Tikapur’s protracted trauma
On 25 August 2015, Ram Prasad Chaudhary was in a meeting with the principal of the school in Joshipur of which he was president when plainclothes policemen rushed in. He was handcuffed and blindfolded without being told of the charges against him.
The beatings began in the police van. “From Tikapur to Dhangadi, they tortured me. I had no hope of coming out of there alive,” recalls Ram Prasad, who floated in and out of consciousness until they reached Dhangadi. More torture and humiliation would follow in prison.
The previous day, Tharu activists demanding greater autonomy for their indigenous group in the new Constitution had confronted Akhanda Sudur Paschim supporters, and the police intervened as the clashes became violent.
As things escalated, eight policemen were butchered in Tikapur, and a two year-old toddler was shot dead. In the following weeks, as the masterminds of the violence and those known to have whipped up the agitation slipped away, police took revenge on innocent Tharus.
Ram Prasad finally found out in jail that he had been arrested for the killings of the policemen in Tikapur on 24 August. He had been a constituency-level leader of the then Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (Democratic), and had participated in the protest but was not involved in the killings.
Sick in hospital, the court ordered that Ram Prasad receive treatment for his injuries. Doctors found that he had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, arms, and chest from incessant beatings. Six years later, Ram Prasad is still on medication for his injuries.
This week ahead of the anniversary of the tragedy, Tharuhat Central Coordination Committee has started a sit-in in Kathmandu demanding the cases filed after the massacre to be withdrawn and the report of the government’s investigation into the incident to be made public.
The Tikapur protest was not a sudden implosion, but the apotheosis of the Tharu movement, similar to movements by other ethnic communities across the country. The Tharuhat Struggle Committee (TSC) had rejected the seven-province federalism model that placed Kailali and Kanchanpur in Far-western Province, and had been agitating for a separate Tharuhat Province.
Madhav Chaudhary, Kailali coordinator of the TSC, says that the situation deteriorated after proponents of the Akhanda Sudur Paschim movement staged a motorcycle rally from Dhangadi to Tikapur on 20 August to celebrate the passing of the new Constitution.
Disgruntled Tharuhat cadre tried to stop the rally in retaliation for the disruption of a TSC meeting in Dhangadi. Akhanda Sudur Paschim activists then vandalised the Tharu Welfare Assembly office and other Tharu-owned buildings in Tikapur.
Displacement and defiance, Tom Robertson
The local administration imposed a lockdown in Tikapur, but TSC members gathered thousands of Tharus in Tikapur to replace ‘Nepal Government’ in signboards with ‘Autonomous Tharuhat Province’.
The police was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of protesters. By the end of the day, SSP Laxman Neupane, Inspectors Balram Bista and Keshav Bohara, Constable Shyam Bahadur Khadka, Police Constable Lokendra Bahadur Chand, Senior Constable Lalit Saud, Assistant Constable Ram Bihari Chaudhary, Constable Janak Negi, and the two-year-old son of one of the policemen, Tek Bahadur Saud, had been killed by protesters.
Police filed cases against 58 suspects in the Kailali District Court, out of which two were Muslims, and the rest Tharu. Of them, only 27 suspects were arrested, and 31 are still on the run. Of the 27 arrested, 17 have since been released. All of them spoke to us of being tortured while in police custody.
Five days after the Tikapur incident, police held discussions with locals under the premise of restoring communal harmony, but by then most TSC leaders had fled. That night, police went house-to-house arresting any TSC member they could find.
Santa Kumar Chaudhary, who ran a liquor shop in Bhajani, was one of them. His wife Yamuna Devi Rasaili remembers the police buying alcohol, getting drunk and beating both husband and wife.
The inebriated policemen led by Inspector Bharat Shah then kicked down the door to the home of Brijmohan Chaudhary, who lived nearby. He told us: “Around 12 drunk policemen broke in at 1AM and began beating me and took me to jail.”
