How citizens and judiciary in Nepal unseated a corrupt ‘anti-corruption chief’ and a dictator-in-making
It may now be tempting to trash and lampoon a fallen Lokman Singh Karki but the tragic story of Nepal’s lost opportunities did not start with him and hasn’t ended with his ouster. He was more a symptom rather than root cause of the rampant bad governance in the country bordering anarchy. The fight against him had many subplots and the most important was this: what helped him survive for more than three years setting up a parallel state was the symbiosis between him and political parties; what led to his fall was the decisive push by the citizens and the judiciary. The society, hostage of twin cartels over past four years, has now the prospects of getting rid of one mammoth extortion racket that the CIAA under Karki was but the other cartel of unconscionable politicians thrives. And, now we should worry about that.
Can ordinary citizens draft an impeachment proposal against the chief of anti-corruption body in the country? Not usually.
But almost nothing seems to be taking its usual course in Nepal. It was thus ironic but understandable when, on 20 October 2016, we were fumbling to get it signed by the third parliamentarian after getting it drafted with help of a lawyer friend and signed by two MPs. After hard work of three months, we had found the third MP and were eager to make history.
The only glitch: the third MP was in Butwal, 300 kilometers away from Kathmandu and we had to send the document there. The document was thus set to reach there and get signed in the evening and we would be able to register it at the parliament secretariat the other day. But on the same evening, something truly unexpected happened and threw our impeachment proposal into irrelevance. Before delving on that, let’s move to the background.
A soured dream
Constituent Assembly (CA), a dream of multiple generations in Nepal over nearly sixty years, was elected in 2008 but was unable to draft the constitution at the end of four long years and was dissolved. In the precarious political vacuum that followed, a hodgepodge of Chief Justice-led government was sworn in and elections were held for the second CA. The polarization and paralysis from the earlier CA recurred and most of the precious time was again lost without meaningful deliberation at multiple levels in the society.
With the political leaders guided by mob sentiment rather than the other way round, the many discontents of rival ethnic and interest groups were sharpened rather than blunted. That led to a peculiar cul de sac in which the alternative to a divisive ‘fast-tracked’ constitution would most likely be no constitution with unprecedented challenges. At least, that was the apparent thinking of the major parties and they opted for the former. Their ineptitude to manage the fallout of such a momentous decision is now bare for everyone to see.
The handover of political helm to the team of bureaucrats led by the sitting Chief Justice was not the only anomalous decision the parties took consensually all along. So long as all the major parties stood together, every act–which would otherwise be ridiculed as reckless, shortsighted or even suicidal or criminal and prevented by the rivals–gained legitimacy and they had to be accountable to no one. Media often covered such lapses on part of the politicians but for them, a one-off negative media portrayal was a minor nuisance at best. A sustained and focused critique was often missing in media too. The civil society, an important pillar of the 2006 People’s Movement, was eventually largely silenced thanks to fragmentation from within and the conspicuous disdain of the triumphant and newly assertive political parties from without.
In this toxic environment of zero accountability, Nepal’s major parties (Nepali Congress, CPN (UML), Maoists and the coalition of Madhesh-based parties) chose in 2013 a tainted dark horse for the post of Chief Commissioner at Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), the country’s potentially powerful anti-corruption body albeit with a chequered track record on checking corruption.
It was Lokman Singh Karki, the top bureaucrat during the then King’s direct rule during 2005-2006 who had unnaturally parachuted decades back during the Panchayat to mid-level post in the country’s bureaucracy and then jumped steps to reach the top thanks to the blessings of first the royal palace, then the ruling parties during multi-party system post-1990, and again the royal palace after the 2005 coup de tat. Besides being disgraced after 2006 movement and categorically pronounced by the cabinet as ‘unfit for any government position in the future’, his shadowy past that gave him an image of a brazenly corrupt bureaucrat made him really unfit for the post. That, however didn’t mean anything to the political parties that operated with utter opacity and in a perverse consensus.
… so shall you reap
What followed was rather logical. Having come from a ‘royal’ culture of endless tussle for power and often fatal internecine feuds, Karki quickly transformed the CIAA into his fiefdom, a power center that was unseen in Nepal after the change of 1990. Prior to that, an earlier version of CIAA under the Panchayat was the foolproof way to silence critics and dissenters by incarcerating them on trivial or even fraudulent charges. People who endured that period now said that the Panchayat-era Akhtiyar Durupayog Niwaaran Aayog (Commission for Elimination of Abuse of Authority) was far less scary compared to CIAA under Karki.
The top politicians swiftly became hostage of their own mischievous decision to appoint Karki as CIAA chief; he could punish and disgrace them at will if he was not left alone to pursue his ulterior motives of accumulating wealth and brazenly interfering in the daily routine of myriad of government departments. That too he could do with perfect impunity given the constitutional provision that he could be removed before completion of his six years long tenure only through impeachment by two-thirds majority in the parliament, a seemingly impossible task in a country with fractious political forces. He was duly assisted in running his perverse show by his colleagues at CIAA, most notably Raj Narayan Pathak, one of the other six commissioners, as the whole CIAA machinery transformed itself into a mammoth extortion racket.
To burnish its image as the anti-corruption crusader, the Karki-led CIAA sponsored a media hullabaloo around frivolous sting operations catching low level bureaucrats red-handed while taking petty bribes. Almost all major suspected corruption scandals were never touched properly apparently because of the deals the individual commissioner had cut with every major political party as the latter appointed them in party-wise quota basis in the beginning.
Kleptocracy has been the norm for long in Nepal but now, an environment of terror unmistakably seeped in, especially for those individual leaders who were not protected by the deals cut by their top leaders with the CIAA commissioners and the professionals and citizens who questioned about and criticized the rotten state of affair.
