The social fabric of the Jelbang killings, Nepal

Abstract

Sixty-eight people from the village of Jelbang in western Nepal are documented to have died in the course of the decade-long ‘People’s War’, making it perhaps the village that suffered the highest number of casualties in the entire country. This paper, which is based on empirical research and the analysis of secondary data, examines the circumstances behind the unusually high number of deaths in Jelbang. The analysis shows that the killings were due to a complex interplay of events, personalities and timing as well as particular interrelationships between the central administration and its local representatives and the state security forces. In an atmosphere of impunity, and with the support and facilitation of the administration, the police brutalised the local population.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Maoists are generally known by their noms de guerre. Whenever these are used in this paper, they are placed in quotation marks.

  2. 2.

    The police stationed at Jelbang over the years could have provided the other side of the story, but the national police force continuously moves personnel around and tracking them down and convincing them to talk about their experiences would have involved considerably more time. In any event, although the police always reported killings they often billed them as suicides, accidental deaths and the like.

  3. 3.

    The reason this man had to leave the village had nothing to do with his politics or lack of it. Rather, it was because he was a close relative of a local leader who had been targeted by the Maoists and also because the police post at Rulbang was housed in a building he owned.

  4. 4.

    Interview with Santosh Budha Magar, 17 Feb 2008.

  5. 5.

    ‘Raktim’. The Maoists use the Nepali phrase ‘samaj pariwartan’, which can be translated as ‘transformation of society’ or ‘social change’, to describe what they wanted to bring about in the village. Presumably, any action aimed at undoing the status quo, socially, culturally, economically or politically, can be construed as ‘pariwartan’.

  6. 6.

    The reference to Bahun, as the hill Brahmins are known in Nepal, with their past taboo on alcohol is made in contradistinction to the Magar, one of the matwali, or alcohol-drinking, groups to which Khojbir belonged. Personal communication by Chandra Bahadur Budha Magar to Ogura.

  7. 7.

    Budha Magar is now the secretary of the Magarat State Committee, the would-be ‘government’ of the Magarat autonomous region as envisaged by the Maoists.

  8. 8.

    Many Jelbang men joined the British army during the Second World War, especially from the ward of Majibang, where almost all the men left to fight. A local Maoist said that because many men who went abroad to fight for the British army had told about their hardships in the battlefields after they came back very few from Jelbang joined the army or the police in Nepal. However, there were several, including Chandra Bahadur’s brothers, who joined the British army. Joining the British Army used to be and still is the quickest way for men in Jelbang to become rich.

  9. 9.

    For reasons of sensitivity this person’s name has been changed. A pseudonym has also been used for an additional individual. Both these individuals stand accused by the Maoists of collaborating with the district administration, thus implicating them in the deaths of some of the Maoist sympathisers. While it would be clear to Jelbang residents who these particular individuals are from the context of the narrative, their identities have been protected since they have both begun a new life in places where their past would be not so well known.

  10. 10.

    For the Rastriya Panchayat elections, the whole district was considered an electoral district. Of the 75 districts in the country, nearly half sent two representatives to the Rastriya Panchayat while the rest sent only one. Thus, the electorate of a district with two representatives voted for two candidates, while those with only one representative voted for just one.

  11. 11.

    Name changed.

  12. 12.

    Personal communication by ‘Sarad’ to Ogura.

  13. 13.

    Bharadwaj et al.

  14. 14.

    Personal communication by Dil Bahadur Budha Magar to Ogura.

  15. 15.

    Personal communication by ‘Raktim’ to Ogura.

  16. 16.

    This armed police force is the armed wing of the civilian police and to be distinguished from the Armed Police Force, raised specifically to take on the Maoists in 2001.

  17. 17.

    Ghanshyam Acharya, INSEC, personal communication to Ogura.

  18. 18.

    By ‘volunteers’, the Maoists mean anyone who is not a fighter with the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ but who provides auxiliary support such as carrying ammunition and evacuating the wounded without taking part in the actual fighting. ‘Volunteers’ could either be part of the larger Maoist organisational structure, comprising of the party, united fronts, etc., but they could also be ordinary folks forced to join the group on a particular campaign.

  19. 19.

    The practice of claiming anyone killed by the state as one of their own was a common practice with the Maoists. One suspects that this was intended to gain sympathy for their cause since it could be claimed that the deceased were targetted precisely because of ideological reasons even though quite a few who died at the hands of the security forces just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It also helped inflate the number of Maoist ‘martyrs’.

  20. 20.

    The burning down of houses was a common method of punishing villages for ‘supporting’ the Maoists. Government troops burnt down many houses in Thabang in March 2002. The most infamous incident took place in Khara VDC, Rukum district in February 2000, and an inquiry into the event had been a long-standing demand of the Maoists in the initial rounds of peace talks.

  21. 21.

    Cited in Kirpal Dhillon, Police and Politics in India—Colonial Concepts, Democratic Compulsions: Indian Police 1947–2002, Manohar, Delhi, 2005.

  22. 22.

    The Dhami Commission set up by the CPN(UML) to provide a better understanding of the Maoist movement specifically pointed out that a large number of innocents had been victims of police brutality.

  23. 23.

    Deputy Inspector General of Police Sahabir Thapa (and later chief of the Armed Police Force) quoted in The Kathmandu Post, 8 July 1998.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Anne de Sales, Alpa Shah and Sara Shneiderman for comments on draft versions of this paper. We are grateful to Kamal Adhikari for assistance with the Kathmandu-based fieldwork.

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Correspondence to Judith Pettigrew.

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Thapa, D., Ogura, K. & Pettigrew, J. The social fabric of the Jelbang killings, Nepal. Dialect Anthropol 33, 461 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-009-9140-7

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Keywords

  • Nepal
  • Maoist insurgency
  • Human rights
  • History of conflict