As if his life did not matter

Jaya Singh Dhami fell into the surging Mahakali River when the Indian security force allegedly cut off the rope crossing from the other side. Twenty days later, the Nepal government has not spoken a word about it. India is not even apologetic.

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 5 min.

On the morning of July 30, Jaya Singh Dhami, a man in his mid-thirties from Byas Rural Municipality in Darchula, set off for Khalanga, the district headquarters. On the way was Mahakali River. There was no bridge to cross through, so he used what was available—the rope crossing, the tuin. As he was about to reach the other end, the rope was cut off. He fell headlong into the surging Mahakali River and disappeared.

The person responsible for the death of Dhami is allegedly one of the personnel of Seema Surakshya Bal (SSB), the border guarding force of the Indian government.

A lot has happened since. A five-member investigation committee was formed to bring out the truth. MPs have raised the matter in both the House of Representatives and the National Assembly of the federal parliament.

Initially, the Ministry of Home Affairs was far from reassuring people that the truth would be brought out and justice would be delivered. On July 31, it issued a statement, tinged with warning, asking the media and all not to spread ‘misleading’ information about the incident.

There have been no visible concrete actions from Nepali side to hold the guilty to account. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has not spoken a word about the incident. Perhaps the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is waiting for the final report of the investigation committee or perhaps it is working in its own way. But so far, there have been no official communications from the Nepali side objecting to authorities in India.

Jaya Singh Dhami is a common man. Commoners rarely become the subjects of concerns for those in power. There is an increasing worry that Jaya Singh is going to end up being one more citizen losing life to the highhandedness of the SSB.

Precedent of 1960

It has been talked about a lot in Nepali press, this time around too. But this historical incident, in which a Nepali citizen had been ‘mistakenly’ killed by the Chinese troops and the government of Nepal had raised the matter so assertively that the government of China did not only apologize for the mistake but also agreed to compensate the damage in terms set by Nepal, deserves to be recalled.

This story needs to be retold because the person to take the death of the Nepali citizen so seriously was the founding father of Nepali Congress—BP Koirala—the party which rules the country at the moment, and which stands visibly indifferent to the death of Jaya Singh Dhami.

The context was different—CIA operations in Mustang, Nepal’s what looked like a ‘pro-India’ tilt with Indian troops being stationed in Nepal’s northern frontier and so on. The country involved is also different. But in one fundamental respect this is the example that should be cited: The death of a Nepali security official at the hands of the Chinese troops.

What led to this incident, how much Nepal was responsible for this tragedy is another matter altogether (Sam Cowan has done an excellent write-up on this incident in the Record. I derive some information for this piece from his article). But the way Nepal took China to task for the death of its citizen could be an example for any country in South Asia regarding how to deal with a foreign country when your citizen is killed due to the carelessness, highhandedness, ignorance or all three combined of the security officials of that foreign country.

On the morning of June 28, 1960, a group of 17 Nepalis, including Nepal army soldiers, a customs officer, and some local residents, were marching toward the northern frontier. Then they saw around 2,000 Chinese soldiers. Nepalis are said to be 300 yards away within Nepal from the border when the Chinese opened fire. Subedar Bam Prasad was killed and another man wounded. The PLA took them all, including the diseased, to Tibet and kept them under control.

This was the time when it would take days for news to travel. Yet the promptness with which Nepal reacted was incredible.

Next day, on June 29, BP Koirala, who was the Prime Minister at the time, sent a message to his Chinese counterpart, Chou En-lai, demanding an apology and the immediate release of all those captured. Chou En-lai immediately responded by saying that the Chinese government is very much concerned about the incident and that it has asked the local authorities to find out the truth. “The Government of Nepal will be immediately informed as soon as a report is received,” said the Chinese premier. If the unfortunate incident of the killing of a Nepali national is true, Chou further mentioned, the Chinese government will express its deep regret. “If it has actually happened that any Nepalese nationals have been detained, they will of course be released expeditiously.”

Perhaps because BP had raised the issue so assertively, Chou did not stop with one letter. On July 2, Chou En-lai wrote to BP again explaining about the incident. He explained that the PLA unit “suppressing Tibetan rebel bandits within our territory near the Sino-Nepal boundary discovered, at about one kilometer north of the Kore Pass, a group of men with horses advancing towards it.” Mistaking them for Tibetan rebel bandits, Chou explained, the Chinese troops fired, killing one man, and captured ten (one of whom was wounded). It was then found that they were not Tibetan rebels but Nepalis.

Death of Jaya Singh Dhami must matter for Prime Minister Deuba and all the Nepali Congress leaders. Somebody needs to tell him how BP Koirala had sought justice for Subedar Bam Prasad in 1960.

Chou En-lai called it the “unfortunate incident resulting entirely from misunderstanding.” The Chinese PM admitted that the “unexpected unfortunate incident was due to carelessness on the part of certain low ranking personnel of Chinese troops.” He expressed his “deep regret”, apologized with His Majesty’s Government of Nepal and condoled on the unfortunate death, according to the details furnished by Sam Cowan in his article. On July 12, Chou En-lai wrote to BP, again, agreeing to remit Rs, 50,000 for compensation.

“That’s because BP stood so assertive and uncompromising in that case. He would not allow a Nepali man to be killed by the foreign guards and let the perpetrators get away,” said Prem Singh Basnyat, the retired Brigadier General of Nepal Army, who has written a number of books on Nepal’s military history. “Because BP stood tough, Chou En-lai was so soft, so apologetic. The Chinese also immediately realized that the mistakes had been done by their side. They were ready to do whatever Nepal demanded in compensation.  The Chinese were being pragmatic,” he added.

What now?

Everyone is waiting to see what Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba will do about the death of Jaya Singh Dhami. Will he ever speak to his Indian counterpart about the matter?

Prem Singh Basnyat is not hopeful. “Deuba is no BP and today’s Nepali Congress cannot be compared to Nepali Congress of 1960,” he said. “Besides, Nepali Congress has no record of talking tough with India even when it comes to Nepal’s core interests. In the end, they might declare Dhami a martyr and provide some cash to the family in compensation. I don’t expect anything more than that.”

Indeed, Nepali Congress has come a long way since 1960. Sheer opportunism, factional politics and unaccountable leadership have become new ideals of the Democratic Party. With self-imposed ‘pro-India party’ baggage, it no longer appears to be a force to rely on even to raise legitimate concerns with the southern neighbor.

While Jaya Singh Dhami should have been the subject of discussion in Nepali Congress, an unsubstantiated story of border encroachment by China was made an agenda in a recent high-level Congress meeting. Bimalendra Nidhi has been leading the campaign to drag Congress into controversy in relation with China. Congress leadership watches on.

Every country should speak out when its citizen is killed at the foreign land or by the foreign citizens or officials. Nepal may look up to India in case of Jaya Singh Dhami as well.

On November 2, 2015, an Indian citizen was killed in a clash between the protestors and the police. Nepali police opened fire to disperse the protestors, who were reportedly pelting stones at the Nepali side, the Indian citizen being one of them. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately rang up his Nepali counterpart K P Oli and demanded an explanation.

Death of Jaya Singh Dhami must matter for Prime Minister Deuba and all the Nepali Congress leaders. Somebody needs to tell Deuba how BP Koirala had sought justice for Subedar Bam Prasad in 1960.