Nepali Times
Guest Column
A peace vigil


On 23 July, a vigilante group killed five alleged Maoists and two of their supporters in Makwanpur. Another five Maoists were lynched by villagers in Banke this weekend.

Although the state attempted to portray these as spontaneous popular uprisings, it is evident these are just the latest cases of orchestrated vigilantism. Their recurrence shows the state is unwilling to heed warnings that such actions put civilians at greater risk.

There has been harsh Maoist retaliation against spontaneous or sponsored resistance. The murder of 12 alleged Maoists by a mob in Kapilbastu in February was followed with even greater brutality. Many innocent people who had nothing to do with either side were caught up in the counterviolence, and there was serious danger of this igniting a greater communal or ethnic conflagration.

By encouraging the villagers to tit-for-tat violence, state security has blurred the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. The result is a spurt in the number of unarmed civilian casualties as the rebels make them legitimate targets in the pretext of their association with vigilantes. Even spontaneous uprisings against the Maoists will then be seen to be state-managed and targeted for retaliation as happened in the uprising by Dailekh's mothers against the Maoists in November last year.

The government's attempt to replicate the Dailekh uprising with the help of vigilantes not only exposed its own insecurity but also put a lot more non-combatants in harm's way. Popular uprising may deflect rebel power, but providing arms to lawless vigilantes will only lead to anarchy.

There are lessons to be learned from the international experience as well. In Angolan weapons given to civil defense groups ended up in the hands of rebels. In Guatemala a civil defense patrol was responsible for more than 12 percent of all war crimes.

Last month Amnesty International condemned the vigilante groups in Nepal for escalation in violence, and said that the government is putting more civilians at risk by supporting them. Activists and citizens are concerned that if vigilantism spreads it will push the country into full-fledged civil war and warlordism.

The policy to arm local civilians against the Maoists was first implemented last year in Ilam and Saptari. But faced with strong protests from rights groups and civil society the plan was never fully implemented. In fact, some of the light arms distributed were taken back for fear they would fall into the hands of the rebels.

This sent state-sponsored vigilantism plan into deep freeze. But the idea didn't die, and the policy is now covert support for local militia and resistance. Human rights groups have reported active involvement of local army units in formation of civil defence committees and hundreds of vigilantes are distributed identity cards that bear signatures of army officers.

Vigilante groups with their summary justice function as both judge and the jury. Local vigilantes in many places are criminals who have preyed along the badlands of the Indo-Nepal border. Murari Pahalwan Kuswaha, one of the many vigilante leaders in Nawalparasi, reportedly carries a IRs 500,000 reward in Bihar. Ordinary people are caught between two outlaw groups, with one of them getting active support from the state.

Nepalis across the country are already living in fear, the least the government can do is to ensure that it doesn't make things worse for them by supporting lawless vigilantism.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)