Saptari Sangram: Who is responsible?

By Bikram Timilsina, Brisbane
7 March 2017

Four individuals have lost their lives after police opened fire on protesters belonging to United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF). Dozens more reportedly sustained serious injuries as the disturbing development gripped Nepal’s Saptari district over the weekend. The incident took place at Maleth village just when a mass meeting of the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) was concluding. CPN-UML had organised the event as part of its recently-announced Mechi-Mahakali Campaign. Mechi is the mountain nation’s easternmost border point while Mahakali the western – hence, the campaign is purported to be a cross-country event.

Prior to the incident, UDMF had warned CPN-UML not to enter Madhesh for political activities. The Front had made it clear that it would obstruct any campaign led by CPN-UML should it cross into the Southern plains districts, the Terai region. The campaigning party did not budge and instead announced that it would proceed as planned. It was their constitutional right to be able to go to any part of the country and engage in peaceful political activities, CPN-UML leaders said. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal himself had publicly reminded UDMF leaders that no party should be banned in any part of the country from organising peaceful political events.

Thousands of social media users had warned all concerned to be careful before things got out of hand. Many called on CPN-UML to withdraw the programme while some others urged UDMF not to obstruct the former’s campaign. Though CPN-UML moved the venue from Rajbiraj to Maleth VDC, it did not pull the plug on its declared programme. Similarly, the Madheshi Front also did not step back from its policy of obstructing UML’s campaign. This was how the clash was invited. It all became a recipe for disaster.

Following deaths of the four protesters, CPN-UML has now decided to put its campaign on hold in Province 2. The party is silent about when it will resume its announced programme there. It has also postponed the Mechi Mahakali Campaign throughout the country for three days. The UDMF, however, has announced a two-day-general strike all over Terai, while the Front local leadership has declared an indefinite strike in the district of Saptari where the fatal shootings took place.

The incident has set off the usual blame-game among political parties of Nepal. They are accusing each other of being responsible for the violence and human fatalities. No party involved in the incident has yet accepted that they are part of the problem. Let me briefly examine each party and their involvement in the incident to analyse who should be held responsible for such an atrocious clash and human fatality.

‘Democratic’ Front and its undemocratic deeds

It was a blunder on the part of UDMF to make a “formal” party decision to obstruct the peaceful political campaign of a legitimate political party of their own country. Peaceful political activities are guaranteed by the constitution as a constitutional right and all parties are free to do so in any corner of the country without any obstacle. One must be reminded that this is not the first time that the UDMF has sought to stop other political groups from freely carrying out their political events in Madhesh. The Terai party is particularly antagonistic to the CPN-UML due to its stance against the constitution amendment bill recently tabled in the parliament.

UDMF leaders have time and again claimed that they have huge support from the Madheshi people. If they are so confident about people’s support to them then why are they so anxious about letting other political parties do their business in Terai? If you believe that you must get your rights guaranteed by the state, by the same token you should not forget to respect others’ rights as well. In this respect, UDMF has failed on multiple occasions.

If UDMF wanted no confrontation, it should have instructed its district wings and local party cadres not to interrupt other political parties from exercising their constitutional rights. It did not. It rather encouraged them to confront UML. As a result, four have already lost their lives and many others have been seriously injured. It has also sowed a new seed of conflict in Madhesh. This is very unfortunate also because it can initiate a new series of conflicts in Madhesh. However, it is not only the UDMF which is responsible for this dreadful incident.

Bimalendra Nidhi
Nepal’s home minister Bimalendra Nidhi I Picture: Facebook

CPN UML and its rigidity

The UDMF has been resisting for long. There have been a series of violent incidents, including the gruesome Gaur massacre, in the Madhesh region where dozens of innocent people and security personnel lost their lives. The UDMF had already warned that it would obstruct UML’s political campaign in Madhesh. Given this background, it was perhaps unwise of UML to rush on. No one can deny that UML has its constitutionally guaranteed right to hold any event anywhere in the mountain nation. However, if the exercise of a right had the potential for triggering atrocities, the UML should have reconsidered its decision. If the party could withdraw all of its programmes in Province 2 as a result of the deaths then it could well prevent the four men from dying by postponing its campaign in the first place.

There is no doubt that Madhesh is home to the UML as it is to any other political parties. Madhesh is not solely owned by the UDMF and its supporters. This is why the UML has every right of organizing any peaceful political events in Madhesh. However, this particular context was not so appropriate. The UDMF leaders were looking for reasons to cause a new mass movement. They knew that violent clashes could work as fuel to intensify the fire. In addition, Prime Minister Prachanda had recently told the UDMF leaders that the chance of passing the constitution amendment bill tabled in the parliament was getting weaker. It had further deepened their resentment. In the meantime, the UDMF leaders were vehemently demanding the withdrawal of the local elections. In such a context, UML should not have launched the campaign in a hurried fashion. It should have followed the strategy of wait and see, at least for some time to come. Alternatively, it could have organised such programs in places where UDMF did not have strong influence. The party was so adamant about its plans and programmes that it eventually added fuel to the Terai fire.

The role of the government has also been suspicious in this regard. Prime Minister Prachanda had publicly asked the UDMF leaders not to hinder the CPN-UML’s campaign. It has also been reported that he had instructed the concerned authorities such as Minister for Home Affairs and the Inspector General of Nepal Police not to open fire and take the situation under control through peaceful methods. However, contradicting reports from Nepal claim that police opened fire on the direct instruction of the Minister for Home Affairs, Bimalendra Nidhi. He apparently accepted that he authorised the shooting but only with a clear instruction that they were to shoot below waist. Media reports indicate the Prime Minister is absolutely mad at Mr Nidhi for not obeying his instruction.

Here, it is worth noting that Mr Nidhi had previously accused CPN-UML for being the root cause of all problems facing Madhesh.

It is understandable that the security forces had to open fire if the situation could not contained through peaceful means, such as tear gas and baton-charge. So far, there has been no independent reports to verify that the situation warranted opening fire at the protesters. Even if the situation was really bad, the police had to shoot protesters below their waists. However, media reports claim that the victims sustained injuries in their heads and chests.

It is an alarming disorganisation within the government to see that the Prime Minister ordered all authorities not to open fire while his home minister let security personnel “shoot below waist”. But they did shoot “above waist” anyway, as victims’ injuries showed.

Thus, the Saptari incident clearly reveals the suspicious intentions of the government and its legitimacy as a unified governing body.

Who is responsible?

This battle is such a byproduct of complex and intricate political developments that you cannot hold anyone fully responsible, if you wanted to be reliable. This unfortunate upshot could have been prevented with the prudent act of any three parties involved. For instance, if the CPN-UML had postponed the campaign (at least in the areas where UDMF holds stronger influence) until situation got better, the loss of four precious lives could definitely have been prevented. It would also have been possible if the so-called democratic front, UDMF, had allowed CPN-UML to organise its peaceful political events. Similarly, the tact and wisdom of the government, and consistency in the thoughts of the Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs could have prevented such an appalling incident.

Such an atrocious confrontation could have definitely been avoided if only one of these three parties had been responsible towards peace and human lives. As all of them acted immaturely, they are all partially responsible for this dreadful incident.

All of them must realise this for preventing such acts from happening in the future.

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