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Face-to-face

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Driver meets Maoist activists who set fire to his taxi and destroyed his livelihood.

As he returned home on 25 July, cab driver Chitra Bahadur Khatri knew that the Biplav faction of the Maoist party had called a strike that day. But it was only 3:45 am and he thought he was still safe.

Five men stopped his Maruti in New Baneswor and lobbed a petrol bomb into it while he was still inside. He scrambled out, but the blaze reduced his taxi to cinders.

After weeks of effort, Nepali Times finally brought Khatri face-to-face with the arsonists police say set fire to his taxi that fateful morning. Khatri, 19, looked nervous as he entered the office of the All Nepal Communications, Printing and Publications Workers’ Union (Revolutionary) in New Baneswor, which is affiliated with the [hardline Biplav Maoists](hardline Biplav Maoists).

Nabin Bista and Bhanu Acharya — who had been arrested on arson charges on Khatri’s complaint — also appeared edgy as they waited. The Kathmandu District Court had released them on Rs 50,000 bail each, which was paid by the Maoist party. Khatri and the two exchanged glances before he went on to relate how he was nearly burnt alive when his cab caught fire. He did not look angry as he pleaded for compensation from the Maoist party.

Bista and Acharya denied that they had anything to do with the attack, and fell back on the familiar rhetoric that it was “not party policy” to vandalise vehicles. Bista gave a little speech about how the party struggles for the rights of the working class.

The meeting was not what Khatri expected. All he received were denials, and no apology. As he got up to leave, Acharya asked Khatri for his phone number in case the party decided to offer financial compensation. But it was not a promise.

No gain, only pain

VICTIMHOOD: Chitra Bahadur Khatri (left), whose taxi was set on fire during a strike, confronts his alleged attackers Nabin Bista (centre) and Bhanu Acharya (left) of the Biplav Maoist party, demanding compensation.
VICTIMHOOD: Chitra Bahadur Khatri (left), whose taxi was set on fire during a strike, confronts his alleged attackers Nabin Bista (centre) and Bhanu Acharya (left) of the Biplav Maoist party, demanding compensation.

Every time a political party calls a general strike in Nepal, it deploys cadre armed with petrol bottles at strategic intersections early in the morning to vandalise and set fire to buses, taxis and motorcycles.

It is standard operating procedure to terrorise the public so that as news of the attacks spreads through FM radio and social media, no one dares to venture out or open shops. The tactic is often effective, and by evening the party can proclaim that the strike was a ‘success’.

The national economy pays a heavy price for these strikes, with an estimated Rs 2 billion lost each day. There have already been six day-long strikes this year, most of them called by the hardline faction of the Maoist party led by Netra Bikram Chand, aka Comrade Biplav.

The terror tactics have a human cost as well. At least three taxis were set on fire by the Maoists in strikes in the past eight months, leaving owners and drivers destitute and in debt.

Like thousands of young men, 19-year-old Chitra Bahadur Khatri initially thought of migrating abroad. He left his landless family in Dhanusa and came to Kathmandu to seek his fortune, deciding to invest in a taxi after giving up his studies.

He took out a Rs 900,000 loan for a second-hand Maruti, and worked night and day to to pay it back and take care of his family. It was usual for him to work late, and on 25 July he headed home at 3:45 am to avoid the Maoist strike that had been called that day.

Five men stopped him in New Baneswor and hurled a petrol bomb into the back of his vehicle. Khatri was nearly burnt alive as he tried to save his car. The attackers ran off, and it took almost two months for him to come face to face with them again at a meeting set up by Nepali Times this week.

Rakesh Tamang, 33, in his rented room in Gongabu. He became jobless after his taxi was burnt by Maoists enforcing a strike last year. Both Khatri and Tamang are deep in debt and have received no compensation.
Rakesh Tamang, 33, in his rented room in Gongabu. He became jobless after his taxi was burnt by Maoists enforcing a strike last year. Both Khatri and Tamang are deep in debt and have received no compensation.

The office of the All Nepal Communications, Printing and Publications Workers’ Union (Revolutionary) is very close to where Khatri’s cab was attacked in New Baneswor. Nabin Bista and Bhanu Acharya looked fidgety, but politely offered seats to Khatri and his uncle.

Khatri did not look like he wished to talk, and without any eye contact painfully recounted his narrow escape from the burning cab. Bista and Acharya repeatedly denied being involved. No apologies were offered, and both said they had been picked up randomly by police.

“We have no idea about where and how your taxi was set on fire,” Bista told Khatri. “The police picked us up on the street and tortured us.”

Bista held forth on the party line, saying it was not Maoist policy to vandalise vehicles. Khatri appeared neither convinced nor bitter, and just did not seem keen to engage in an argument. He just wanted to know if the party would offer compensation.

“I had plans to clear my debt within the next four years and buy a new taxi,” Khatri told them, “now I have no option except to wait for compensation from your party or the government. It’s a lot of money to pay back, I don’t know how I will survive.”

Bista and Acharya repeated that the Maoist party was a defender of the rights of the working class, and as Khatri and his uncle got up to leave they asked for his contact number in case the party decided to offer financial help.

Khatri has been able to get permission from the District Court to take the rusted hulk of his cab out from the New Baneswor Police Station. He thinks the car can be repaired for Rs 500,000, but does not have the money. “I can’t even think of buying a new car now, I have to pay back the loan and take another loan to repair the old cab,” Khatri said.

Rakesh Tamang, 33, also had his taxi set on fire by the Maoist faction last year, on the day the parties agreed to promulgate the new Constitution. He is also lucky to have climbed out alive from the burning car.

“I couldn’t afford to stay at home that day even though there was a strike, because I had to pay my loan and feed my family,” he recalled. A year later, Tamang’s family is struggling to survive. He spent the whole past year visiting government offices for compensation that never came. His arsonists were never caught.

“I am so stressed that my mind doesn’t work properly, I look alive but feel dead inside,” says Tamang in a low voice, holding a sheaf of documents needed for his compensation claim.

At least three taxis have been set on fire by strike-enforcers since last year, according to the Nepal Meter Taxi Association, but the party that is supposed to represent the working class denies responsibility and is not offering compensation to drivers like Khatri and Tamang.

By Shreejana Shrestha