Last month, police arrested the popular TV journalist Rabi Lamichhane on charges of compelling a former employee, Salikram Pudasaini, to take his own life. Pudasaini, a journalist who had worked on Lamichhane’s show until earlier this year, left behind a video recording that appears to be a suicide note, in which he alleged that mistreatment by Lamichhane left him with no other options. The police charge that Lamichhane had planned to falsely sully Pudasaini’s reputation by helping a woman file a fake rape case against him and then using his TV show to highlight it. However, a Kantipur investigation suggested that the police lack concrete evidence beyond the suicide note and testimony from Pudasaini’s friends and family; no rape complaint was filed with the police, and no episode about the alleged rape was ever aired on Lamichhane’s show. Meanwhile, Lamichhane faces up to five years imprisonment for “suicide abetment” under Section 185 of the Criminal Code, a law that came into effect in 2018 to protect marginalized individuals from blackmail and abuse. After eleven days in police custody, Lamichhane was released on bail on August 26. His show has been back on the air since August 31, although he is barred from speaking publicly about his case while he awaits trial.
Lamichhane’s arrest created a public uproar, with thousands of supporters holding major protests in Kathmandu, Narayanghat, and other cities. Nepali Twitter and Facebook were abuzz with supportive posts, while a folk song calling for Lamichhane’s release trended on YouTube and Nepali-language newspapers featured opinion articles addressing the episode. Curiously, the national English-language press — with a few exceptions — largely ignored the case.
To understand the backlash against Lamichhane’s arrest, it is necessary to understand why he is so popular. Lamichhane’s TV show, Sidha Kura Janata Sanga, or Straight Talk with the People, capitalizes on public yearning for integrity, as well as indignation towards corruption and abuse in government and society at large. The show mixes editorial monologues with reporting and follow-up advocacy for victims of fraud and crime, in many cases, filling in where the justice system and civil society fail. It is also unapologetically nationalist, at times simplistic in its coverage of complex issues, and has created a cult of personality around its host. Fans — many of whom are youth and working-class people — think of Lamichhane as an integrity icon along the lines of Kulman Ghising, the popular director of the Nepal Electricity Authority who cracked down on corruption and thus reduced loadshedding, and the anti-graft campaigner Dr. Govinda KC.
Lamichhane’s ex-wife Isha Lamichhane probably spoke for many fans when she recently wrote that she found it unfathomable that Rabi would use his show to settle personal vendettas or blackmail people. Indeed, Lamichhane’s indictment seems to have solidified popular support behind him, with some fans even calling for him to run for political office.
Lamichhane, who is now 45, spent 14 years in the United States as a young man. There, he became a naturalized citizen and, along with his ex-wife, helped raise two daughters, who are still in their teens. It has been reported elsewhere that he managed a Subway sandwich chain restaurant in Baltimore. Lamichhane claims he held a management job that paid over $100,000 per year.
Lamichhane returned to Nepal and gained public attention in 2013, after he broadcast a world record-setting 62-hour live program on the topic “Buddha was born in Nepal.” Clad in the national dress of daura suruwal and topi, Lamichhane interviewed various high-profile guests in order to rebut Indian claims that Buddha was born south of the border. In May 2016, Lamichhane interviewed Prime Minister KP Oli in a Nepal Television special program. Lamichhane’s current show, which has aired on the News 24 channel since late 2016, has made him a household name.
On camera, Lamichhane — hair gelled to a point, surrounded by advertisements on his studio set — is indefatigable. He records a 45-minute live episode of Sidha Kura several times per week, and has now produced over 450 of them. Most shows feature Lamichhane’s opening monologue followed by two or three reporting segments, usually about cases of fraud or abuse of authority. The reporting segments are produced by Lamichhane’s staff, although Lamichhane himself often goes into the field as well.
It would be hard to overstate the popularity of Sidha Kura. Viewers tune in online and on TV from across the country and from the Nepali diaspora around the world. On YouTube, Sidha Kura videos regularly receive hundreds of thousands of views, sometimes millions. Lamichhane’s network, News 24, has more total views than any other major Nepali network channel on YouTube, and six of the network’s ten most-watched videos are episodes of Sidha Kura.
Part of Sidha Kura’s appeal is undoubtedly Lamichhane’s “straight talk.” He begins each episode with a standing monologue, expounding on current national affairs or subjects addressed in the day’s reporting. Eschewing chaplusy (flattery) and chakari (sycophancy), he directly criticizes politicians for blocking Kathmandu traffic with their motorcades and seeking expensive health treatment abroad whilst neglecting pot-holed roads and under-staffed government-run hospitals at home.
“Why does [President Bidhya Devi Bhandari] need an 18 crore rupee car? We are allowed to ask this question, because this is a democracy!” exclaimed Lamichhane in one episode.
Recently, Lamichhane commended the Nepal Army Chief Purna Chandra Thapa for publicizing the details of his personal assets in the interests of transparency, the first time someone in his position has done so. “The blood of Bhakti Thapa flows in your veins,” proclaimed Lamichhane, referring to the army general who served under Prithvi Narayan Shah, the nation’s founding figure. “I salute you and the Nepali Army!”
While a number of major corruption scandals have rocked the country of late – including the wide-body jet scandal at Nepal Airlines, the gold-smuggling ring at Tribhuvan International Airport, and the leaked video showing the country’s top anti-corruption official taking a bribe – Sidha Kura’s reporting segments tend to focus on everyday acts of fraud and abuse suffered by its viewers. Viewers are able to call in to the show by phone or video-chat and share their stories with Lamichhane. In one episode, a retired government worker complains about not receiving his due pension; in another, three young men in Qatar share their story about being cheated by a manpower agent. Lamichhane takes notes on what the callers say, and in many cases, his team reports on the case later on. Thus, as Sidha Kura’s viewership has grown, so has its web of informants.
