Why Kanak Mani Dixit’s arrest should worry Nepal

Freedom of expression and press is robust in Nepal, as long as it doesn’t creep into sacred territories, like nationalism and religion.

WrittenBy:Shubhanga Pandey
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(Disclaimer: I have been associated with Himal Southasian since December 2013, where Kanak Mani Dixit is the Founding Editor)

On April 22, 2016, when the Nepali journalist, editor and activist Kanak Mani Dixit was arrested by the police on the orders of the country’s anti-corruption body, Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), Nepal was getting ready to mark anniversaries of two different and most significant events of its recent history. Ten years ago in April 2006, almost exactly to the day, the erstwhile King Gyanendra Shah relented to a popular movement for restoration of democracy and was forced to end his autocracy, a day now marked as Loktantra Diwas. And on 25 April last year, Nepal suffered the worst natural disaster in its recorded history – the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that took nearly 9,000 lives. To this pattern of coincidences one might add Dixit’s arrest itself. As he told a crowd of media people before being shuttled away by the cops from the Dhokaima Cafe in Patan, that he had been arrested from that very spot, almost exactly ten years ago, during the heyday of 2006 pro-democracy movement.

Following the arrest last week, Dixit received much support from fellow journalists and others inside and outside Nepal, with petitions seeking his release from detention. However, because the arrest was not ostensibly made for a particular piece of writing or speech, but purportedly to investigate his alleged involvement in corruption as the chairperson of Sajha Yatayat – a public-transport cooperative that operates buses in Kathmandu Valley – it is worth laying down the contours of the event.

In early December 2015, CIAA summoned 29 individuals for interrogations on potential cases of corruption and abuse of public office, and simultaneously froze their bank accounts. The list of those summoned was largely constituted of politicians and bureaucrats, but also included Kanak Mani Dixit, in his capacity as the chairperson of Sajha Yatayat, the majority of whose shares are owned by Nepal government. Immediately, however, questions were raised on the motive behind this move, as the list included names who had actively opposed the appointment of and criticized the workings of CIAA Chief Commissioner Lokman Singh Karki. Added to that was the suspicious omission of the details of the alleged wrongdoing for which these individuals were ordered to appear before the CIAA for interrogation.

Among them, Dixit has been the most prominent and vocal critic of Karki. After Karki had been recommended for the office of the Chief Commissioner of CIAA by Constitutional Council in 2013, Dixit and a small group of activist organized protests in opposition to that decision. Their rationale for this was clear enough: as the chief government bureaucrat during King Gyanendra’s regime, Lokman Singh Karki had been involved in the suppression of the April 2006 popular movement, a fact substantiated by a commission formed to investigate the excesses committed during that time. But in the absence of support from major political fronts (and sometimes tacit approval), the movement objecting Karki’s appointment failed to make much dent; by May that year, a civil servant with a questionable public record had secured the position of the country’s chief ombudsman.

It was therefore not unusual that when many suspected the Karki-led CIAA’s arrest of Dixit to be informed by personal bias, given their personal history, and Karki choosing not to recuse himself from the investigation in keeping with the standard principles of jurisprudence. The details of the investigation and the manner of its proceedings so far do little to allay this suspicion. According to the anti-graft body’s press release following Dixit’s arrest, he was taken into custody because he failed to cooperate in the investigations into his finances; the CIAA has accused him of using his position as the chairman of Sajha Yatayat to illegally amass wealth disproportionate to his income. In effect, the CIAA is saying, they had no option but to deploy a convoy of 20-odd cops to nab Dixit from a well-known hangout of his, because he was being plain stubborn and obstructing the course of investigation.

The facts of the case, however, don’t bear this characterisation. To start with, the press release carefully omits any mention of the Supreme Court’s intervention in the same affair earlier this year. On being asked to furnish details of his assets, Dixit had filed a writ petition to the apex court arguing that the anti-corruption body had violated its protocols by not making specific charges – information that he as a defendant should be privy to. The court dismissed the petition, but not before noting that Dixit was willing to assist in the investigations, and ordering the CIAA to follow legal procedures in conducting their investigations. Dixit did coordinate, submitting the 13-page document with property details that the CIAA had asked him to. The CIAA informed him once again to appear before the body, this time claiming that “property details furnished by the suspect eventually did not match with [those details] obtained by the Commission from several concerned agencies.” In response, Dixit wrote back repeating his earlier concerns, that the accusations against him were not clear and so he could not present himself for the interrogation in the absence of those information. What CIAA therefore call obstruction is in fact a written legal recourse he took in his defense.

