August 11, 2020

Praveen's Webspace

writing, mostly, on contemporary issues of human rights, politics & social justice

Prejudice in the rights community

If the human rights movement is to succeed, the privileged section needs to acknowledge their shortcomings and act to build trust among human rights activists and victims belonging to the marginalised communities. They should remain free from bias to impartially raise the issues of human rights violations, no matter which communities they represent.

I wrote this for The Kathmandu Post.

The human rights movement in Nepal is yet to become united. This lack of unity can be seen in the way the so-called mainstream human rights community and National Human Rights Commission respond to cases of violations when the victims belong to marginalised sections of society in general and the Tarai in particular.

On June 30, Saroj Narayan Mahato was killed when police opened fire at demonstrators on the East-West Highway in Sarlahi. They were protesting against the death of a 12-year-old boy who drowned after falling into a pit dug in the Banke River by illegal sand miners. Following the incident, I called the Janakpur office of the National Human Rights Commission and requested them to look into it. I received a half-hearted response instead of prompt action. They told me that they would go and investigate as soon as their car, which was being repaired, became ready. The National Human Rights Commission team reached Sarlahi the next day.

Exactly 10 days before Mahato’s death, the police had shot and killed Kumar Paudel, the Sarlahi in-charge of the Netra Bikram Chand-led communist party. Human rights activists and organisations claimed there was sufficient reason and possible motive to suspect it was an extrajudicial killing, and they demanded that an impartial and credible investigation be conducted. Last June, the parliamentary State Affairs Committee directed the Home Ministry to probe Paudel’s death. Earlier this month, a delegation from the Accountability Watch Committee led by senior human rights activist Charan Prasai handed over a memorandum to the National Human Rights Commission and called for an impartial investigation into Paudel’s case.

Although the two killings took place in the same district within 10 days of each other, only Paudel’s case received serious attention from the Accountability Watch Committee and the National Human Rights Commission. There is no doubt that Paudel’s case is politically significant since it reflects the government’s strategy to crack down against Biplab’s group, which was labelled as a criminal group last March and whose activities have been banned.

The indifference shown by Nepal’s so-called mainstream human rights community and the National Human Rights Commission is not a new experience for those working for human rights issues in the Tarai or living in the region. They have witnessed the discriminatory response of the human rights community to human rights violations as seen during the 2015-16 Madhes movement. The National Human Rights Commission and the mainstream human rights community should not forget that Mahato’s case is equally important as it shows the repetition of a long-standing pattern of excessive use of force, resulting in the death of protestors, particularly in the Tarai.

In Mahato’s case, the Tarai Human Rights Defenders Alliance, a non-governmental organisation working for human rights with a focus on the Tarai region, found that the police used excessive force in this incident in response to stone-pelting by the protesters. The demonstrators had already dispersed after the police fired tear gas and fired over their heads. Mahato was shot from behind. The police neither issued a warning that they would shoot below the knee nor gave them enough time to go away. The security personnel responded with unnecessary and disproportionate force in reaction to stone-throwing by protesters, the human rights organisation claimed. Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa said that Mahato was shot in the head because he was standing on high ground when the security personnel fired into the air. This response led to the obstruction of House proceedings by the opposition—Nepali Congress and Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal.

In Nepal, a majority of human rights organisations and activists tend to be politically affiliated. Their ideologies and beliefs determine their concerns over the violation of human rights. This is the reason why they have taken up Paudel’s case and ignored human rights violations in the recent Madhes movement. It will not be wrong to say that the human rights movement has remained under the grip of hill-caste males. The privileged have played a role in discouraging those from the marginalised sections involved in rights advocacy. Rights activists representing the privileged and the marginalised sections have hardly stood together for justice. There lies a psychological barrier between them, which has led them to distrust and not support each other.

If the human rights movement is to succeed, the privileged section needs to acknowledge their shortcomings and act to build trust among human rights activists and victims belonging to the marginalised communities. They should remain free from bias to impartially raise the issues of human rights violations, no matter which communities they represent.

Yadav is a human rights researcher. He tweets @iprav33n.