Kisan Lal Chaudhary remembers the torture in custody. “They used sticks and even their gun butts to beat us senseless,” says Kisan Lal, who still needs treatment. Vegetable vendor Rajesh Chaudhary was also arrested that night, and severely tortured. Santaram Chaudhary, a teacher from Bhajani, had to be taken to hospital after the torture shattered his right eardrum.
Even before the 24 August 2015 killings, Rajkumar Kathariya and Sundarlal Kathariya of Janaki village were shot in police firing and had been hospitalised.
But the police picked them anyway, accusing them of being involved in the killing of policemen. Rajkumar’s brother-in-law Ram Kumar Kathariya went to the hospital with clothes and money, and stayed there overnight. On 25 August, Rajkumar, Sundarlal and Ram Kumar were arrested at the hospital.
“They asked us if we had gone to the protests and killed those policemen,” Rajkumar recalls. “I told them that was impossible because I had been shot by the police before the killings, and was in hospital. But they beat me up anyway.”
Seven months into custody, Rajkumar’s wife Sita gave birth to their son. Sita would visit Rajkumar in prison with their infant son. Even as he was filled with joy, the first sight of his child, whom he couldn’t hold or even touch, broke his heart. “I wish I had been with Sita when she was pregnant,” says Rajkumar, holding his son at his doorstep last week, six years after that horror-filled day. “I suffered thinking about her going through it alone.”
The Kailali District Court ruled that Rajkumar would serve a life sentence for the Tikapur killings. However, in December 2020, the Dipayal High Court reduced Rajkumar’s sentence to five years. By that time, however, he had already spent six months more than his term. Rajkumar’s brother-in-law Ram Kumar was initially sentenced to three years in prison, even though he had already spent three-and-a-half years in jail by that time.
Sundarlal Kathariya suffered multiple tragedies during his five year incarceration. He lost his daughter to jaundice, and his son has been paralysed after an accident. “Had I not been in prison, I would have been able to get my children the treatment they needed,” says Sundarlal. “My family was destroyed.”
Others, like Lahuram Chaudhary, spent six months more than his three-year sentence, while Rajesh Chaudhary and Brijmohan Chaudhary spent four more months than their five-year terms.
Nepal’s National Criminal Code stipulates that no one shall be subjected to torture, and those perpetrating it face stiff fines and jail terms. The code further states, ‘Any person who commits such an offence shall not be allowed to claim that they have committed the offence under orders from a superior officer, nor shall they be exempt from punishment.’
But although the torture of the Tharus of Tikapur while in custody was recorded in court, there was no subsequent investigation by law enforcement. And no compensation.
Ram Naresh Chaudhary lived and worked as a mathematics teacher near his rented flat in Bardia, some 23 km from Tikapur. He was teaching his Grade 10 class on 25 August when two plainclothes policemen showed up and asked him to confirm his identity. He was then put on the back of a motorcycle and taken to Dhangadi. Ram Naresh was accused of involvement in the killings even though he had not been anywhere near Tikapur the previous day. He asked police to check his phone’s geolocation, but they put him behind bars anyway.
Birbal Chaudhary, the principal of the school Ram Naresh taught at, went to the police station in Dhangadi with his colleague’s attendance record to prove his innocence. Birbal offered to pay bail, but was denied. “If you talk too much you will suffer the same fate,” the police told him.
The district court in 2018 ruled that Ram Naresh was not involved in the killings, and in 2020, the high court upheld the district court's verdict. By that time, he had spent three and a half years in prison. “I spent three-and-a-half years in prison despite my innocence,” says Ram Naresh. “I lost my job, my family is in disarray. Where is justice?”
Tikapur farmer Bishram Kushmi ran an agro-vet and nursery shop in Tikapur and had taken out a loan to rent a plot. His store had been vandalised and looted the day after the deadly protests, but police still came after him seven months later to arrest him. “Months after my store was vandalised, I was jailed,” Kushmi says, “my business was finished, and my debt kept stacking up. I lost everything.”
