“All those pairs of Daura Suruwal and Dhaka topi were destroyed when my house was burnt down.”
Perhaps no other winner in the 2017 parliament elections garnered as much attention, and divided opinions, as Resham Chaudhary. He is a man on the run from Nepal Police for more than two years, accused—Chaudhary claims falsely—of being involved in the killing of eight police officers during a Tharu rally against the draft constitution in August 2015.
Despite the government of Nepal pursuing Chaudhary on grounds of homicide, and his portrayal in media being confined to “Tikapur massacre accused”, Chaudhary received 34, 341 votes, more than double the votes of his closest rival Madan Kumari Shah. His rival was a joint candidate of the Left Alliance that won two thirds of the seats in the national parliament in the First Past the Post elections. In contrast, Chaudhary was a candidate of the Madhes based Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal, whose leaders had opposed the promulgation of current constitution through street protests and a blockade.
Speaking over the phone with The Record, Chaudhary, who is currently hiding in India, insisted that he did not consider himself a political leader. “That’s a title the public chooses to give you. I did not enter politics thinking I’ll become a neta. But after Tikapur, after seeing just how much the State could conspire against the Tharus, I was compelled to step in”.
A Tharu who went places
Resham Chaudhary was born in Durgauli VDC, Kailai, on October 7, 1977. He credits a tenant of his family, Rana Bahadur Thapa, as the man who helped him with his early education and also taught him English. After completing his schooling in Tikapur, he went on to study journalism at Ratna Rajya Campus, Kathmandu. He says that when he was 19, because of his work in community radio, he was invited to tour six cities in the US. In 1993 he joined Radio Nepal. In the following few years, he would work at various other national radio stations. Eventually he set up his own Radio Fulbari, that had two stations in Bardia and one in Kailali. He also opened a resort by the same name.
Chaudhary is quick to boast of his various accomplishments. He mentions that his Tharu film Kamaiya was screened in 26 countries and subtitled in 7 languages. He also dabbled in singing and says that he produced 93 albums, emphasizing that he used to produce a lot of nationalistic songs.
Time and again, Chaudhary conveys this sentiment of broken trust. “When my house in Kailai was burnt down, what do you think was set alight? I had many pairs of Daura Suruwal and Dhaka topi there. All those pairs of Daura Suruwal and Dhaka topi were destroyed when my house was burnt down.”
Chaudhary spoke of how Tharus are always overlooked by the Nepali state. “Tharus have always been very simple. They always stayed in their homes and fields. They have never taken what was not theirs. While the government spends money on luxury projects, it never cared to even invest in sickle cell treatment for Tharus (Tharus are disproportionately affected by the genetic disorder).”
A rupture with roots in the constitution
To understand Chaudhary’s victory, we have to go back to the Tharu politics in the western Terai in August 2015, as the major parties were finalizing the “fast track” constitution in Kathmandu. The proposed boundaries of the federal provinces ignited protests in the plains and in what later came to be Province 6 in western hills. Initially, the parties had lumped Province 6 and 7 together, leading to large rallies in Surkhet and Jumla, among other places. The parties were quick to revise the federal boundaries to accommodate the protesters’ demands after three of them died in clashes with police.
No such flexibility was displayed in the Terai, where the government chose to suppress the demonstrators using force. Tharu demonstrators were harassed by supporters of “Akhanda” (undivided) Far West campaign who didn’t want Kailali to fall in the Tharuhat province. On August 24, Tharus gathered in Tikapur to protest the federal boundaries proposed by the government. After police fired teargas into the crowd, unknown masked men attacked the police and killed eight officers. Nearby, in the courtyard of the house of a police officer, unknown assailants shot and killed his 18 month old child.
Resham Chaudhary went into hiding and eventually fled to India, as did thousands of Tharu youth who feared retaliation from the security forces. In the subsequent retributive action from state, Nepali police, Armed Police Force and the Nepali army, indiscriminately rounded up Tharus (including minors and disabled individuals) from surrounding villages and subjected them to torture. Violent mobs also scoured Tharu areas, looting Tharu businesses and setting fire to Tharu homes, often in the presence of security personnel. The mob burned down Resham Chaudhary’s Fulbari radio station, and vandalized his resort. Journalists belonging to government media are said to have been among those leading the mob.
Eighty Tharus were detained, 58 were charged with the killings, out of whom, 22 were in jail for two years while their case was sub judice and stalled. In May of 2017, the government decided to withdraw the cases against them, but stepped back after media criticisms of the government’s “callous amnesty”, although the court has not convicted anyone in detention. On the other hand, of those involved in the human rights violations against the Tharus, none have been arrested. However, the government offered compensation to those whose property was damaged, and Resham Chaudhary received NRs 17,400,000.
Mainstream media narratives of protestors’ excesses, contrasted with their comparative silence on issues of police brutality polarized public opinion to such an extent that when youth activist Ishan (who goes by the name iih/ ई: ) posted a video compilation of interviews with victims and families on both Tharu and police sides on Facebook, a mass reporting campaign took down the video and his Facebook account (however, a mirror of the video still exists on Youtube).
