"There was no reason for the police to shoot at all. We were just demonstrating on the streets, when all of a sudden, bullets began raining down on us." Thus described Ram Chandra Maharjan the events at his hilltop hometown of Kirtipur in Kathmandu Valley during the 1990 People's Movement. Maharjan's account is among the hundreds of depositions before the three-member Mallik Commission constituted in 1990 soon after the success of the Movement, to investigate instances of criminal acts by the state during the 49-day-long pro-democracy agitation.

As in other countries that suddenly emerged from authoritarianism to democracy, the free but shaky governments of Nepal since 1990 have failed to take action against those who criminally suppressed opponents of the erstwhile Panchayat system. In their version of events to the Commission, all those incriminated shifted responsibility citing that they were only acting under orders. Policemen named their superiors, who, in turn, passed the buck on to the Home Ministry and the notorious "National Resistance Committee", constituted of hotshots of the Panchayat regime to oppose the People's Movement. On its part, the Committee pleaded that it too was following instructions from the 'higher authorities'. In those days of absolute monar­chy, 'higher authorities' could only mean the king, and there the exercise of identifying those responsible faltered.

The Commission submitted its report to the interim government formed immediately after the restoration of democracy. The government, a coalition of the Nepali Congress, the communists and royalists, however, decided not to take action against police personnel implicated in the Mallik report. The government's argument was that such action may affect the general elections it was mandated to conduct. All it did, therefore, was seize the passports of politicians implicated and send the report to the Attorney General.

The Mallik report had recommended strong action against those implicated. The then Attorney General, however, was of the opinion that no action could be taken as evidence against individuals was lacking. This was a view that generated heated debate in the country at that time, and the head of the Commission, Justice Janardhan Mallik, himself protested that the report contained enough proof for prosecution. But the matter did not go further, and despite assurances by governments of all hues since then, there has been no attempt to implement the recommendations.

Years of political opportunism and national amnesia have taken their toll and the commitment to seek justice for past wrongs has begun to fade. (The report was made public only towards the end of 1995.) Nearly a decade after the atrocities of the spring of 1990, the guilty remain unpunished.

It took the extradition case in London of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to revive memories in Nepal of its own past. Some sections of the Nepali media started drawing parallels between Pinochet's blood-stained rule and Nepal's own authoritarian Panchayat regime. Meanwhile, a group of 121 law students sought to file a writ in the Supreme Court seeking it to direct the government to take action against 47 political stalwarts of the Panchayat regime who were named in the report. Their argument was that since the burden of finding proof is the government's, statements in the report should be taken as "first information reports" on the basis of which investigations should begin. The initial petition was not accepted on the grounds of a technicality, but the lawyers-to-be were not to be deterred and they submitted another petition, the hearing on which is upcoming.

Pinochet's junta lasted 17 years, during which about 3000 were kidnapped, tortured or disappeared. But at the end of it, Pinochet was allowed to go free in a trade-off for democracy. Nepal's Panchayat regime stood firm for nearly double the period of the Chilean dictator's rule. During the full three decades that the king held absolute power, it is believed that thousands were imprisoned, tortured or disappeared.

The 1990 uprising saw scores killed in unprecedented crackdown by the state. And as, unlike in Chile, Nepal's transition from autocracy to democracy did not include a blanket pardon for those responsible for those offences, there is all the more reason for following the Mallik Commission's recommendations.

But the longer it takes, the more difficult it is going to be. The Panchayat-era forces have now regained a strong footing in the country's political milieu and have partnered governments with the very 'democrats' and communists who joined forces in 1990 to bring down the Panchayat regime. (Among those whose passports were seized were Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who became prime minister with the help of the communists in 1997, and Pashupati Shamshere Rana, who was a powerful minister in governments which included both the Nepali Congress and the communists.)

The Mallik report has thus come to symbolise justice-in-waiting, and a challenge to the collusion between fighters for democracy-turned-rulers and those who at the very least abetted atrocities during the rule of the Panchayat.

This Nepali inability to right historical wrongs has a precedent that goes back 50 years. In 1950, began Nepal's first experiment with democracy following the semi-violent overthrow of the rule by hereditary prime ministers of the Rana family. The excesses committed during the 104-year Rana rule was conveniently forgotten in the spirit of the socalled Delhi Compromise, between the king, the Ranas and the Nepali Congress, representing the people.

The Mallik Commission report had given Nepal a chance to start afresh after the restoration of democracy in 1990. But as things have turned out it may once again prove to be an opportunity lost.

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Himal Southasian