, standing unstintingly in support of the Adhikari couple ’s demand for criminal procedure on the murder of Krishna Prasad, has also had to grapple with the issue of force-feeding in the case of the Adhikaris, as have other concerned human rights activists, doctors and bureaucrats. It seems to me that while the conclusion might differ from case to case, the right of an individual to conduct a fast-unto-death cannot be considered sacrosanct.

In terms of legality, a Supreme Court bench last year directed the government to force-feed the Adhikari couple to save them. (The term ‘force-feed’ seems crude to describe an attempt to keep someone alive even against his/her will, so my suggested term is ‘lifeline feed’.) The reason to agree to a lifeline feed for Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad is based on the hopelessness of their battle as of this moment—given the unwillingness of the government and political parties to do anything more, and their mouthed reliance on the future, unformed TRC.

So, with little hope of the state establishment doing anything more on the case for now, with the couple continuing with their refusal to end their fast (despite numerous private and public efforts over the past year), it became important to try to get Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya to agree to a nasal feed, which would provide fluid nutrients direct to the oesophagus. This would keep them alive indefinitely even if they refused to eat or drink.

On August 27, on the 307th day of the hunger strike, a team of doctors from Bir and Teaching sought to provide a lifeline feed to the couple. This writer, human rights activist Rashana Dhakal, and representatives from the National Human Rights Commission joined the team.

Possibly because of atrophy of the food-pipe area after nearly a year of disuse, in the case of both Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya, the tube could not enter far enough to be of use to provide nutrients. This was a severe blow, because while the government is now absolved of its responsibilities in terms of the Supreme Court directive, the most effective option to keep the couple alive came to naught.

As of yesterday, Gangamaya was receiving protein feed intravenously even though on occasion it has seen blockage. Nanda Prasad refuses to allow any intervention, and is scathing about all who come to try and reason with him. We seem to have arrived at a cul de sac. Somehow, and I don’t know how anymore, we have to keep Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad alive until the constitution is written, in the hope that the wheels of justice will indeed turn in the days that follow.

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