Sangharshanagar (Nepal): In most Nepali villages, footpaths and dirt roads criss-cross and wend around fields and homes, like a tangled web spun by centuries of local history. But Sangarshanagar, a village near the Indian border in Bardiya district, is an anomaly: its homes form neat lines along straight, flat, dirt roads laid out on a grid. Villagers grow rice, wheat, and mustard in evenly-sized, rectangular fields.
Sangarshanagar’s layout is distinctive because it is new. The village was born in the early 2000s when the Nepal government cleared part of a forest on the east bank of the Karnali – Nepal’s second largest river – and distributed the land to freed kamaiyas, bonded laborers from the Tharu ethnic group indigenous to the region. Kamaiyas had worked in slave-like conditions for large landholders until debt bondage was outlawed in 2000. Among the roughly 100,000 kamaiyas freed across the country at that time, over 600 families settled in Sangarshanagar – a name that translates to“Struggleville.” Remnants of the original forest still surround the village on all sides, like a green fortress wall that separates it from the outside world.
Though the Nepali media often overlooks stories from places like Sangarshanagar, the village made a brief blip on newsfeeds late last year, when a local teenager was found dead in the adjoining forest. The police insisted the girl’s death was a suicide, but her family, friends, teachers, and neighbours refused to accept this explanation, believing instead she was murdered.
In January 2019, The Record and The Wire began a joint investigation into the case, interviewing police, medical professionals, the girl’s family, friends, teachers, and local politicians and civil society leaders. The investigation revealed serious shortcomings in how the case was handled, and points to systemic issues in how the Nepal police investigate suspicious deaths – particularly when the victims are poor and marginalised.
On Sunday, October 28, 2018, 14-year-old Pramila Tharu rose before sunrise in her family’s small, mud-wattled home in Sangarshanagar. She tiptoed past her parents, Phulpatiya and Bejanti Tharu, both construction workers. Phulpatiya, her father, works seasonally in eastern Nepal, but he was home for the Dashain festival that day. Pramila was careful not to wake her sisters Sharmila, 20, and Urmila, 19, or her brother Saroj, 6.
An earnest student, Pramila was enrolled in class eight at the nearby Amar Shahid Shri Dasrath Chand government school. While school was on Dashain break, she had been waking up early to attend math tuition classes.
That fateful morning, Pramila joined her best friend, Babita, also 14, who lives across the street, to walk to their class together. After walking for about 15 minutes through the forest that encircles the village, they reached the bazaar town of Rajapur, northeast of Sangarshanagar. Its streets and gullies were just beginning to come alive with the early-morning sounds of kerosene stoves, pressure cookers, and crowing roosters.
The girls’ tuition class was held in a shack made of corrugated tin, near a football field where a haat was held the previous afternoon. Sukh Ram Tharu, the girls’ tutor, stood at the front of the classroom, lecturing and drawing on a chalkboard, while Pramila, Babita, and the other students recorded the lesson in their notebooks.
When class finished at 10 AM, Pramila returned to Sangarshanagar. She found Sharmila, who works as a seamstress, at home. Urmila had left with their father to cut rice in the fields, while Bejanti had already left for work in Rajapur. After a meal of dal-bhaat, Pramila left around 12 pm to graze the family’s goats in the nearby forest between Sangarshanagar and the Karnali River. With her were three others from the same neighbourhood: Jiban Tharu, 11, Arun Tharu, 10, and Sanjog Tharu, who is in his early 20s. The group knew each other well; Sanjog referred to Pramila as his bhatiji, or niece, due to his close relationship with her father. They would often graze their goats together under the warm Dashain sun.
After grazing the goats for some time, the group ate a snack of rotis together. Pramila sat by herself at a distance from the boys. This was not unusual; according to friends and family, she was shy and tended not to speak unless other women or girls were present. Sometime around 2 pm, the boys decided to go for a swim in the Karnali, not too far away, but out of sight from the goats. Pramila stayed back to watch over the animals.
According to Sanjog, Jiban and Arun, they swam for about half an hour. At one point, they say they heard an indistinct female voice shouting from the forest. However, they were unalarmed, thinking it was another herder calling to her animals.
