By 7:30 PM on 1 September Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had called an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss diplomatic responses to the killings of 12 Nepali hostages in Iraq. His government was being blamed for not doing anything to secure their release but the cabinet completely failed to anticipate possible backlash at home.
Things were already volatile in Kathmandu that week. Four days previously the Girija Koirala-led Nepali Congress had called a valley hartal, cars were stoned and motorcycles set on fire as rented mobs went on a rampage. All it needed was a spark and the killings of the Nepalis provided it.
DSP Dinesh Amatya of Kathmandu District Police Office says unrest was expected. "We had discussed at our level about the possibility of violence erupting," he told us. But there was little preparation even though by 10PM a mob of NC activists had gathered outside the Jama Masjid and were stoning the shops and setting tyres on fire on the street.
When police finally arrived, the riot was already underway and carried on till midnight. "If the police had used a little more force in the beginning, the crowd would have dispersed," recalls Sohan Shrestha of Kantipur TV. The crowd went home threatening to return the next morning to burn the mosque down. In Kupondole a large crowd attacked Moonlight Manpower, which had recruited the workers.
Still, no one took it seriously. There was no government statement through the media asking people to stay calm. The secretary of the Nepali Jama Masjid, Mohammad Asraf, had told the police that night the mosques would be attacked. Mohammed Nizamuddin, a mosque committee member, recalls: "DIG Shrestha spoke of the possibility of protesters going out of control and advised Muslims not to come out of their homes and said the mosques would be protected."
In the early morning of 2 September, some journalists were called on their mobiles by party activists who they knew from anti-regression protests to come to the Jama Masjid. By 7AM protestors were already burning tyres in Maharajganj, Chakrapath and Chabahil junctions. One overseas employment office in Chabahil was the first to be attacked.
The Jama Masjid was attacked, looted and religious books destroyed. Several of the attackers were later identified in video footage and photojournalists' pictures as regulars during NC anti-regression riots but there were also Hindu fundamentalist groups and unknown agent provocateurs in the mob. They were emboldened when they saw the riot police and army patrols weren't doing anything to stop the arson. They climbed to the mosque's dome, ransacked the prayer rooms and set fire to the building.
Across town Muslim homes and the butchers' shops at Dharara were being attacked.
By midday, 298 of 511 registered manpower companies, offices of Gulf Air, Pakistan Airlines and Qatar Airways were plundered and torched, Kantipur and Space Time were attacked. One person was killed when police opened fire on rioters marching on the Egyptian Embassy but even though the situation had spiralled completely out of control the death toll was surprisingly low. When a curfew was finally declared at 2PM it was too late.
The official report of a commission of inquiry into the riots, headed by Supreme Court justice Top Bahadur Singh, was never made public. Singh said Wednesday the inquiry made recommendations regarding compensation to victims and on a rapid security response in future.
But the report failed to clearly answer two main questions: who was responsible and why did the security forces take so long to respond? What was the cabinet, which included Mohamad Mohsin, doing? Then Home Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka was reported saying he instructed the police to intervene several times on the morning of 2 September but they didn't heed his orders. Khadka finally talked to Deuba who called C-in-C Pyar Jung Thapa and a curfew was finally declared at 2PM. Why the delay?
Although there was popular anger against Iraqi terrorists, the attacks on the mosque, manpower agencies and against the media houses bore all the hallmarks of a coordinated, pre-planned attack. If so, who was behind it? The commission of inquiry is silent.
Among Kathmandu's Muslims, many of whose ancestors have lived here for centuries, the riots were unprecedented and left an indelible scar. Most still don't want to talk about the trauma of the mob attacks, and say they want to forget the past and move on. Said one Muslim shopkeeper in Bag Bajar: "Those who died were after all our Nepali brothers as well."