Justin Vela

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Nepal’s Smoldering Terai

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Bullet and tear casings fired at the Tharu protesters by Nepali police as they unsuccessfully tried to end the Tharu's bandha in Chitwan.

Bullet and tear casings fired at the Tharu protesters by Nepali police as they unsuccessfully tried to end the Tharu's bandha in Chitwan. copyright 2009 Justin Vela.

Helsinki-Below is an unedited version of an article on the growing tension in Nepal’s Terai region. This article was written last March/April for The Caravan magazine.

For additional information read this excellant article in The National which profiles a different Madhesi group. While I doubt the Madhesi will follow through with their threat to carry out suicide attacks this conflict does appear to be growing. I also question the different Madhesi armed groups ability to unite into a large insurgency. Each one claims they are about to carry out attacks, but they are not speaking with a single voice. I hope to be back in the Terai to continue working on this story early next year.

Nepal’s Smoldering Terai
Justin Vela

Growing Ethnic Tension As Nepal Writes It’s New Constitution Makes Peace Look Far Away

When we meet in the town of Mortiya, which lies not far from the Indian border in Nepal’s southern Terai reigon, Ranjit Khadka immediately leads the way to the back corner of a dark canteen and speaks with his voice lowered in case he is overheard.

“They told me, ‘This is our region. You don’t have the right to be here,’” Khadka says.
Two years ago, at about nine o’clock at night, Khadka was inside his house watching the news when men dressed in blue camouflage broke into his home. He told them that they didn’t have permission to be there, but a gun was put to his head and he was made to walk blindfolded for several hours through cornfields until coming to a house where the blindfold was removed in a dark room.

Khadka had been kidnapped by Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), one of thirty-four armed organizations founded by members of the Madhesi indigenous group who claim to be fighting for Madhesi rights and an autonomous state in the Terai. This was 2007 and the Madhesi, both the armed organizations which were then just forming and the common people, were in the throes of several weeks of violence that came to be known in Nepal as the Madhesi Uprising.

Khadka was freed after his friends paid JTMM a ransom of 500,000 Nepalese rubies. The Madhesi Uprising continued until the newly elected Maoist government agreed to rename the Terai the Madhes and have Nepal’s interim constitution amended to say that the future constitution, which is due to be completed in May 2010, will turn Nepal into a country composed of federal states.

As Khadka was being released his captors told him. “You have to read our history. We blame you because you are Pahadi. That is your crime.” Khadka was stunned. A Pahadi or “hill person,” Khadka’s family came to the Terai two generations ago from the Kathmandu Valley, buying land and working as farmers. Until 2007 there was no noticeable ethnic tension between the Pahadis and the local indigenous people. Since the Madhesi Uprising however he and other Pahadis have started being intimidated into fleeing the Terai, which the different indigenous groups are reclaiming as their own. There are near daily killings and nearly all Pahadis have left the southern Terai. “I am one of the few Pahadis still living in Mortiya,” Khadka says. “Eight-five percent of my friends are Madhesi, but I still don’t feel safe living here.”

Santoshi Shresthei was shot in the thigh by a ricochet bullet as the police unsuccessfully used force to end the Tharu's bandha in Chitwan.

Santoshi Shresthei was shot in the thigh by a ricochet bullet as the police unsuccessfully used force to end the Tharu's bandha in Chitwan. image copyright 2009 Justin Vela

Democracy, it has consistently been proven, is a messy form of rule. And it is the initial stages that are the most dangerous for any newly established democratic country. Though many hoped that the ending of the ten year civil war would usher a new era of stability into Nepal, it appears that the country is only headed towards additional conflict, this time led by the indigenous people who are using any means necessary to get rights to land and representation for their own particular group written into the new constitution.

“I very much feel that Nepal is headed to more conflict,” says Tilak Pokharel, a Nepali journalist for the newspaper My Republica. “Given the present circumstances I think there will be straight anarchy. All five main political parties need to come together now with one message otherwise I can’t say where it will start.”

This is a sentiment echoed by other journalists and intellectuals I interview in Kathmandu. Indeed some even support the indigenous groups using force. “Some of them will waste their struggle in parliament. Some of us may take up arms like the Maoists did. The same as in any democratic country,” says C.K. Lal, a well known political commentator.

