Visibility is poor in Bardiya’s Sangarshanagar. Most days, the winter fog envelops the village, which is surrounded by jungle on all sides. Many women and girls live in fear of what — or who — lurks beyond sight.
“I’m afraid to walk around at night, even with friends,” said 19-year-old Urmila Tharu. “I’ve been afraid ever since I lost my sister.”
On October 28, 2018, Urmila’s sister, 14-year-old Pramila, went missing after leaving home to tend the family’s goats. The next day, she was found dead in a rosewood grove that lies between the village and the nearby Karnali River. Her body was hanging from a noose attached to a low-hanging tree branch, and the police initially concluded that the death was a suicide. However, Pramila’s family, friends, and most fellow villagers believe she was raped and murdered.
In 2019, Abha Lal and I conducted an investigation that found that the police based their conclusion on a cursory autopsy carried out by an untrained doctor, an inconclusive DNA report from Kathmandu whose results they misinterpreted, and the mistaken belief that women or girls who are menstruating are unlikely to be raped. Photographic evidence from the scene of death showed many signs of struggle, including Pramila’s shoes strewn more than 100 metres from her body, dried grass stuck to her body and hair, thorns in her feet, and cuts and bruises across her face and body. When evidence from Pramila’s case was presented to Dr Harihar Wasti, professor of forensics at the Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu, he deemed the incident “highly suspicious”.
Tilak Bharati, the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) in charge of the case, had previously served at the Durbar Marg police beat in Kathmandu at the time of the notorious Landmark Hotel rape case, when several police officers lost their jobs after it was revealed that they had refused to register the rape victim’s complaint. Bharati, their supervisor, was transferred to Bardiya.
Sangarshanagar is a settlement of freed kamaiyas, or indentured Tharu labourers, to whom the government provided small plots of land after banning indentured servitude in 2000. Pramila’s parents, who are illiterate and poor, told The Record in 2019 that they believed their case did not receive the attention it deserved because they lacked political influence.
After our investigation was published, Pramila’s family registered a case at the National Human Rights Commission office in Nepalgunj, although the commission has yet to conduct an on-site investigation. Last year, DSP Bharati was transferred to Saptari district and replaced by a new DSP, Min Bahadur Ghale. Pramila’s mother, Bejanti, said that DSP Ghale visited her soon after taking his new position and told her he would investigate any new information that comes to light, a conversation that DSP Ghale confirmed to The Record.
Then, in September 2020, another woman was reportedly raped in the forest outside Sangarshanagar, just half a kilometre from where Pramila’s body was found. Two off-duty Armed Police Force (APF) constables allegedly raped the 21-year-old woman and also attempted to rape her 14-year-old sister. The victims survived the attack and the suspects remain in Nepal Police custody awaiting a court verdict.
Janaki — the victim of the September rape whom The Record is identifying by a pseudonym to protect her identity — believes that the police need to punish perpetrators more harshly, but that they can also take preventive measures.
“I would feel safer if there was a police chowki in the village,” said Janaki. “The Nepal Police are different from the APF — they have better relations with the people.”
Currently, the nearest police posts are several kilometers away in Rajapur Bazaar, beyond the forest that encircles Sangarshanagar.
But Raman Regmi, the ward chairperson and a prominent local businessman, dismissed the creation of a police chowki in Sangarshanagar during an interview with The Record, citing a shortage of police staff.
“The people in that community have a low quality of life, and they drink alcohol. There are very few people who are well-educated there. When people are not educated, they cannot think well,” said Regmi. “The solution is people need to become development-oriented; they need to become educated and make progress.”
Regmi cited his work in ensuring free education for all.
“We have made sure there are no fees in government schools at all up until class 10 in this ward,” he said.
Women in Sangarshanagar disagree with Regmi. Suratiya Tharu, a 53-year-old Sangarshanagar resident and president of a local women’s savings group, says that police come to the village only occasionally, in response to specific incidents. According to her, the village is dangerous because it is close to the Indian border, making it easy for criminals to prey on victims and escape easily.
“But we also face domestic violence from men within the village,” she said.
Binod Tharu, Sangarshanagar’s deputy barghar, a traditional indigenous village leader, says he has made several requests to an assistant sub-inspector in Rajapur to take regular daily patrols in the village in order to ensure women’s safety and to chase away the wild elephants that occasionally wander into the village. However, DSP Ghale told The Record that his office had not received specific requests to patrol in Sangarshanagar.
“We patrol the whole ward on a regular basis,” he said.
Sangarshanagar’s most powerful citizen is arguably Krishni Tharu. I first interviewed her in 2017, when she was running for vice-mayor of Rajapur after spending her childhood as an indentured kamlari and then rising through the local ranks of the Maoist party. Krishni lost the election but was appointed to the Provincial Assembly through the proportional representation system. Today, she serves as Deputy Speaker of the Provincial Parliament.
On a recent chilly afternoon, Krishni sat behind a large desk in her office in Butwal, wearing a purple sari and nursing her tea.
“We need stronger policies for violence against women, but more than that, we need to implement them,” she said. “People must be punished through the legal system. After that, criminals will be afraid.”
Krishni admitted that Pramila Tharu’s death was suspicious and that other rape cases warrant regular police patrols for Sangarshanagar.
“The police tell me they are doing regular patrols,” she said. “We also need more moral education — about how to behave in society. There is this false belief that women are weak and men are strong, and it leads to oppression of women, and violence.”
Back in Sangarshanagar, Suratiya Tharu, the women’s savings group president, agrees that moral education is necessary — for men.
“Various organizations come and conduct training about [violence against women], but the trainings are for women,” she said. “I tell them — train the men, they are the ones who need it!”
Abha Lal contributed reporting