Madhesi protestors have lifted the four-month blockade of the India-Nepal open international border at Birgunj. On February 5, the first trucks rolled across the Maitreyi bridge, which connects Raxaul in Bihar's East Champaran to Birgunj in Nepal, just 150 km away from the capital Kathmandu.
The agitation began in September, shortly after Nepal's parliament ratified the country's new Constitution, as Scroll.in reported earlier in this series. The Madhesis – a term for several communities living in Nepal's central and eastern plains who have close cultural and family ties to India – fear that the new statute will perpetuate the discrimination they have long faced. Kathmandu, however, accused India of imposing an unofficial blockade on the landlocked country, a charge denied by New Delhi.
The agitation caused an enormous shortage of fuel and essential goods in Nepal.
Since last weekend, the tents and bamboo poles blocking the Maitreyi bridge, the most visible symbols of the protest, have disappeared. What is left is the memory of the human cost – 55 civilians and seven policemen lost their lives in the agitation – and an over-arching question: How has the turmoil shaped the views of youth in towns like Birgunj, which were at the epicenter of the protests?
On January 15, when negotiations between a coalition of Madhes-based parties and the three major Nepali political parties were still in progress in Kathmandu, protestors had for the first time since September allowed two-wheelers onto the Maitreyi bridge.
A few kilometers away, at the clock tower on a busy crossroads at the center of Birgunj town, a large crowd thronged an exhibition of photographs chronicling the agitation.
Chandan Gupta, a 19-year old student of business administration, was in the crowd. Gupta, clad in the signature t-shirt and jacket of the young, said he had taken part in several of the protests.
“This photograph shows a man impersonating Sushil Koirala [Nepal’s prime minister from February 2014-October 2015], wearing shoes around his neck because Koirala ratified a biased Constitution,” said Gupta, as he walked along the exhibits, pausing occasionally to point out photographs of special interest.
“This next one shows Newar women, a community from the hill region, supporting the Madhesi agitation... Here, a goat is dressed as current Prime Minister KP Oli, little children are leading it... Men, women, and children had formed a 1,100 kilometer-long human chain all along the plains from east to west, but Oli called us a swarm of flies for organising it.”
Gupta's family migrated to Birgunj 12 years ago from a village in the adjoining Bara district to set up a small hardware business. Though communities from Nepal's hills and plains had struggled together for a democratic Constitution, the hill communities – who had greater numbers in parliament – had ratified a Constitution inimical to Madhesi interests, he claimed.
This, he said, was in line with Nepal's history, throughout which Madhesis had been given “no rights to their civilisation” and were slightingly referred to as "Dhotis" and "Biharis", among other pejorative terms.
Gupta, who by then had been joined by some of his classmates, recalled that last September, Nepal Armed Police had fired at protestors marching towards this same clock tower. One of his friends fished out his mobile phone to show images of bullet-ridden bodies of protestors that had been circulated on WhatsApp. “The government was sending the army here dressed as policemen,” said Chandan.
Chandan's friend Harish believes there was an ethnic bias in how security personnel were deputed during the protests. “The government gave only sticks to Madhesi security personnel and put them on the frontline," he claimed. "The Pahadi security personnel stood behind, and fired at Madhesi protestors with powerful guns.”
Social and institutional polarisation
Mainstream Nepali publications provided little ground reportage of the protests, but young Madhesis living in Kathmandu and abroad have been publishing analysis and news on independent web platforms such as Madhesi Youth.
Local FM radio stations took sides. “The media in Kathmandu was speaking the official line, and Terai's local media became the voice of the movement,” said Suresh Bidari, a radio jockey with Narayani FM. Once the protests picked up steam, the radio station changed its format. Where once it focused on film music, it now began broadcasting interviews with protestors, farmers, and political activists through the day, he said.
Bidari, in his 20s, belongs to a community from the hilly regions; his family had moved to the Terai seven years back. Despite being a "Pahadi" he supports the Madhesi movement, though he does not agree with all of its demands.
“The Madhesis have been ruled for 250 years by people from the hills,” said Bidari. "They must be treated as equal citizens, and get full citizenship even if they have cross-border marriages." But he did not support seemankan, the demand that provincial boundaries be redrawn.
A key demand of the alliance of Madhes-based parties is that the plains be divided into no more than two provinces. The government for its part has proposed seven provinces, drawn such that in four of five provinces in the plains, areas with large Madhesi population have been merged into hill regions. Madhesi leaders have demanded that Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari districts in the east be included in a contiguous Madhes province, which will have access to water from the river Kosi in the east.
Said a young professional who did not wish to be named: “What will I, as a resident of Birgunj, get if we get a Jhapa district? Instead, it would be better if they asked for a hill district so we can access hydel power.”