The Madhesi are not the only indigenous group using force to secure rights in the new constitution. In the village of Bachheuli, in the central Terai district of Chitwan, a Tharu man named Sanjit Mahato says, “We Tharus are the Dharti Putra, the sons of the soil. My family has lived in this village for six generations. Before that the Tharu people moved across the Terai whenever they needed to find more fertile land. We have always lived in the Terai.”

Mahato, a large man with a drooping black mustache and hands that are hard and cracked from a lifetime of farming, is sitting on a wooden bench in the shade of a single story wooden house. Behind the house water buffalo pull carts towards rice paddies. The Tharus claim to being the original inhabitants of the Terai is not something that the government contests. However, succumbing further to Madhesi demands, the government added them to the Madhesi population, failing to acknowledge them as separate group in the interim constitution.

Due to the slow way that information travels from the government to the people in Nepal, it was only earlier this year that the Tharus discovered that their hope for proportional representation based on the population size of each indigenous group had been shattered and the Terai renamed the Madhes. Enraged, they sent a delegation to Kathmandu seeking recognition as a distinct group and to restore the name Terai to the constitution. The delegation was ignored. Out of a fear that their culture would gradually be lost and that they would not have the representation and access to jobs that they deserved, the different Tharu organizations in the Terai joined together under the umbrella of the Tharu Welfare Society and declared a massive bandha or strike that shut down the Mahendra highway that runs across the Terai – Nepal’s breadbasket – and caused massive gasoline and food shortages across the country.

Mahato was among the thousands of Tharus who took part in the bandha. He enthusiastically describes Tharus coming from villages all over the Terai to lay barricades across various points along the highway. Schools were closed so children could take part in the bandha. The bright purples, blues, and reds of the Tharu women’s saris gave the bandha a festive air. Not even the tourist busses that are so vital to Nepal’s economy were allowed to pass as the Tharus blocked the highway chanting slogans such as, “We are not Madhesi. Government cannot make us” and “Madhes should be Terai. All should be in unity.”

After four days of the bandha members of the Armed Police Force gathered along the highway in Chitwan and attempted to disperse the Tharus as they were preparing dinner, firing rubber bullets and tear gas. The Tharus scattered, but when they refused to leave the highway the police began firing live rounds at close range. Twenty-four Tharus were wounded and two killed; one man bleeding to death when the police stopped the ambulance that had been called for him.

The injured were collected and taken to the hospital on foot or in wagons pulled by tractors. Apparently seeking to frighten the Tharus into ending their bandha, police arrived at the hospital and used bayonets to attack the people who had transported the wounded, cutting several men across the tops of their heads. The Tharus had declared from the start that they would remain peaceful, but once they realized the kind of tactics the police were using they picked up rocks and began throwing them at the police, their superior number forcing them to retreat.

The next day the bandha continued in full force. Groups of Tharus came from up to forty kilometers away, filling the roads alongside the highway. When they began chanting slogans the police again attacked. They broke doors and windows and entered houses as they chased the Tharus through the streets, beating entire families inside their homes. Two policemen who became separated from the rest were attacked on a side street. One was killed with an ax. The other was wounded, but escaped.

“I was surprised by the police reaction,” Mahato says. “They came in a big group and suddenly attacked us.” Despite the deaths and injuries he feels that the bandha was justified. “I was very angry when I heard that the government sees us as Madhesi. We are Tharu. We are not Madhesi. The Madhesi want to take Tharu land and make it theirs. We are against that.”

Thirteen days after the Tharus began their bandha, the government proposed a six-point agreement which promised to amend the interim constitution to recognize them as separate from the Madhesi, refer to the Terai as the Terai/Madhes as opposed to simply the Madhes, and give compensation to the families of the people killed by the police during the bandha.

“Our bandha proved itself to be successful,” Mahato says. Though he feels that the bandha made the government take the Tharus’ demands seriously he does not trust the government to actually implement the agreement. The Madhesis have a larger voice in Nepal’s constituent assembly and thirty-four armed groups who, along with demanding greater rights and representation, insist that at least a part of the Terai keep the name Madhes and want the Tharus to remain recognized as Madhesis so that the Madhesi can have greater representation based on a larger population size.