As all the institutions including the judiciary were weakened by shameless political meddling, the parallel state led by Karki flourished. He borrowed the ‘divide and rule’ trick from his former royal patrons and set the security forces in the country against one another, indiscriminately predating the top rank of Armed Police Force and brazenly colluding with Nepal Police. The whole intelligence machinery in the country was at his service enabling him to project power far disproportionate to the constitutional mandate the chief commissioner at CIAA had.
It was thus no wonder that when a letter from a Central Investigation Bureau–the intelligence wing of Nepal police–official mentioning that it had sent a clandestine list of personal and financial details of hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats (to be delivered personally to Karki, not to CIAA) leaked to the media, there was no uproar as one would expect. Nepal magazine did a cover story on the letter but the political class was too terrorized even to mention it anywhere even though the letter had clearly stated that the sensitive details were not limited to those of serving or former public officials over whom the CIAA had the jurisdiction to investigate, and purportedly included ‘leaders and cadres of political parties’ implying a clear intention to blackmail them into submission.
With the political class literally forced into servility, Karki’s hands were free to hound his critics among the citizenry and he unleashed the full thrust of his illegitimate power to silence every one of his early critics from the time of appointment. With an egregiously unprofessional and servile section of media including two newspapers (Annapurna Post and Naya Patrika both of which changed tunes with Lokman’s downfall) eager to collude, Karki trumped up those vengeful and vendetta-driven attacks as the anti-corruption crusade and in an era of obsession with sensationalism, succeeded to some extent.
In hindsight, Karki’s machinations became ruthlessly efficient because he had both the carrot (immunity from persecution for real corrupt practices) so long as one colluded with him and the stick (persecution including in trumped up charges and brazen public shaming by leaking personal details to unsavory and sensation-seeking media outlets) to be used with no restraint. The silence of even the politicians thought to be more honest and courageous than the average lot–and thus potentially less vulnerable to Karki’s attack–made the situation perfect for his maleficent drive.
Unexpected jolt to Karki
It was in this pretext that a satyagrahi activist doctor, Dr. Govinda KC, broke the deafening silence by publicly proclaiming Karki as corrupt and demanding his impeachment during his eighth hunger strike. If it were anyone other than Dr. KC, Karki’s thuggish parallel state would have automatically pounced upon him. But through decades of selfless service throughout Nepal and even in countries as far away as Haiti, and during his previous seven hunger strikes for reform of health and medical education sector in the country, Dr KC had earned a status which made him unassailable morally and on many other counts. People might not have understood the nitty-gritty of issues he had been championing for long but they had faith in him and in a swipe of a press conference by Dr KC, Karki was conferred a tag of ‘corrupt chief of anti-corruption body’, an uncanny but not-so-hidden situation.
The tremors in Karki’s vast parallel state were immediately palpable as he retaliated within hours by calling Dr. KC mentally unfit, asking the government to get him treated, in a written statement published in the letter pad of CIAA, signed by the spokesperson.
That was the first turning point in the fight against Karki. His manipulation of the state’s security forces and a calculated suppression of media had secured him well from conventional attacks and criticisms but he was not prepared to deal with the ferocity of unconventional attacks that followed. In particular, the floodgates had opened in social media: when a saintly doctor called a thug by his name, the latter had retaliated by questioning the former’s mental fitness! Everything became obvious for even those who were equivocal on the issue of Karki’s culpability earlier.
The timidity on Karki’s part in the changing situation was reflected on an edited version of his earlier press release with the term ‘mentally’ removed and calling the govt to simply get Dr KC ‘treated.’ That was very much against the aura of infallibility that Karki had created around himself.
Now that Dr KC was pointing his fingers to Karki as the root of corruption in sensitive health and medical education sector among others, the megalomaniac attempts that were being undertaken by Karki for long to build an image of a messiah of good governance for himself came to a screeching halt. During that drive, he had harassed and incarcerated people indiscriminately, torturing many of them mentally and even physically in shabby prison cells inside the CIAA premises. Many of those victims would chronicle their ordeals in media but that was much later when Karki was on his way out.
The hard part now
Calling Karki by his true name and starting the hunger strike was the easy part. What lay ahead was totally unpredictable.
In a society where money and institutional power matter more than anything else, many thought Dr KC was heading straight to the abyss by challenging the unchallengeable. Many argued, he should have respected the constitutional mandate of the Karki’s post if not him personally. One Nepali editor went as far as proclaiming in a column in Indian newspaper that the only logical outcome of the episode would be the loss of ‘either health or face’ by Dr. KC. Ouster of Karki from the post was still unthinkable for most even though they concurred that he was unfit for the post.
After day 1 of fast, Dr KC’s health would keep deteriorating but the parallel process of further delegitimizing and ousting Karki–if that ever happened–was in no way going to be matched with that. If Dr KC were to step back without holding Karki accountable, the weapon of his hunger strike, that had been so efficient so far against the culprits who had been jeopardizing quality of health and medical education in the country, was going to be severely blunted. We had to salvage his health as well as the potency of his movement and it was no mean challenge.
Having been besides Dr KC during all his previous hunger strikes and being his public face for last five episodes, I faced an enormous challenge.
All of Dr. KC’s genuine supporters from past movements were still supporting him but the tinge of sympathy towards Dr KC–as if he were going to lose the fight this time around, really losing either face or health and even life–that had seeped in this time was alarming. Sensing trouble, Karki was silently maneuvering to silence media on the issue (or at least to avoid the explicit support that they had shown to Dr KC’s agenda during past episodes) and was largely successful to start with. With that vital chunk of support wavering, the challenges in front of me and a small team of activists multiplied. And, as expected, a small but significant chunk of Dr KC’s former supporters, whose support was rather tactical and offered in the hope of some material gain as he disrupted the status quo, were now either distancing themselves or openly criticizing him making it look like Dr KC’s popular support was waning.
