Commentary | Is retired Police Chief Sarbendra Khanal’s political aspirations a shield to divert allegations?

Retired Inspector General (IG) of Nepal Police Sarbendra Khanal is known as a person always after power. Observers say he is using political connections to divert dozens of charges against him. Here is a brief commentary.

Narayan Adhikari

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: It is a widely held belief that those who seek populist appeal seldom fade from the public eye. Sarbendra Khanal, a retired Inspector General of Nepal Police, is no exception, as evidenced by his consistent pursuit of the limelight. 

Khanal himself noted during his tenure as police chief: “We have glamor when in police uniform. We will become like a tiger without teeth after retirement. I don’t think we can stay idle. I must do something.” Throughout his 30-year-long career in the Nepal Police, Khanal frequently found himself in the public eye, particularly during his tenure as Superintendent of Police and Senior Superintendent of Police. His penchant for courting attention was evident in his eagerness to invite cameras into even the most sensitive police operations, leading him to become something of a “celebrity” among police officers.

For the same reason, Khanal always wanted to be famous, even notorious. After two months of anonymity, Khanal grew restless. Despite the Covid-19 lockdown, he followed the orders of then Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and went to Tarai. There, he apprehended a lawmaker and held him captive in a room at the Marriott Hotel in Kathmandu. 

The MP subsequently pressed charges against Khanal for kidnapping. Despite the risks, Khanal was always willing to take chances for the sake of discussion, and he was granted the ticket for the House of Representatives election from Kathmandu-6 for his infamous move of kidnapping. 

When Khanal was in the Nepal Police, it was an “open secret” that he was close to the Nepali Congress. His father-in-law, Padam Pokharel, was the secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs and was regarded as a “special” figure in the Congress. While he was the secretary, Khanal got promotions. Khanal got postings in desired locations. He was promoted from DSP to SP, along with Ramesh Kharel, Rajendra Man Shrestha, and Rajendra Shrestha, all of whom were promoted earlier than him. This promotion was due to Khanal’s affiliation with the Congress at the time.

Always close to the power, when Khanal was about to become the IG, he became close to Pushpa Kamal Dahal. It is not a secret that Prachanda lobbied with the then Prime Minister to appoint him as the top cop at that time.

His political alliance has always shifted–from democratic force to communist–for his own benefits. Until Girija Prasad Koirala was alive, Khanal was close to Nepali Congress–and it was an open secret. 

Then he changed his political inclination after Koirala’s demise. He became close to the Maoist, particularly with its supremo Puspha Kamal Dahal. The closeness proved to be fruitful for him as he became the top cop. Then, while he was all set to retire, Khanal became close to CPN-UML.

Although Khanal became the IG on Prachanda’s recommendation, their ‘partnership’ could not last long. The controversies in the SP transfer case in Chitwan, the hometown of Prachanda, cracked their relationship.

On December 20, 2019, Khanal transferred Prachanda’s former PSO Dan Bahadur Malla from Chitwan District Police Office and appointed Ganga Panta as the new chief of Chitwan Police. The transfer was made against the will of Prachanda, and the case broke their relationship.

After a cold relationship developed with Prachanda, Khanal pushed for connections with UML chair KP Sharma Oli. And again, power-hungry Khanal was successful. In no time, he built a good rapport with UML leaders Mahesh Basnet and Krishna Kumar Shrestha (Kisan). Using his connections, Khanal even tried to extend this tenure, but couldn’t. On 11 February 2020, he retired. 

Lust for political power

Khanal’s quest for power persisted, as he began serving as a cadre for the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) shortly after his retirement. However, he was embroiled in controversy over the purported kidnapping of Surendra Yadav, a Member of Parliament from Janakpur, in April 2020. Along with NCP leaders Mahesh Basnet and Kisan Shrestha, Khanal was allegedly involved in Yadav’s abduction, resulting in Yadav filing a complaint against them. The case stands unresolved.

Other controversies 

Khanal has been embroiled in dozens of controversies, leading many of his associates to believe that his decision to enter politics was motivated by a desire to evade potential legal repercussions. Despite facing numerous complaints against him, many cases remain unresolved, involving various organizations from the CIAA to Nepal Police to the Government Attorney Office. Some of the most significant cases against him include:

  • Procurement of substandard uniform: He is said to be involved in procuring substandard uniform. The procurement was rejected when Prakash Aryal was IG of Nepal Police.
  • Charge of embezzlement while purchasing DSM boots: His involvement was also suspected in the case of procuring 15,000 sets of DSM boots. The case is yet to be investigated. 
  • Controversy on the procurement of escorting motorcycles: He has been charged with corruption while procuring escorting motorcycles for Nepal Police. After a complaint was lodged in CIAA, the commission is still investigating the issue. 
  • Fake encounter: Khanal has also gained notoriety over the fake encounter case. A case has been registered against him and then Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa following the Supreme Court order to register a complaint and conduct necessary investigation into the incident involving the killing of Kumar Paudel, a leader close to Netra Bikram Chanda-led Communist Party of Nepal (CPN).

On top of all, he was the chief of Nepal Police when the Nirmala Pant’s rape and murder case occurred in 2018. The way Nepal Police handled the case was widely criticized back then. Inside the Nepal Police, he is criticized for deliberately favoring his own group to prove other factions incapable. But the result came in the form of an unpleasant outcome–the case has remained unsolved even today. 

His contemporary colleagues believe that his political affiliation may be an attempt to escape from all these charges. Khanal, however, often dismisses such allegations directed against him.

Can he give a surprise?

Khanal, implicated in the alleged abduction of former MP Surendra Yadav, was rewarded by the UML party with a ticket from Kathmandu-6 during the federal parliamentary elections in November. Despite doubts from some UML leaders, he has been chosen as a candidate from Tanahun-1 in the upcoming by-elections, where he faces an uphill battle for victory.

In the previous elections, Ram Chandra Poudel of the Nepali Congress emerged victorious with 25,361 votes supported by the Maoist and other parties. Ek Bahadur Rana Magar, from the CPN-UML, received 19,981 votes, with former Congress leader Govindraj Joshi in third place with 6,886 votes and Bikash Sigdel of the Rastriya Swatantra Party receiving 6,444 votes. 

This time, renowned economist Dr Swarnim Wagle has entered the race for Tanahun-1, and the Nepali Congress has nominated local leader Govinda Bhattarai as their candidate for the constituency. With two heavyweights already in the field, Khanal faces a tough challenge. It remains to be seen how Khanal will navigate his political future. Time will tell.