Time is running out for Nepal’s Terai

Maoist leader Prachanda has blamed the 'Royal Palace' in Kathmandu 'backed by India’s Hindu nationalist forces' for the fresh trouble.

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KATHMANDU: Nepal’s southern Terai region is burning, literally. What started as a minor ethnic rivalry between the Madheshi people and the people of hill origin in western Nepal’s Nepalgunj town, bordering Baharaich in UP, on December 26 has today spilled across the Madesh or the Terai region of Nepal’s southern plains.

The gravity of the situation can be judged from the fact that this past week at least four major towns of southern Nepal — Birgunj, the commercial capital and the main transit city; Janakpurdham, the capital of the ancient Mithila Kingdom; Lahan, the lifeline of East-West Highway; and Biratnagar, the second biggest city — were under curfew.

Meanwhile, calm was restored in a restive southern area in Nepal on Sunday, a day after police opened fire on demonstrators who stormed a police station, killing one and wounding several others. The trouble in southern Nepal began last week when protests in Lahan — a town about 250 kms southeast of Kathmandu — ended with one person killed. Four more died in violent demonstrations there earlier. The protests have spread to other parts of the south, where daily life has been crippled by curfews and a general strike.

As the violence in Terai plains claimed one more life, Indian Ambassador to Nepal Shiv Shankar Mukherjee called on Nepal Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to discuss the situation. India’s alarm has been rising with looting, arson and vandalism spreading through the towns adjoining the Indian border.

Even so, the Madhesi demonstrators were defiant; they were out on the streets brandishing spears, batons, spades and other weapons clashing with hill people as well as the police. Clashes were reported also from Birgunj, where protesters burned at least three police stations despite a curfew. By late Saturday, dozens of people were injured in separate street clashes between police and the Madhesi activists.

It’s widely believed that their fresh agitation is spearheaded by a little-known Terai political party called Madhesi Janadhikar Forum. Its chairman Upendra Yadav told DNA that their three demands are at the heart of this movement. Much as other Terai political groups, the Forum’s demands include: re-delimitation of the past electoral constituencies before the Constituent Assembly polls due for June; introduction of proportional election system; and federal system of governance in the Terai region.

However, “we can stop our movement now if the government says it’s ready for talks,” he said. For its part, the government has expressed its readiness to hold talks. But Forum’s Yadav says the government needs to give that in writing.

But what’s seen here as a major stumbling block is the statement from Maoist leaderPuspa Kamal Dahal-Prachanda, who has publicly advised the government against opening any dialogue channel whatsoever with the new bands of Madheshi rebels. He’s gone on to blame the “Royal Palace” in Kathmandu “backed by India’s Hindu nationalist forces” for the fresh trouble.

This kind of situation in Nepal’s strategic south, which is inhabited by nearly 50 per cent of its population of 27 million, analysts fear, has the potential to disintegrate this impoverished Himalayan nation into several ethnicity-based principalities.

But Ajay Lal, a Madheshi analyst from the Mithila region sums up the whole problem thus: “The basic fact is the political parties and the leaders have lost their credibility with the people of Terai. They need to renew their relationship as their servant and not as master. That way, I am confident that the issue will be resolved sooner.”

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