In Raxaul, a busy commercial centre in Bihar’s East Champaran district on the India-Nepal border, trade worth hundreds of crore has come to a stop.
Usually, hundreds of fuel tankers and trucks loaded with material from Bihar and West Bengal’s Haldia port drive past the dusty Indian immigration office at the eastern edge of Raxaul and cross the Maitreyi Bridge over the dried-up Sirisiya river, to enter Nepal’s Birgunj town that lies across the bridge, or drive further to Kathmandu, 150 kilometres away. Most of the goods that enter Nepal pass through this bridge.
But on a cold January morning, all traffic was at a standstill. Trucks were parked on one side under the bridge in the dry bed of the river. In the centre of the bridge, bamboo sticks and a black tarpaulin tent occupied by farmers, workers and political activists blocked the access of vehicles from both sides of the international open border.
The communities living in Nepal’s lowlands, along the border with India, are opposing Nepal’s new Constitution saying it perpetuates the discrimination they have long faced. They say the new Constitution rolls back their rights for fair political representation, equal citizenship, and new federal boundaries that Nepal’s interim Constitution of 2008 had committed to.
Since last August more than 60 people, including seven policemen, have died in clashes between the police and the protestors. In Birgunj in eastern plains, the protests have taken the form of an economic blockade to stop goods from reaching the capital Kathmandu. The black tarpaulin tent in the centre of the Maitreyi bridge on Raxaul-Birgunj international border is the most visible symbol of the economic blockade that has gone on for four months now. Nepal government has termed this India’s undeclared economic blockade. Indian authorities say the blockade is because of Nepal government’s failure to politically accommodate the diverse groups’ demands.
From September 24, 2015 when the protests intensified till last week, no vehicles could cross the bridge. Around January 13, as the negotiations between parties from Madhes and the three major political parties progressed in Kathmandu, the protestors allowed two-wheelers on the bridge.
But the protesters have continued to occupy the bridge. A group of old farmers have slept on the bridge continuously for more than 100 days. And every morning by 11am, a fresh batch of volunteers – farmers, women political workers, students, teachers, other professionals – reach the bridge as per their turn marked in a roster kept inside the tent. Every day, the tent turns into a site of intense political discussion and debate.
The hope for a political resolution peaked on the bridge in the last few days. But, in equal measure, there was cynicism: Will the deaths of the youth killed in the protests go waste? Will the ruling political parties concede equal rights to Madhes? Are politicians from Madhes profiting from the black market syndicate in fuel that has sprung up all along the international border as a result of the blockade?
On January 19, with no substantive progress even after months, the parties from Madhes dissolved the task force conducting the talks. In Birgunj, the protesters continued to occupy the bridge in no man’s land. In the town centre, at ghantaghar clocktower, fresh protests are still being organised every day.
Kalavati Sah, a para-legal worker from Mahumanmathh in Parsa district in her 50s, was among those who took part in the protests. “The King did not recognise our rights because the country was his property, but it is not the prime minister KP Oli’s property. How can he deny us our rights?” she said. “Hamare dimaag mein adhikaar bas gaya hai, chetna ho gaya hai [Our rights have taken deep root in our minds, we have become aware].”
After five months of protests, many like Sah seem in no mood to relent.