It was Thursday evening and the Gongabu Bus Park was teeming with people. Maya was waiting to meet her friend Sadikshya Karki so the two of them could go to dinner at a nearby restaurant when she heard a commotion from a few metres away. Maya walked over and saw a man in a crew cut and a red jacket pulling Karki by the hair. She was shocked but not surprised. As a transgender woman, Maya was familiar with harassment, which often turned physical. She was more furious at the fact that many were standing by and just watching.
Maya, whom The Record is identifying by a pseudonym upon her request, ran over and attempted to dislodge the man’s grip of Karki’s hair. The man released her but spat on their faces. Other transgender women, many of whom frequent the bus park, also approached and the man was surrounded.
“A group of uniformed police officers arrived and I felt a sense of relief as I thought that the man would be arrested,” Maya recalled to The Record.
Instead, according to Maya, the police personnel began to strike the gathered transgender women with their sticks, boots, and rifle butts while abusing them with foul language. The beating went on for almost 15 minutes, said Maya, after which, the women started to get pulled into a police van. While the rest of the group was taken into custody, Maya managed to escape.
It has been four days since the incident took place and Maya has not stepped out of her friend’s room in Lalitpur. Although she is aware of the harassment and abuse queer individuals, especially transgender women, receive at the hands of the police and society at large, Thursday’s incident was the first experience of brutal physical violence for the young woman, who is not even 20 years old yet.
She says she hasn’t been able to process what happened that day and that she is having trouble urinating as the police targeted her genitals during the beating.
“I feel like I want to kill myself,” Maya said. “Why is there so much hatred towards us? What have we done? We haven’t asked for anything but acceptance.”
Unbeknownst to Maya at that time, her friends who were taken into custody were suffering more beatings at the hands of the police. Images of bruised bodies and gaping wounds closed hurriedly by stitches began to make the rounds on social media. Particularly disturbing videos show transgender individuals stripped naked and being prodded and struck with sticks by the police. LGBTIQ activists and rights organisations began to issue statements condemning the violence and calling on the Nepal Police to address what happened.
On Friday, a day after the incident, the Nepal Police released a press statement squarely blaming the transgender women for their own wounds. According to the statement, the police received a public complaint about pedestrians being harassed at Gongabu Bus Park. The dispatched police team took 13 transgender women into custody for questioning and during the course of investigation, the women began to use foul language and assault the duty officers, says the statement. It was in the course of “defending themselves” that the police were forced to retaliate and the women acquired their injuries. So far, 16 transgender women are currently in police custody, divided into groups of four and held at police stations in Sorakhutte, Gaushala, Balaju, and Maharajgunj.
This version of events has been vehemently disputed by rights activists who have spoken to the women in custody and collected eyewitness accounts. According to Pinky Gurung, president of Nepal’s oldest queer rights organisation, Blue Diamond Society, and Sunita Lama, an LGBTIQ rights activist, the man in the red jacket initiated the confrontation with Karki by grabbing her breasts from behind. It was when Karki cursed at the man that he began to assault her. Both the rights activists and Maya believe that the man was an undercover police officer, many of whom are often deployed to the bus park to catch illegal acts.
In an article with the Nepali-language news portal deshsanchar.com, Babita Mainali, one of the transgender women in custody, supports this version of events, saying that a group of men began to assault them from behind, grabbing them by the hair and cursing at them.
“We thought they were thieves, robbers or criminals,” Mainali told Deshsanchar.
Mainali and Arati, another transgender woman in custody, both also believe that the men were police personnel in plainclothes. They go on to describe how the police verbally abused them and their parents, pulled their hair, and beat them with boots, sticks, and guns. They deny that they ever assaulted the police, saying that they had only demanded a warrant or even a reason for their arrest.
However, contrary to Maya’s account of waiting to go to a restaurant for dinner, Mainali says that they were gathered to watch a film. Mainali, Arati, and Maya all deny that they were involved in any illicit activities. The 16 trans women are being held for 25 days for “investigation” into their involvement in “indecent behaviour”, according to Inspector Raj Kumar Singh, the investigating officer in the case.
Inspector Singh declined to say more about the incident, citing it as an investigation in progress. When asked if he himself was present during the confrontation, Singh was deliberately oblique.
“Maybe I was there, maybe I wasn’t,” he said.
Videos and images posted to social media also contradict the police’s claims. Police can be seen beating partially-clothed and naked trans women on the streets and on the back of a pick-up truck. While the police have also stated that they took the trans women into custody at about 11.30pm, numerous victims have said that the incident took place in the evening, at around 6pm.
While Nepal holds itself up internationally as a beacon for queer rights in the region, the experiences of the LGBTIQ community, especially at the hands of the state, tell a different story. Nepal has progressive laws that recognise a third “other” gender in addition to male and female on official government documents and the Nepali constitution promises equal treatment for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. However, problems remain.
There have been numerous reports of police harassing, abusing, attacking, and raping transgender individuals, perhaps the most visible group within the broader LGBTIQ community. Sunita Lama, the rights activist, recalled being harassed and beaten by the Nepal Police and members of the Young Communist League in 2005.
“Transgender people are more vulnerable because they look different,” said Anuj Peter Rai, a gay man who works at the Blue Diamond Society. “They are not accepted by society, which hinders their chances of prospering in a professional setting. As result of a lack of oppourtunities, many are often left with no choice but to become sex workers.”
Transgender sex workers are often doubly victimised. As trans women, they are on the receiving end of abuse but as sex workers, they are unable to seek redress from the state. In fact, there have been instances of police capitalising on many trans women being sex workers by taking them in for questioning and then raping them. This has led to a mistrust and fear of the police, further marginalising an already marginalised community.
“Marginalised populations are easy targets because they do not have support systems in the form of family members, friends, and larger society,” said Rai.
In March 2019, Junu Gurung, a trans woman, was brutally beaten by one Bidesh Karki. She went to the police station to file a report but was told to first tend to her wounds at the hospital and then come back. The police did not assist her in getting to the hospital nor contact the Blue Diamond Society to help her. Gurung never came back and two days later, she died from her injuries.
Again, in January 2020, trans woman Ajita Bhujel was raped and strangled to death in Hetauda. Transgender women and other LGBTIQ community members have also suffered disproportionately during the pandemic. When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, queer individuals who lost their jobs had to go back home and live with parents, families, and neighbours who do not accept their sexual orientation or gender identity. This led to the development of numerous emotional and psychological problems, even culminating in suicide. According to Pinky Gurung, the president of the Blue Diamond Society, 16 transgender individuals committed suicide during Nepal’s four-month lockdown.
The harassment faced by queer individuals has even migrated online. In November, a TikTok video of a man harassing Nikisha Shrestha, a young trans woman, was posted online, drawing the ire of social media and queer rights activists. The perpetrator was eventually arrested.
“The primary reason for such brutality against transgender individuals and other marginalised communities is the homophobic mindset of indiviuals. I do not blame the system, because it differs from individual to individual,” said Gurung. “Laws alone cannot protect us, the practices of society need to change.”