March 9, 2017
Normal life in southern districts – particularly in Saptari – came to a halt this week, due to a general strike call by the Madhesis in protest of four youths killed by armed police. The security forces opened fire on a protest group on Monday. Curfews were set in place. Schools, factories and other industries were closed.
Tensions were raised when the country’s main opposition party, UML, organized a rally prior to the local elections, scheduled to take place on May 14 – the first local elections to be held in 20 years. Thousands of armed police were deployed in advance of the rally to maintain security, but protests outside the main venue – civilians carrying black flags and blocking roads – erupted into lethal violence, when the police opened fire, wounding 12 and killing 4. Many of the wounded are listed as in critical condition.
Who gave the go-ahead for police to open fire?
According to numerous reports, Prime Minister Prachanda was shocked by the police reaction and was furious with Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi (a Nepali Congress leader), when he learned that Nidhi had authorized the use of fire-arms. To justify his authorization, Nidhi is reported to have said he ordered the police to “only aim below the knees,” which is not only bizarre but in direct violation of international law: Firearms must never be used as a tactical tool for the management of demonstrations or other public assemblies, and are not an appropriate tool to contain widespread violence. Arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials must be punished as a criminal offence. “These deaths are not an isolated incident,” commented Amnesty International spokesperson Aura Freeman. “In the lead-up to local elections, when further protests are likely to occur, it is imperative that security forces refrain from using excessive force once and for all.”
If, indeed, the blame falls directly on the shoulders of Nepal’s Home Minister, then Mr. Nidhi has some explaining to do.
According to the Nepali Times , “Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s accusation that Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi ordered police to open fire has raised suspicion that the Saptari killings could have been a conspiracy to scuttle local polls.”
Will the local elections be held in the south as scheduled?
The Samyukta Loktrantrik Madhesi Morcha (SLMM) – an alliance of seven regional parties -- often abbreviated to Morcha – have been boycotting the elections, since their demands to change the constitution have been ignored by the government. The group has accused leaders of the UML, the country's main opposition party, of humiliating its supporters and deriding the community during the mass rally. The protesters also aver that the constitution discriminates against them by limiting their representation in state institutions. They have long called for the redrawing of provincial boundaries to ensure greater representation for their community.
In the meantime, the UN, as well as the US and British embassies, have raised serious concern over the escalation of tension in the lead-up to the elections. Interestingly, India, which normally quickly responds to every major political development in Nepal, has remained silent.
The Morcha has warned it will withdraw support to the government if its demands are not addressed in a week. Such rapid resolution within the government seems highly unlikely.
Which poses the questions: Will the local elections be held at all in the south? And if they are held, what further violence and civil unrest awaits the people of Nepal?