Kushmi had not been named in any of the complaints following the Tikapur incident, and his phone’s location proved he had been nowhere near the protest site. But the government prosecutors still sought life imprisonment. On 6 March, after spending 3 years in prison, Kusmi was acquitted, but by that time the bank had started the process of auctioning his property.
Although Nepal’s Supreme Court ordered that those who were falsely imprisoned be compensated, they have not received any amount from the state. Police haven’t had to answer for their arbitrary arrests and torture. The courts have not been held to account for wrong prosecutions.
Santa Kumar Chaudhary is serving a life sentence for the Tikapur killings in Jhumka Prison, 500km away in Sunsari. But it appears he was mistaken for someone else with the same name.
Wrongful imprisonment was not the only consequence that Tharus of Kailali faced after the Tikapur killings of police. There were revenge attacks on Tharu-owned houses and businesses in Tikapur, many were vandalised, looted, and set on fire. Nirmala Chaudhary, owner of Niru Traders, had brought her pregnant sister to Tikapur to care for her. Her shop was set on fire by Akhanda Sudur Paschim protestors. She and her sister escaped the fire from the third floor window.
“My sister gave birth to her daughter that very night. Every year on that day, I struggle with joy and sorrow,” says Nirmala. “Should I celebrate my niece’s birthday, or mourn the loss of my house and shop?”
Shiva Narayan Chaudhary sold electrical goods at Niru Traders with his wife Nirmala. It was looted and burned to the ground despite the curfew imposed after the Tikapur violence.
“Everything that was stocked up for the Dasain festival was looted and they had police protection,” says Shiva Narayan, who did receive some compensation. Indeed, while shops owned by Tharus were looted and torched, those owned by hill settlers were not. Businesses run by Tharu families in buildings owned by non-Tharu were vandalised, but not set on fire.“We filed a petition demanding action and sent it to the police,” Shiva Narayan says,
“However, there has been no investigation into the vandalism and arson of our homes and shops.” Laxman Tharu, the national coordinator of the Tharuhat/Tharuwan Struggle Committee, says that the Tikapur violence set back the movement for Tharu autonomy.
“Since the Tharuhat movement was gaining traction, the Tikapur incident was planned to disenfranchise us, as a result of which the movement has suffered great loss,” he says.
There was dissatisfaction among many ethnic groups across the country seeking autonomy in the new Constitution. Although the demands of other ethnic groups were partially met, TSC coordinator for Kailali-3 Ram Prasad Chaudhary says: “The Tharu have been the only people who haven’t had any of their concerns addressed. The state has continued its historical oppression.”
Atrocities against Tharu expressed in art, Sakina Abidi
Righting historical wrongs
In his book Madhes: Problems and Possibilities, researcher Arjun Guneratne writes about the Tharu and the Nepali state, tracing the historical discrimination and land-grabbing by settlers of the forests and farms of the Tarai where the Tharu lived.
It all started with the practice of gifting birta land to soldiers and military officials to feed the Gorkha conquests of the 18-19th century. This process accelerated after malaria was eradicated in the 1960s, and the forests cleared to allow a state-sponsored trans-migration of hill people to the Tarai.
The impact of such migration, Guneratne writes, was widespread in the Far West and Inner Tarai valleys like Chitwan and Dang. After losing their land, many Tharus of western Nepal joined the ranks of kamaiya indentured labourers.
The anti-kamaiya movement in the 1990s for the first time made the Tharus politically aware. This is why the Maoists were able to recruit Tharus into their militia during the insurgency by promising them liberation with an autonomous Tharu state.
According to a report on Nepal’s conflict by the Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), it was the Tharu who suffered the most casualties and enforced disappearances in proportion to their population base.
Fifteen years after the conflict, the Maoists are in power and have forgotten about their promises to the Tharu, and have still not been allowed into decision-making positions either in provincial or the federal government.
Translated by Shristi Karki from the original in Himal monthly.