If the content of the accusations on Dixit’s financial probity – which includes questioning the asset he had prior to his appointment as chairperson of Sajha Yatayat, as well as innuendos about his family’s finances – isn’t enough to raise alarm bells, there is the matter of the timing of this episode. Since he was arrested on Friday afternoon when the courts and the CIAA office itself was getting ready to close for the weekend, the folks at CIAA would have been aware that having Dixit in custody would do little to forward their investigation. Assuming that his arrest was essential to their investigation, doing so on Sunday (a working day in Nepal) would appear to be the easier choice. And indeed, matters did reach the court on Sunday, but not before Dixit had to spend a night in the lockup and another in the intensive care unit at a hospital, following a sudden instability in health. With the CIAA requesting a 30-day remand of Dixit on Sunday’s court hearing, it has become increasingly difficult to give the anti-corruption body the benefit of doubt. The court has given them ten days, including the days already spent in detention and at the hospital. It has also ordered the CIAA to allow him to see his lawyers, a fundamental legal right that one would assume the CIAA wouldn’t have violated.

With this background in mind, it is worth rethinking how much of an attack on the press this is. Fearing that Dixit’s detention would be seen as such an attack, the CIAA has more than once mentioned that they have arrested not the journalist but the chairperson Dixit. Given the variety of tools state actors have for intimidating journalists and activists (and citizens), it would be foolish to take this at face value. Still, freedom of expression and press is relatively robust in Nepal, as long as it doesn’t creep into sacred territories, like nationalism and religion. Only last month, a news channel called ABC TV was investigated by the Press Council of Nepal for broadcasting an interview with CK Raut, an advocate for the secession of Madhes, Nepal’s southern plains that shares borders with India. Raut himself has been arrested on several occasions for holding ‘anti-national’ events.

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In Dixit’s case, the matter is further muddied by the fact that during his years as a journalist and activist, he has managed to become quite a polarising figure in Nepali public sphere. The fact that he comes from an influential and wealthy family can also work against him in the court of popular opinion. Added to are allegations (wholly unsubstantiated) of financial impropriety like the one made against him by a Maoist parliamentarian in April 2014, where he was assumed to personally benefit from funding received by The South Asia Trust, a non-governmental umbrella organisation that runs Himal Southasian, Film Southasia, and Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange. The media too, seemed bamboozled by the bogey of ‘foreign money’, and apart from a couple of exceptions, produced little accurate reporting on the issue. So even as there is good deal of support for Dixit at present, significant chunk of voices in the Nepali public space don’t find his arrest problematic.

While clampdown on dissident voices might be one immediate takeaway from the recent turn of events, the more urgent issue in Nepal today is the systematic weakening of democratic institutions. From the brutal repression of the Madhes movement to the lethargic response for post-earthquake reconstruction, a decade after the restoration of democracy, the link between the Nepali state and the citizen appears ever more tenuous. The time is ripe for more outbursts of dissent and the precedent set by Dixit’s arrest doesn’t portend well for journalists, activists – even politicians. For someone without Dixit’s reach and social capital, which means the vast majority of those in Nepal, a similar witch hunt could prove much more difficult to resist. So it might do well for those who disagree, and dislike, Dixit to still remain vigilant about how state goes about exercising its powers.

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Nepal policemen clash with journalists during a protest in Kathmandu.

Meanwhile, Dixit remains at the intensive care unit of the country’s oldest hospital Bir Hospital, guarded by a handful of police officers – in unstable health, but fortunately, we have been assured, in good humour. On reading a Nepali-language newspaper editorial that he particularly liked, his wife Shanta said, he had begun translating the editorial into English on his hospital bed. That is until his brother Kunda, also a journalist and the editor of the weekly Nepali Times, came to see him; Kunda had already completed a translation of the same editorial. Dixit’s response: now they had taken that one job away from him too! But the jobs, one is certain, will not be taken away. And once out, it will only be days, if not hours, before he is back doing his writing and editing, organizing an impromptu talk while still planning another, dabbling in amateur architecture, joining a small but spirited protest, and of course, making friends and enemies – doing all manners of things under the sun that has for the last three decades meant being Kanak.


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