Justice delayed and denied

LONG FIGHT: Justice for Nirmala posters line the District Headquarter Office of Kanchanpur, where Nirmala's mother Durga Devi Panta (below) appeared more harried last week after her husband's deteriorating mental health. Pic: Bikram Rai

Nepal was shocked by the rape and murder of Nirmala Panta in Kanchanpur on 26 July, but with the crime unsolved and the perpetrators still at large, the news has begun to fade from the headlines.

However, Nirmala’s parents had been taking part in a sit-in outside the Kanchanpur District Headquarters here in Mahendranagar. Two weeks into the protest, Nirmala’s father Yagya Raj Panta started showing signs that the strain was taking its toll on his mental health.

On Saturday morning, Yagya Raj was showing increasingly erratic behaviour and the family decided to take him to Kathmandu for treatment. His wife Durga Devi Panta and other relatives got him up to Dhangadi airport, but he was too aggressive and could not be pacified to board the plane.

“His behaviour became quite aggressive, he started abusing people and vandalising the place. The airline refused to let him board,” said Sharada Chand, one of the human rights activists in the protest. Chand was hurt herself when Yagya Raj started acting violent at the airport. Durga Devi and some relatives then took him to Kathmandu by road.

On the morning of 24 November, Yagya Raj Panta was jumping at noises, shooing away visitors, and looked very agitated. He was aggressive towards strangers, pointing at bags and asking if there were bombs in them, claiming there was a conspiracy to murder him. Activists tried to pacify him, and when Durga Devi Panta poured her husband some water from a thermos flask he thanked her like she was a stranger, shook hands with her and asked people around him to take a photo.

Exactly 117 days after his daughter was raped and murdered, it was clear that Yagya Raj Panta had lost his mind. He not only tried to take off his clothes, but also beat and scratched people who came near him. Some of them needed to have their hands bandaged. The videos people took of him went viral on social media.

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Nirmala Panta went missing on July 26, and her body was found thrown in a sugarcane field near her home. The inability of the Police and the Home Ministry to resolve the issue, their attempt to destroy evidence, frame an innocent person with the crime and what looked to many like a case of the Police trying to protect the criminals, has outraged her family and human rights activists. They said the mental strain was too much to bear for Yagya Raj Panta, and he snapped.

The deceased Nirmala’s family members are increasingly concerned that they are losing not just one but two persons to this tragedy. Yagya Raj’s sister Bhagirathi Bhatta says she has lost hope for her brother: “My niece is already dead and gone, but my brother is alive. And I doubt we will still have him if this stress continues.”

She has also been spending the cold nights at the sit-in in an open tent across the road from the District Headquarter building. There are some pillows, mattresses, blankets, and an electric line from which to charge mobiles and heat up water in kettles, and not much else. Photos of the deceased Nirmala line the ceiling, walls and surroundings.

“Ever since this protest started, he has not been himself. He sees photos of his daughter everywhere, a lot of people come and say many things, it was just too much for him to bear,” says Bhatta, whose brother no longer recognises her.

Yagya Raj's wife Durga Devi looked harried not just from the struggle for justice for her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder, but now by her husband’s deteriorating mental health.

“I don’t think we will ever get justice,” Durga Devi told us last week, “If the government wanted to give us justice, it would not have destroyed the evidence. I had lost hope right then. But now, this long protest for justice is taking our remaining health and sanity as well.”

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Yagya Raj and Durga Devi are now in Kathmandu, but the protest vigil in Mahendranagar continues, and people from all over the country (including Hisila Yami and Govinda KC) have come to show solidarity. The media coverage and sustained protests have led to accusations that it is politically motivated rather being a campaign for justice.

Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, who had previously blamed capitalism for rapes, said recently: "Hundreds of women were raped before Nirmala and continue to be, but they do not attract so much notice. We solve 95% of those cases. The media coverage is politically motivated.” Actually, only 44% of rape cases last year resulted in convictions.

Here in Mahendranagar, it is clear that outrage is driving the protests more than politics. Yagya Raj's second wife Laxmi Panta is at the sit-in at the District Headquarters, and says: "My husband wants justice. Now that he is not here, I cannot just pack up the tent and leave.”

With justice a distant dream, others have chosen to focus on more immediate concerns like Yagya Raj's mental health and Durga Devi's peace of mind. Activists helped take them to Kathmandu for treatment, and the group #rageagainstrape is attempting to shield them from the media glare.

Durga Devi is also worried about her two other daughters. The elder one is 15 and preparing for her SEE exams. She has had to divide her time between taking care of her daughters and joining the vigil in the day. Adding to the grief and bereavement of losing Nirmala is the burden of family responsibilities.

Her life was already upside down since Nirmala's murder, but having her husband hospitalized has added to the strain. The fight for justice for Nirmala Panta has taken a heavy toll, and it looks set to derail the health and sanity of the family as well.

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