When they returned to the forest, the boys found the goats grazing alone; Pramila was nowhere to be seen. Some other villagers grazed their own goats not too far away, but they said they had not seen her. The boys assumed she had gone back home for one reason or another, or perhaps to attend a street play that was going on that day, part of Dashain festivities. They went back to the village, and returned Pramila’s goats to her household.
In the early evening, Phulpatiya asked Sanjog where Pramila was. Sanjog informed him that he had not seen her since returning from swimming that afternoon. Alarmed, Phulpatiya first searched the village and the street theatre performance, but Pramila was not there. Next, Phulpatiya ventured alone into the forest. Again, he could not find his daughter anywhere.
Returning to the village, Phulpatiya informed the chowkidar – a traditional Tharu village leader – and other villagers that Pramila was missing. A large group, including Pramila’s mother, who had returned from Rajapur, ventured into the forest to search for the girl. The villagers combed the forest late into the night, but with no luck.
The next morning, dozens more villagers joined the search party. At around 10 am, a group found Pramila’s sandals strewn several feet apart on the sun-speckled forest floor, roughly a 20-minute walk south from where Pramila had last been seen. Minutes later, about 100m away from the sandals, they found Pramila. Her body was hanging from a low branch of a bhelar, rhino apple tree, her own white-and-pink dupatta fashioned as a noose around her neck. The tree stood at the edge of a small clearing, roughly 5 minutes away from a little-travelled dirt road that runs from Sangarshanagar toward the Indian border.
Photos from the day show the branch was about five feet high, but the dupatta’s knot and Pramila’s head were much lower, no more than three feet from the ground. Her legs and feet trailed behind her, soles-up, knees touching the ground; her back arched upwards, as if in the yogic “cobra” pose. Her arms pointed straight down, fingertips just scraping the earth. She wore her outfit from the previous day: blue trousers with a red coat around a red kurta. Her hair, shoulders, and back were covered in seeds and dried grass. Her family says that the waist button was missing from her trousers, which were covered in long streaks of dirt running down the back of the legs.
There were other injuries on Pramila’s body apart from the ligature marks around her neck. A large thorn had made a deep gouge in her right toe. When the police cut the body down and turned it over, they found the tops of her feet covered in blood. Ants and other insects had gathered to suck at large, gruesome wounds on her ankles and toes. There were also scratches and a bruise above her left eye.
After the police were called, a team that included deputy superintendent of police (DSP) Tilak Bharati, who heads the Rajapur station, and his second-in-command, inspector Badri Dhakal, arrived to examine the scene. They cordoned off the area with yellow tape. In a video taken by local radio journalist Min Adhikari, DSP Bharati looks into the camera and says, “We will investigate this. The nature of the incident is unclear, but we will send the body for a post-mortem. Ani dudhko dudh, paaniko paani hunchha.” (The milk will separate from the water, i.e. the truth will become clear.)
A tractor was arranged to carry Pramila’s body for an autopsy. The doctor at the nearest health post in Rajapur was on extended leave, so Pramila was instead taken to Tikapur, a town across the Karnali in Kailali district, about 15 km away. Accompanying the body were Pramila’s father, the village’s barghar (another traditional Tharu leadership position) Raju Chaudhary, his assistant Binod Tharu, and two policemen.
After an hour’s travel, the group arrived at Tikapur government hospital, a sprawling, one-storied building near the town centre. The police accompanied the doctor into an examination room, where the autopsy was conducted. Phulpatiya was asked to mark his thumbprint on a document identifying his daughter (he is illiterate, and cannot sign his own name), and before long, the group was on its way back to Sangarshanagar with the body.
The next morning, October 30, the family buried Pramila by the banks of the Karnali, near the forest where her body was found.
The police visited Sangarshanagar several times in the days after Pramila’s death. They questioned her family members and other villagers about Pramila’s behaviour and who she spent time with. They asked whether anyone would want to harm her, or whether she would want to harm herself. Pramila’s family and the others say they answered all questions truthfully and to the best of their ability.
