The rise and fall of Comrade Mahara

Wearing a plain white polo shirt and a hint of a smile, former House Speaker Krishna Bahadur Mahara walked out of Norvic Hospital on Tuesday surrounded by security guards and some supporters. He was whisked away to the district government attorney's office at Babarmahal.

Mahara is accused of attempted rape of a female colleague in Parliament, Roshani Shahi, on 29 September. When the news hit headlines, and the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) reacted with uncharacteristic decisiveness, advising Mahara to resign. For watchdogs who have been criticising the government for impunity, including in war crimes and last year's highly publicised case of Nirmala Panta, this came as a complete surprise.

Was the government finally buckling under national and international pressure to clean up its track record on impunity? Was Mahara the last straw? Could the party be reacting to sagging public support?

Read Also: Mahara arrested, Nepali Times

Senior politicians have been falling like nine pins. This week it was the turn of MP Mohammad Aftab Alam from Rautahat, accused of burning a dozen people alive in a brick kiln after they were injured while making explosives to be used in the first Constituent Assembly elections in 2012. With unprecedented swiftness, police on Tuesday arrested another MP, Pramod Sah from Sarlahi, after he was accused of vandalising an airline counter and roughing up airline staff in Janakpur. There is also an arrest warrant out for Parbat Gurung, MP from Dolakha accused of attempted murder.

Initially, Mahara's response fit the pattern of powerful men who know they can get away with any crime. His press adviser said he had never gone to Shahi's apartment, but after CCTV footage emerged of him arriving on the street outside, Mahara agreed to cooperate with the investigation. When his health reportedly worsened in custody, he was taken to an expensive private hospital.

Mahara’s first resignation letter was conditional: he said he was stepping down only for the duration of the investigation, hoping to get right back to his speaker job. In fact, that is still a possibility since he has not resigned as member of parliament.

“An MP is suspended if accused of grave crimes, so Mahara is not receiving any government facilities or salary at the moment,” explains Rojnath Pande, spokesperson of the Parliament secretariat. "However, he is not dismissed from his position. If he is cleared, he can go back to his duties as an MP.”

Read also: Plot thickens in Nepal Speaker rape case, Nepali Times

Meanwhile, the NCP after telling him to resign has kept mum. NCP Spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha told Nepali Times: “His resignation automatically includes resigning from the party. We had advised him to resign as MP as well, but since he is suspended at the moment the point is moot. We cannot say anything now about his eventual return to politics.”

Shrestha claims Mahara’s resignation was meant to aid the investigation and not necessarily because of his guilt, and that he is innocent until proven guilty. However, top NCP leaders have been briefed by police that there is enough evidence against Mahara to make the rape claim credible. The party is therefore in damage-control mode.

Even a year ago, the NCP might have tried to hush up the case, especially because the evidence is murky. Shahi has changed her statement many times, calling police to say she was raped, withdrawing the complaint, then filing a first information report (FIR) for attempted rape, and again accusing the police of pressurising her. There are screenshots of Shahi’s SMS conversation with a mysterious ‘M Sir’, which hint at long-standing intimacy.

Journalists have dug up Facebook posts showing Shahi has known Mahara for decades, and implying that he has been abusing her, and that she may even have carried his child once. However, the account has now been deactivated.

Shahi has been subjected to the same kind of backlash that #metoo accusers have faced: a section of the public thinks she had a consensual relationship with Mahara and outed him when he ceased to serve her purposes. Shahi has in fact accused Mahara of not helping her get a permanent posting at the Parliament Secretariat.

Read also: #theytoo, Sewa Bhattarai

The case has now become emblematic of the trend of rape and sexual abuse in Nepal, and globally — most perpetrators are known to victims, and even have close relationships. Use of force is rare but manipulation, including threats, bribes, shame and humiliation, are common. If Shahi faced threats and shame during a supposedly consensual relationship, it is difficult to see where the consent ends and abuse begins.

Shahi herself has complicated her case by her on-off accusation, but more people in Nepal now seem aware that even if the relationship is consensual, violence or non-consensual intimacy makes it abusive. Many believe Shahi was intimidated into changing her statements. Yet for a government famous for impunity, the very fact that a powerful politician is being investigated is a step forward for gender justice.

But there are also many losers. Mental health was made an easy scapegoat after Shahi blamed depression and medication for her inconsistent statements. The reputation of women leaders, including MPs, has taken a hit since most of them have remained conspicuously silent. Only Nepali Congress MP Uma Regmi, whom Shahi called at midnight, has spoken out.

Read also: Four-fold increase in reported rape in 10 years, Sewa Bhattarai

Shahi’s marriage also suffered, since her husband Chitra Jung Shahi, who was out of town when the incident happened, reportedly went straight to Mahara when he returned and then chided his wife for smearing the politician, urging her to retract her accusation. Chitra Jung Shahi later posted a handwritten statement of separation on Facebook.

While the case is tangled, it has certainly shaken Nepal’s powerful men, many of whom have, until now, behaved as if they are above the law. The pressure for justice in this case is increasing. On 3 October, 15 human rights organisations issued a joint statement, urging the government to treat Mahara as an ordinary citizen and investigate the case. The UN and embassies of five countries in Nepal issued another joint statement, urging Nepal to establish a ‘zero-tolerance message to combat gender-based violence’.

The NCP appears to be trying to turn the Mahara case into proof that it abides by the rule of law, and deflect attention away from larger cases of impunity for war crimes.

Read Also: Klepto Republic, Editorial

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