The Madhesi’s demands, Mahato vows, will not be achieved. “There will be more struggle,” he says. “This bandha was the first step. We have to wait and see what the government will do with the constitution.”

Though he initially hoped that the Maoists would change Nepal for the best, Mahato sees them as a disappointment to the indigenous people. “They have not done anything,” he says. “People are still dying every day. The security situation is so bad that people go off and you are not sure if they are going to come back. There is no real peace.”

While the Tharus are committed to peace, Mahato says,they will not relinquish their demands for equal rights and will not allow themselves to be labeled as Madhesi.

“With this thirteen day bandha the Tharus were taken seriously,” he says. “The new constitution will be proposed next May. If the government does not meet our demands the bandhas can go on for thirteen months or thirteen years. However long it takes.”

A Tharu man uses a water pump to irrigate a field in the Chitwan district. The Terai has been suffering a drought and crop production has dropped in some areas by as much as 40 percent.

A Tharu man uses a water pump to irrigate a field in the Chitwan district. The Terai has been suffering a drought and crop production has dropped in some areas by as much as 40 percent. image copyright 2009 Justin Vela

The Terai is Nepal’s most agriculturally fertile region, yet traveling across it the land is mostly dry and inhospitable. There are fields and some forests, but moving east the earth becomes more barren and river beds are empty or low. Many of the bridges over these drought inflicted rivers are guarded by the Nepali Army; improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) are still occasionally hidden in the deep cracks of these bridges, reminders of the contrived nature of peace in Nepal.

While he believes violence to be natural to a post-revolutionary, newly democratic country, C.K. Lal says, “My feeling is that it will not be so intense. They will take up guns, but Nepal has learned from the mistakes of India. We have a strong vanguard of intelligentsia. They are acting responsibly. There will be violence, but it will not tear Nepal apart.”

With armed struggle always an option, the Tharus and many other groups in Nepal have for now chosen bandhas, the non-violent weapon of choice in Nepal as a method of agitation. Effective because Nepal is reliant upon most of its basic products coming through the Terai from India, when the highway is blocked the rest of the country is choked. If the people orchestrating the bandha can withstand the police, the government often concedes to their demands.

It is traveling the Mahrendra highway east from the majority Tharu areas that I have my first encounter with a bandha. Trucks and cars are stopped ahead. The driver gets into the right lane and speeds along a line of vehicles that stretches for kilometers. Drivers lie in the shade beneath cargo trucks. Others stand or sit on the side of the road. Some sleep inside their cars. Everyone seems resigned to not moving.This bandha has nothing to do with indigenous rights; Nepal Oil Corporation employees have taken to the highway after it was announced that older petrol trucks would be fazed out and their owners forced to purchase new ones, something they do not feel they are paid enough to do.

Unsure if we will be let through, the driver asks around for someone selling petrol. A woman points to a barn where she fills a plastic bucket with petrol that is funneled into the car. There are many large plastic bottles in the barn; bandhas are so frequent on this part of the highway that the woman has prepared in advance. The frequency of bandhas has made the Nepalese sympathize with each other. When drivers are stuck for days and run out of money to buy food, someone in the surrounding houses usually appears with a large platter of rice to share. Other times drivers are forced to sell jewelry or the products that they are transporting simply to eat.

When we attempt to negotiate our way through the bandha, multiple groups of tense men rush at the car yelling for the driver to to turn around. In the car there is an elderly woman who is returning home after receiving treatment at a hospital in Chitwan. The driver argues that she must return home and rest. The men look through her medical papers suspiciously before agreeing to let the car pass. On the other side of the Nepal Oil Corporation trucks that have been parked horizontally across the highway there are kilometers more of stopped vehicles, their discontent drivers moping around the edges of the highway.

While the Tharus express a commitment to non-violence, the Madhesi, who are the dominant indigenous group in the eastern Terai, have already become far more contentious and the highway has become the dividing line between the majority Madhesi areas and the ethnically mixed parts of the eastern Terai. Since the Madhesi Uprising in 2007, Pahadi people and many Tharus have been intimidated and threatened to the extent that most of the towns and villages along the border with India have become nearly entirely Madhesi as other groups increasingly moving north of the highway.

