Murky politics in Nepal and a personal vendetta appear to have combined to close down a liberal, pan-regional news and analysis magazine that has been in business for 29 years.
Last month, Kathmandu-based Himal Southasian announced that it will suspend publication from November. The August 24 announcement by the Southasia Trust, which publishes the quarterly magazine, said “suspension was the only option” because of “non-cooperation by regulatory state agencies”. Grants meant for Himal Southasian were not being approved, work permits for non-Nepalese editorial staff were not renewed, and there were unreasonable delays in processing payments for international contributors.
The announcement came four months after the magazine’s founding editor, Kanak Mani Dixit, was arrested by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority – Nepal’s apex constitutional body for corruption control – on charges of “irregularities” related to a transport cooperative board that he is chairman of. Dixit was released 10 days later, after the Supreme Court described his custody as “illegal”.
In 2013, Dixit led a delegation at Singha Durbar, the seat of Nepal’s government, to protest against the proposed appointment of the bureaucrat Lokman Singh Karki as the chief commissioner of the anti-corruption body.
Dixit was accompanied by Shambhu Thapa, a lawyer and civil rights activists. They were opposed to Karki being appointed to that post because he had been previously found guilty of suppressing the People’s Movement, and was also tainted with regard to a gold smuggling case.
But Karki went on to take over as commissioner in May, 2013. In September, 2013, the Department of Revenue Investigation, reportedly at the behest of the anti-corruption body that Karki now headed, raided Thapa’s law firm. Dixit’s arrest came two-and-a-half-years later.
“There is revenge behind it,” journalist Ameet Dhakal said about the twin cases, writing in Setopati, an online news magazine that he edits. The attacks on Himal Southasian are said to be an escalation of the same vindictiveness.
CK Lal, a Kathmandu-based political columnist and a vocal critic of Dixit’s, said the Himal Southasian founder was the main target “because he has angered very powerful people” with his activism. Lal, who spoke to Scroll over the phone, added: “He developed political interests in Nepal…[In politics,] you earn supporters, but also gain enemies.”
So, while the aim was Dixit, the axe fell on Himal Southasian, which was a soft target. The pan-regional magazine, being a niche publication, enjoys little mass following despite its fame throughout South Asia. “It has nothing to do with Nepal’s politics as such,” said Lal. “This apart, the magazine’s agenda does not particularly endear itself to the masses either. For example, in its support for Kashmir, or Tibet, it is pitted against India and China, angering nationalists on both sides.”
“Nobody cares much for it [Himal Southasian] here,” added Lal, explaining why there’s little public opinion on the recent crisis facing the magazine. “The authorities did not risk anything by targeting it.”
Dixit conceded that his Nepal-based activism was the primary reason behind the closure of the magazine. “My Nepal-based activism, including against Maoist violence, autocratic kingship, against Hindutva defined into the new constitution, the definition of federalism and lastly the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki as the head of the anti-corruption commission, has been the primary reason for the closure of the magazine," Dixit said in an email to Scroll.
“Geopolitics is at play,” said Lal.
In Kathmandu, it is widely believed that Karki’s elevation as commissioner of the powerful anti-corruption body was facilitated by Indian intelligence officials. Karki is still believed to work closely with them. Many see him as an “India plant”, one reason why politicians are afraid of risking his wrath, said a person at the Southasia Trust, who did not wish to be identified.
Dixit, who has always been a critic of India’s “increasing micromanagement of Nepal” over the last decade, was particularly vocal about the six-month long economic blockade of Nepal, which many alleged was backed by India.
Three months ago, in a scathing opinion piece in Nepali published in Setopati.com, Dixit accused Karki of “grabbing parallel powers of state” and the Commission developing as a “malevolent power centre”. He wrote that Karki, with the backing of his “handlers”, was able to suppress dissent by intimidation, and by arbitrarily slapping corruption charges on people he saw as threat.