Once Dr KC started the fast, however, there was no dilemma whatsoever about what we had to do. Having resigned from the post of a lecturer at a medical college a year earlier (after serving there only a year after graduating as a Pathologist) to devote myself in the struggle to cleanse health and medical education sector in the country led by Dr KC, I had had only part time work with meager pay but more liberal and expandable leave structure. I had rushed to Kathmandu days before the fast was to start and had been taking stock of the situation after the press release skirmish between Karki and Dr KC.
Having done a detailed piece titled Akhtiyarko aina (Showing mirror to the CIAA) for Setopati Online months back chronicling Karki’s misdeeds in medical education at the climax of his manhunt against his critics, I had openly challenged him and now was the time to escalate the attack. (As Karki’s blatant and nepotistic manipulation of and interference in Medical education is chronicled in that article, I do not touch that part here).
For a long article about dysfunctional state of Nepal’s judiciary, CIAA and police thanks to political meddling–that was published from New Delhi as a chapter in a compiled volume titled Constitution of Nepal: Evolution, Developments and Debates–I had researched extensively on Karki months earlier and that wealth of information came very handy now.
With many dimensions of his financial crimes and parallel state eventually exposed, now it is tempting to forget that but to start with, we had very little solid evidence against him.
The potential sources of such evidences were either the whistle-blowers in the system, or victims of Karki’s manhunt. Neither was ready to cooperate with us at that stage because of the pervasive fear of punishment and retaliation. The legion of Karki’s victims were simply too traumatized to act against Karki before there was a certainty that he would go. That environment of fear was, indeed, the only but seemingly impenetrable defense on part of Karki.
The only exception to this kind of suppression of obvious information was medical education where Karki had brazenly interfered and nearly paralyzed the regulatory bodies, the Medical Council and the universities with a petty motive of enriching his relatives who owned Medical Colleges. Thanks to Dr KC’s relentless drive–he had demanded investigation and punishment of CIAA officials including Karki for wrongdoing in Medical Education as far back as 2014–and defiant coverage of the same by Himal magazine and some others, some documents proving Karki’s interference beyond his jurisdiction were already out.
Anyway, even though most of the people either suspected or believed Karki to be corrupt and running a parallel state as accused by Dr KC, there was no solid evidence enough to demand his impeachment. The most challenging task on our part now was to look for and find such evidence even though we had been rhetorically arguing that there was already enough of it to impeach Karki.
The first counterattack to Dr KC’s crusade by Karki was his attempt to prevent him from sitting for the strike at TU Teaching Hospital premises where Dr KC works and has sat for all his hunger strikes. Even after threatening everyone from the Dean and hospital director to the peons with severe action if he was allowed to sit inside, Karki failed to evict him. It is likely that, if it were not for the backlash from the press release questioning Dr KC’s sanity two weeks earlier, he would have resorted to vandalism to prevent him from using the hospital premises for the strike. Once Dr KC safely started the fast in his usual place–an unused room in the rear building of the hospital–we took it as a small but significant tactical gain. When the daily newspapers carried the news of the same the other day, we consoled ourselves that things were at least headed the right way.
Filling the void
As days passed, two things converged and set the background for Karki’s deligitimization.
First, social media users started aggressive campaigning in support of Dr KC and many used the no-holds-barred approach personally risking the wrath of the parallel state. This included some noted journalists–Hari Bahadur Thapa, the news editor at Kantipur, the country’s most popular newspaper, stood out among even the most vocal critics of Karki–whose professional work at the media was constrained by the parallel state’s threat to the publishers. #IamwithDrKC and #ImpeachLokman were soon modestly trending in Twitter and the conversation around the issue intensified as the days passed.
Second, as if getting a clue from the social media and the streets where Dr KC drew admiration and awe while Karki drew mockery and disgust, the mainstream media jumped in the fray and despite the sword placed in the neck of the publishers, they started carrying damning news reports against Karki. Again, Kantipur daily was leading the way and second turning point in the fight came the day it carried a story personally implicating Lokman Singh Karki in a shoddy and illegal deal.
It pertained to the illegal transfer of shares of Gokarna Forest Resort from a Singaporean company to a domestic company run by Karki’s chum. After being thwarted by the respective government agency for long because it contravened the initial lease contract with the foreign company, the transfer was okayed after Karki apparently presided a meeting among the two sides and the government agency. Such was Karki’s belief in longevity of the reign of his parallel state that he let the illicit meeting to be documented in a CIAA letter pad clearly mentioning that he had personally facilitated the deal, thus leaving a paper trail that would prove to be precious for us but suicidal to him later on.
This not only proved that Karki facilitated an illegal deal, the very fact that CIAA was approached to materialize such a deal–the application for the transaction given to the respective government agency was apparently forwarded to CIAA–proved beyond doubt that this was not an exceptional case. That the state’s organ with responsibility to (and jurisdiction limited to) investigate abuse of authority and corruption by officials holding public post was facilitating an illegal deal between two private parties was unfathomable but real. For many days, the newspapers (mainly Kantipur and Nagarik dailies), magazines (Nepal and Himal) and some online outlets (setopati.com leading the way, baahrakhari.com, pahilopost.com and some others) competed with one another to expose some shoddy dealing of Karki or the other.
That was an unexpected boon for us. From trying to convince the MPs in the country to impeach Karki based on a statement given by one of his victims in court, we had graduated into quoting a valid, signed document personally and unambiguously implicating Karki into wrongdoing. The ground was now perceptibly shifting below Karki’s feet but he was yet not ready to give up and the country’s political leadership didn’t budge from the unwritten policy of not defying him even if that meant losing any leftover credibility in the eyes of the people.
Besides, if Karki succumbed, the whole nefarious ecosystem of corrupt and above-the-law officials that nurtured the parallel state was going to collapse and it was ‘do or die’ for them. This fear of being swallowed by the disruption in status quo invigorated their machinery and CIAA used the full thrust of its power to salvage the status quo.