On Thursday, November 1, two days after Pramila’s body was buried, a neighbour approached Pramila’s older sister Urmila with the news she heard on the radio: the Tikapur autopsy report had arrived. The police had determined the death a suicide. Urmila shared the news with her family members, and the report was soon the talk of the village.
For the family, the conclusion came as a shock; they did not believe Pramila had killed herself. The police did not immediately communicate with the family to explain their reasoning, and so the family struggled to understand how they had reached their conclusion.
For one, all the physical evidence seemed to indicate a struggle. The sandals strewn 100m away from the body seemed to suggest Pramila had been chased. The grass and seeds in her hair, as well as the streaks of dirt on her clothing, made it appear as if she had been dragged along the ground. The wounds on her feet and face, and the ripped button on her trousers, suggested other – perhaps sexual – violence. The family also thought the fact that Pramila’s feet were touching the ground was highly suspicious, although forensic experts would later explain that this – known as a “partial hanging” – is sometimes found in real suicide cases.
The physical evidence aside, no one who knew Pramila believed she wanted to kill herself.
Pramila’s sister Sharmila says, “She had no thoughts of doing anything like this. She would always smile. She didn’t talk about boys; she focused on her studies.”
Pramananda Neupane, who teaches science at Amar Shahid School and was Pramila’s class teacher, says that Pramila was “very normal,” though a bit shy. He saw Pramila two days before she died. “She didn’t show any unusual behaviour in the class. I gave her some extra teaching material that day, and she took it home to study.” He notes that there have been no other cases of student suicides during the three years he has taught at the school.
Babita Tharu, Pramila’s friend who accompanied her to tuition the day she died, says she noticed nothing unusual in her behaviour either. Likewise, Sukh Ram Chaudhary, 31, the tuition teacher, says Pramila’s demeanour was normal when he saw her just hours before she disappeared. In general, he said, she was a good student and seemed happy.
Pramila’s death received relatively little media coverage. The only national-level newspaper to immediately cover it – the Annapurna Post – reported it as a suicide without noting the suspicious nature of the death. The local radio station, Radio Saathi FM, carried two stories on Pramila’s death, giving roughly equal weight to the official police account and Pramila’s family’s doubts. (In private however, Radio Saathi manager Min Adhikari, who shot the video with the DSP, is clear: “I don’t believe it was suicide. Because I have the proof,” he says, pointing to photos he took of Pramila’s bruised and battered body.)
Despite the police’s conclusion that Pramila had committed suicide, word spread at local tea-shops and haat bazaars that Pramila had been murdered, possibly even raped. Several local civil society leaders, including individuals from a theatre troupe and a small women’s rights organisation, took interest in the case. On Saturday, November 3, they endorsed an open letter to the Ilaka Police Office in Rajapur stating: “There is reason to believe that the case is of rape and murder, and the police must broaden their investigation to account for this.”
The following day, on Sunday, November 4, protesters gathered in Rajapur bazaar to demand further investigation. A video from the day shows that around 500 people – mostly female, including some of Pramila’s classmates – protested, raising their fists and chanting slogans.
The next day, the Rajapur police held a meeting with Pramila’s family and finally explained to them directly the results of the autopsy report. The meeting was also attended by the mayor of Rajapur municipality and several civil society members and local politicians.
DSP Bharati and inspector Dhakal, who was overseeing Pramila’s case, told the family the autopsy had indisputably concluded that the death was a suicide. Although the doctor who conducted the examination, Nawaraj Sharma, was not present at the meeting, the police assured the family that his findings were impartial and scientific. Later, when The Record and The Wire interviewed the officers, they declined to discuss the autopsy. Inspector Dhakal said, “Don’t ask us – the doctor is the responsible person. If he says it was hanging, then it was hanging.” He added, “We are 100% sure it was suicide.”
In addition, inspector Dhakal told Pramila’s family he was “nearly certain” Pramila had not been raped. He later explained to The Record and The Wire that Pramila had been on her period when she died, and the police had recovered a cloth menstrual pad from inside her trousers. He said Pramila could not have been raped because she was on her period.
