Three weeks after a violent clash between protestors and police in Tikapur killed nine including a two-year-old child, there is a sense of palpable fear along the curfew-bound streets. People speak in hushed tones, peer from behind closed doors if strangers approach.
The streets are empty even when the curfew is briefly lifted in the mornings. Dozens of villagers have been arrested and 21 charged for participation in the deadly clashes on 24 August. Many others have fled fearing arrests. Families of the arrested say they have been threatened, abused and manhandled by Police. Some said they were forcibly made to sign documents they couldn’t read while others had their houses raided.
“We did not even participate in the protests, why are we being threatened?” questioned a young Tharu woman whose husband works in India.
Another said: “The policemen come drunk, abuse and threaten my children saying if you don’t reveal your father’s whereabouts we will shoot your mother.”
So far no human rights group or journalists have visited the Manuwa village which has seen its entire young male population disappear after 24 August. An elderly man whose 18-year-old son was arrested says dejectedly, “My son took care of me and my wife. He is a good kid, never even speaks loudly. Why would they arrest him?”
His son, the father says, was encouraged to join the protests after seeing his friends participate. “We all thought it would be a peaceful protest and was intended for welfare of the Tharus,” admits the father.
According to eye-witnesses, that afternoon thousands of Tharu activists tried to enter Tikapur town from neighbouring Pashuhat. The plan was to paint signboards over Nepal Government on various municipal office buildings with the words ‘Tharuhat Government’.
The administration, worried about the possibility of violence, had requested Tharu leaders not to enter the ‘restricted’ municipal area in a meeting a day before. The leaders replied they would enter but peacefully. The crowd grew violent after they were barred from moving into the town.
“A senior police officer tried to talk to the crowd but they started to punch him and he began bleeding,” recalls a 15-year-old boy who saw the initial standoff from his terrace.
While around 700 APF and 200 Nepal Police personnel are based in Tikapur, only 25-30 policemen, mostly armed with sticks and tear-gas launchers, were at the site of the protests at Pashuhat Bazar.
The police tried to fire tear-gas canisters and rubber bullets at the crowd but were vastly outnumbered. Some fled into nearby paddy fields where some protesters lynched them. Among the dead was SSP Laxman Neupane who was dragged out of a house he was hiding in, and beaten to death. A few meters further, APF officer Ram Bihari Tharu was burned alive. Another five policemen were killed in the nearby paddy fields.
APF officer Netra Saud, was at the APF base two kms away when he heard about the clash and rushed home. He saw many injured officers hiding in the fields and called them and gave them water after which they were taken to hospital. “Around 3PM, I was on the phone when I heard a gunshot. I was aware somebody had tried to shoot me. The bullet hit my son instead,” Saud recounts.
PICS: ANURAG ACHARYA
Worried by the deteriorating security condition, the local administration imposed a curfew at 4PM. But an angry mob led by some of the families of the police victims went around torching and vandalising Tharu homes. An FM station belonging to Tharu activist Resham Chaudhary was also attacked.
Contrary to reports, most people interviewed said Tharu protesters had not been coerced into joining the demonstration. “Nobody from my family went that day, and yet I have not paid any fine,” confirmed one woman from Manuwa Village. Villagers also say most protesters were carrying flags and placards distributed by unnamed ‘organisers’.
Eye-witnesses said most of the men who killed the police chief had covered their faces with masks and were wearing helmets. The police may have hard evidence against some they have arrested, but when the number of people arrested and charged gets larger, there are chances some of them will be innocent.
“The warning signs of a confrontation at Tikapur were visible,” says Suman Dhital who took charge of Tikapur regional administration office a month ago. He says the situation in the area is still volatile and the local administration is finding it difficult to defuse tension between the Tharus and ‘Undivided Far-west Movement’ activists.
Nepal will get its constitution written in the next few days and there will be celebrations in Kathmandu and elsewhere. But here in Tikapur and the neighbouring villages there is too much bad blood and horrific memories of 24 August.
A constitution, like it or not, Bidushi Dhungel
Ground zero in Kailali, Om Astha Rai
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