Tenacity in the time of villainy

From The Kathmandu Post (30 August, 2013)

The Maoists deride the Adhikari couple’s fast-unto-death, the state administration is fearful and timid and the international community looks the other way

Inside the ‘Old ICU’ of Bir Hospital on Thursday morning, Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya Adhikari entered the 38th day of their refusal to take food, demanding investigation and prosecution on the murder of son Krishna Prasad. Their act of ascetic rebellion, ongoing for nine years and culminating in the current fast-unto-death, seems to have finally woken up the political class. But there is no saying if this will deliver justice rather than more tokenism.

The Maoists were, of course, the first to react. Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Baburam Bhattarai called a press conference to blame the Adhikari family for ‘social misdeeds’ in their native Gorkha, tar human rights activists as ‘dollar mongers’ and warn the Khil Raj Regmi government not to proceed with investigations. The two former prime ministers went as far as to threaten revolt.

The UCPN (Maoist) argue that the place for Krishna Prasad’s murder, an ‘elimination’ the party owns, is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But the commission does not exist, sabotaged by Maoist insistence on making it an instrument for amnesty. Nor does it matter for Dahal/Bhattarai that UN Human Rights Committee rulings, an OHCHR briefing paper specifically for Nepal, as well as Supreme Court precedence, have clarified that a TRC can never supplant the criminal justice system.

The Maoist attempt at blackmail further holds that the peace process will derail if conflict era crimes are raked up, that the elections will be foiled. The other parties do not have the circumspection to speak up to reject such claims: there has been no agreement to exonerate anyone of war crimes and criminal acts of the conflict era; and it is the inability to prosecute Krishna Prasad’s killers that would cast a pall over the upcoming elections, convincing the voters that might is right in the ‘new Nepal’.

Run of politicians

On Tuesday, President Ram Baran Yadav finally showed interest in the case and spoke on the phone with the attending doctors at Bir. The political leaders too woke up from their slumber, and on Wednesday a bevy arrived at the Old ICU—Sushil Koirala, Jhala Nath Khanal, Madhav Kumar Nepal, Ishwor Pokhrel, CP Mainali, et al. Health Minister Vidyadhar Mallik has been in regular attendance, and on Thursday, Chairman Regmi and Home Minister Madhav Ghimire came by to try their hand at convincing the couple to end their fast.

The couple had heard the arguments before: “Even to fight for justice you have to be alive… The government has started investigations… It’s not possible to arrest without going through the procedures… You can always start another fast if the government goes back on its word.” Nanda Prasad’s response was the same one he has always given to the rights activists, nurses and doctors: “On what basis are we to end our fast, what is the adhaar?”

Gangamaya is in visible pain, writhing under the sheets, tears in her eyes. She says, “Aba marincha kyare (I think one will now die). One son was finished by the party, another is being chased all over, while the government is finishing us off.” Asked to consider ending her fast, Gangamaya says, “Hos, aba hamilai maarun. Khopne ra ropne kaam nagarikana hamilai marna diyeko bhaye hunthyo.” (Let them kill us. I wish they had let us depart without all this poking and piercing.)

Nanda Prasad’s response has been consistent over the weeks, and he said nothing different to Chairman Regmi: “Why are you wasting your time? I would eat if you would arrest the guilty. The police is under your government, so what’s stopping you? Bhanai matra ho, garai hoina— you only talk, there is no result. Hamro bijog herna matra aayeko jasto lagyo—you seem to be here simply watch us in misery.”

Health bulletin

Confronted by the astonishing tenacity of the Adhikari couple, the doctors at Bir have been studying cases of fasting activists near and far, including Irom Sharmila of Manipur. Theirs is the ethical dilemma of allowing a voluntary fast to lead towards eventual death. In literature search, they have found helpful principles enunciated in the Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers of 2006. That document deals with issues such as the ‘principle of beneficence’ versus ‘individual autonomy’ and the possibility of peer pressure and coercion—and advises against force-feeding of patients who voluntarily refuse to eat.

At the Old ICU, Gangamaya’s condition is deteriorating fast while Nanda Prasad could become critical at any moment, say the doctors. For not having eaten, they are both on the path to ‘metabolic derailment’. Some days ago, rights activists convinced the couple to allow intravenous drip, through which they are receiving dextrose, sodium and potassium but not essential fat, minerals and protein.

Gangamaya’s vital signs are dipping, with low blood pressure, deep vein thrombosis, spread of infection (sepsis) and gastro-intestinal bleeding. Nanda Prasad is more stable but he has lost muscle mass. Wife and husband have both refused to be fed by nasal tube (as in the case of Irom Sharmila) and the two will not submit to a ‘central line’ providing sustenance through the sub-clavical or jugular veins.

While Gangamaya prefers silence, Nanda Prasad remains as lucid as he was a month ago. He says, “I have not lost my faculties, but bolda boldai marchu jasto lagchha (…I feel like I will die even as I am talking). There is no need to keep us alive. This is our end.”

State capture

The ministers of the interim government are concerned that Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad will die on their watch—the Accountability Watch Committee has warned that the Regmi regime and leaders of the five-party High-level Political Committee are accountable for the health of the couple. The ministers don’t want the kalanka (stigma) that would attach on their persons but seem unable to swing the sluggish government machinery into action.

Indeed, that entire machinery seems compromised by the fear of Maoist displeasure. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) could have given a more detailed directive to the government. The Attorney General’s Office has gone through the motions of forwarding the NHRC letter, rather than telling the police that an earlier order to halt investigations (by the Bhattarai regime) stands over-ridden. Meanwhile, the police force is impacted by the timidity of its chief at Kathmandu HQ, as with the Dekendra Thapa case of last year.

Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad, frail and weakening, seem to be more alert to this reality of state capture than the great editorialists, which explains their dogged struggle for justice in the face of all-round tokenism. Indeed, if a leaf has moved (to use a Nepali expression) for accountability in the present instance, it is due to a couple who will not forget their son nor his murder.

The adhaar (basis) that Nanda Prasad seems to seek in order to break the fast is evidence of good faith in investigation and prosecution. And his skepticism is well-founded—this is a couple that has been humiliated endlessly for seeking justice, including a forced stay at the mental hospital in Lagankhel.

Resounding silence

May Nanda Prasad and Gangamaya live a long life—long enough to see Nepal evolve as a country of laws, where accused war criminals are tried rather than allowed to run for office. And let the international community once so interested in human rights in Nepal—OHCHR, the various embassies and their human rights cells, the UN Secretary General’s Office, Amnesty International, ICTJ, ICJ, Human Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the international electronic and print media, and so on—understand that their silence on the Adhikari couple’s fast for justice is echoing across our Himalayan valleys.

Evidently, we are alone in this fight against impunity. Gangamaya and Nanda Prasad are trying to tell us something—we are responsible for ourselves, the rest are only onlookers and well-wishers.

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