The big test came when we had to bring people to the streets. As Dr KC’s health deteriorated steadily, there was no alternative to show of force in the streets. As expected, this was much tougher than getting people to rally to the cause in social media. In a society that has been repeatedly thrown into chaos because of divisive politics, nearly all political parties with one notable exception were deliberately avoiding such a momentous campaign for two reasons: they were scared of a retaliation by Karki, and, the deadweight of their past wrongdoings as champions of terrible governance ensured that they lacked the moral high ground to point fingers at Karki as corrupt and wrongdoer. As the generation of civil society leaders from 2006 movement had been almost completely silenced–among them, Kanak Mani Dixit was hounded, defamed and nearly exiled by Karki, Debendra Raj Pandey had withdrawn to himself, Krishna Pahadi and members of his Human Rights and Peace Society were brutally assaulted repeatedly for protesting Karki’s appointment in 2013–a huge void of leadership was there when it came to mobilizing people.
It was in this void that a new and potent voice from civil society emerged. We named it Solidarity for Dr KC Alliance, this columnist being the coordinator by default. Most prominent among its core component was the Bibeksheel Nepali, an unconventional political party mainly composed of youngsters with unquestionable moral high ground with little to fear in the form of Karki’s retaliation. They had been consistently supporting Dr KC from his first hunger strike but the humongous task this time around to mobilize tens of thousands of people to dislodge the chief of anti-corruption watchdog was unlike any campaign in the past they had run or participated. The others included a host of social organizations, medical student bodies, some professional organizations, social media groups and a myriad of individual campaigners whose frustration with the dysfunctional system and the faith in Dr KC converged at the point.
Until then, I had always preferred to write on seclusion. But now I was suddenly forced in a position to visibly manage the campaign, address the crowds and most important of all, strike a delicate balance between a host of individuals and organizations that were not perfectly aligned and occasionally skirmished with one another.
With the social media and the mainstream media overflowing with news of Karki’s wrongdoing and Dr. KC’s deteriorating health, a truly amazing rally materialized on July 23. With an estimated ten thousand people in streets, an unforeseen protest of the kind led by citizens, political parties were put to shame and Karki’s parallel state looked suddenly vulnerable. By that time, a proposal of public importance calling the parliament to discuss on Dr. KC’s allegations against Karki had been registered by Gagan Thapa, the youth leader of Nepali Congress along with two other MPs. With immense pressure on the government to save Dr KC’s life–by July 23, it had been already two weeks since he had started the fast–a compromise was reached the next day ending the hunger strike.
The street protests had largely delegitimized Karki’s reign and shamed the parties for their continued refusal to hold him accountable but this process had no legal standing and Karki was still the chief of anti-corruption body in the country. With parties not budging an inch towards his impeachment, it would have been foolhardy to let Dr KC continue the fast and risk his life. So the proposal of public importance registered in the parliament was interpreted as the first step towards holding Karki accountable by the parliament and with most other demands fulfilled, it was reasonable that the episode of protest ended there.
With Karki’s parallel state challenged but very much in place, it was then our turn to absorb the backlash. The day after Dr KC ended his fast, we had called all the editors of major newspapers and online portals doing serious journalism. Most were there, cramped in a small meeting hall of Dr KC’s quarters that acted as our de facto headquarter all along, and the mood was very somber. Over those two weeks, the media had assaulted the snake but we all had failed to collectively defang it. The fears of the publishers could be read in the face of the editors but at the same time there was a deep, if hard to discern, determination that this was a short term price to pay and ultimately Karki would go eventually freeing Nepal’s press.
The other day, I was back to Chitwan, my hometown and workplace. Two of the hospitals I worked on had received letters from the CIAA inquiring if Jiwan Kshetry worked there. Both had hurriedly answered ‘no’. The newspapers in Kathmandu had again fallen silent on the matter.
We were thus now in a new phase in which Lokman Singh Karki had lost his face and moral standing but his legal standing as the anti-corruption chief was unperturbed and he had every incentive to retaliate. With two important employers sensing trouble because of me, I felt it prudent to avoid jeopardizing the business of the other two also, which hadn’t acknowledged their troubles to me but were nonetheless unlikely to be pardoned by Karki. After a year of leaving a full-time institutional job, I now faced the prospects of total unemployment. I explained my position to the remaining employers, sought goodbye, packed my bags and left for Kathmandu as the only option now left was campaigning. (How I could afford to risk total unemployment at the age of 32 is a different story altogether and I intend to tell it some time.)
The core team of the Solidarity for Dr KC Alliance–myself, Jagannath Lamichhane, Bidushi Dhungel and Shashi Bikram Karki–now worked full time lobbying the MPs to register an impeachment proposal against Karki. We organized a series of interactions among dozens of MPs and party leaders. By now, the public opinion was definitely unfavorable to Karki and sensing the opportunity, many leaders jumped into fray mildly criticizing Karki and some of them even calling for his impeachment in public fora. Most MPs, though, would regretfully remind us that their hands were tied by the official party positions and corresponding whip in the parliament and hence they were unable to sign in the impeachment proposal document.
By this time, as the government dragged feet in implementing even other points of agreement (that is, not related to impeachment of Karki) reached on July 24, Dr KC had sat for ninth fast unto death. The annual Dashain festival was setting in and people were leaving the Kathmandu valley in huge numbers. The media were yet to absorb the covert and overt blows thrown by Lokman. Every side of the equation–the political parties, the parliament, CIAA and Lokman himself–was now accustomed to the new reality in which Lokman had lost the popular legitimacy but retained the full legal authority as the head of anti-corruption watchdog in the country. The reluctance of the parties to even discuss the Lokman-related proposal of public importance in parliament spoke a lot about the clout Karki wielded over the political class. With no signs that he will actually go, the media was now cautious not to irritate him, and moreover, the festive mood was setting in and jacket advertisements were hiding the front pages of newspapers.
Those were the hardest days for us as campaigners. We called people for Saturday protests in Kathmandu but most of the earlier attendees were either in their home outside the valley for Dashain, or were on their way home. Thanks to youngsters from Bibeksheel Nepali party, though, we were able to mount daily protests in Baluwatar in front of premier’s residence and we even went to residences of many top political leaders to submit a letter exhorting them to impeach Lokman. Live coverage of those errands drew enormous number of people in social media and that helped us to keep the momentum of our fight. And on Saturdays, some prominent people like Surendra Chaudhary, a MP supporting Dr KC’s cause from the beginning, Pratyoush Onta, the research director at Martin Chautari, and Khagendra Sangroula, leading dissenting voice in the country, attended and addressed the rallies that were now shifted to Baluwatar from Maitighar Mandala.
As Dr KC’s health deteriorated, we tried desperately to get three MPs bold enough to sign the impeachment document, that would be enough to keep in motion the process of impeachment, though a quarter of parliament’s strength was required to jump-start the real process by suspending Karki from his work at CIAA. Eventually, two MPs were prepared to sign the document: Surendra Chaudhary, a vocal MP from Nepali Congress and Shyam Shrestha, a respected journalist and independent MP nominated by the cabinet. As Dashain holidays approached, however, we were unable to get the third MP to sign it. Eventually Dr KC withdrew his hunger strike, unwilling to force so many of us to sacrifice the Dashain celebrations.
The precious lifeline
When Dr KC was still in his ninth hunger strike, an altogether different development was taking shape which would profoundly impact and eventually decide the outcome of the whole fight, complementing our efforts to oust Karki. Om Aryal, an irreverent advocate, had earlier moved to the Supreme Court seeking dismissal of Karki’s appointment at CIAA citing his lack of required qualification among others. Karki had won the case and the issue was mostly forgotten.
Amid the silence, however, Karki had tried and failed to close the case forever by manipulating the judicial process during the tenure of Chief Justice favorable to him. As Kalyan Shrestha, one of the most upright and assertive CJ led the judiciary subsequently, a team of 11 mostly untarnished (if some of them contentious because of political background) judges had had been recommended to join the SC. Shrestha was succeeded by Sushila Karki, first woman CJ and one of the most upright and vocal justices in Nepal’s judicial history. A full bench led by CJ Karki ordered the reopening of the case pertaining to Karki’s appointment on 17 September.
For the first time in his tenure of three years and a half, there was genuine possibility that Karki might have to go before end of his six-years term. This emboldened us and created panic in his parallel state. Hours after the court verdict, the CIAA hastily called a press meet to announce that it had resumed investigation into the cases related to corruption at the former Maoist cantonments.
It was a plain reminder to everyone of two things: Karki was really panicked now and would do anything in retaliation; and he had always made the investigation of corruption cases the bargaining chip for his own gain or survival, waiting for more than three years to merely declare that the CIAA under him was investigating a case in which mammoth amount was widely believed to be swindled. This was the third turning point in the fight against Karki.
Karki, however, has never been the one to take the blows lying down. Immediately after the court decision to reopen the case, he started a series of mischievous steps to avoid or influence the legal proceedings. The first one was to leave Nepal for two weeks for Canada, a stay that eventually stretched to more than a month. This reminded us of the earlier episode in which he had avoided the summons of the parliamentary committee overseeing governance citing his sore throat as the cause. He seemed confident of hoodwinking the judiciary also in the same way, and he took the reverent attitude of the political parties towards him for granted.
But in a rush to salvage his purported image as tough anti-corruption crusader, he had crossed the invisible red line drawn for him by the parties. The conspicuous indifference of the political parties towards the demand of Karki’s impeachment was based on the premise that Karki won’t hamper their own kleptocratic governance. Indeed the very foundation of symbiosis between the two sides ever since Karki’s appointment was that each would look the other way when the other indulged in brazen acts of corruption and maleficence.
Whether Karki would genuinely investigate the corruption in former Maoist cantonments, in which the Maoist supremo and current Prime Minister Prachanda is credibly accused of embezzling billions of rupees by receiving funds regularly in the names of phantom combatants among other means, was thus keenly followed by citizens from the beginning of Karki’s tenure. And many including this columnist took that as the litmus test for Lokman. His reluctance to even mention it anywhere in his highly publicized anti-corruption drive over more than three years was thus the strongest evidence of symbiosis between the corrupt political class and even more corrupt CIAA officials. One widely believed explanation of why Karki was brought to the post and vehemently defended by the Maoists all along has been that there was even an explicit agreement between the two sides from the beginning that the issue of cantonment corruption would not be touched. Indeed, even as Karki’s public image took a steep dive after public altercation and face off with Dr KC, Maoists were the only party to defend him monolithically even though other parties had dissenters calling for his impeachment.
With Karki physically away from the country and the judiciary closing on him, we ratcheted up the pressure on the political parties. Karki reacted in rather predictable way, by resorting to vandalism to obstruct the legal process. His relatives were caught on camera physically obstructing the court summons from being pasted in the gates of his residence. This created such a furor in the public that nobody could publicly defend him any longer.
After these turn of events, one minor political party with presence in the parliament became the first to decide institutionally to sign the impeachment documents we had prepared. It was the Rastriya Jana Morcha with three members in the parliament. It was October 20 and after agreeing that all three of their MPs would sign it besides the two MPs who had signed earlier, we had just mailed the impeachment documents to Butwal where their party meeting was being held. By the time they had signed, however, something truly surprising had happened in Kathmandu: 157 MPs from the opposition CPN (UML) and ruling Maoist party had signed an impeachment proposal, registered it in the parliament and achieved the suspension of Karki as the chief of CIAA.
