On 26 May, six young men were killed in a mob attack and their bodies dumped into the river in the village of Soti in Rukum West.
The six were in a group of 17 friends that accompanied a young Dalit man, Nabaraj BK, for moral support as he tried to get a teenage girl from a ‘higher’ Thakuri caste to elope with him.
Of the attackers, 23 including Ward Chair Dambar Bahadur Malla are in custody, and the girl and her younger brother are in juvenile detention. The trial has been set for 26 July in the Rukum District Court for their involvement of the killing of the six youth.
There have been protests by the families of the deceased, who fear that the accused will be set free or given a lenient sentence in what was essentially a caste-motivated crime.
Nepali Times reporter Sushma Barali spent a week in Soti and in Nabaraj BK’s home town of in Ranagaun of Jajarkot to meet the mothers, fathers, sisters and widows of those who were killed and who are now agitating for justice.
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“They killed our son, now they are killing justice”, Shusma Barali
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Two years ago, returning home from the village of Thati of Jajarkot district in Nepal’s mid-western mountains, 39-year-old Laxmi Sunar’s husband died in a jeep crash. Her youngest daughter was permanently disabled from injuries. Laxmi became a single mother who had to take care of her, and two other sons.
After the sole earning member of the family died, her eldest son Ram Bahadur Sunar decided to go to Malaysia to find work to augment the family income. The Sunar family was making ends meet with the money he sent home.
Her other son, Lokendra, 18, decided to accompany Nabaraj BK to the girl’s home in Soti on that fateful day. He was among the six who were killed, and his body was fished out of the Bheri River a few days later.
“Four days after finding Nabaraj’s body, they found my son’s body as well. But, I could not even recognise him,” Laxmi says, with a low, sad monotone. “All the other bodies also had deep cuts with sickles, they had broken bones, and gaping wounds.”
Radhika Budhamagar also lost her teenage son, Ganesh Budhamagar in the mob killings. Although not a Dalit himself, he had joined the group because he was Nabaraj’s friend and like him wanted to be a police officer.
The Budhamagar family subsists on farming, and has little extra income. That is why Ganesh’s elder brother is in India working as a driver and sends some money home. The family had pinned its hopes on Ganesh, a responsible and hard working lad. A week before his death, he was working at a construction site to earn a little extra money for his family.
After her son’s death, Radhika Budhamagar has been fighting for justice because she and the other mothers believe that the post-mortem report of the deceased have been falsified to show that they died of drowning. She believes her son was injured by the police when it beat up Nabaraj’s group instead of the villagers who were attacking them.
Gobinda Shahi, 19, was another non-Dalit in the group who got caught up in a crime triggered by caste-based discrimination. After hearing that Nabaraj’s body had been found that night in the river, Gobinda’s mother Bima Kumari was so worried she sent her eldest son, Sandesh, down to the river to see if he could find his brother.
Gobinda’s body was found ten days later 30km downstream on the banks of the Bheri. For all those days, Bima Kumari clung to a slim hope that somehow her son had escaped and was still alive.
“I thought he might have hid in the jungle, and I sent people to look everywhere,” Bima Kumari says, wiping her eyes. “But then they found his body. What did they get out of killing my son? I still cannot understand this.”
Sabita BK had arranged a marriage for her 16-year-old son, Sanju, with a 15-year old Sabina. Although child marriage is illegal, it is still practiced in a large part of Nepal, especially in the west. Sanju and his wife were looking forward to celebrating his son’s fourth birthday.
“He had invited all his friends, and was planning to have a party. Now, he has left us,” says Sabita, whose son also wanted to become a police officer like his friends.
Sabita’s pain is immeasurable, and her 20-year-old her daughter-in-law Sabina faints from time to time whenever someone mentions Sanju’s name. Sabita now has to take responsibility for her grandson and daughter-in-law.
“She is still a child,” says Sabita about Sabina, “she has to wear a white sari at such a young age. I can barely sleep because I worry about how to take care of the baby and the others.”
