Print Edition - 2014-01-18 | On Saturday
A look back at Occupy Baluwatar
Jan 17, 2014-
More than a year since the Occupy Baluwatar campaign first broke out in the country in protest of gender-based violence, one campaigner goes back in time to reminisce over how it all began and what it really changed
We did not get justice, sarkaar.....I am not learned, but I don’t feel like justice has been delivered,” Data Ram Rai had told Khil Raj Regmi, chairman of the interim government, at his office in Singha Durbar on December 26, 2013. Forty-nine-year-old Data Ram, father of Sita Rai—the migrant worker who was robbed and raped by government officials upon her arrival at the Tribhuvan International Airport from Saudi Arabia in late 2011—pleaded for justice for his daughter's suffering. “Would it have been this way had, God forbid, the same had happened to a daughter of any government official?” he'd asked.
Regmi had invited Occupy Baluwatar (OB) campaigners to his office that day, after learning that they were preparing to mark a year of the campaign by protesting outside the PM's residence in Baluwatar, reminding authorities that though time may have passed, they hadn’t given up the fight.
Data Ram had come to Kathmandu from Bhojpur after learning about the Kathmandu District Court's verdict on Sita's case. On December 21, 2013, the court had handed a one-year jail sentence to non-gazetted officer Som Nath Khanal and constable Parshuram Basnet, while giving a clean chit to section officers Ram Prasad Koirala and Tikaram Pokharel on charges of robbery.
In the 20-minute meeting at Singha Durbar, the secretary at the Prime Minister's Office, Raju Man Singh Malla, had first briefed campaigners on the government's efforts to address the issue of violence against women. But when campaigners sought to relay to Regmi the progress of the five cases that OB had raised, he'd left the chamber in a hurry.
Sudha Maharjan, whose mother has gone missing for over two years now, didn't get a single chance to speak during the meet. She'd broken down immediately after Regmi left. "If this is how the chairman treats us, how can we expect any support from the government?" she'd wailed.
The TIA incident
In November 2011, Sita Rai had been detained by the immigration department at the airport when it was found that the passport she was using actually belonged to one Bimala KC of Baglung. Officials had then offered her a deal: Pay up and avoid being thrown behind bars. After they'd taken the Rs 218,000 she had with her, a police constable had volunteered to drop her off, but when they got to the bus park, he'd told her the bus was gone, and then taken her to a guest house in the Old Bus Park. There, he'd raped her
The constable, Parsu Ram Basnet, had then seized the various gifts she'd bought for her relatives and told her not to tell anyone about what had happened, threatening to jail her if she did. Sita complied for a while, until she couldn't suppress the anguish anymore and finally confided in her sister, who told her parents. By the time she came to Kathmandu to file a case against her aggressors at the Home Ministry, it was already a month since the incident.
The Kathmandu Post's Roshan Sedhai first broke the news about Sita on December 18, 2011, followed the very next day by Naya Patrika. So far, most other media houses hadn't stepped forward. Not long after, however, newswires were abuzz with the story of the Delhi student who was raped by a group of men on a bus, and that story had spread on social media, although the TIA incident was still relatively ignored.
A few friends and I were doggedly trying to raise our voices against the apathy through Facebook and Twitter. Slowly but surely, we were making some headway, especially after Pranika Koyu wrote an article in the Post on her own experiences of being harassed by TIA officials. Stuti Basnyat, a communications professional who had been keeping close tabs on the issue, then threw out the idea of a coordinated protest, which would be pushed through email. Meanwhile, journalist Kashish Das Shrestha was preparing a letter to the prime minister.
Still, most rights activists were quiet till then. But then Dr Renu Rajbhandari, of the Women's Rehabilitation Centre Nepal, appealed to the public to join a protest to be held in front of Singha Durbar's south gate on December 26. Only 30 people showed up, but the gathering was big enough to finally attract substantial media attention.
The campaigners reached the prime minister's residence in Baluwatar to hand over a demand letter, but were chased away by security. Gyanu Adhikari, who was working for the Post at the time, stood his ground to make evocative speeches, encouraging the rest of the campaigners to stay until there was a response from the PM. Dr Renu, meanwhile, had even brought tents for the protesters to spend the night in—were it to become necessary.
Finally, in the late evening, the then-PM Baburam Bhattarai agreed to meet with the protesters. He issued a public apology through the state media and formed a high-level monitoring committee under Raju Man Singh Malla to look into cases of violence against women. And when Bhattarai asked for written demands, the protesters drafted a list then and there and submitted it. It was also decided to stage sit-in protests between 9-11 am every day in front of the PM's quarters—essentially, to 'occupy Baluwatar'.
Campaigners began organising themselves as per specific duties: Jagannath Lamichhane handled the media; Arpan Shrestha, Ahimsha Yonjan and Puja Singh on social media while Surabhi and Sakar Pudasaini would start a website for the campaign. Kashish and Stuti finalised the letter to the PM and requested newspaper editors, through email and Twitter, to publish it. Support was certainly on the rise, with more and more people joining in, but it wasn't until Kantipur ran a full-page story on Sita's case that it literally poured in.
The protest went on for 106 days, although not all campaigners stayed that long. Differences had arisen over the way the campaign was being conducted, the presence of NGOs, the role of activists and so on. But there was also a fair number of us who were committed and didn't waver even when futility seemed to be staring us in the face.
The Occupy Baluwatar campaign was a rare episode of inspiring public participation in a citizen movement against gender-based violence. After all, while political protests and strikes are commonplace in the country, social ones are isolated events. For two hours every day, protesters arrived at the PM's residence, placards in hand, chanting slogans tirelessly. Various artists would also perform one-act plays, poetry, and dance routines as part of the demonstrations.
Despite the steadfast effort put into the campaign, the impact of the movement was not as visible as it was in India, where the central and state governments have now initiated law reforms, set up a fast-track court and provision of life imprisonment in rape cases.
Not that progress hasn't been made here. An eight-member committee comprised of lawyers, attorneys, ministry secretaries and activists has studied and reviewed provisions in existing laws, and a 128-page report has detailed the lacunae in the legal system and state mechanisms with recommendations. But in the absence of a parliament, the recommendations never took the concrete form of law.
The movement had largely focused on five emblematic cases of violence against women: that of Sita Rai, Chhori Maya Maharjan, Bindu Thakur, Shiwa Hasmi and Saraswati Subedi. Maharjan has been missing for over two years now, while Thakur and Hasmi were both burnt alive for allegedly having affairs, and Subedi was reported to have committed suicide, but is widely believed to have been murdered. Although the campaign did raise awareness and expedited legal processes in Sita's case, the other cases haven't seen much movement, held up further by the political transition in the country.
Mohana Ansari, spokesperson of the National Women Commission, argues, however, that the campaign was not a waste. "People are more aware and so are the government officials. They take VAW cases more seriously now," she says.
Advocate Laxmi Rai, one of Sita's lawyers, reiterates this, although she also warns against complacency. "What matters most is justice. The court did not do justice to Sita Rai," she says. And until full justice is delivered in all cases, and laws reformed to ensure that there are mechanisms to deal with future incidents, the movement must go on.
Published: 18-01-2014 10:42