Mamta Singh, 19, stands on the doorstep of the police station of her village in the Terai region of Nepal. She readjusts her traditional dupatta scarf, takes a deep breath, and confidently walks inside. She checks again the sheet of paper in her hand, and carefully folds it. “I am here to submit my application form to become a police officer,” she says to the receptionist.
What looks like an unremarkable scene is actually a turning point in Mamta’s life — something that would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier.
In Mamta’s conservative family, distrust towards the police runs deep. She grew up fearing the men and women in uniform. “We heard horrid tales of police brutality which made us cringe. We didn’t trust them, as we were told that they were bad people,” she explained to us.
When the new Constitution of Nepal was promulgated in 2015, her home region of Terai was marred by violence. The indigenous Madhesi people, to which Mamta’s family belongs, felt that the new document failed to address the grievances of Nepal’s marginalized populations. Protests and violent clashes ensued.
“Many of our relatives, friends, and people we knew were hurt. At that time, we blamed the police force for the unrest and chaos,” Mamta said. The harsh tactics the police relied on to control the situation deepened the divide between them and the local communities.
Mistrust between security forces and citizens is not exclusive to the Terai region; in fact, it is a commonly found issue throughout Nepal. That’s why our team launched the Pahunch project, a 4-year initiative funded by DFID to improve relationships between police and communities through arts, media, and sports.
When we organized one of the project’s football clinics in Mamta’s area, she joined, but not without reservations.
“My best friend informed me about Search and the event that they conducted for youth like us. I was very interested, and enrolled in the 3-day football clinic,” she explained. “I love meeting new people and was really excited about it. But later I found out that the police too would be part of it. I didn’t know what to expect!”
On the first day of the initiative, the tension was palpable, as the police officers entered the room where youth participants had gathered. The conversation between the two groups was limited to minimal pleasantries. But, as the football clinic unfolded, the distance between them started to vanish.
60 youth and 20 police officers participated in the program, playing indoor and outdoor experiential games based on collaboration, communication, and peacebuilding. For the football tournament, the core component of the clinic, we divided them into groups and instructed them to form mixed teams.
Mamta remembers that, as they began interacting and their relationship thawed, meaningful discussions emerged around various issues. “That’s when we realized that the police officers and youth can indeed be friends,” she commented.
One exchange in particular changed Mamta’s perspective. “The Superintendent of the Police, Rajendra Prasad Chaudhary, was leading an interactive conversation. He explained to us the working of the police and called for our support to strengthen security and peace in society. Suddenly, I raised my hand,” Mamta recalled. She conjured her courage, and asked, “Sir, I belong to a deprived Madhesi family. We are told that the police are bad people. That’s why no one in my family has joined the police force. What is your take on this?”
The Superintendent took the question sportingly. “The Nepal Police believes in social inclusion, and we accept people from different culture and ethnicity,” he answered. “I understand that relations between the police and the public haven’t been cordial in the past. But we want to focus on the present – and in the present, we want to see the police and the public become friends,” he said.
“You should join Nepal Police to prove to your family that the police aren’t bad people,” he continued. “We want good people like you.”
The Superintendent’s answer was the positive force that encouraged Mamta to apply to become an officer. “I am confident that I will be selected, and I dream of working in the Nepal Police to make things better. The football clinic has made my friends and me positive towards the police,” Mamta explained. “Even after the clinic – we still are in touch with the police officers that participated. They remember us by name, and we’re friends on Facebook,” she concludes with a smile.
Ayush Joshi is a Senior Coordinator for Program Development and Communications at Search for Common Ground Nepal.
Balika Chaudhary is a Field Coordinator at Search for Common Ground Nepal.