On the day of the killings, Tikaram Shahi, 20, and his family had just returned from his in-law’s house. Tikaram had called his mother, Gita, to inform her that they were on the way home. However, he got a call from his friend, Nabaraj, that he was going to his girlfriend’s house in Soti. He joined the group midway, without going home. Gita Shahi got to see her son a few days later only after his death.
Tikaram wanted to make sure that his younger sister and daughter got a good education and could make something out of their lives. “I’ll open a mobile shop so the family will have enough money, he would say. Now it is all a dream,” Gita says, weeping. “Only if the guilty are punished will my son’s soul rest in peace. But they are trying to let them go.”
Urmila BK was full of hope that her son Nabaraj would group up to a successful policeman. He was good looking, talented and a good sportsman. After her three daughters were married, it was Nabaraj’s turn. But Nabaraj’s parents were worried about his choice of bride – she was from the higher Thakuri caste.
They knew what that meant in a conservative society, and Nabaraj’s father even tried to talk to the girl’s uncle to tell him he was trying to get his son to end the relationship. Instead, he was verbally abused for even informing them about his son’s friendship with their daughter.
Nabaraj was also his parent’s insurance policy for their old age, and their sorrow is now tinged with worry about the future.
Urmila says: “Not only did we lose our son, but our support system as well.”
Media focus after the murder of six young men in Jajarkot on 24 May centred on Nabaraj BK and his developing relationship with a 16-year-old girl from a ‘higher’ Thakuri caste. But rarely mentioned are Nabaraj’s two loyal fellow-Dalit friends who went along with him to support his quest to elope with the girl.
Tikaram Sunar, 20, and Sanju Bika, 21, were among the six who were beaten to death and their bodies thrown into the Bheri River that evening in Rukum. What few know about is that Tikaram and Sanju were already married and left behind widows and young children.
Tikaram’s wife, Sunita, is wearing a white shawl on top of a mourning dhoti when a journalist visited her at her home recently. Her face is puffed up with weeping constantly. The 18-year-old holds her two-year-old daughter in her lap, and says she has no more tears left to shed.
“Where is baba?” the daughter keeps asking in baby talk. There is no answer that Sunita can give her. She just sobs quietly and looks listlessly away. She had run away from home with Tikaram when she was barely 14. They were happy, and were making plans for the future. Now there is no future.
When they brought Sunita’s husband home two days later, she fainted at the sight of his bodyb – it was white and wrinkled from being submerged for so long in the water. It had gashes and bruises all over.
She was coming home from her parent’s house with her husband that day, but Tikaram got a call from Nabaraj and decided to accompany him to the girl’s village with other friends.
Sunita found out later that night that there had been a quarrel in Soti involving Nabaraj’s group, but she thought it was just a minor brawl. Still, she was worried, and was shocked as news trickled in that Nabaraj had been killed and his body had been retrieved from the Bheri.
“I took my daughter and went to ask the police,” Sunita recalls in a soft voice. “They said they had found Nabaraj’s body and one other body that they could not identify. For some reason, I had a premonition that my husband did not survive either.”
When they finally brought her husband’s body home, it had deep cuts made by sickles. Blood was oozing from his mouth, nose and ears. “That image just keeps coming back to me over and over again,” she says.
Since she was married as a child, Sunita always regretted not completing her studies. Tikaram had promised her that as soon as their daughter grew up, she could go back to school. Now, Sunita does not know what she will do, she could return to her parents or stay in her husband’s house.
Her in-laws are daily wage earners and make just enough to feed the family from one day to the next. The family had pinned its hope on Tikaram who wanted to open a mobile repair shop so he could earn more money to take care of his family.
“My in-laws love me, but the situation here is miserable, everyone was looking forward had pinned their hopes on my husband to take care of the family, now he is gone,” she says. “I never imagined that I would be alone this early on in life.”
Sanju BK’s wife Sabina, is just 20 and has a four-year-old son to support. Her parents arranged her marriage to Sanju at 14. Just like his friend Nabaraj BK, Sanju wanted to join the police, and was already training for it. “I may not get leave after I join the forces, so we should celebrate our son’s birthday before I go, he used to say,” Sabina recalls. They were preparing to mark his fourth birthday soon.