An ambivalent peace
“Nepal ko rajniti achamma ko chha [Nepal’s politics is strange]” says Raghu Raj Devkota, resident of nearby Bhagaraiya. “Everyone knows what happened in Tikapur, how people were killed, how the child was killed. I don’t know how he won.” Raghu was hesitant to comment more, reiterating that it was all up to the Election Commission and the Supreme Court.
Indra Prasad Chapain, ward member of Tikapur, also expresses surprise at Chaudhary’s victory. All the more so since he thinks Resham is guilty. “If we were to say that this was a case of Chaudhary’s voting for a Chaudhary, there was another Chaudhary candidate on the list too. I don’t know how he won, I can’t explain.” He thinks Pahade residents may have voted for him in the hope that it might bring some resolution to the Tikapur issue.
Sundari Khatri, another Tikapur resident and former RPP cadre, thinks that Resham Chaudhary won because, “their [Tharu] votes were united and [Pahade] votes were divided”.
All three stated that things were peaceful in Tikapur, for the time being, but their answer came attached with a lingering pause. When asked about the government’s response to Tikapur, opinions were divided. While Indra Prasad believed those in jail were guilty, because “the innocent have already returned home”, Raghu and Sundari were more ambivalent. “There should be further investigation” says Raghu. “I don’t suppose all those who were detained are guilty.”
An unacknowledged victory
In interviews with the Nepali press, Resham Chaudhary has stated that both Tharu and Pahade residents of Kailali voted for him because his track record of community work meant he had the goodwill of the people of Kailali. “One group was seeking leadership, and another was seeking peace, and that’s why they voted for me,” says Chaudhary.
However, when Resham Chaudhary’s wife went to collect the certificate of victory from the district election commission, she was refused. The Election Commission, which had accepted Chaudhary’s candidacy through his representative, refused to hand over to Chaudhary his certificate of victory. According to Ila Sharma, an Election Commissioner, it has been sent to the parliament instead. Tharu activists were quick to point out that receiving the certificate through a representative was a normal practice that was denied to a Tharu winner (Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who was FPTP winner of Dadeldhura, received his certificate of victory through a representative). Back in 2008, Baban Singh, accused of masterminding the bomb blasts in Kathmandu earlier the same year, and who had won the constituent assembly elections from Rautahat, had received his certificate of victory. In fact, Baban Singh had also attended the CA swearing in ceremony without being apprehended by the police.
On December 15, the Supreme Court turned away a writ petition from Chaudhary regarding the issuance of his certificate (he was denied his right to power of attorney; SC asked him to be present to file the case). The government has refused to make public the report of the commission it formed to investigate the Tikapur killings, but leaked parts of the report seem to suggest that it says Resham Chaudhary was not the mastermind of the Tikapur incident, but rather a victim.
…leaked parts of the report seem to suggest that it says Resham Chaudhary was not the mastermind of the Tikapur incident, but rather a victim.
An inconsistent State
According to Madan Chaudhary, president of Tharu Journalist Association, after the Tikapur incident the entire Tharu community had been vilified, labelled as murderers. The Tharu community members he had visited in Kailali were resentful of how national media did not reach out to them for their accounts of the incident. He said that the Tharu community has taken EC’s decision to withhold Resham Chaudhary’s certificate as yet another sign of discrimination against them. The Tharu Kalyankari Sabha and its branches and affiliates have condemned the EC’s decision.
Advocate Shankar Limbu, who has been overseeing the case of the accused Tharus, argues that there is no primary evidence, no one was arrested from the spot of the incident, and the entire case rests on the testimonial of a few persons who the government claims were at the site of the killings. Four of the arrested were actually detained from a hospital; two were injured Tharus and other two were visiting them. According to Limbu, Resham Chaudhary was in Bardiya at the time, and phone records provided by the government confirm this. Limbu also pointed out other discrepancies in the case, such as one government report of the inventory of weapons used in the killings not matching up with a second one published some weeks later.
Nepal’s constitution upholds that any accused person is to be presumed innocent unless the court decides otherwise. “By denying Resham Chaudhary his certificate of victory, the EC is acting in an arbitrary manner,” says Limbu. “There exists no legal provision for the EC to not give the certificate to a winning candidate, even one facing a criminal charge.”
An unresolved question
Nepal Police maintains it will arrest Resham Chaudhary on the spot wherever they find him.
When asked about his next move, Chaudhary said that he would abide by the laws of the land. Today, Chaudhary has come to represent something unprecedented in the Tharu collective imagination: a politician who has managed to cut against state narratives and historical oppression to become a member of parliament. A large demographic of Kailali, both Tharu and non-Tharus, gave him their votes. The longer this issue remains unresolved, the higher the risk of disillusionment in Kailali towards the electoral process. “Whether I get my certificate or not is not the main question. The more important question is, how will the people respond if my certificate is not given?” said Chaudhary.