The year was 2001 but the twin towers in New York were still standing. We could afford to be interested in, no, fascinated by the story of one man’s fortitude in the face of extreme adversity, surviving a dangerous fall in the Himalayas, living not only to tell the tale but going back to his business of doing good with renewed vigour and energy.
That was my first introduction to Kanak Mani Dixit, already well regarded as the go to person in Kathmandu for all matters South Asian, whose ground-breaking news magazine Himal Southasian was held in high esteem by journalists and academics alike in all parts of the world. A fair, genial voice amidst strident, raucous, my-country-right-or-wrong experts that our subcontinent seems to specialise in.
I was with The Telegraph newspaper then and proudly, enthusiastically published Kanak Mani’s first-person account of his fall from a cliff whilst trekking alone in the Annapurna section of the Himalayas in August 2001, how he lay under an anthill for four days with severely damaged neck bones, how he had dug a little pit to collect drinking water and made a flag out of some scraps of plastic, of his deep despondency when he saw what he thought was his rescue helicopter fly away, how he was finally, found by a search party thanks to his cap that was caught on a tree, signalling his location.
“When I finally saw the rescue party through the haze that included a good friend and my brother standing in a semi-circle around me, that’s when I lost all energy. I thought, the rest is up to them.”
Not quite. A miraculous recovery later, he added another project to his long roster of activities devoted to lending a helping hand to the people around him, setting up a spinal injury rehabilitation centre in early 2002 for victims of spinal injury who cannot afford what is quite an expensive and long-drawn-out medical treatment. As he likes to put it, “In Nepal, most people with spinal injuries aren’t well off. Women fall off trees when cutting tree fodder. Porters fall off cliff sides. Our centre’s slogan is: The poorer you are, the harder you fall.”
It is this resilience, this compassion, this intense love for the Himalayas (“The Himalayas are full of travel and adventure, they also stretch beyond nation state boundaries”) that made Kanak Mani Dixit give up a cushy job with the United Nations in New York and return to Kathmandu in 1990 to be a journalist, activist and a pioneer in a whole host of activities ranging from setting up Nepal’s first printing press to its first film festival for documentaries.
True, earning his daily bread was not something he has had to worry about ever. Personally rich (the Dixits are one of Kathmandu’s wealthy families with several large houses set amidst sprawling gardens in the aristocratic Patan Dhoka area where family members live), he has to scrounge around for finances for his many projects but not to fund his open house and generous lifestyle. Which is what makes his arrest on charges of corruption, of “amassing property disproportionate to his known source of income”, of selling organisational property as own inheritance and investing the income in other corporations, of procuring a house and land in his name in the US with these ill-gotten gains so absurd. Dixit, who studied in Columbia University in New York and worked there could easily have stayed on there if he had wanted to, he didn’t need to embezzle other people’s money to do so.
Knowing the outcry that would follow the arrest of someone so eminent, the CIAA (Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority) spokesman was quick to point out that, “We have arrested the Sajha Yatayat Chairman Dixit, not the journalist, to investigate his involvement in corruption,” as if to indicate the journalist we know and respect has feet of clay. But Dixit himself will be least surprised at the turn of events.
He has been imprisoned before, when he took to the streets to protest against the then King Gyanendra and demand his removal way back in 2005-2006. That time he was arrested — along with thousands of others — for defying a curfew and demanding democratic reform and earned him a jail term of 19 days, something he could have had cut short if he had pulled a few strings. He did no such thing.
Again, his well-articulated and openly aired reservations against the Maoists (eg “Yes, they were fighting for social justice, but with a knife in their hands. Their campaign promoted ethnic-based politics, ultra-nationalism, and involved killing village elders to gain control and instigating state terror. In my view, this war was not required — we needed social change, but not armed revolution”) resulted in Maoist lawmaker Shakti Basnet accusing him of misusing funds granted by the Royal Norwegian Embassy, Kathmandu, to the Southasia Trust, of which Dixit was the executive director, to use “Media to Promote Regional Peace and Development” to campaign against the then ongoing peace process, triggering a debate on the support of foreign diplomatic missions for Nepali media. This was in 2013.
Recently though his politics has not been in conflict with the ruling regime. Rather, he has been critical of India’s rather ungenerous reaction to Nepal’s new constitution, found merit in the Oli government’s pro-China turn, putting the onus on India for driving Nepal into China’s arms, etc. Yet he has still managed to ruffle some powerful feathers. Evidently.
The fact that he was detained on a Friday, just before the courts closed to prevent being freed on bail and locked up in a common jail cell for petty criminals with no concern for his high blood pressure does smack of personal vendetta. Apparently, according to a statement put out by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, “Dixit had been critical in his regular columns about the appointment of Lokman Singh Karki to head the CIAA three years ago. The high-level Rayamajhi Commission had accused Karki of being involved as chief secretary in crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters in the last days of King Gyanendra’s rule exactly 10 years ago.” One of Dixit’s recent hobby horses has been to get justice for the victims of Nepal’s conflicts, whether at the hands of Maoists or the Nepali state.
Dixit himself has told the Kathmandu Post over the phone that “My arrest was a part of vendetta for having opposed Karki’s appointment to the CIAA chief’s post in the past. But this is against the Supreme Court order issued by then Chief Justice Kalyan Shrestha,” and added that Sajha Yatayat, the public bus transportation system he is chairman of and whose funds he is accused of misappropriating, is not a public institution but a cooperative and the CIAA’s action is politically motivated.
The international outcry against his arrest is testimony to Dixit’s standing as a journalist and a human rights activist. But what makes him stand out are his human qualities, his kindness, his gentleness, his welcome one and all spirit. The least he deserves is a fair trial, an investigation without any hidden agenda — precisely what he has been doing all his life, as a journalist, as an activist, as a friend, as a concerned citizen.