At the meeting with Pramila’s family, however, the police added that just to confirm their finding, they had sent evidence samples from the scene of death for testing in Kathmandu on Friday, November 2 (four days after Pramila’s body was found). The samples had included blood found on the ground near the body, blood from Pramila’s menstrual pad, and blood drawn from the corpse. The police promised to share the results from Kathmandu once they arrived; in the meantime, they asked for the family’s patience and support. Though Pramila’s family doubted the results of the autopsy, their spirits were buoyed by the prospect of further forensic tests. They agreed to wait for the results.
It took two months for the results to arrive from Kathmandu. On Saturday, January 5, 2019, the police called Pramila’s family for another meeting at the Rajapur station. There, Bharati and Dhakal said no semen had been found in the sample from Pramila’s menstrual pad, and that all three samples – from the ground, the menstrual pad, and the body – contained only Pramila’s blood. This, they said, reaffirmed their determination that the death was due to suicide.
Nonetheless, the police said they would continue to investigate possible reasons why Pramila committed suicide. They would question suspects if any new evidence came to light.
As Pramila’s family waited for the Kathmandu report, local activism around the case lost momentum. It did not regain momentum after the report arrived. Shiwani Chaudhary, a civil society leader who had signed the open letter to the police, says she didn’t fully understand how the Kathmandu tests were done, but the results seemed to be conclusive. “Since all the proof said it wasn’t murder but suicide, we stepped back a little,” she says.
Pramila’s family and fellow villagers, however, continued to doubt the official story. In the days after meeting the police, Bejanti kept thinking about inspector Dhakal’s so-called “scientific” evidence. She felt there were logical gaps in what the police had said. Sure, the blood collected from the ground matched the blood from the menstrual pad and the blood from the body. But how did this confirm Pramila had committed suicide? “Why would there be another person’s blood?” Bejanti recalls thinking. “The blood will belong to whoever was hurt, this is obvious.”
The Record and The Wire asked the police how they accounted for other circumstantial evidence, such as the serious wounds on Pramila’s feet and elsewhere on her body. Inspector Dhakal said that the wounds were most likely due to wild animals or insects biting the corpse during the night before it was found. DSP Bharati suggested Pramila was herself responsible for the grass and seeds in her hair, her dirty clothes, and the chappals strewn on the ground far from her body. “When people commit suicide, it’s because they have depression, and they don’t know what they’re doing,” he said.
But such behaviour didn’t match the Pramila that her family and friends knew. None had ever seen her purposely dirty herself or put grass in her hair; none considered her unstable, or suicidal.
And although Pramila’s family did not know it, the doctor who conducted Pramila’s autopsy was also less confident about the results than the police implied.
The doctor’s story
Bespectacled and affable, Nawaraj Sharma is, at 27, one of the youngest doctors on the staff at Tikapur Hospital. Although Sharma holds an MBBS degree from a Pokhara university, he is a general physician with no formal training in autopsies. (This is common; Nepali law requires that autopsies be conducted by a doctor, but does not require that the doctor be trained in how to conduct them.)
Speaking with The Record and The Wire in a small examination room between check-ups of newborn babies, Sharma at first did not remember Pramila’s case; he hadn’t heard about the protests after his report was released. But when shown photos of the body, it came back to him.
Sharma noted his conclusion about the cause of death – asphyxiation by hanging – did not ipso facto mean suicide. Ligatures can also be used as murder weapons (such cases, though uncommon, are referred to as “homicidal hangings”). “Whether it is suicide or not, we cannot tell from the post-mortem [examination]. We just hand over the report. The investigation is up to the police officer,” he said.
Although DSP Bharati and inspector Dhakal had asserted Sharma’s report led them to believe Pramila had committed suicide, Sharma said that in fact, the police helped lead him to that conclusion. According to Sharma, the police usually inform the doctor conducting an autopsy when the cause of death is suspicious. But in Pramila’s case, the police had implied to him that it was a “simple hanging” case. (Shiva Prasad Chaudhary, the Rajapur mayor, also told The Record and The Wire that, based on his initial conversations with DSP Bharati, the police were partial to the suicide hypothesis from the beginning.) The police presented Sharma with a copy of their field notes from the scene of death, but it is unclear what they contained, and Sharma says he relied primarily on verbal communication with the police. Sharma did not remember Pramila’s mutilated feet, but did remember asking about the scratches on her face. He recalled the police explaining they probably occurred after death, when the body was cut down from the tree.
