Nirmala was a studious 14-year-old and the second of Durga Devi’s three teenage daughters. After her husband left her for another woman 12 years ago, the four lived in a simple house amidst fields on the outskirts of Mahendranagar in Kanchanpur.
The crime has become a national issue because of Police bungling the investigation, and not being able to find the guilty. It has become the focus of country-wide protests by human rights activists, was featured in the international media and has now even got a Wikipedia entry.
“My daughter is gone, but I want justice for her, and also my remaining two daughters to have a safe and good life,” says Durga Devi with a faraway look.
Nirmala Panta had joined a study group in the house of her class mate Roshani Bam after school on 26 July last year. When Nirmala did not return home, Durga Devi had become frantic, and went to Roshani’s house to look for her daughter. Her body was found the next day 500m from Roshani Bam’s house in a sugarcane field owned by police inspector Jagdish Bhatta, who has now been suspended for tampering with evidence.
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Province 7 Chief Minister Trilochan Bhatta denied that Police had destroyed evidence. He told Nepali Times: “All the evidence, including the vaginal swab of the victim, are safe with us. It will take time but we will crack this case soon in coordination with the Centre.”
Meanwhile, the Women Human Right Defenders of Kanchanpur and Kailali districts with other activists and independent women’s groups are continuing with their relay hunger strike at the Chief District Office in Kanchanpur.
Sitting under the tent last week was Nirmala’s step-mother Laxmi Panta with activists from Kathmandu, including Sabitri Subedi, who staged the ‘petticoat campaign’ in Kathmandu. There is much mutual suspicion even among the activists groups and muttering about each others’ motivations.
“Nirmala’s case is now so muddled that we do not know what will happen to the investigation,” says Nirmala Bagchan of the Women Human Right Defenders. Sabitri Ghimire of the Dalit Women’s Right Forum in Kailali accuses the Police of deliberately destroying all evidence to protect powerful interests.
The rights groups appeared to be fatigued by infighting and frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation. Conspiracy theories swirled about a cover-up by senior officials of the provincial government and Police officers allegedly involved in the crime. Why else would the Police destroy evidence, delay the investigation, frame an innocent man, detain the Bam sisters then take them to Kathmandu, and now ask the father and mother to provide DNA samples?
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Superintendent of Police Kuber Khadayat claimed there had been eight cases of rape and five of attempted rape since the Nirmala case, and all have been solved. He said Nirmala’s case happened before he assumed office, and exuded confidence that it would be solved “soon”.
The infighting among activists and the politicisation of the human rights groups helps the government, which can now blame “politics” for its failure to find the culprit. However, the real victims here are Nirmala’s mother and sisters who need the truth and justice.
Namrata Sharma is the Chair of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal.