By Sudeshna Sarkar, Womens Feature Service
Uma Singh, 24, was an unusual role model in Janakpur, a small town in the hot, humid Terai plains of southern Nepal, whose main claim to fame is the Janaki temple that draws thousands of Hindu pilgrims every year.
She chose to be a crusading journalist in a society that keeps its women under tight control. Living on her own, she fought against violence against women, which is an integral part of life in the Terai. At the same time, she also had her own private battle: to get justice for her father and brother.. “She was an unusually brave woman,” recalls Yashoda Timilsinha, a journalist and a senior official of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ).
“Women journalists face a lot of hurdles in Nepal. We are a conservative society where daughters are asked to stay at home. Journalism demands odd hours and late nights and so families discourage their daughters from joining the profession,” she says.
The Terai plains are still harder on women. Due to the low literacy level and appalling poverty in the region, child marriages are rampant. Girls are often married before they reach their teens and the bride’s family must pay a dowry to ensure a husband. Though the Maoist government banned dowry recently, reports of women being forced to return to their parental homes because their parents could not afford to give expensive gifts to the son-in-law are common.
In this repressive society, Singh dared to be different, despite the tragedy that struck her two years ago. Her family was originally from Siraha district. They owned some land, which was being eyed by the local leaders of the Maoist party, a former guerrilla organisation that had waged a 10-year armed revolt against the government and had come to power last year, after contesting the elections.
Singh’s father, Ranjit, and elder brother, Sanjay, were allegedly abducted by the Maoists. They never came back. There is strong suspicion that the two men were killed. “Uma refused to be intimidated,” says Timilsinha. “She went to police and filed a complaint, naming the abductors. Very few people would have had the guts to do this.”
But the police turned a blind eye and Singh began receiving threats, asking her to withdraw her complaint. As she refused to give up, her only option was to move away from Siraha to Dhanusha district for safety, where she began to work in Janakpur as a journalist for a local daily, ‘Janakpur Today’. She also worked as a broadcast journalist for a private radio station, Today FM.
“She had her own radio show – ‘Garma Garma Chaye’ (Piping Hot Tea),” says Dr Renu Rajbhandai, president of Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (Worec), an NGO that runs a hotline and safe houses for women victims of violence. “In it and in her articles, Uma spoke against domestic violence, dowry and violence against women. She was outspoken in her demand for punishment for the perpetrators.”
On January 11, Rajbhandari was in Janakpur on a field visit. “I was depressed,” she says. “Some of Worec’s staff had received threats and were scared to go on field work. The Janakpur safe house had been stoned. We felt those who were speaking against gender violence were under threat.”
Her misgivings were proved right when the stunning news came at night: Singh had been fatally attacked. About 10 to 15 people, armed with knives, had forced their way into the rented room, dragged her out and stabbed her brutally. “We heard her cry out but were afraid to go to her help,” a neighbour later told a group of visiting journalists. “We locked our doors and stayed in.”
When help came, it was too late. The local hospital said it would not be able to treat her and Singh bled to death while being taken to the capital. “Why did this happen?” were her last words, recalls fellow journalist Manika Jha, who rushed to see Singh. “Who did I ever harm?”
“Uma was killed because of what she did,” says Timilsinha, who was part of the three-member FNJ team that went to Janakpur to investigate the killing. According to the FNJ, 29 journalists have been killed since the Maoists started their “People’s War” in 1996. While security forces killed 17 on the suspicion they were Maoists, the rebels accounted for nine murders. Singh is the first woman journalist to have been killed, although there have been instances of women reporters having been arrested and tortured.
The public outrage after her murder and protests by journalists have resulted in a few arrests. Amidst suspicion that the Maoists could have a hand in the killing, the Maoist minister for information and communications, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, told parliament that a man belonging to an underground organisation had confessed to the crime. Mebilal Paswan reportedly told that police his Terai Ekta Parishad, an organisation that people did not know existed before the murder, was responsible. He tried to gloss it over, saying that it was a case of mistaken identity.
Police subsequently arrested more people, including Singh’s sister-in-law, Lalita, and nephew, Abhishek. Now, the official explanation is that it was a contract killing ordered by Lalita, who had been trying to grab the remaining land left to the family.
But journalists are not ready to buy that. “Perhaps property was a factor,” says Babita Basnet, who heads Sancharika Samuha, a network of women communicators. “But it couldn’t have been the sole reason. If Uma had not been a journalist, she would not have fought the threats to withdraw her complaint.. Neither would she have fought her sister-in-law’s demand to hand over the remaining property.”
Basnet, who has had a brush with the army during the Maoist insurgency, also attributes the murder to the culture of impunity and lawlessness that began flourishing in Nepal when the government tried to root out the Maoist insurrection with brute force. “Dozens of journalists were killed or tortured during the People’s War,” she says. “Some by the state and some by the Maoists. But none of the killers have been brought to justice.”
Though the Maoists came to power last year pledging justice for those killed and tortured during the civil war, they have not made any move to punish those responsible for war crimes. If the culture of impunity continues and Singh’s real killers are not punished immediately, journalists say it will mean a grave setback for women journalists. “A fear psychosis prevails in the Terai,” says Timilsinha. “Women journalists are scared to talk about Uma’s murder or even the threats they have received. The women we met told us their parents were pressuring them to quit the profession after seeing Uma’s fate.”
Amidst the growing fear, there is still a faint glimmer of hope. “Community workers are not ready to throw in the towel,” says Rajbhandari. “The morale is down definitely and people are afraid. But they realise that they can’t just sit at home doing nothing. If we wash our hands of this, they told me, Uma’s killers will never be punished.”