Monday, February 09, 2009

Requiem for Uma Singh

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Feb 8, 2008

The Other Half

Whenever we in India use the phrase “neighbouring country”, we refer to Pakistan. We forget that there are other neighbours. Nepal, for instance, our northern neighbour, a country that has gone through immense political convulsions in the last three years, has faced decades of internal war and conflict, and is emerging now as a tentative democracy.

The press in Nepal has reported fearlessly through this difficult period. It has known the curbs on freedom. It is now relishing a release from past curbs that only a democracy can guarantee.

Other threats
Yet, despite democracy, the press in Nepal faces a more serious threat, that of violent attacks by dozens of armed groups that continue to flourish with impunity. As a result, those who do not toe the political line set by such groups end up paying a heavy price. One such was 26-year-old radio journalist Uma Singh, who was hacked to death by over 15 men in her home in Janakpur on January 11, 2009.

A recent visit to Kathmandu revealed how strongly a cross-section of journalists there feels about Uma’s brutal murder. Yet little is known in this country about it. In fact, little is reported about the developments in Nepal unless there is an India angle.

Uma was one of a growing breed of independent-minded journalists in Nepal. Unlike India, FM radio in Nepal is an important part of the media scene as it covers politics and current events and not just popular music. Uma reported for Janakpur Today FM radio and also wrote columns in print media. According to her fellow journalists she was fearless in reporting social and political crimes.

Uma Singh lived and worked in the southeastern Tarai region of Nepal bordering India, and reported on problems specific to that region such as the dowry system and caste discrimination. At one point, she was forced to move house because of the threats she received for some of her writing.

Uma Singh belonged to a wealthy landowning family in the Tarai. Three years ago, Maoists kidnapped her father and brother. They have not been seen since and are presumed dead. Uma was determined to track down the perpetrators of that crime. Since her murder, an attempt is being made to dilute the seriousness of the crime by passing it off as a property dispute between members of her family. Yet, the threat she posed was not because she was involved in a family dispute over property but because she did not hesitate to speak plainly about political crimes, including the one involving her family. Nor was she cautious about taking on those close to the people now ruling Nepal. A neighbour, who heard her cries for help when she was attacked, overheard one of the killers saying, “This is for writing so much.”

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