In the piece, which also is said to have contributed to Dixit’s woes, Dixit described Karki as a “threat never seen in Nepal’s modern history since the fall of the Ranas in 1950”. He said that the chief commissioner was led by his grand ambitions to become the head of the government – a view held by many in Kathmandu – by plunging the nation into a constitutional crisis.
Karki did not respond to efforts to contact him via email or social media. Ganesh Raj Karki, the spokesperson for the anti-corruption body refused to comment either, saying he was on leave. An official at the commission said, on condition of anonymity, that issues concerning Himal Southasian were outside its jurisdiction.
A studied silence
While the news of Himal Southasian’s suspension was reported elsewhere, especially in India, there is a studied silence in Nepal apart from stray opinion pieces in the liberal press. Many in the media and academia either refused to speak to this reporter, or spoke off the record.
Dixit is popular in South Asia as a liberal journalist and enjoys the support of a section of Nepal’s civil society. However, he seems rather isolated at the moment. “In one line,” said Lal, “he has no friends left in Kathmandu.” Dixit’s detractors say, off the record, that his ancestral wealth and businesses – he and his family own a number of ventures in education, media and publishing sectors – make him vulnerable. The row over Himal Southasian must not take away from that, said a Dixit critic, who refused to be identified, adding that Dixit must not try to take cover from those probes citing press freedom.
Various state agencies have launched investigations, allegedly at Karki’s behest, into Dixit’s family businesses.
Said the official at the Southasia Trust: “Karki has used his method, which is to pressure other government offices to do what he cannot do directly, and so he has activated the tax department, revenue investigation, land registration, the social welfare council [an NGO watchdog] to go through each and every one of Dixit’s many involvements, from a spinal injury rehabilitation centre, to a printing press, the publishing house Himal Media, the Rato Bangala School, a social science institute – and the Southasia Trust, the publisher of Himal Southasian.”
The malaise seems to run deeper. Himal Southasian is not an isolated case, said Pratyoush Onta, a cultural historian with Martin Chautari, a research institute that operates out of Kathmandu. The atmosphere of fear is all pervasive. “The ‘use of the arms of the bureaucracy to paralyse’ the functioning of Himal Southasian is but one symptom of the ways in which state institutions are trying to use the tactics of control to tame journalism/civil society/liberal/open public spaces in Nepal. There is much else going on in the same mode. [For instance, the proposed licensing exam for journalists to be conducted by Press Council Nepal].”
He also said Karki has instilled a lot of fear among journalists, lawyers and writers. ... “Nepal’s most influential newspapers were/are afraid to report anything critical about him [Karki] and his deeds.”
The publication has faced crises related to inadequate staff or financial challenges before. In 2014, two major parties alleged in Nepal’s Parliament that the magazine was misusing funds from the Norwegian embassy to derail Nepal’s peace process. Clarifications from the Norwegian embassy and the magazine put a lid on the matter.
“We are penalised as part of a larger vindictive political attack on our founding editor,” Himal Southasian editor Aunohita Mojumdar said in an email. “The attacks we have faced repeatedly and which now make it impossible for us to continue to work in Nepal have nothing to do with our content. We have complied with every rule and regulation applicable to us; a forensic scrutiny of our editorial content would demonstrate that all our journalism is in the public interest, and there is no charge or investigation against us... We are now in a situation akin to being held in detention without charge or trial.”
“If the magazine shuts down for good,” said Onta, “we will lose one invaluable resource for critical thinking related to South Asia.”
Onta added: “It will be a loss to not only South Asian public life and associated academics, intellectuals, activists, journalists and the like, but also to non-South Asian folks who do research and writing related to South Asia in general.”
But Onta needn’t worry; Dixit has plans. “We have to save Himal, we will save Himal, and it has to be outside Nepal given the situation here and the difficulties placed on our path,” said Dixit, who is also the chairman of the Southasia Trust.
He added: “Himal has already concretised its editorial ‘Southasian sensibility’ so we could go anywhere in terms of physical placement. Activists and friends have invited Himal to Colombo and Dhaka. We think India may be the best bet despite challenges that exist there as well.”