Sharma said that typically, his autopsies take anywhere from 15 minutes for simple cases to 45 minutes for more complex cases. Because Pramila’s case seemed simple, hers was conducted in 15 or 20 minutes. Sharma made an incision into the neck area, but conducted no inspection of the vaginal area for sexual assault.
For a second opinion on the photographic evidence from the scene of death, The Record and The Wire contacted Dr. Harihar Wasti, a senior forensic specialist whose lab sits atop the morgue at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu.
Wasti, who has investigated thousands of suicide deaths over his career, said that a proper autopsy would have lasted over an hour and included a check for rape, because menstruation does not preclude rape, and an incision around the wound above Pramila’s eye, given that it seemed suspicious. He noted that the wounds on Pramila’s feet were due to abrasion rather than being inflicted by scavenging animals as the Rajapur police had said. Because there was no visible tissue deficit, he said the wounds had most likely occurred at the moment of death, or before death. He considered the possibility that Pramila could have inflicted the wounds on herself: “With this partial hanging situation, [if] there are some broken glass pieces or something like that and during the moment of death there is convulsion, then there might be production of injury even in self-hanging. Otherwise, such injury is less likely.” Photographs from the scene show no sharp objects in the area – just fallen leaves, twigs, ferns, forest soil.
The Record and The Wire shared with Wasti the results from the Central Police Laboratory in Kathmandu. The Rajapur police had told Pramila’s family that these tests found only Pramila’s blood at the scene of death, but in fact, the blood results were inconclusive. The lab had tried to determine the blood groups of the samples from Pramila’s body, from the menstrual pad, and from the ground, but the report stated: “Blood group of exhibit 1, 2 and 3 could not be detected.”
“These results mean nothing,” Wasti said. He said the failure to detect the blood group was unsurprising, because the specimens had probably decomposed during the four days between collection and when they were sent to Kathmandu (police use of chemical preservatives is uncommon). Moreover, blood-grouping tests can never differentiate individuals. While a DNA test might have provided more conclusive evidence, none was conducted.
Asked for his best judgment on the cause of death, Wasti threw up his hands. “It could be anything,” he said.
The Rajapur police deny any mishandling of the investigation into Pramila’s death. Inspector Dhakal says that Pramila’s family and local activists are “trying to make it seem like the case of Nirmala Pant in Kanchanpur,” referring to a separate rape-murder case that occurred in July 2018.
Pant, a schoolgirl similar in many ways to Pramila – 13 years old, studious, shy, from a poor family – went missing one evening in Kanchanpur, just 100 km west of Sangarshanagar. The next day, her half-naked body was found in a sugarcane field. The case drew national headlines because of its brutality, but also because of the subsequent police mishandling of the investigation. A probe by the Ministry of Home Affairs found the responsible officers were negligent and careless while collecting evidence, although many locals suspected the police knew who the culprit was and were trying to protect him. In an effort to save face, the district police extracted a forced confession (probably using torture) from a mentally disabled man and paraded him as the culprit until DNA evidence exonerated him. Protests erupted; police shot and killed one protester and injured others. Eventually, the inspector and the superintendent of police responsible for the case were sacked. In March 2019, the two officers and six other police were arrested and are now standing trial for mishandling the case.
Although inspector Dhakal denies any similarity between the Pant case and Pramila’s, others say that the Pant case is relevant.
Min Adhikari, the Radio Sathi FM journalist, thinks the Rajapur police are risk-averse because of what happened to the police in Kanchanpur. “Could a problem like that not be created in Bardiya? Could it be a difficult situation, a challenge for the state?” he asks. By declaring Pramila’s case as a suicide, the Rajapur police helped ensure their work wouldn’t receive large-scale public scrutiny.
