Nepali Times
Six hours in hell


ANATOMY OF ANARCHY: 10:30 AM The mob arrives at Siddhi Bhawan. 11AM Owner of the building, Nirmal Ratna Tuladhar, pleads with rioters not to harm his property. 11:30 AM Rioters set a safe from Qatar Airways on fire. 12AM Nirmal Tuladhar's family and friends rush to the basement with buckets of water to douse the flames at Mani Tara shopping centre. 12AM The fire rages but no police or fire service is in sight. 2PM By the time the Ninjas arrive it is too late. 2:30 PM The airport fire service arrives after the curfew is declared. A next day, on 2 September, a soldier guards the charred hulk of the the Siddhi Bhawan building during the curfew.

Security agencies had information that Maoist rebels planned to infiltrate the mob on 1 September in Kathmandu. Members of a Maoist student wing had met at a hostel in Chabahil on the night of 31 August as news broke that 12 Nepalis had been killed, and street protests had already started. Intelligence agencies had information they were planning to ride the protests to sow chaos and terror in the capital.

If they knew why didn't they do anything? Why did the police, which used to be out in such force to quell anti-'regression' riots three months ago, remain mute spectators? Why did the army stand aside and let the mosques, offices and small businesses burn?

The man who has answers to those questions is Home Minister Purna Bahadur Khadka. But he says he can't comment because a government commission is investigating the security lapse. "I can't say anything now. It would hinder the commission's work. But we will get to the bottom of this," he promised.

When, and if, the commission finds the real answers, it is doubtful security lapses will be blamed. The commission's terms of reference is to find out who was behind the vandalism, recommend punishment, assess damage and recommend compensation. In the past week, Khadka has admitted there was "lack of coordination" between the government and security agencies. Senior sources told us on condition of anonymity that the police flatly refused government orders to quell the riots.

Sources told us Khadka rushed to the prime minister's residence at Baluwatar because the security agencies were not responding to his calls. Even the prime minister found it difficult to get through on the phone and it was only after he reached the Commander-in-Chief Pyar Jung Thapa and the police brass that there was some action. By then it was too late. In most parts of the city, the police, army and fire services ventured out only after the curfew went into effect. Deputy Inspector General of Police, Ashok Shrestha, acknowledges there may have been delays. "The investigation will point out the mistakes so they are not repeated in future, but it is not about sacking anyone."

Most don't agree. They think heads should roll, and both the Home Minister and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs should have taken responsibility for mishandling the hostage crisis and the riots and resigned. "The attacks went on unhindered for five hours, the security forces were only 100m away, but no one came despite repeated SOS calls. The fire brigade arrived only after the curfew and by that time the whole building was ablaze. There was nothing left to salvage," says Tulsi Ratna Tuladhar, who had a motorcycle shop in Siddhi Bhawan next to Qatar Airways and Air Sahara.

The coordinator of the Jama Mosque, Taj Mohammad Miya, says police didn't respond when the mosques were being attacked even though the police are right across the road. "We had warned the home minister we expected trouble and even suggested a curfew," Miya told us, "but it seemed they deliberately did not want to listen to us."

Managing Director Kailash Sirohiya of Kantipur has a similiar story. Mobs arrived at his complex, they vandalised and burned cars for two hours, but despite many calls to the home minister and police no one came. Two trucks full of paramilitary armed police went by at 1PM, and they just waved. Helicopters hovered overheard, just taking videos.

The Pakistan International Airlines office is located across the street from the Royal Palace. A group of armed police manning a nearby sentry just stood and watched while the office was vandalised. If that was the fate of high profile offices near the palace, the hundreds of labour recruitment offices and Muslim businesses scattered across the Valley were sitting ducks.

Kathmandu CDO Baman Neupane admits he started getting calls early in the morning and police had been dispatched to some trouble spots. "It is true that security could not be provided where it was necessary, but without investigating the whole issue I can't say why they didn't try to stop the violence."

But another senior official told us the CDO office had been told by "higher ups" not to take any action against protestors and not to declare the city riot-affected. "So we told the police to be restrained and not to interfere unless people were being killed," he said. When we put this to CDO Neupane, he retorted defensively: "How can we stop people from protesting?" Neupane and others have no answers as to why nothing was done even when the protests took a communal turn and degenerated into arson and looting.

Police sources say it was their restraint that prevented loss of life on 1 September. Even though the riots were widespread and violent, there were only two fatalities. One protestor was shot dead by a police guard at the Egyptian Embassy, while an innocent bystander was killed at Ratna Park, both just before the curfew went into effect. Some 50 policemen were injured, and DIG Shrestha cites this as proof police were in action, saying, "If they had just stood by, how would they be injured?"

CDO Neupane adds that there were just too many riots: "It was all taking place simultaneously. The police couldn't be everywhere at the same time." But most eyewitnesses say even in the places where the police did arrive, it was too little, or too late.

In that case why didn't the administration mobilise the army? There is precedence in times of urban unrest for army deployment at the request of the CDO. Moreoever, army intelligence had information that the Maoists planned to infiltrate the riots to create anarchy. As it turned out, even the army footpatrols seen on normal days were not out on 1 September. Just the presence of soldiers or armoured carriers at strategic locations could have deterred vandals. As it did in Kantipur: it was after a military patrol from the airport arrived that rioters retreated.

We asked an army general what went wrong. "The deployment at Kantipur was an exceptional, emergency case. For the army to be deployed formally during incidents like these we need authorisation from the CDO." With such buck-passing, it is doubtful if any meaningful lessons learnt will come out of the Black Wednesday investigation.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)