| Barrels block the main gate of Birganj, 250 km from Kathmandu. (Reuters)
Patna, Feb. 4: A bloody agitation has left the border districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh scorched.
Police firing has claimed two young Indian lives, trade and transport are at a standstill and a harried Bihar home secretary is calling up Delhi at all times of the day.
The agitation, though, is on the other side of the international border.
The bullets that killed the two teenaged boys in Bihar’s Jogbani came from the rifles of Nepal police as they fought Madhesi mobs on the country’s plains, Bihar home secretary Afzal Amanullah says.
It’s this that he cited yesterday to drive home the point that the lot of the Madhesis — the “Indians” of Nepal’s Terai flatlands — is still as intertwined with that of their cousins this side of the border as it has been down the centuries.
Which is why the dawn-to-dusk curfew in the Terai’s Biratnagar and Birganj has jammed the wheels of hundreds of trucks in Bihar’s Jogbani and Raxaul, hitting Delhi in the pocket.
“The Indian customs has lost over Rs 5 crore in duties on the Raxaul border alone in the past 15 days,” said customs commissioner Shaukat Ali.
And this is why Amanullah has been “assigned” by his government to “monitor the situation” on the borders, where life has been thrown in disarray by the Madhesis’ fortnight-old uprising for equal rights.
The Madhesis, who make up 35 per cent of Nepal’s population and dominate agriculture and business, say they have always been second-class citizens to Nepal’s rulers, royal or republican.
“Even in the new, so-called democratic structure, we don’t have adequate representation in police, army, judiciary or the political establishment,” said Upendra Yadav, chief of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum that is spearheading the movement.
At the root of the marginalisation lies the “Indian” or “pro-Indian” stigma.
The Madhesis are believed to be Indians who settled in the Terai over the centuries. They speak Maithili, Bhojpuri and Hindi and resemble the Indians in appearance, customs and the caste system. Many are related by marriage to families across the 774-km border with India.
The bond of day-to-day transactions is even stronger. In normal times, people from both countries think nothing of crossing over several times a day — to shop, do business or meet relatives.
Ashok Yadav of Rupaidih, Uttar Pradesh, explains that the nearest big market is Nepalganj, just 2 km away in the western Terai. “I always went there to buy cheap clothes or gifts for my child.”
With the violence having cost 15 lives in 15 days, over 10,000 Madhesis are believed to have fled to relatives’ places in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and north Bengal. On the other side of the coin, Nepalese politicians have been alleging that Indian “hooligans” are entering Terai to make trouble.
The Sangh parivar, with its nostalgia for the world’s last Hindu monarch, is widely suspected to be stirring the water to embarrass the new rulers.
“We request India and all Indian political parties not to allow hooligans from Bihar and UP to enter Nepal and indulge in looting and arson. As far as the problem of the Terai is concerned, we are capable of dealing with it,” Nepal communist leader C.P. Gajurel said recently while touring Delhi.
Amanullah was quick to deny the allegation of Indian meddling.
“We treat the Madhesi movement as Nepal’s internal problem,” he said. “But it causes concern to us when the Nepal police open fire and their bullets cross the border to hit 14 and 15-year-olds.”
But he said efforts were on to stop the influx from the Terai. “We have spoken to the Union home and foreign ministries and our embassy officials in Nepal to see that people from across the border don’t enter India,” he said.
“Also, district magistrates and superintendents of police in Motihari, Araria, Bettiah, Kishenganj and Katihar have been told to talk to their Nepal counterparts to ensure that the agitation doesn’t impact the Indian side.”
A high alert has been sounded along the borders and the Seema Suraksha Bal (SSB) has been reinforced to carry out “intensive patrolling”.
Pamphlets were distributed on Friday in Araria, Kishenganj, Katihar and East and West Champaran, asking residents “not to allow Madhesis to enter their villages”.
But those watching the porous border say stopping the influx — or convincing Indians to shut the door on their Nepalese cousins — will be difficult.
“Kathmandu relaxes the curfew for an hour in the morning. It doesn’t help, because even essential goods like salt and vegetables are not available in Nepal’s markets now. That, too, is a reason,” a senior police officer leading a border patrol said.
Nepal’s new leaders had initially reacted with the old haughtiness when the agitation broke out. Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai described the Madhesi bodies as “groups of gangsters playing into the hands of the Indian Right-wing parties and landlords”.
But Maoist chief Prachanda, sensing the seriousness of the situation, quickly expressed his party’s “solidarity with the Madhesi cause”.
The Madhesis, on their part, had joined the Maoists’ April 2006 revolt in a big way.
“Their leaders like Bhattarai and Prachanda, who are from the hills, used us to gain power in the new structure, which is dominated by hills people. But we still remain marginalised,” Upendra Yadav said.
“Our armed struggle will not end till the government ensures us proportionate representation at all levels of governance.”
SSB officials say the Madhesis, as they worked with the Maoists, received arms training. “Now they are using those skills, and the arms they got from the Maoists, to fight the new government.”