Astha Dahal, a lawyer doing her PhD in criminology at the University of Cambridge in the UK, says that in general, the Nepali police are reluctant to investigate crimes unless the victim or their family is capable of creating pressure to do so. When Dahal shadowed Nepali police officers for two years as part of her research, she noticed they quickly sized up victims’ families by how they dressed, their level of education, and how well they spoke Nepali or English. “Because if you’re higher class…there is a fear that [you] can exercise stronger channels. [You] can file a court order, saying the police have to investigate the case. You can access top lawyers. You have access to the judiciary. You may even have direct access to [their] bosses,” she says.
Pramila’s parents, who are illiterate and who speak Nepali only with difficulty (their first language is Tharu), would have been instantly recognisable as lacking influence. Shiwani Chaudhary, the Rajapur activist, says, “The main reason that the police did nothing is that the girl was from a pahuch nabhayeko family, they lacked connections. There was nobody who was willing to continually work with the family for justice, nobody to take leadership.”
The Record and The Wire also researched the background of the police officers handling Pramila’s investigation. One case in particular stood out.
A year ago, DSP Tilak Bharati was stationed in Kathmandu, where he headed the Metropolitan Police Circle on Durbar Marg (a beat known to be a coveted post, and whose chiefs are often well-connected). In late January 2018, the circle received a complaint from a young woman who claimed she had been drugged and raped by four men in the nearby Landmark Hotel. However, police at the circle refused her request to register a First Information Report. Instead, they pressured the victim to sign a reconciliation agreement with her alleged rapists. After this misconduct came to light, an official probe found the police had accepted bribes from the rapists to settle the case. The senior superintendent of the police who headed the probe recommended strong departmental action against inspector Laxman Singh Thakuri, sub-inspector Chandra Bahadur Bhandari, and DSP Bharati. Though no evidence that Bharati directly took the bribes was made public, he was immediately transferred to Maharajgunj in Kathmandu. In August – two months before Pramila’s death – Bharati was transferred to the police station in Rajapur, Bardiya.
When The Record and The Wire asked DSP Bharati about his involvement in the Durbar Marg rape case, he declined to go into details, saying simply, “I know nothing about that. I was on leave at the time.”
Although records of suicide in Nepal are poor and disorganised, the World Health Organization estimates that the national suicide rate is 8.8 per 100,000 people, or about 2,500 suicide deaths each year. However, in at least some of the cases, the cause of death is disputed.
Data from Nepalmonitor.org, a website that tracks conflict and human rights abuses reported by the Nepali media and rights organisations, show that between January 2017 and February 2019, there were 30 cases where the cause of death was initially reported as suicide, but in which other parties (usually the family of the deceased) believed it it to be murder. The data probably under-represents the true number of such cases, because not all of them make it into the database. (Pramila’s case, for example, had not been included until this investigation brought it to the website administrator’s attention.) In 25 of the 30 disputed cases, the victim was female, usually young, and in 23 of the cases, the body was found hanging.
In some cases, disputes over cause of death may simply be due to victims’ families’ reluctance to accept that their daughter (or son) would want to kill themselves. However, other cases are more suspicious. For example, in June 2018, an 11-year old girl who was working as a kamlari (household servant) in Badhaiyatal, Bardiya – not far from Rajapur – was found hanging in the home of her employer. Although the case was initially suspected to be suicide, the girl’s family filed an FIR against the employer, who was eventually arrested.
According to experts, the Nepal police treat all hanging deaths as suicides unless proven otherwise. In some cases, this practice appears to encourage murderers to kill their victims using a ligature, or to hang the body after the murder is committed by other means, to avoid getting caught. In March 2018, a group of women collecting firewood in a forest in Sunsari in eastern Nepal came upon two men attempting to hang a pregnant woman from a tree branch. As reported in the Kathmandu Post, the group rescued the woman, who had been raped by the two men, but the baby died in utero.