“I still cannot believe he is gone. I feel he will just walk in the door at any moment,” she says, breaking into silent sobs.
Sanju’s father was not well and needed to go hospital regularly for three years. While taking care of him Sanju was determined to make his son grow up to be a doctor. He borrowed money so that their son could get a good education.
Sabina heard that Nabaraj had been found dead, and it was mental torture for her as she heard of bodies being retrieved from the Bheri one by one. Sanju’s body was found five days later downstream.
Sanju BK’s father is still sick, and cannot work. His elder sister takes care of her husband’s family business, and does household chores. Sabina would like to get a salaried government job so her family can have financial stability, but there is no saying what will happen next. Nearly two months after the murders, Sabina waits for justice for her husband and 5 others.
Pending trial at the Rukum District Court, 23 of the 27 accused are in police custody. One of the alleged murderers is considered to be the main person behind the crimes, while others are accused to abetting the caste-based murders. The girl Nabaraj BK wanted to elope with and her minor brother have been sent into a correctional facility.
But there are rumours that the group might get off lightly because police reports have fudged the cause of death to reduce the culpability of the villagers involved.
Says Sabina BK: “For now, we need justice. After that, I do not know what will happen.”
Nearly two months after six young men from the village of Soti in western Nepal were lynched by a village mob after one of them professed his love for a young girl from a different caste, the families of the victims fear a cover-up.
Piecing together eye-witness reports and after interviewing survivors and family members, it appears that on 24 May, Nabaraj BK gathered 17 friends from Ranagaun of Jajarkot for moral support as he walked to meet his love interest in Soti village across the Bheri River in Rukum West.
Being from a ‘lower’ Dalit caste, the parents of the girl were against the relationship, and were trying to marry her to someone from their Thakuri caste. It appears that Nabaraj BK got information that the marriage was imminent, and decided to rescue the girl.
When they approached her house, hundreds of villagers descended on the young men, chasing them down to the river, slashing them with sickles and picks, and after killing them, dumped them into the river. Some jumped into the water and waded across to escape only to be ambushed on the far bank. Some of their bodies were found many days later.
Nabaraj’s parents Munalal and Urmila from Ranagaun of Jajarkot had hoped their only son would take care of them after he rose up the ranks of the Nepal Police. He did well in school, excelled in sports, and was popular with his friends. His plan was to get married before joining police training which had been postponed because of the lockdown.
Nabaraj’s relationship with an upper caste girl scared his mother, but now what scares her more is that there will be no justice for her son, and five other families. Families of the victims say the police and autopsy reports of the bodies that were found in the Bheri River have been tampered with.
“He used to assure me that he would support us after he join the police,” Urmila BK recalled, sobbing. “He died because he was in love. Our hearts cannot accept that he is dead. We wonder who will defend poor people like us. They killed our son and now they are killing justice.”
The Police have filed a case saying the crimes were based on caste violence, and sent it to the district court in Rukum. Twenty-seven other villagers from Soti are also accused of murder, and have also reportedly confessed to the crime.
Nabaraj’s shelf at home is filled with the shields and medals he had won in school, district and even national championships. The blue uniform he got as a NCC cadet is still hanging by a peg.
Nabaraj met the girl at the Presidential Running Shield Sports Competition two years ago in Khalanga of Rukum district. He was the star in the football field, and became very popular with the crowd. After that, Nabaraj and the girl became Facebook friends and dreamt of being life partners.
Once, Nabaraj brought the girl home with her young brother. His mother Urmila had no idea about their affair. “When she first came, I thought she was my daughter’s friend, I only found out later,” Urmila said.
Then she noticed the girl’s photo on Nabaraj’s phone, and told her husband. The two were worried enough about the repercussions of an inter-caste relationship to try to talk him out of it. Nabaraj’s father Munalal BK was in fact so perturbed by a caste backlash, that he even took his son’s phone with the photo to the girl’s uncle Indra Bahadur Malla so he could put pressure the girl.
