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Siddhi B. Ranjitkar: Chihan Danda Carnage

Chihan Danda Carnage


By Siddhi B. Ranjitkar

"He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword. Remember that is what God said."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Chihan Danda literally means the cemetery hill. By tradition, Nepalis have a shrine of a God or Goddess nearby a crematorium or a cemetery. So, there is a shrine to Goddess Kali Devi on the Chihan Danda in Nagarkot, about 28 km east of Kathmandu. It is again the practice of Nepalis to have an annual religious fair in such a shrine.

On Wednesday, December 14, 2005, on the eve of the fool moon day, the local people were having an annual religious fair on the premises of this shrine. While some dedicated-religious people made offerings of oil lamps to the Goddess, others made offerings of foodstuffs and drinks. On such occasion, boozing, merrymaking and other religious cum entertaining activities were common features of the Nepalese life.

The Royal Army Barrack was nearby the Chihan Danda. So, it was not surprising that some army men also participated in such religious fair in their civilian capacity. However, the army men should behave as civilians when they were participating in the civilian activities in civil dress.

Unfortunately, one of the army men in civil dress taking part in the religious fun got drunk, and got into arguments with the locals. Certainly, belonging to the Royal Nepalese Army, the proud army man could not tolerate the humiliating defeat at the hands of the local youths. What the intoxicated-army man did was to go back to the barrack, retrieve the fully loaded gun, come to the shrine and indiscriminately sprayed bullets on the innocent unarmed children, women and men.

This was not the first time; the army men had demonstrated such intolerance and misbehave. There were numerous instances of the army men killing innocent people unnecessarily. In the past, the army often put a label of Maoists on the innocent people killed by negligence and had received credits for such killings. This time, it happened right in the capital valley and the army could not escape from the truth, as there was an independent pro-people media to take up the case instantly. Even in this case, there was an attempt to make it as a mistake. For example, on Thursday, December 15, 2005, quoting the Chief District Officer of the Bhaktapur District, Bashanta Raj Bhattarai, Khaleej Times online wrote that the army opened fire at the people returning from a festival mistaking them for the communist rebels around midnight.

Who was responsible for such an indiscipline activities of the army men and for the fabrication of such incidents? Certainly, Nepalis place blame on the person holding the portfolio of Defense for the misconducts of the army personnel, and on the Home Minister for fabrication of such incidents and for not being able to protect the lives and property of the people. Recently supplying lethal weapons to the army irresponsible for handling its personnel, the authorities of the People's Republic of China became indirectly responsible for such inhuman acts of the Royal Nepalese Army personnel.

On Thursday, December 16, 2005, the king's government constituted a three-member-team commission headed by former senior justice of the Supreme Court, Top Bahadur Singh pursuant to the Article 3 (2) of the Investigation Commission Act of 2005 (2062) to look into the case and submit a report within five days. The members of the commission included were Former Attorney General Prem Bahadur Bista and Deputy Attorney General Drona Raj Regmi.

On Sunday, December 18, 2005, Former Justice of the Supreme Court and Chairman of the newly formed Commission, Top Bahadur Singh took the oath in front of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nepal, Dilip Kumar Poudel. Members Former Attorney General Prem Bahadur Bista and Deputy Attorney General Drona Raj Regmi took the oath in front of the Chairman of the Commission to probe the killings of civilians by the army man.

At the same time, Chief District Officer of the Bhaktapur District, Bashanta Raj Bhattarai said that a committee headed by the Assistant Chief District Officer was formed to investigate the incident at the district level.

The Ministry of Defense stated that it had taken the incident very seriously, formed an investigation committee headed by a Brigadier General Netra Bahadur Thapa of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) to investigate how it happened, and make its report public within three days. On December 17, 2005, a press statement issued by the RNA Public Relations Directorate said that the RNA extended the time period of the military probe committee by seven more days.

