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For an atheist party that supposedly thinks religion is the opiate of the masses, the Maoist-led government sure took this year’s Dasain festival seriously. No sooner had we emerged from one holiday, we are plunging straight into another one, Chhat. This means the Madhesi half of the coalition is soon going into its own prolonged hibernation. And with Tihar coming in the way, don’t expect much besides slogans on peace-building and constitution-drafting.
But there is one activity the government led by Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai has been deadly serious about: pardoning party faithful accused of crimes and forgiving those involved in excesses during the war. This is not surprising since the main point of the four-point agreement that installed Bhattarai in power was a general amnesty clause.
But the singlemindedness with which Bhattarai is pursuing this agenda threatens to undermine all the stage-managed populism his spin masters have set up for him since he took office.
The public perception is still that Prime Minister Bhattarai is an upright and intelligent man. But he can’t remain the only good apple when the rest of the barrel is filled with rotten ones. In fact, the stench is now getting so unbearable that it will sooner or later taint the prime minister himself unless he stops giving excuses, passing the buck.
Soon after assuming office Prime Minister Bhattarai appointed his crony, Mukti Pradhan, as attorney general. Pradhan immediately, and publicly, said his intention was to dismiss all cases of gross human rights violations against Maoist cadre, and to pardon those convicted of such crimes. Carrying on from that, Bhattarai nearly got the cabinet meeting before Dasain to recommend a pending presidential pardon for Maoist lawmaker Balkrishna Dhungel who last year was convicted and sentenced to a 20-year jail term for the murder of Ujjan Kumar Shrestha in Okhaldhunga during the war. The state never made any move to apprehend Dhungel.
Bhattarai also brought in another loyalist, Prabhu Sah, as land reform minister in the cabinet. Sah and his assistant, Siyaram Kuswaha, have been accused of being involved in the murder of Hindu youth leader Kashinath Tiwari in Birganj last year. Police now believe there is enough evidence to take the two to court. Earlier moves by the relatives of the victim to seek justice had failed because of political pressure. But now that there is a professional and honest police chief in Parsa, the case is moving. Sah’s Maoist supporters have reacted the only way they know how: by taking to the streets and declaring an indefinite shutdown in Gaur. The state counsel in this case appears to have been under direct instruction of Attorney General Pradhan to remove the minister from the charge-sheet.
None of this, of course, surprises anyone. This is the way the justice system has always worked in this country. Political pressure has always been brought to bear to exonerate criminals under the protection of establishment bigwigs. But this is prime minister of whom we expected more.
If the rot at the top is not stopped, it will be a signal to everyone down the line that it’s ok to murder, loot, extort, and take a bribe. If he remains silent when surrounded by crooks, the prime minister will also be seen as a crook.
We understand Baburam Bhattarai has his hands full. There is an unrealistically high public expectation on him to deliver. He has unenviable challenges on every front. But by sanctioning impunity and protecting criminals in his party and cabinet, he is making his own job immensely more difficult.