But instead of thanking him for information, Indra Bahadur scolded Munalal: “What is this? Do you also want to be a Malla Thakuri’s in-laws?” Munalal was so frightened he sought advice from MP of the area, Bhairav Sundar Shrestha and Dalit activist Gopal Nepali.
By this time, the relationship was getting deeper and the girl’s parents were trying to her married to someone her own caste. When Nabaraj found out, he decided to elope with the girl. But for this he needed support, and gathered his friends to go to her house on 24 May.
Sudip Khadka was in the group of Nabaraj’s supporters and friends. “We were surrounded on all four sides, even the people who we played football with started to attack us,” he remembered. “Hundreds of people came out with sticks, stones, sickles and hoes and started chasing us.”
Being outnumbered, many of the young men started running down to the river, but the villagers caught up with them and started hitting them with household implements. Their lifeless bodies were thrown in the water, while others risked their lives by trying to swim across. But there were people on the other side waiting for them to wade ashore.
“The boys were attacked after they had already decided to turn back home,” admited DSP Kishor Kumar Shrestha. But the police is being criticised for arresting the victims instead of the attackers on that day. Eye-witnesses said they just stood around blowing their whistles, and not coming to the rescue of Nabaraj and his friends while they were being mercilessly beaten.
They watched as the bodies were thrown into the water. Nabaraj’s body was found at 8PM downstream. When his son’s body was brought to Ranagaun, his father Munalal fainted, and he is still not all right.
“So many people chased us and beat us, but the police arrested us instead,” recalls Lal Bahadur Khadka, 17, who was also injured. According to Khadka, the police knew six people were missing, but did not bother to check up on them.
Sandesh Shahi looked for his brother, Gobinda, for ten days until they finally found his decomposed body 30km downstream. “Divers from the APF were there, and they did look around but not very carefully,” said Shahi. He says the police did not accurately record the condition of the corpses.
One of Nabaraj’s friend’s corpse was tied with a rope, and it had a broken hand, but the police report did not mention this. Other bodies had severe injuries like broken necks, hand and legs, facial damage, and their lungs showed signs they were dead before being dumped in the water. The police did not record these either.
The second day after the murders at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Shahi pulled Tikaram Sunar’s body from the river with blood coming out of his mouth, nose, and ear. These injuries were not mentioned in the police report.
The body of Lokendra Sunar was found 40km downstream with his hands tied behind his back on 30 May. But, the police record said the hands had been caught in a fishing net. The last body that was discovered was of Gobinda Shahi, who had been killed, buried, exhumed again and then dumped into the river.
“Gobinda did not have any teeth left, his forehead, and nose were cut, and his neck was broken. After seeing the condition of the body, they buried the body. But suspecting that he may be discovered they dug it up again and threw it into the river,” said his brother Sandesh Shahi.
Families of those who were killed, those who survived, and other eye-witnesses also say that the district hospital falsified the autopsy report so that the murders could not be blamed on the attacking villagers. The police had taken pictures of the wounds, but the post mortem report does not mention them, saying that it was the result of prolonged exposure to water. The families say the police is trying to absolve the community in Soti of blame.
Despite the heinous crimes, lawmakers from Jajarkot and Rukum West have not spoken publicly after the killings. There have been no meetings with the Mayor of Chaurajahari Vishal Sharma and Bheri Municipality Mayor Chandra Prakash Ghartimagar from the ruling Nepal Communist Party.
Chaurajahari Mayor Vishal Sharma is playing down the caste element. He maintains that the men died because they jumped into the Bheri River, and he does not believe that they were killed first.
The murders have created an eruption of outrage. #DalitLivesMatter has been trending on Twitter and a petition with over 20,000 signatures is circulating in social media. The EU Delegation, UN High Commissioner, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have all released statements in solidarity with the victim’s family and demanding for justice.
Rights groups worry that as with many previous crimes against Dalits in Nepal, the police and the dominant communities will try to hide evidence and cover up the crime. As before, it is the ‘higher’ caste people who once more literally get away with murder.