On the night of Thursday, December 15, 2005, the state-run Nepal TV showed the TV clippings of how Chief District Officer of the Bhaktapur District, Bashanta Raj Bhattarai was distributing the checks to the family members of the victims as the compensation for the loss of their loved-ones. According to the state-run media, the government provided the family of the 11 civilians killed in the incident with Rs 150, 000 (slightly more than US$ 2,000 at the government exchange rate of Nepalese Rupee 73 to one US Dollar prevailing on that day). The Bhaktapur District Development Committee provided the family of each deceased person with Rs 10,000 (US$ 137). Mr. Bhattarai said each injured person was provided with the compensation of Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000. The names of the eight persons identified by the government as killed were 1) Ram Lal Nagarkoti, 2) Nanu Nagarkoti, 3) Deepak Tamang, 4) Bhagwan Tamang, 5) Niru Tamang, 6) Maya Tamang, 7) Aaite Tamang and 8) Kale Yaiba

The meeting of eight-agitating-student unions held on December 17, 2005, decided to demand the government for providing the family of victims with Rs 1.5 million as the compensation for each victim, their children with free education up to the higher secondary level, and the injured with free medical treatment and Rs 500,000 as compensation for the injury. The meting also decided to stage protests against the brutal killings for five consecutive days starting on December 19, 2005.

On December 15, 2005, independent news website 'Kantipur Online' reported that a drunken Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) soldier fired indiscriminately at locals killing at least 12 civilians and injuring 19 others at Chihan Danda in Nagarkot at around 11:25 pm Wednesday (December 14) night. The army personnel identified as Bashu Dev Thapa was working at the RNA barracks at Nagarkot. The dead bodies brought to the Bhaktapur Hospital for post mortem were identified as those of 1) Dipak Tamang (5 yrs), 2) Dhamai Lama (11 yrs), 3) Bhagwan Tamang (40 yrs), 4) Aite Tamang (40 yrs), 5) Ramlal Nagarkoti (40 yrs), 6) Maya Tamang (20 yrs), 7) Sujan Shrestha (30 yrs), 8) Ram Prasad Panth (25 yrs), 9) Kale Tamang (20 yrs), 10) Nanu Nagarkoti (20 yrs), 11) Niru Tamang (25 yrs), and 12) Dipak Tamang (age not known).

On December 16, 2005, the independent newspaper 'The Kathmandu Post' reported that the RNA soldier Basudev Thapa was a short-tempered and had been involved in a number of brawls in the past, killed 12 civilians, including three women, and injured 19 others in a shooting rage. Thapa collapsed while still firing at terror-stricken locals. According to the eyewitnesses, he must have been shot by one of his own colleagues, as he was still firing when he fell down dead.

The independent newspaper 'The Kathmandu Post' further reported that a 3-feet-tall wall fenced the Kali Devi temple. To the west of the temple, standing outside the fence, Thapa fired indiscriminately at the people inside the temple. The marks left by the bullets indicated that he fired at all directions. The tree, against which he leaned and opened fire, bore a bullet mark too. The pennant around the temple was riddled with bullet holes. There were marks of a stampede. By Thursday afternoon the site was still littered with crushed oranges, human brain tissues, a cap with a bullet hole, blood stained baskets, broken thermo-flasks. Blood smeared the temple walls as well areas around it. All these were still visible despite the RNA personnel's attempts to cover up.

On Thursday, December 15, 2005, public reactions to the killing were quick and spontaneous. Relatives of the victims and the sympathizers were furious at the Armed Police Force (APF) posted at the Bhaktapur Hospital where the dead bodies were brought for autopsy. They protested against the indiscriminate killings of the innocent people by the army man.

Leaders of the seven-party alliance speaking at the mass meeting held at New Baneswor in Kathmandu on December 15 to protest the king's autocratic regime spontaneously declared the Kathmandu Valley closure the next day i.e. on Friday, December 16 to protest against the indiscriminate killings of innocent people by the army. They made king Gyanendra accountable for the brutal killing of innocent civilians by the army personnel. "This is a criminal act of the Royal Nepalese Army. Since the king is the head of the Council of Ministers and directly oversees the defense ministry, he must take responsibility for the killing and resign", said Madhav Kumar Nepal, General Secretary of CPN-UML. Addressing the same rally, Former Prime Minister and President of the Nepali Congress, Girija Prasad Koirala said that the "world's Hindu emperor" should take responsibility for the massacre in Nagarkot. President Koirala also pledged to get the Nagarkot killings investigated by an impartial body once democracy was restored. He also said it was high time for the RNA to realize that it did not belong to an individual but to all the people of the country.

Several political parties, human rights organizations, professional organizations, civil society, and students' associations condemned the killing of innocent people by the army personnel, and demanded actions against the culprit.

