21 February, 2009



Kathmandu Post, 21/02/09

When I first met Devi Sunwar, in October 2004, she was her eyes were red from crying. The event was a launch of a report by Human Rights Watch titled “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”. When Devi told the story of how her fifteen year old daughter, Maina, had been killed by soldiers, there was not a dry eye in the crowded conference hall. When I saw her again recently, five years later, I was struck to see how the expression in her face remained the same. It appeared to me that although her tears had dried, the sense of a woman who’d faced deep trauma remained.

I wondered aloud to Geeta, her niece, how there had been so much funding poured to compensation for victims of conflict, but somehow the lessening of grief and trauma that should have taken place by now hadn’t happened. Where, I wondered, had all those millions gone? Shouldn’t some of it had gone into rehabilitating those who were directly impacted by the conflict? Shouldn’t some of it have been spent on psychological and grief counseling? People assure me that there are large-scale projects ongoing at various districts for this purpose. And yet, in the search for legal justice, the psychological dimension seems to have gotten lost.

Unlike Devi, who has managed to garner high profile media attention, thousands of other family members and relatives have not come out in the limelight. What about their psychological and economic state? Have they been redressed? Does the one lakh promised by the state do more than provide a token sense of justice, when meantime they need more substantive support?

In discussing the case with Devi, I learnt that the men responsible for her daughter’s death, who have been identified and known, remain free. One of them, interestingly, may have migrated to the United States. This reminded me how it is not just the Nepali state but also other states who have been lax about monitoring the movement of human rights violators. It would take only a few simple steps to figure out the names of the major figures involved in the most egregious violations and tag them in a database. Prosecution of one human rights case, people fear, may open up a can of worms that would put everybody from elected government reps to army officers at all levels on trail. But until a few cases are publicly prosecuted and given high profile media coverage, acts of impunity will continue to occur in Nepal.

The breakdown of law and order is something every citizen of Nepal has noticed. And impunity, of both the past and the present, heighten the sense that its easy to get away with murder. At a recent gathering, I was surprised to hear how the Uma Singh case was being discussed—the public discourse had now moved from a simple narrative of a female journalist murdered by a gang of men, to that of an evil sister-in-law (what a convenient scapegoat! And female to boot. The perfect afternoon soap opera motif) to the fact that Uma’s family members were probably killed by the Maoists because they did something evil, and perhaps she was involved in trafficking and that’s why she was killed. Indeed, people seem to have lost track of the fact that she was a human being who was brutally murdered by a gang of men. The public discourse, fueled by yellow journalism, gets murkier and murkier, and it appears that in this darkness the killers hope nobody will remember who did it, making the need for justice redundant.

In the bestselling book Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, the author has an interesting example about law and order. In the eighties, New York city was a hotbed of crime. The new mayor who came in, instead of trying to tackle the big criminals, decided to take a different approach. Instead of arming the police and stationing them to catch the major mobsters, the city decided to hit upon low-level crime—basically, the men and women who jumped over turnstiles without paying their fare when entering the subway station. This one instance of crime-control had a dramatic effect. Not only did the police find that many of the small criminals led them to big criminals, but also the psychological effect of law and order in one small space affected all aspects of life, leading to a drastic reduction of crime. The other thing they did was paint over graffiti—each time somebody painted a train with graffiti, they would paint over it overnight. And these two small instances were enough to change the whole profile of the city and made it safer over a few years.

Nepali lawmakers need to think about a similar strategy. Start with better policing of traffic violations, for instance, may make people think they are living inside a law-abiding society. Spending money on traffic lights, zebra crossings, traffic police and highway police will be an easy way to start restoring law and order. The right to shoot should be restricted—not expanded. In a country where the rank and file are not well-trained and where impunity has had a happy history, it is insanity to open up more chances for soldiers and police to shoot at citizens. The army could start out with prosecution of small crime within its ranks, letting its people know its not easy to get away after an act of impunity.

The Nepali army is notoriously reluctant to put its soldiers on trial—even when there is clear proof of wrongdoing. The most classic case may have been the soldier who shot and killed 11 bystanders after an instance of drunken rage in Nagarkot in December 2005. The soldier had been harassing some women and some men told him to lay off. Instead of being put on trail and prosecuted through the proper channels, he was conveniently shot dead. Mad prince Dipendra, after his shooting spree, was also reportedly killed from a bullet wound on one side of his head, the opposite of the hand he favored—meaning he was executed, and that he didn’t just bring his hand around to the wrong side of his head in some strange yogic suicidal move. Clearly if the Army can’t even put its rank and file on trail, it would have the greatest reluctance to put a comatose king on public trail.

This tradition of meting out traditional justice in favor of the modern legal system has to end. The Nepali law and order system can start with prosecuting small crimes, which in turn will have a psychological impact on big crime. Perhaps these small steps, in their own way, may be the first few steps to bring about an end to impunity in Nepal.

As for those who committed war crimes during the civil war, they have surely by now learnt that the arm of justice is long, and stalks relentlessly. Wherever they migrate to, violators of human rights must feel the heat of that truth—its not that easy to get away with murder.

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