How much support the armed organizations actually have is difficult to gauge. They extort, kidnap, and kill not only Pahadis but also their fellow Madhesis for donations, urging them to unify as Madhesi people. “Not all of the organizations have a real desire for political power. Some do,” one Madhesi man told me. While most of the armed Madhesi organizations use political claims to excuse what is essentially organized crime, the larger ones do appear to have found some local support by making promises of land redistribution to Madhesi villagers, something that the Maoists have failed to accomplish.

After several days of waiting, one of these groups, the Terai Liberation Front (TLF), which is known locally by the name Rajan, agrees to meet with me. They are currently holding negotiations with the government and when a jeep filled with their top commanders arrives along the edge of the highway, they are met not only by a group of their local men, but also a police truck. The police explain that they have been ordered to provide security to the TLF as a courtesy extended by the government. Their primary task is to protect the leaders from the local Pahadi people who burned a TLF van two months before when it drove through a bandha demanding donations.

The jeep transporting the TLF commanders attempts to drive down the gravel road leading south of the highway, but runs out of gas after only a few meters. It is the police who then decide to drive them the several kilometers to the village of Karmuhan, which has dozens of small red TLF flags hanging from trees and homes.

Bicycles, a few water pumps, and a scattering of cars and motorcycles are some of the minimal changes that have come to Karmuhan in centuries. The basic farming techniques and thatched roof houses have long remained the same. Closely watched by the local villagers,the TLF commanders lay out sheets on the second story of a wooden community center that they are constructing on land “captured” from a Pahadi man after he succumbed to their threats and left the village. “He was going to sell this land,” one of the commanders says. “It should be used by local people.”

Rajir Utkarsh is one of the commanders taking part in the negotiations with the government. A goateed man dressed in a yellow collared shirt and black dress pants he says, “We want to make the people of the Terai free. They have never had a chance to be free until now.”

The TLF believe the eastern Terai to be part of the Madhes, a region that they claim is half in India and half in Nepal. This is something that no experts in Kathmandu can verify. The Madhesi came to Nepal from Ganges river valley in India and “Madhes” derives from the Nepali word “Madhyadesh” which means “central nation.” While the Tharus are demanding the Terai remain a single region, the TLF and most of the other Madhesi groups want either independence or a highly autonomous state that will be linked with India through the open border between the two countries, with no Nepali police or army.

Though their view of history appears to be unsubstantiated, the TLF’s profess to be defenders of the indigenous groups. “The Madhesi people are like slaves without the rights of citizens,” Utkarsh says. “There are many qualified people, but the government never uses us. So we are compelled to raise our weapons.”

Utkarsh has no expectations concerning the negotiations with the government and claims that the TLF is using the negotiation period to train soldiers and plan attacks on police stations. We walk to another piece of land that Utkarsh says was also recently captured by the TLF from a Pahadi landowner.

“We are distributing properties to the poor,” he says. “The Maoists made that promise, but they were not from this place. Their work was for other people. We work for the local people. We are local to this district. We are local people fighting for local people.”

As I leave Karmuhan, a large group of Madhesi villagers gather around Utrkarsh and the other TLF commanders, listening to their promises to fight for Madhesi rights.

Senior leaders of the Terai Liberation Front tour land captured from Pahadis that they claim will be given to local madhesi people.

Senior leaders of the Terai Liberation Front tour land captured from Pahadis that they claim will be given to local Madhesi people. image copyright 2009 Justin Vela

“I was good with all communities, but I was about to lose my life,” says Gopal Chaudry.

Chaudry is the Tharu principal of an ethnically mixed high school in Nawalpur, a town not far from where I met the TLF. During the Madhesi Uprising in 2007, Chaudry received a call from a Pahadi friend who was being threatened by the Madhesi in his village. Believing that his reputation would keep them safe, Chaudry went to his friend’s village and attempted to help him and his family escape the Madhesi crowds outside of his home.

Before they could leave the village they were stopped by a group of Madhesi, thrown off their motorcycles and beaten on the ground. “I was sure they were going to cut us up into small pieces,” Chaudry says. “They were going to kill us.”

Chaudry and his friend were saved only by the intervention of local Madhesi politicians. “The ethnic tension will only get worse,” he says. “Every group is in search of their rights. They all need better rights written into the constitution, but it is impossible that everyone will be satisfied.”