Wasti, the senior forensic specialist, says that part of the reason the police are sometimes reluctant to investigate suspicious suicides is that there are few checks on their power over investigations. Unlike in other countries, such as the United States, where medical examiners’ offices take an active role, in Nepal, “the investigation is given to the police wholesale.” Wasti says that if doctors were properly trained in forensic science, they could pressure the police to investigate further. But only about 50 doctors across Nepal have received proper training for autopsies, and the majority of them work in Kathmandu. While most MBBS students in the capital receive a basic two-week training on autopsies, medical students outside the Valley usually receive no training at all. Doctors who have no training are “easily manipulated,” says Wasti.
Dahal, the criminology researcher, says that another reason the police don’t investigate suspicious deaths is because government prosecutors don’t play a greater role in investigations. “We don’t have a system…where the prosecutors will actively give instructions to the police about what to do,” she says. “If those offices worked together, these types of mistakes wouldn’t happen. The prosecutors would say, ‘This looks suspicious, investigate more.’” The relationship between prosecutors and the police is strained due to a lack of trust, she says.
Dahal thinks that a patriarchal culture within the police is also part of the problem. Although the Nepal police set a goal of recruiting 10% women officers by 2018, the most recent data available suggests that women make up only about 8% of the force. Dahal notes that Women and Children Service Centres, which were first created in 1996 and now exist in many locations across the country, are meant to ease female and child victims’ access to the police. However, “policing in these units is treated as ‘soft policing.’ They don’t take it seriously… A lot of these units in the districts are not even staffed by inspectors who are women, because we don’t have enough women inspectors.”
Badri Bhusal, a human rights lawyer who leads the NGO Collective Campaign for Peace, notes that in many of the most egregious crimes that have shocked Nepal of late, the victims were women and the police have appeared reluctant to investigate. Apart from the 2018 Nirmala Pant and the Durbar Marg rape cases, there was also the 2012 case, in which a Department of Immigration official and a police constable robbed a returning female migrant worker and then raped her, sparking the short-lived “Occupy Baluwatar” movement; and the 2009 case, in which a female police sub-constable was gang-raped by her colleagues.
There has been action taken when police officers appear guilty of misconduct. According to the Human Rights Unit of the Nepal Police, which was founded in 2003 and accepts complaints against officers, departmental action has been carried out against 586 police personnel on the charges of human rights violations to date. Senior superintendent of police Uttam Subedi, national spokesperson for Nepal Police, says that departmental action can entail prosecution and dismissal in some cases of misconduct, but in other cases results in rank demotion, salary freezes, suspension, and a demerit on the record of the officer in question.
However, critics point out that in practice, “departmental action” relies heavily on soft punishments. After the Landmark Hotel rape case, DSP Bharati was transferred, while the other two accused officers were temporarily suspended. One of them resigned; the other is now back at work. “It’s almost impossible to be fired,” says Dahal, the researcher. “It’s very difficult to establish accountability. And police forces around the world have a culture of secrecy, and a very strong culture of protecting [their] own.”
On a chilly winter day earlier this year, Bejanti, Pramila’s mother, sat on the floor of her home in Sangarshanagar. Her husband, Phulpatiya, had left for seasonal work in Kavre, east of Kathmandu, and was not due home until the rice-planting season. In the meantime, she was looking after the household with her two remaining daughters and son.
Pressing a tattooed hand into the opposite palm, Bejanti said she felt like the investigation had been flawed from the beginning. She said that the Rajapur police had told her Pramila’s case would remain open for six months – roughly until the end of April 2019 – at which time it would be closed unless any new evidence was found. (Inspector Badri Dhakal confirmed to The Record and The Wire that the case would soon be closed. However, according to the central police in Kathmandu, suicide cases must remain open for at least two years, and the statute of limitations for murder is 20 years; there has even been parliamentary discussion of removing the time limit altogether.)
Bejanti said the family had no idea who killed their daughter, but they know she was murdered. Sharmila, the oldest daughter, stood at her side. “We just hope that they can do a proper investigation,” she said, “so this sort of incident won’t happen again.”
Peter Gill is a Kathmandu-based journalist who tweets at @pitaarji. Abha Lal is recent anthropology graduate affiliated with Martin Chautari. She is working as Desk Editor at The Record and tweets at @AbhaLal2.
This investigation has been co-published by The Record.