The ouster, more than meets the eyes
Lokman Singh Karki is an ambitious man. As the CIAA under him was transforming itself into an extortion racket–the other commissioners, appointed through party quotas, are mostly as unconscionable as him if not as brazen–and the governance system in the country dived into an unmitigated kleptocracy, he had higher goals. The rumors that he bragged about his plans to run the country as the executive chief after the impending constitutional collapse of January 2018 (Nepal’s constitution says that the local, provincial and parliamentary elections are mandatory before that date and it is widely assumed that the constitution itself will be derailed if the parties keep wrangling like they are doing now and fail to hold those elections) were thus not without substance.
Thus, when the Supreme Court finally declared Lokman Singh Karki’s appointment to CIAA invalid and annulled it on January 8, 2017, that was an end of an era.
Ever since the September 17 decision to reopen the case, it was tempting to assume that the court would somehow decide against Karki’s appointment. But in a country with a flimsy rule of law, things were far from predictable and there was more to it than met the eyes.
Days after the court decision to reopen the case and when Dr KC was still on his ninth hunger strike, we went to meet a top Maoist leader desperately hoping that he would convince the party Supremo to proceed with Karki’s impeachment thereby saving Dr KC’s life. We had chosen him because of his vocal opposition of Karki’s appointment in 2013. The meeting disappointed us profoundly. When he said his party was in no position to challenge Karki because of the fear of his retaliation by investigating the cantonment corruption, that was understandable if unsettling: at least for public consumption, he should have argued that there had been no corruption in the cantonments as charged and they were not afraid of any fair investigation.
What he proceeded to tell then was truly unexpected and grotesque: he told that there were efforts then underway to influence and/or undermine the judiciary on Lokman’s behalf. His term sathiharu (the friends) undertaking that effort could mean many people but that would be doubtless at the behest of party supremo Prachanda who called all the shots in the party and was the one to lose the most in case Lokman opened the cantonment corruption case. It was the clearest indication that the parties, instead of holding Karki accountable through parliament, were contemplating to illicitly influence the judiciary to save his skin.
There are, though, other more ominous lessons from the past that add credibility to the leader’s apparently offhanded remarks on the political parties’ intent to subvert the judiciary if somehow the ax on Lokman affair were to fall on them. That comes in a context where the judicial appointments are heavily influenced by the parties holding the executive power. During the tenure of NC’s Sushil Koirala, the then promising leader of NC and law minister Narahari Acharya was heavily criticized for appointing tainted judges. Asian Human Rights Commission aptly summarized the situation in a statement at that time:
The judiciary in Nepal is not only corrupt. It has also become highly politicized. The Judicial Council has sparked controversy, and in a sense, exposed the judiciary by recommending judges with tainted images…It is clear that these appointments were done to accommodate political favouritism and nepotism…In order for the judiciary to be independent, it requires independent judges. But the judges appear to want to take the blessings of politicians after their appointments. This is another clear indication that the system is corrupt and flawed. How can impartial justice be expected from these political appointees at the Supreme Court?
When the issue of politicization arose again as the Judicial Council (JC) recommended eleven judges for supreme court during the tenure of KP Oli, that included a former MP nominated by the PM’s party and there were allegations of unprecedented politicization in the appointment. From the viewpoint of integrity and judicial record, however, the batch of 11 judges was undeniably and incomparably better than the earlier batch and much of the opposition from the Maoists–then in the opposition–was purely premised on their failure to include their own party’s choices among the eleven. The Maoists tried and failed to obstruct those appointments when the Speaker of the parliament, a Maoist leader brazenly returned the JC’s recommendation of those judges back to the council arguing that the council itself was yet to get a full shape to make such a recommendation and also citing the lack of parliament regulations to conduct parliamentary hearings on the recommended judges as mandated by the constitution.
As the major parties endlessly wrangled about how to form the parliamentary hearings committee, the recommendation went into limbo for months even though the supreme court eventually overruled the speaker’s decision to send back the recommendation. At the same time, one advocate had moved to the SC against the JC’s decision to make the recommendation on March 11 but the writ was eventually quashed by the court on March 20. This was followed by another advocate’s attempt to challenge the recommendation as ‘non-legal’ but the court administration had been refusing to register it.
The drama that followed then on June 2, 2016 was, according to a knowledgeable source, an unprecedented coup attempt in Nepal’s judicial history.
With the acting Chief Justice Sushila Karki (who was also yet to be confirmed by parliamentary hearings) outside Nepal, the supreme court did a U-turn on its decision not to register the second writ against the recommendation even though a similar writ had been quashed by the same court earlier. A single bench of acting CJ Baidyanath Upadhyay ordered the court administration to register the writ and fixed the date of preliminary hearings on the case for Sunday, 5 June when CJ Karki was still supposed to be outside Nepal. According to same knowledgeable source, Karki, after hearing about the developments, instantaneously canceled the remaining part of her foreign trip and hurried back to Nepal to take back the reigns of the court thereby ensuring that the recommendations remained in place. Hearing on the writ was subsequently canceled more than a dozen times and the advocate who had filed the writ even resorted to hunger strike later on 22 June demanding that the SC conduct hearing on his case.
What lurked behind this visible drama was the fact that Lokman Singh Karki had been apprehensive about his fate after Sushila Karki took reign of the supreme court. The outspoken judge had publicly indicated that none including Lokman would be immune from the law under her leadership in the judiciary. It has been widely assumed that her predecessor, Kalyan Shrestha, did not reopen Karki appointment case because he lacked the team of dependable colleagues at the court. After the entry of the 11 judges, majority of which were handpicked from among the lower court judges by Shrestha and Sushila Karki as the chief and a member of Judicial Council respectively, the latter’s hands were much strengthened and Lokman seemed to have dark forebodings (and they were totally justified, as things eventually unfolded). It was thus entirely conceivable that Lokman Singh Karki, as the head of a powerful parallel state, had been instrumental in the attempted coup in the judiciary.