On December 17, 2005, the website 'nepalnews.com' reported that in a statement issued on Friday, December 16, 2005, condemning the killing of one dozen civilians by a soldier at Nagarkot on Wednesday night, spokesman for Maoists, Krishna Bahadur Mahara said that the Nagarkot incident was a crime against humanity, and the royal government was responsible for it.

The Nepalese media reported eruption of spontaneous protests against the army killing of innocent civilians throughout the country on Thursday, December 16, 2005. In Biratnagar, Chitwan, Narayangardh, Pokhara, Nepalgunj, and Butwal, students held a protest rally demanding a strong action against the army killer. The protests continued throughout Nepal on December 17, 18, and 19, 2005.

Almost all the major independent newspapers ran editorial asking the question about the discipline and credibility of the RNA personnel. In its editorial, Kantipur (in Nepali) wrote asking a question “How could a solider who was off duty get hold of a weapon and able to commit such incident all alone?” An army man is not allowed to carry weapons, while he is off duty. The Himalayan Times (in English) ran an editorial stating the killing was one of the many army excess of various kinds; in fact, the Chihan Danda killing was not the first, second or even third case of army excesses in recent times. The Kathmandu Post (in English) in its editorial raised questions, “How come a drunken soldier got hold of a rifle, and that too in a civil dress? How did the "culprit" soldier die? Who killed him? And, most importantly, how is the RNA going to change itself, so as to avoid such gory incidents in the future?

Nepali Times of December 16-22, 2005 ran a special editorial under the title 'Don't Play with Fire', and raised several questions about the army personnel. The editorial said although the army was quicker than usual in coming out with a detailed explanation of the Nagarkot massacre, there were still some unanswered questions:

• How many other soldiers were with Sgt Basudeb Thapa when he returned to the temple with the assault rifle?

• Why was he carrying a gun while in civvies?

• Doesn’t the RNA have a policy on drunkenness of its soldiers while on furlough?

• Not that this makes any difference now, but did Basudeb kill himself or was he shot by a fellow-soldier?

• Why was he allowed to check out a gun at the barracks when everyone could see he was drunk?

• Why was someone with a history of violence-prone drunkenness allowed to keep serving in the army?

Given the frequency of such behavior in the past, it is clear Nagarkot was just waiting to happen.

On Friday, December 16, 2005, the seven-party alliance brought the normal business in the Kathmandu Valley to a total standstill protesting against the killing of innocent civilians by the army person on the premises of the Kali Devi shrine situated on the Chihan Danda. The party cadres and students affiliated to different political parties were active to ensure the closure of business of any kind on that day. The government of king Gyanendra deployed riot police forces at major road intersections and business centers in the valley to keep control on any unpleasant incidents. The police arrested several party cadres and students.

Nagarkot is a tourist resort. Nepalis and foreign tourists visit this area for watching and enjoying the scenic views of the beautiful Himalayan Mountain Range. After the army killing of innocent people at Chihan Danda in Nagarkot, Nepalis were scared to visit this area, and foreign tourists cancelled their bookings in the hotels for their visits. Helicopters ferried the stranded tourists from Nagarkot to Kathmandu on Friday, December 16, 2005 as thy could not traveled by cars because of the Kathmandu Valley closed by the seven-party alliance as the protest against the mass killing by the army man at Chihan Danda.

Writing under the title ' The Unresolved Gun Question' on the website 'Kantipur online', Bikash Sangraula raised several questions about the killings and attempted to seek answers to them as follow: The Bhaktapur Hospital performed autopsy on the 13 dead bodies including that of killer Bashu Dev Thapa. The doctor performing the autopsy found that a bullet passing between the ribs and through the chest killed Bashu Dev Thapa. It was confirmed that killer Thapa used SLR to take the lives of 12 innocent people. According to a security expert, it was physically impossible to shoot oneself at the center of the chest using the SLR. So, there must be someone else shooting at killer Thapa. Eyewitnesses said that dead Thapa was still holding the gun on early Thursday morning, December 15. Later that day, RNA personnel were still looking for another gun. On Friday, December 16, the army personnel took out an SLR from a pool 60 meters below the spot where Thapa died. Considering the bullet injury on the Thapa's body, and the dimensions of SLR, it was near established that someone else shot Thapa. According to the doctor, performing autopsy on the 12 dead bodies of innocent victims at the Bhaktapur Hospital, nine bodies had small bullet holes at the entry and large holes at the exits. Two bodies had heads blown off and one body had a knee blown off.