Lamichhane and his team usually conduct multiple follow-ups to pursue justice for their stories’ victims. In some cases, they confront authorities over the telephone or at their offices; in other cases, they conduct on-camera sting operations, enlisting help from the police where possible. This has built the reputation of the show as a protector of citizens’ rights, filling in where the police, courts, and civil society organizations fail. As one of Lamichhane’s reporters said in a segment on the show’s history, with some hyperbole: “More people are showing up at the News 24 office seeking justice than show up at police stations.”
Lamichhane’s team’s dogged pursuits have yielded some impressive results. Their reporting has led several manpower agents to return money to clients they cheated, and it has even forced a construction contractor to agree to repair a sub-standard road in Kathmandu. In a sting operation, Lamichhane barged into a hotel room to expose a rendezvous between a college professor and one of his students, whom he was sexually exploiting. (Channelling the audience’s anger, Lamichhane berated the man: “This girl, she respects you as a father, you [expletive]!”)
Lamichhane is perhaps best-known for his efforts to rescue Nepali female domestic workers in Gulf countries. Sidha Kura has received a number of call-ins from women who are exploited – often sexually – by their employers, and the show has followed up with Nepali embassies and other authorities abroad to rescue them. A housemaid who called in distress from Iraq was interviewed, months later, in the News 24 studio in Kathmandu after being reunited with her family.
Lamichhane gives the impression that he is emotionally invested in each case. When he learned about Asthami Gurung, a woman who committed suicide in Abu Dhabi after being raped by her supervisor, Lamichhane drove his team through the night to her village in Gorkha District.
“I thought, if this happened to someone in my family, what would I do?” he told the cameraman from the driver’s seat. After meeting Gurung’s parents in the village the next morning, the team booked flights to Abu Dhabi, where they produced a follow-up report. Eventually, Emirati police arrested the accused, a Bangladeshi man.
While Sidha Kura has undoubtedly helped many people, the show has also been criticized for glorifying its host, helping to create a cult of personality around him. Lamichhane is himself a character in each of the gonzo-style reports, often the protagonist. For example, when the team visits Gurung’s parents in Gorkha, Lamichhane and the Asthami’s mother share a moment of sadness; both cry. The camera zooms in for a close-up – not of the bereaved mother, but of Rabi.
Critics also argue that shows like Sidha Kura oversimplify complex issues. In one episode, the team travels to India and enlists the help of the Delhi Police to raid several hotels where Nepali women are staying en route to jobs as domestic helpers in the Middle East. Because the Nepali government has banned women from such employment, many women travel through India, where they often spend months, at great personal cost, waiting for middlemen to arrange their jobs. While this practice is illegal and risky, many women – like many Nepali men who make legal, but also difficult trips – make the journey of their own volition and are able to earn a decent living abroad. In the Delhi episode, Lamichhane’s team highlights the fact that the Nepali government has neglected to enforce its own travel ban by leaving the Delhi route open. However, the show comes off as paternalistic by dubiously portraying the “trafficking victims” as uniformly vulnerable, naive, and exploited. When they raid the hotels, one woman is clearly relieved, but it is unclear from the footage if the others are happy to be rescued.
Although Lamichhane was once a naturalized American, he gave up his US passport several years ago after a public dispute with the Department of Immigration, because Nepali law does not allow dual citizenship. Telling viewers unequivocally that “I have left America behind,” Lamichhane has frequently taken an unapologetically Nepali-nationalist bent. This comes through in segments about India-Nepal disputes regarding the birthplace of Buddha as well as alleged border intrusion by Indian police. It is also present in several episodes about Indians illegally obtaining Nepali citizenship. In one of them, a Sidha Kura reporter highlights the dangers posed to “our country, nationality, and independence” by marriages between Indian men and Nepali women, which are common among Nepal’s marginalized Madhesi community. However, the show has not addressed the problems faced by stateless children of Nepali mothers who cannot prove their father’s citizenship, since Nepali law limits women’s ability to pass on their nationality to their children.
Although Lamichhane has called for an end to caste-based discrimination and greater social acceptance of inter-caste marriage, his show sometimes appeals to traditional concepts of what it means to be Nepali, including adoption of hill culture, Nepali language, and Hinduism. In one episode, Lamichhane, who is Brahmin, interviewed Mohammed Lal Babu Raut, the nation’s only Muslim Chief Minister, and asked him why he had used an allegedly distorted version of the Nepali flag for a state function. Raut was so offended he hung up on the air. In another episode, Sidha Kura reported a story about Buddhist brick kiln workers stealing a cow from a Brahmin family, killing, and eating it. Perhaps realizing the story’s dangerous potential – given that non-Hindus are often lynched for cow slaughter in neighboring India – Lamichhane clarified that he was “not trying to support one side or the other in the debate about whether it is OK to eat beef.” However, the story undoubtedly aroused many viewers’ communal emotions.
Simplistic story lines and nationalistic posturing may not bother some viewers. For others, they may be part of the show’s attraction. In any case, Sidha Kura Janta Sanga has propelled Rabi Lamichhane to fame as a figure of integrity who makes good on his commitments to seek justice for the common man. This was evident in the protests that erupted after his arrest, as well as the giant crowds that greeted him on the banks of the Narayani River when he emerged from jail.
During a press conference that day, a supporter asked Lamichhane if he would consider running for elected office.
This was his answer: “When people say that I — or others who have contributed to the country — should be made prime minister and lead the country, that comes from a desire to see honest leadership. For the time being we are watching and seeing, but who knows what the future will bring? The door [to enter politics] is closed, but it’s not locked.”