He uses the example of his students to describe the tension in the Terai. “Usually they are all mixed, but during times of violence they separate into the different groups. They are more comfortable that way. They might still play together, but against each other. The Tharu against the Madhesi…The Pahadi against the Tharu…once the trouble has passed they mostly go back to being normal. The situation goes up and down. I certainly feel the threat. During the day it is not yet a problem to move. At night no one is safe.”

He adds, “There is a lack of security. People can’t feel the presence of the government.”

The growing indigenous conflict makes clear that despite the 2006 peace agreement that ended the civil war, Nepal still cannot be consider a truly post-conflict society. The Maoist struggle, it appears, has only taken the lid off a host of issues that the monarchy suppressed through the use of force. The shift to democracy, while positive, has not been accompanied by the necessary government oversight or action and the people, especially the indigenous groups in the Terai, have only the lesson that force is the only way to be heard in the chaos that is Nepal’s government.

“The root cause of all this that Nepal was ruled for two hundred and fifty years by the Pahadi, the people of the highest caste,” says Dr. Ram Joshi, a founding member of the Congress Party which began agitating for the Nepalese monarchy to become more democratic in the 1950s.

In the fifth floor office of a Kathmandu orphanage that houses children of people killed during Nepal’s recently ended civil war, Joshi, who has been called by some the “Ghandi of Nepal” and is respected by all parties, reflects on the future that is quickly closing in on Nepal. “It will be the Terai that poses the most problems,” he says.

Joshi describes how, subsequent to its founding in 1768, the monarchy declared all people to be Nepali; all of one culture, one religion, one language. This was a profoundly false construction. Nepal was in fact composed of more than one hundred ethnic groups, whose lands the monarchy unified into a single state.

The establishment of this homogenized society was carried out by the elites from the Kathmandu Valley, whom the indigenous people in the Terai referred to as the ‘hill people’ or Pahadi. The Pahadi forcibly took land from the indigenous people and became owners of large estates in the Terai. Unable to stay in the Terai year round because of the large amounts of malaria carrying mosquitos during the summer months, the Pahadi employed the Madhesi, who arrived in the Terai about five hundred years ago from India, to act as landlords and governors. The caste system used by the Madhesi was similar to the caste system used in Kathmandu and, because of this similarity to the elites, the Madhesi quickly grew in power compared to other indigenous groups in the Terai.  After a malaria eradication campaign in the 1950s however, Pahadi people were able to live year round in the Terai, becoming the wealthiest landowners and treating the Madhesi and other indigenous people such as the Tharu as virtual slaves.

“There was the hegemony of a particular class,” Joshi says. “The Pahadi people have also sacrificed for the Terai though. They have built roads and schools, but the indigenous people do not count that. They see the Pahadi that live in the Terai and the elites in Kathmandu as the enemy.”

After the establishment of democracy the indigenous people were disappointed that the Maoists did not address their lack of equal representation and land rights, as they had long promised. Smiling gently and sipping from a cup of milk tea, Joshi quotes George Orwell to describe what the indigenous people discovered about the form of democracy in Nepal: “We are all equal, but some are more equal.” He criticizes the Congress Party for failing to establish a more inclusive democracy in Nepal before the Maoists came to power. “The Nepali Congress saw themselves as the vanguard of democracy. That narrow view was reflected in the democracy they established. I am a member of the Congress Party, but I am speaking in the defense of the indigenous people.”

While he scoffs at the Madhesi armed groups and refers to them as opportunistic criminals, Joshi supports the indigenous people. He worries however that the increasing ethnic tension and numerous groups asserting conflicting demands have created a situation that is quickly deteriorating.

“The discontent is already in their heart. It has not been able to erupt until now. People are more educated, aware, and conscious than ever before and they are being pushed by engaged leaders,” he says. “I don’t know where this will lead Nepal. The people are becoming very emotional. This time they are asserting their rights vigorously and violently. That they have become so bold reflects an administration that has alienated them.”

Nepali journalist Tilak Pokharael goes a step further. “ What the Madhesi armed groups are doing with the land below the highway is ethnic cleansing,” he says. “None of the parties wish to risk isolating any of the indigenous groups and risk losing them as future voters. This leaves the indigenous groups to take matters into their own hands.”

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Written by Justin Vela

September 14, 2009 at 8:44 am

Posted in Asia

Tagged with , , , ,