“Why?”

(Uma Singh, a journalist with Radio Today in the southern town of Janakpur in Nepal, was killed on 11th January 2009. The Federation of Nepali Journalists has mounted a campaign asking for immediate action against Uma’a killers and a firm commitment by the government to the freedom of press. Uma’s killinng comes in the wake of attacks on different media houses in Kathmandu. Like Lasantha Wickrematunge in Sri Lanka, Uma was killed for writing and speaking fearlessly at the other end of Southasia.)

Janakpur: It was impossible to believe that Uma Singh at Ganga Sagar Ghat on Tuesday morning – an FNJ flag draped over her still body, face bandaged all across, the cuts on the head visible – was the same Uma I had met two months ago.

Uma’s looks were deceptive, for the tiny frame contained abundant energy. By the time I strolled into Radio Today’s studio at 6 am in mid-November, Uma had wrapped up her morning bulletin. She was running around the office and passing instructions in a matter-of-fact professional way

She briefed me on the format of Janakpur’s most popular Maithili political discussion show, Garma garam chai. I still remember how Uma said to both her co-anchor and me, “Please avoid English words. The programme is meant for people in villages.” I nodded, a little ashamed my Maithili was not as fluent.

We discussed the day’s news – Girija Koirala’s Birgunj rally, Peace Minister Prabhakar’s impending visit for unofficial talks with armed groups, and the security situation. Her questions showed a sharp political understanding. The sympathy for the Madhes cause was obvious, but she was firm in her denunciation of the criminality and violence raging in the name of Madhesi rights.

It is a rare sight in the Tarai – a working woman journalist. And I stayed on to chat a bit more. She told me how opportunities for women were limited in the district; how field reporting was dangerous; and how she soon wanted to move to Kathmandu. I took her number before leaving, thinking I would interview her for a profile at some point.

That will not happen now.

At the cremation site, others who knew her more intimately could not hold back. FNJ president Dharmendra Jha, who is from Dhanusha, broke down. Siraha editor Rajesh Verma, who initiated Uma into journalism at Siraha campus and made her sub editor of his Dhristhikon weekly, blamed himself for her fate. Sahadev Karki, who put her up at his home in Janakpur, was too stunned to react.

We do not know who killed Uma. What we know is this.

Uma’s murder was different. Most groups in the Tarai, including Maoists, prefer to use local pistols, available across the border for INR 1100. Why did 15 men have to attack Uma’s house, stab her, mutilate her body parts, and leave her unrecognizable? Was the manner of the murder a message in itself?

We know Uma’s father and brother were disappeared and killed by the Maoists when her family resisted Maoist attempts to grab their property. She wanted to pursue the case, but the culture of impunity has meant that those killers remain scot-free. “If they had been arrested, this would never have happened. No one is scared here,” her close friend and Siraha colleague, Rajesh Verma told us.

We know Uma wrote critically of the Maoists. She had told some friends, “Journalism is a way for me to take revenge and seek justice for my family’s suffering.”

We also know that there was a major squabble in Uma’s family. Uma’s father was a landowner in Siraha’s Maheshpur village, besides having property in Mirchaiya bazaar. If the Maoists had captured it in the past, some other family members were eyeing it now. These relatives had a cold relationship with both Uma and her mother.

And we know this was all happening in a context where law and order is absent; journalists face constant danger; the culture of silence is deepening; and a death is a mere page 3 brief in a newspaper.

A deep anger runs across sections here. Many in Tarai feel that the state has willingly abdicated its responsibility to protect lives because Madhesis, not pahadis, are dying – the government can change that impression by acting. District activists say they are never offered the same protection as those in Kathmandu – the capital’s civil society can remedy it by pushing this issue.

More than one journalist could be overheard saying. “If we cannot take this case to an end and win justice, there is no point in working here anymore.”

As she was breathing her last on way to Bardibas, Uma’s only question was, “Why? What crime did I commit?” If she had stayed on as a meek, submissive woman in her village, and accepted existing power and patriarchal norms, Uma may have survived. Her ‘crime’ was she spoke up. She fought for her rights – as a citizen, as a journalist. And she carved an independent path. She paid the ultimate price fighting for values we cherish.

Uma Singh, 1984-2009. We shall not let this pass.

(An edited version first apeared in my column in the Nepali Times.)

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