By Ram Kumar Bhandari
I remember those days distinctly. When the armed conflict began in Nepal in 1996, the state targeted student activists, community leaders, rural peasants and teachers, among others and subjected them to arrest, inhuman torture and illegal killing. For 10 years, the state celebrated its democracy while simultaneously destroying citizens’ right to life. As American public intellectual Noam Chomsky has stated, “Democracy is a game for elites, it’s not for the ignorant masses, who have to be marginalised, diverted and controlled—of course for their own good.”
In total, more than 1,400 family members, relatives, fathers, sons, mothers and daughters—all innocent citizens—were detained, tortured, disappeared and killed during Nepal’s armed conflict. Today, surviving families have no voice and remain marginalised from the political process. The state and political parties, in the name of democracy, have diverted the agenda of the disappearance movement, ensuring political control while avoiding state apology and recognition.
Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2006, families have demanded the disclosure of the truth, the return of human remains, public acknowledgement and respect for family rights. However, these demands go unanswered and the more time passes, the more difficult it becomes to sustain the necessary pressure on the Nepal government to hold the perpetrators accountable. The government is not serious about addressing the legacy of Nepal’s conflict. Hope for a strong independent commission for the investigation of disappearances has been abandoned while the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission Ordinance has failed to define disappearance as a crime against humanity and address family support or the exhumation process and has created the capacity for perpetrators to receive amnesty.
When I was a student at Amrit Science College in 1999, many students were detained illegally and forcibly disappeared by security forces. On June 17, 1999, student activists Bipin Bhandari and DB Rai, along with senior student leader Purna Poudel were forcibly taken into custody and disappeared. Krishna Bahadur Basnet, a school teacher, was taken from his family in the middle of the night from Suryapaal, Lamjung, while his pregnant wife Maiya lay sleeping. The accused police officer still serves on the force and has even been promoted. Jai Kishor Lav, whose son Sanjib was disappeared from Dhanusha, died before knowing the truth during his fight against state crimes. The alleged officer behind his son’s disappearance, Kuber Singh Rana, has been promoted to head of police.
Similarly, Dipendra Pant from Gorkha and Gyanendra Tripathi from Chitwan were detained and disappeared at the Bhairavnath Battalion along with 49 young activists after illegal arrest, while their captor, in-charge Raju Basnet, has been promoted to brigadier general of the Nepal Army. On Dec 31, 2001, Tej Bahadur Bhandari, a school teacher, was arrested and taken from Lamjung in broad daylight while hundreds of eyewitnesses looked on but the state has never admitted his arrest. The alleged perpetrators, then CDO Shiva Prasad Nepal, DSP Pitamber Adhikari and Major Santosh Singh Thakuri have been promoted.
Following the end of the conflict, the families of the disappeared started to unite in hopes of achieving justice through a disappearance commission. Now the commission itself has disappeared. In 2006, transition was in the air and the families had certain expectations from the state. These hopes have since been dashed. The families were never consulted in the development of transitional justice mechanisms, the constitution remains unwritten and there is little movement regarding local development.
Instead of providing answers or admitting the disappearances, the Nepali state distributed monetary compensation, taking advantage of the victims’ economic needs, and tactically diverted the truth agenda. Instead of creating sustainable transitional justice mechanisms, the government drafted a Truth and Reconciliation Commission without consulting the victims, thus strategically diverting the justice agenda. Instead of addressing the needs of the victims and the delivery of justice, the state followed the prescriptions of donors, diverting the victims’ needs and agency in the name of superficial peace and reconstruction.
As such, there is little hope for progress. Supreme Court Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi, the current caretaker of the Nepal government, has forgotten his own work after his disappearance from the Supreme Court, and political leaders have connived with security chiefs to forget the past. This not only betrays the legacy of disappearances but also neglects human history and the right to know. History will neither not forgive those criminals nor forget those who were disappeared.
Every year, we mark International Day of the Disappeared; but in Nepal, it is a great shame that we face injustice, witness continuous crimes and experience rule by criminals. The recollection of these events is important today, when the nation hears the voices of the disappeared and feels their suffering. The day is important for various reasons: to remind the state of its duties to uphold the rights of citizens, to recognise the surviving families’ agendas for truth and justice, to serve the victims’ community and to create a space in which full ownership and agency are not only possible but celebrated.
In Nepal, the powers that be have a record of betraying the trust of the people. One important component of sustainable peace is an effective and accessible truth telling mechanism. Disappearances need to be made a national agenda and the family agenda socialised to reintegrate thousands of families to respect the victims’ dignity. We need to speak out together for the truth.