A country led by leaders devoid of hope and spine
In that brief meeting with us, the Maoist leader had unwittingly admitted many things letting us to peek into the despicably distorted moral universe in which the Nepali politicians operate: that the party was truly terrorized by prospects of investigation of cantonment corruption meant that either there was huge corruption as accused or the party had no faith in Karki to hold fair investigations. Either way, the party was more comfortable with the allegations of swindling billions but was unwilling to face investigation and clear itself. In case the party mistrusted Karki and feared unfair investigation, there was no remorse for appointing him in the first place and for shielding him all along, let alone the desire to get rid of him now.
That he blithely mentioned the party’s effort to undermine the judiciary meant that that was not unique or unusual effort by the party. This inference becomes even more solid when put in context of the earlier effort by the party to subvert the appointment of 11 judges to the supreme court by brazenly abusing the power of the speaker, just because the party didn’t get its quota among the judges.
If we were to believe him, rather than trying to do the undoable (i.e. impeaching Karki or improving governance by any other means), we should rather patiently wait for the ‘external’ factors to intervene (or, stop intervening) that may change the status quo in the future. Until then, there were no prospects of any improvement that either the common citizens or the leaders like him could hope or act for. This is reflective of a damning general attitude of many politicians in the country.
Let me elaborate what that ‘external factors’ meant in Karki’s case in particular but also holds true for any such important issue in Nepal.
On hindsight, the one factor that constantly worked in Lokman’s favor all along seems to be the perception, at least among the politicians, that he enjoyed the full backing of Indian establishment. It is no secret in Nepal that New Delhi has substantial influence in every major decision of that kind taken in Kathmandu. There were indeed few explanations as to why Karki was so hurriedly appointed to the constitutional watchdog with overnight U-turn of the then president Ram Baran Yadav in 2013. Amid intense public outcry and vacillation of the two main parties, the CPN (UML) and Nepali Congress, Yadav had assured the country until hours before the swearing in by Karki that he would in no way appoint such a controversial person to the sensitive post. The rumors would later circulate that there were phone calls in the midnight to the president that resulted in the U-turn.
Yadav is yet to open his mouth on this matter but it is widely believed that the calls, or any other communication of that sort, originated in the neighboring capital. The other circumstantial evidences include the blessings the then bureaucratic government enjoyed from New Delhi (the then chief of executive and judiciary, Khila Raj Regmi, reportedly took absolute stand in Karki’s favor) and the personal rapport of Karki to Indian Babas and Intelligence officials, both with substantial clout in New Delhi’s corridors of power.
The Maoist leader’s cynicism as to if any good thing will again happen in the country or rather, if India would ever allow any good thing to happen in Nepal, was illustrative of the hopelessly fatalistic and pessimistic outlook of the political class towards the country’s future. And the problem is, he is even now counted among the more respectable and less corruptible top politicians of all the political parties in the country.
Conclusion 1: Faint hope for accountability and good governance
After failing to unseat Lokman from his chair at the CIAA during Dr KC’s eighth hunger strike, I was back in Chitwan and there we organized third part of the interaction series titled ‘Parliament, CIAA and Accountability’ under Solidarity for Dr KC Alliance banner, two parts had been already held in Kathmandu. As would be reasonable, we invited all the active political parties in the district along with their sister organizations related to health sector, student bodies and teachers in three public colleges. I personally called them and most of the district chiefs of political parties confirmed that they’ll come. We were ecstatic and booked a hall for 150 people.
It was thus shocking when not a single person from parties represented in parliament showed up in the program. Nor did the students, health workers or professors, all of them known for egregiously partisan political views show up. The fear of retaliation by a wounded Lokman seemed to have frightened them so much that, they were not ready to attend a discussion organized by somebody else, let alone actively hold discussions on a matter of such massive significance in the country. The two exceptional political parties were Bibeksheel Nepali and Naya Shakti Nepal, a party led by former PM and Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, both part of the Alliance and thus organizers rather than attendees.
The program was, however, memorably successful as around 50 people, most of them doctors, attended and openly lambasted the Lokman regime. Among them were some doctors with administrative posts in government hospitals who could be hounded easily by Lokman in no pretext. Medical students also came and spoke even though the owners of medical colleges had held a rally in support of Lokman the previous week.
This unambiguous split between the lethargic political parties with moribund values and no sense of responsibility, and the informed non-partisan citizenry ready to risk a lot for the greater good, is the defining feature of the struggle for good governance in Nepal today. Here we have instances in which dozens of parties hold a combined mass meeting with attendance countable in hundreds. Unless there is emotive issue like religion or so called nationalism, parties regularly struggle to draw huge crowds but over the summer and autumn of 2016, Kathmandu’s streets have seen at least three rallies attended by around ten thousands and about a dozen with lesser presence in support of Dr. KC’s cause. The media has done a commendable job in sustaining this kind of engagement of people with the issues that are routinely overlooked by the political parties.
What should bother us now the most is the fact that most of the political parties, big or small, after all this, are as openly and equally committed to bad governance and kleptocracy as they ever were. After waiting for nearly three months to start the process of impeaching Lokman (Nepal’s constitution says that, once started, the whole impeachment process should complete within five weeks), Nepal’s parliament decided to send it to the impeachment committee on the day of SC’s verdict to annul his appointment. This shows the lackluster attitude of the political parties when it comes to holding somebody accountable for his deeds, even though he had ran a parallel state terrorizing all of them at the same time over the past three years. This seems to be reflective of the general reluctance of the parties to promote accountability in the country because if somehow it is nurtured and the system starts identifying and punishing the culprits, the skeletons can start falling endlessly from the cupboards of almost every politician of any stature in the country.
This is precisely why we, as citizens of this country, cannot afford to slacken the vigilance towards the crimes of omission and commission that the political class in the country is so determined to keep repeating. With icon like Dr KC leading the crusade, it has been possible to clean some of the mess in health and medical education sector in the country and his credibility from that crusade has been instrumental in unseating a corrupt dictator-in-making in the country from the post of the chief of anti-corruption watchdog. The challenge now is to motivate and educate enough number of youngsters to keep challenging the status quo and keep striving for a better tomorrow overcoming the pervasive sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
Personally, I would like to see an alternative political force sweep the corruption-infested political parties from the political arena in Nepal but am unable to figure out how and when that may be possible. Till then, vigilant citizens are the only safeguards to Nepal future and it is up to us to rein in the kleptocratic tendencies of political parties.