Paradoxically, the king did not bother to speak even a single word of condolences. The king and his son crown prince had been pretending as if nothing had had happened even after the army personnel killed 12 innocent people for no faults of theirs. The king as the Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the person holding the portfolio of Defense was certainly accountable for misbehaves of the army men, and responsible for protection of lives and property of the common people. The question was why the king so committed to stop terrorism was not willing to speak out against the terrorism inflicted by the army man on the innocent people.

In the same spirit, newly appointed Home Minister, Kamal Thapa too did not speak a single word about the mass killing at Chihan Danda in Nagarkot as if it was not his duty to do so. Probably, he must have thought that his duty was to protect the royals from falling stones in order to keep his job. His predecessor lost his job because of his failure do so on December 02, 2005.

On Thursday, December 15, 2005, appearing on the state-run TV, Minister of State for Information and Communications, and Spokesman for the Government, Shrish SJB Rana said that the government had been aggrieved by the incident that occurred Wednesday night at Chihan Danda and had formed a high level commission to look into the incident. “We have taken the incident seriously and feel that it was very unfortunate,” Minister Rana said, “We cannot remedy the situation but have acted promptly to give compensations to the bereaved family members.” The Royal Nepal Army and the Home Ministry have already assessed the situation and would work with due seriousness to make public their reports related with the incident. “To comment on the incident prior to the commission’s report would be premature,” he said.

On Saturday, December 17, 2005, upon arrival at the airport from a five-day-long visit to Pakistan, Chief of Army Staff and General. Pyar Jung Thapa told journalists, "The whole incident was due to one individual soldier. I am deeply saddened by the incident and I express my heartfelt condolences to the bereaved families. The government has provided some compensation to the victims; we will also do our best to help them by giving jobs or by providing financial support. The RNA is waiting for the probe committee's findings. We will take necessary actions once the report is made public by the committee."

On Saturday, December 17, 2005, addressing a press meet in Kathmandu, the Human Rights Organization of Nepal (HURON) said its eight-member-probe team found that the Royal Nepalese Army personnel had removed evidences such as cartridge shells, firearms and blood stain and clothes from the killing site at Chihan Danda in Nagarkot. The member of the HURON-probe team, Malla K. Sundar said this was not the first time the army had been involved in human rights violations. "They have killed civilians and tried to project it as an encounter with Maoists, they have raped and killed schoolchildren," he said, "This is the result of the culture of impunity that protects perpetrators in the Royal Nepalese Army." Another investigator and former member of the National Human Rights Commission, Kapil Shrestha said that the killings were a civilian crime. "When the government has instituted a commission headed by a former judge to investigate the shootout, there's no rationale for the army to institute a separate probe panel," he said, "This shows the army is running a parallel government in Nepal." "The army is deliberately encouraging this kind of indiscipline and it would prove to be very damaging in the long run," he said.

Writing in 'The Kathmandu Post' of December 19, 2005 under the title 'Under The Sun: What is Army's Mandate, Anyway?' Damakant Jayshi gave the overview of the behavior of the army men in the past as follow: On Nagarkot massacre, both the RNA and the government appealed to one and all not to implicate the institution of the army for the misdeed of "one soldier". They say it is an "aberration". According to the accounts of the locals in Nagarkot, the soldiers from the local barrack have been behaving as if they are lords of the area. Teasing and molesting of local girls and women outside the barracks have been very common. Remember the infamous rape of two Muslim cousin girls by an army captain and at least another colleague inside the Chisapani Barrack near Nepalgunj in early 2002? Later, the girls retracted the accusation after the army threat. Three students were shot dead by soldiers in Chidipani village in Palpa district on March 23 this year. Their parents were not informed and their bodies buried. Later the bodies were exhumed after the locals found out the cover-up. Investigation was ordered. Not much heard since then. Then there was the most gruesome execution of 35 innocent laborers (17 from Jogimara in Dhading, 7 from Sindhupalchok and 11 locals) at an airport construction site in the Kalikot district on Feb 24, 2002. Punishment for this extra-judicial killing is not known, yet.

Misdeeds of the army men would continue in the future in the name of containing terrorism as long as Nepalis would not set up people's democracy, and bring the army under the parliament. Currently, the Nepalese army report only to the king. So, if the king is happy everything is okay for the army.

*************

Siddhi B. Ranjitkar is a political analyst in Kathmandu.


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