Such sharp differences over issues, and over the question of who participated in the agitation and who did not, have polarised younger people. “For me, the main issue is that Madhesis face discrimination,” said Aashu Saraf, a 21-year old photojournalist and undergraduate student. “I don't support the demarcation demand and yet, since I have started speaking about the andolan actively on Facebook, my friends of several years from school and college have distanced themselves from me. I had never thought this would happen.”
'At least, we will live with dignity'
In peri-urban areas and villages, where most of the young protestors came from, there is a wider acceptance of the demand for demarcation and a willingness to continue the agitation in some form.
In Barjari, near Jaleswar in Mahottari district, the protests were so intense that Neha Jha, a student of commerce in class XI, could not attend school for nearly two months. On a January afternoon, she was returning after her final exams, walking down a path that led to her house in the village. “The demarcation issue is crucial because right now, the main Madhes province is between two rivers and we have access to neither of them,” she said. “This means farmers will get no water for irrigation. What will people do then? Already, Madhesis are denied jobs in government.”
Though she had stayed at home, her family members and neighbours had taken part in the protests, and Neha has vivid memories of the chaos. “The police were coming towards this path here in their vehicles, firing from inside, and people were running, and throwing stones at them.”
She recalled how Rohan Chaudhary, a secondary school student from her neighbourhood, was fatally shot in the chest while he was returning from private tuitions. Two days later, Rohan's grandfather Ganesh Chaudhary was shot in the head by the police when he went to the market to purchase things for Rohan's cremation.
“The police were oppressive,” Jha said. “The andolankari set a police chowki on fire, they killed a policeman, setting him on fire – they also didn't do the right thing.”
Jha found the violence and the political impasse exasperating. “The government will not agree to demarcation, and leaders here won't agree to wait for more months,” she said. “If the Nepal government will not give us rights, then I think it will be alright for us to fight for a separate nation. Why fight again and again over demarcation? Even if more people die in a future agitation, at least we will live with dignity.”
The sentiment Neha Jha articulated had been already voiced ten years earlier by armed secessionist groups in the region. While the strength of these groups has ebbed over time, the demand for an independent Terai state has been raised repeatedly in recent years by Chandra Kant Raut, a computer scientist and political campaigner.
In 2014, the Nepalese government charged Raut with sedition and has arrested him twice. Last month, Raut's acquittal was upheld by Nepal's Supreme Court.
Secessionism as final solution?
Madhes-based parties have consistently argued that if their agitation for a separate province within Nepal fails, it will pave the way for more extreme secessionist demands, such as Raut's.
On a visit to Delhi recently, Raut argued that the failure of Madhes-based parties this January to get the Constitution amended as per their demands proved that Nepal’s parliamentary politics was “a step in the wrong direction”.
Raut said his plan is to hold fresh elections independently in every village in the Terai, elect a constituent assembly, and form an interim Terai government. “Till we do this, and till have our own army, Madhesis will never have control over their natural resources or the economy,” he said. “First and foremost, Madhesi youth have to fight for their freedom.”
Chandrakishore Jha, a political analyst and writer who lives in Birgunj, said the demand for a separate state is not feasible, and would only invite more state repression.
However, though Raut has been actively campaigning for a free Madhes only since a couple of years, his campaign has successfully reached a wide range of youth across social classes, and spanning the political spectrum. Rajat Pandey, a 16-year old studying in boarding school in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, who was on a visit to his home in Pipra village near Janakpur, said he regularly read Raut's Facebook page for updates, and that he backed the demand for an independent Terai state as “timely and legal.”
Chandan Gupta, the business administration student in Birgunj, said he had been deeply moved by Raut's speech at Birgunj's clock tower the day Raut was arrested in 2015. “Raut is a scientist and he has studied Madhesi history,” Gupta said. “He has been saying for two years that we will not get a fair Constitution, but these political parties did not pay any attention."
He added: "Dard bhara speech hai uska (His speeches are filled with emotion). The day he was at the clock tower to deliver a speech, hundreds of policemen came to arrest him but the students would not let them take him.”
Given the sense of alienation that prevails, some young people see Raut’s strategy as an inevitable option. “Madhesis were doing a peaceful Gandhivaadi andolan, but the government heartlessly fired at them,” said Ram Lal Das, a 22-year old teacher from Duhabi panchayat in Dhausa district. “It is a cruel khaswaadi political regime. It does not consider the Madhesis its people.”
Ram Ratan Das, a 30-year old mason in Janakpur, said he had read out Raut's pamphlets on secessionism at political rallies at Madhwapura near his village. “We will fight in the current course till we are able,” said Das. “Otherwise, we will ask for a separate state. That will be like a surgery, the final treatment.”