Nepal was shocked by the rape and murder of Nirmala Panta in Kanchanpur on 26 July, but with the crime unsolved and the perpetrators still at large the news has faded from the headlines.
However, Nirmala’s parents have been taking part in a sit-in outside the Kanchanpur District Headquarters here in Mahendranagar. Two weeks into the protest, Nirmala’s father Yagya Raj Panta started showing signs that the strain was taking its toll on his mental health.
On Saturday morning, Yagya Raj was showing increasingly erratic behaviour and the family decided to take him to Kathmandu for treatment, with the help of the government. His wife Durga Devi Panta and other relatives managed to take him to Dhangadi airport, but he was too aggressive and could not be pacified to board the plane.
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“His behaviour became quite aggressive, he started abusing people and vandalising the place, the airline refused to let him board,” said Sharada Chand, who was among the human rights activists with him. Chand was herself hurt when Yagya Raj started acting violent at the airport. His wife Durga Devi and some relatives then set off for Kathmandu by road with him.
On the morning of 24 November, Yagya Raj Panta was jumping at noises, shooing away visitors, and he looked very agitated. He was aggressive towards strangers, pointing at bags and asking if there were bombs in them, claiming there was a conspiracy to murder him. Activists tried to pacify him, and when Durga Devi Panta poured her husband some water from a thermos flask he thanked her like she was a stranger, shook hands with her and asked people around him to take a photo.
Exactly 117 days after his daughter was raped and murdered, it is clear that Yagya Raj Panta had lost his mind. He not only tried to take off his clothes, but also beat and scratched people who came near him and some of them needed to have their hands bandaged. The videos people have taken of him have gone viral on social media.
Nirmala Panta went missing on July 26, and her body was found thrown in a sugarcane field near her home. The inability of the Police and the Home Ministry to resolve the issue, their attempt to destroy evidence, frame an innocent person with the crime and what looked to many like a case of the Police trying to protect the criminals, has outraged her family and human rights activists. They said the mental strain was too much to bear for Yagya Raj Panta, and he snapped.
The deceased Nirmala’s family members are increasingly concerned that they are losing not just one but two persons to this tragedy. Yagya Raj’s sister Bhagirathi Bhatta says she has lost hope for her brother: “My niece is already dead and gone, but my brother is alive. I doubt if we will still have him, if this stress continues.”
She has also been spending the cold nights at the sit-in in an open tent across the road from the District Headquarter building. There are some pillows, mattresses, blankets, and an electric line from which to charge mobiles and heat up water in kettles, and not much else. Photos of the deceased Nirmala line the ceiling, walls and surroundings.
“Ever since this protest started, he has not been himself. He sees photos of his daughter everywhere, a lot of people come and say many things. So much is happening that it was just too much to bear for him,” says Bhagirathi Bhatta, adding that her brother no longer recognises her, and calls a local policewoman ‘Nirmala’.
Durga Devi Panta looks harried not just from the struggle for justice for her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder, but now by her husband’s deteriorating mental health.
“I don’t think we will ever get justice,” Durga Devi tells us, as she heats more water for protesters. “If the government wanted to give us justice, it would not have destroyed the evidence. I had lost hope right then. But now, this long protest for justice is taking our remaining health and sanity as well.”