| Deceptive idyll
A narrow, tree-shaded path takes a sharp turn to the left before opening into a river bank, a tributary of the Narayani, near Dehata village, about 70 kilometres from Triveni district in Nepal. On a small heap of charcoal are a couple of half-burnt logs from a pyre. The fire has long been doused, evident from the remains of a smashed earthen pot. On other newly assembled pyres, locals prepare to perform the last rites of their relatives.
Walking quietly on the road parallel to the river bank, 42-year-old Prafulla Kumar suddenly runs up to the old, abandoned cremation spot on the edge of the river and breaks down: “Look here, I myself have cremated two of my friends and a relative who were killed in encounters with the Royal Nepal Army.” His grief soon gives way to rage: “For two days, their bullet-ridden bodies lay in the forest in Chainpur in eastern Sankhuwasaba district. They had gone there for a meeting of Madheshees. The police had picked them up, and a day later, the news of their death arrived. When we brought their bodies here, the rot had already begun to set in.”
He comes to a cluster of huts hidden among the pine trees. The huts overlook fertile plains. Beyond the expanse of the plains is a glimpse of one of the peaks of the Himalayan range. In a small room in the huts, used as an office of the Madheshee Liberation Tigers, posters and handouts litter the ground. Pictures of three Madheshee martyrs adorn the mud walls.
Prafulla Kumar runs from this small hut the MLT, an organization of the Madheshee rebels, which, according to the police records, is one of the most dreaded frontal organizations of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists. The MLT has its own website which provides information about the developments in Nepal to those living abroad. “I don’t bother about the police records. Whenever we try to voice our genuine grievances, the police dump us in jails as antinationals. We have at least 45 of our friends still languishing in various jails of Nepal”, says Prafulla.
Madheshees are inhabitants of the plains in Nepal’s south bordering the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. In culture, lifestyle and food habit, they are closer to India than Nepal, a reason why they are not accepted readily in the hill-dominated politics of the Himalyan kingdom. Despite their proximity to India, the Madheshees are not Indians except that they still have some relatives scattered in UP and Bihar. “We belong neither here nor there, despite constituting 17 per cent of Nepal’s total population in 22 districts of Nepal’s southern plains”, says Himal Rai, a resident of Triveni.
The MLT has been campaigning against the alleged injustice meted out to the people in the plains. The literature that the organization distributes relates horrific tales of racial discrimination, denial of citizenship rights, police attrocities and deletion of names from voter’s lists. “They (the hill people) call us dhotiwallah and Bihar’s dogs”, complains Sanjiv Mishra, a resident of the plains who runs a shop in Biratnagar. The helplessness of the Madheshees is as real, they claim, as that of the Bangladeshis in Pakistan, Tamils in Sri Lanka and East Timorese in Indonesia. “There has been little effort to reassure us, since everyone considers us to be separatists”, says Balwan Thapa, a station officer in Triveni.
That the Madheshees are a disgruntled lot (never mind that some of their complaints are a little exaggerated) is evident from the number of rebel groups which have sprung up in Nepal over the last 10 years. Three notable outfits other than the MLT are the Madheshee Rastriya Mukti Morcha, the Dalit Mukti Morcha and the Madheshee Ekta Manch. These three, police files confirm, are on the hit list of the Royal Nepal Army because of their links with the CPN-M. The danger from the Indian perspective is that they have easy access to Indian territory for shelter.
When the Maoists were spreading terror in Nepal’s western districts, they were quick to tap the raw emotions of the inhabitants of the southern plains called Madhesh. “The Madheshee rebels were easily sucked into the Maoist movement”, says Neelmani, the inspector general (operation), Bihar police, who has interrogated a number of arrested Nepali Maoists.
The Maoists lost no time in putting on their agenda the issues of Dalits and the marginalized in the plains, reassuring them of involving them in their crusade for justice. For example, the MLT has been demanding the formation of a development council for the economic growth of 22 districts. But this has been dismissed as the demand of secessionists by the government in Kathmandu. Now, encouraged by the Maoists, they talk of forming an interim government in exile.
Since early last year, at least 17 Nepali Maoists were arrested from three districts of Bihar — Sitamarhi, Motihari and Patna — of which at least 10 were Madheshees. The last of these was made in Patna from a telephone booth. For the Madheshees, the Maoist revolution means social, economic and political justice for them as well.
Even before this, the Madheshees have been working as a link between the Nepalese Maoists and the Naxalite outfits in Bihar, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh-Chhattisgarh. One of the key organizations in this is the Nepal-India Border Committee, of which both Nepalese and Indian Maoists are members.
When Chandreswar Baitha, a Dalit leader who headed the Dalit Mukti Morcha and is a resident of Rotahat district in Nepal, was arrested from Hariyan in Motihari on September 20, 2002, he spoke fluent Bhojpuri to confuse the police. Soon, however, Maoist literature was discovered from his bags. Even after his real identity was established, he claimed that both the governments of India and Nepal had betrayed the cause of the people of the plains.
Ramshray Ram, an active member of Madheshee Rastriya Mukti Morcha, had tucked a blue uniform with “Nepal Prahari” embossed on it to show his credentials. “I don’t hide. I work for a cause”, he claimed proudly. Ram is known for his fiery speeches on the plight of the backward caste people in Nepal.
Ramesh Sharma, who had crossed over to India for treatment after being injured in a gunbattle, told the police that he was not sure whether jumping on to the Maoist bandwagon would help the Madheshee cause.
There are starry-eyed women leaders of the CPN-M, like Rupa Murha Thopi, who have Madheshee companions. She hums a Nepali song which, she says, is a translation of Octavio Paz’s poem identifying domestic enemy with foreign power. The eight maoists who were held in Patna on February 25 also sang an identical song on their way to court in a bid to draw the attention of Indian sympathizers.
A mix of rage and lyricism is a perfect counterpoint to the claims of the Nepal government that all these are campaigns to malign the Nepal government by the Maoists and “outside elements”. Nepal is now gearing up for peace talks with the Maoists, after about a six-year-old violent rift which left over 4,000 dead and key infrastructure like roads and telecommunications devasted. Apprehensions, however, run high in the political circles of Nepal. But a few like Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachand, the chief of CPN-M, think that the Maoists’ agreeing to a ceasefire on January 29 was “strategically important and meant to create a climate for the peace talks”.
There are several questions still. Will King Gyanendra strike a proper deal with the Maoists' Will there be a political consensus on the peace talks, or would some political parties try to sabotage them' Why did the Maoists declare the cease-fire' Are they trying to gain an entry into mainstream politics, taking advantage of the unrest in the country' Or was there really no other alternative for them'
As politicians work overtime to answer the questions, the air of expectancy is all over Nepal. More so for the residents of the plains whose aspirations are also linked to the success of the talks, since the Maoist movement has put their case high on its agenda. With the Naxalites declaring, albeit verbally, that they are willing to accept a democratic system with constitutional monarchy, it seems eminently possible to sort out the rest of the problems.
However, when the king and an interim government in Nepal ask for political cooperation, it remains to be seen how the Maoists take up the agenda for the Dalits, the poor and the marginalized, whose support helped them grow from a group of ill-equipped men to Nepal’s most threatening insurgents, causing serious destablization in the country for the last 13 years. The role of the king, which came under criticism after he dismissed an elected government, would be re-examined too. But the offer of the prime minister of Nepal, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, to step down if it helps bring peace faster, is a gesture that leaves much room for hope.