Conclusion 2: Lessons learnt
- Not all is lost: Despite so many setbacks and lost opportunities, there is a lot to fight and achieve, and preserve, and promote.
- We may be the lucky ones: Put yourself in the shoes of dissenters in today’s India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Maldives, Bhutan or literally any country with a semblance of democracy (let alone the autocracies of China and elsewhere) and you’ll instantly realize that we in Nepal are among the lucky ones. That luck was in its way out if Lokman regime had entrenched itself further but now there is a breathing space and hopefully it can be sustained.
- Perseverance matters regardless of whether there are immediate rewards or not
- Careful what you wish for at the ballot: If there was one constant thing about which we, the core activists, uniformly lamented, it was our decision to vote one party or the other during the last elections. Personally, I had voted for Sushil Koirala of NC in the direct ballot and the Maoists in the proportionate system. Now I would pay anything to undo the sin that I had committed while voting them. If enough of us had voted for a party like Bibeksheel to elect even one MP, things would have been much different.
- Challenging the status quo matters, however pessimistic the environment, no voice raised against the wrong and in support of right gets wasted.
- Documentation helps: It is pleasantly surprizing to recollect that the dossier we had compiled on Lokman’s wrongdoings (here) came handy when the two parties hastily decided to register the impeachment proposal, we were obviously happy to help them. That document is also the testament of the importance of assembling solid evidences in such crusades.
- Organization and institutions are vital to any struggle: If the youngsters had not formed a political party like Bibeksheel, it is hard to assume how we would have organized the kind of mammoth rallies. Social media groups and campaigns like Men’s Room Reloaded, Hami Nepali, Solidarity for Prof Govinda KC, were all integral part of the struggle while organizations like Human Rights and Peace Society, Nepal Human Rights Organization were unambiguous in supporting the cause led by Dr KC when the political parties were so scared of Lokman that they had shunned Dr KC. Support from other campaigns like Sushasan Maha Abhiyan, Group of 25+, etc was also significant. The bodies of medical students were always instrumental in the fight. And with Solidarity for Dr KC Alliance, that was a unique experiment and a rather successful one
- Imperfect but crucial media: I have been one of the most outspoken critic of a section of Nepali media and the aura that media itself need not be accountable while seeking accountability from others is dangerous, for media itself as well as society. But when there is dynamism in any movement, there is always a brilliantly functional media support that helps the drive for good sustain in hard times and amplifies the voices when it is going good. Without a series of materials competitively illuminating the Lokman’s labyrinth of maleficence, it is hard to imagine how this fight would have concluded.
- Credibility and dignity count more than anything else, preserve them at any cost: If anything saved Dr KC from Lokman’s brute force after proclaiming him corrupt, it was his credibility as a selfless activist that earned him faith from people. Also in the process, I discovered the true value of my Doctor’s degree: it has been feeding me and that is no mean task!
- Do what you can, do not despair over what you can’t: I lost a decade from mid-teenage to youth despairing over things over which I had no control (during the insurgency years, wrongly feeling guilty of ‘doing nothing for those who suffered’). Then I made the U-turn, castigated the self-loathing and started to view the reality in its nuances. That has made all the differences. Especially in the troughs of the movement, the conviction that things will obviously change with time kept us going and we never complained about the adversities.
- Core team: Jiwan Kshetry, Bidushi Dhungel, Jagannath Lamichhane, Ujjwal Thapa, Shashi Bikram Karki,
- Organizers: Dibyesh Giri, Brabim Kumar KC
- Troubleshooters/advisers: Akshay Adhikari, Max Dipesh Khatri
- MP with sustained support: Surendra Chaudhary, Shyam Shrestha, Aman Lal Modi
- Sustained organizational support: Bibeksheel Nepali Party
- Legal crusade: Om Prakash Aryal
- Active participants from doctors/medical students: Dr. Madhur Basnet, Dr. Leison Maharjan and NRDA team, Dr. Abhisek Raj Singh, Suman Acharya, Bishad Dahal, Dr. Sagar Pokharel
- Mentor/Vocal opposition of CIAA involvement in KU: Kedar Bhakta Mathema
- Periodic involvement and support: Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Bikash Gyawali, RK Romas
- Regular guests and speakers in street: Khagendra Sangroula, Pratyoush Onta, Kapil Shrestha, Dr. Saroj Dhital
- Chitwan team: Amar Ghimire, Suman Khanal, Dr. Krishna Poudel, Dr. Bhojraj Adhikari, Prem Rimal, JB Thapa, Dr. Subas Basnet
- Relentless social media support: Hari Bahadur Thapa, Kedar Sharma, Rajesh KC (cartoons too!)
- Political invitees in interactions: Gagan Thapa, Pradeep Gyawali, Thakur Gaire, Ranju Darshana and around 2 dozen MPs
- Advocacy and support: Radheshyam Adhikari, Kanak Mani Dixit, Jyoti Baniya, Shambhu Thapa, Sarad Poudel, Krishna Pahadi, Indra Aryal
- Celebrity support: Amrit Gurung, Buddhi Sagar, Nayan Raj Pandey
- MPs ready to sign our impeachmnet document: Surendra Chaudhary (NC), Shyam Shrestha (Independent), and Chitra Bdr KC, Durga Paudel, Meena Pun (three from Rastriya Janamorcha Nepal)
- Institutional support and participation: Naya Shakti Nepal, Rastriya Janamorcha Nepal (for the impeachment proposal)
- Finance for sound system, vehicle and communication for street programs: Bibeksheel Nepali party.