Cultural flows across a blurred boundary

July 13, 2006 at 4:37 pm 2 comments


12 Feb 2002

South Asia’s blurred cultural boundaries are being given sharp edges with frontiers full of patrolling soldiers, the raising of border security forces, and even barbed barricades and floodlights. As time passes, the cultural rivers on the two sides find their own separate courses and the divergence begins. Fortunately, there is one frontier of South Asia that has not yet succumbed to this need to irreparably separate, demarcate, define. The thousand-kilometre open frontier between Nepal and India is often decried in both countries as an abomination, for it is said to undercut Nepali sovereignty on the one hand and India’s economic and political security on the other. However, this very lack of rigidity of the Nepal-India boundary is what makes it most natural and historically evolved. It reflects and nurtures the cultural sameness across the frontier, and could be a harbinger of the kind of frontier one would hope to see, for example, between India-Pakistan and India-Bangladesh. The story hidden under the topsoil of the Ganga plains is that two countries can have an unbolted border, a peopled frontier where communities are neighbouring and friendly as they were meant to be in this part of the world. The border between the Nepal Tarai and Bihar/Uttar Pradesh provide the prototype for the other land frontiers of South Asia.

For being one of the most densely populated regions of the world, the rectangle which encompasses the northern bank of the Ganga all the way north to the Churay (Shiwalik) hills is the most neglected corner of South Asia. It is a region derided by the New Delhi intelligentsia as an unfathomable basket case and distrusted by Kathmandu’s elites as a region that would challenge their national sovereignty. The illustrious history and the current sociology of the Ganga Rectangle is thought to count for nothing, and all South Asia loses as a result.

In this essay, a Kathmandu-based columnist who hails from Janakpur in Mithila, emphasises the links between the Nepal Tarai and the rest of the Ganga plains, and proposes that the Nepal Tarai has the cultural dynamism to lead the entire Ganga Rectangle out of its present cul-de-sac.

The very name ‘Nepal’ evokes the image of a country set amidst the majestic Himalayan peaks, where exotic valleys still harbour the serenity of the lost Shangri-La. Sold to the world by Western explorers and latter-day adventurers and travel writers, this portrayal of mountain exotica hides the fact that a considerable part of what constitutes the territory of Nepal is actually as flat as a table-top. This is the Nepal Tarai, a 15-20 km wide strip of plain that runs along the south of Nepal.

Despite its cultural, social and economic signi- ficance, however, the tarai receives scant attention. For the Nepali hill elite that would like to mould the country after its image, the tarai is a region to be exploited — its resources are useful but its people (not the newly migrated hill folk, but the indigenous tribes and the Madhesi of the plains) are a liability. Meanwhile, as far as the world is concerned, the tarai is merely an extension of the Ganga plain. Little is written about the tarai, and even the celebrated People of Nepal by the anthropologist Dor Bahadur Bista is perfunctory about the region, preferring to focus on the mountains that till now have given Nepal its identity.

The demographic and economic trends, however, indicate that the tarai will no longer be the neglected front door of Nepal. With an overwhelming – and increasing – majority of the national population inhabiting the Nepali flatland, and the industrial and agricultural productivity of the country relying on it, the region cannot be ignored for long. This should draw the attention of the Kathmandu intelligentsia to what the tarai means for the country’s future. This ought also to be a matter of some interest to the intelligentsia and planners in New Delhi, who could well be surprised by the Nepal Tarai’s capacity to serve as an economic dynamo for the advancement of eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) and northern Bihar, both densely populated and politically unstable backwaters that have been left behind by the Indian state and its modern economy.

Indeed, the wilful neglect of the tarai by Kathmandu Valley is repeated south of the border. In the grand tradition instituted by the British colonists, New Delhi’s academics and bureaucrats are more or less united in characterising Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh together as the basketcase of mal-governance and economic deprivation. And for these neo-colonists of New Delhi, Nepal’s tarai does not exist as a separate region either – it is simply regarded as an extension of the problematic Hindi belt. The blinkered view in both Kathmandu and New Delhi which refuses to acknowledge the dyna- mism of the past and future possibilities has permeated the intelligentsia of the cities of the region as well – the larger ones like Benaras, Lucknow and Patna or the smaller centres such as Gorakhpur, Muzzafarpur and Darbangha – to the extent that the region as a whole refuses seek its own economic, cultural and political release.

While the neglect of the region by the city-bred in Nepal and India is a reality, the people-to-people contact across the international boundary continue undiminished, unlike the boundary regions between India and Bangladesh and Pakistan, where these relations, as vibrant till just a few decades back, are beginning to dry up under the constant gaze of state supervision. The nature of life across this blurred South Asian Nepal-India boundary must be better understood, and the lessons of cultural flows across the tarai frontier need to be considered for their replicability elsewhere in South Asia and the world.

The cultural legacy of Madhyadesh
The setting of the tarai is grand. Vision extends to a horizon where one can see the blue sky bowing down to embrace the brown earth. Standing amidst the great expanses of rice paddies are the tall and somewhat ludicrous phallus-shaped boundary pillars between the two countries, erected more than a century ago with brick and lime mortar. During the dry season, the ten yard stretch of no-man’s-land between the two countries is difficult to locate in many places. In populated areas, these strips are used to winnow grain, dry clothes or tether domestic animals in daytime. On summer evenings, charpoy string-beds are laid out in this peaceable frontier to catch the breeze. Indians and Nepali relatives and neighbours warm themselves around open hearths during the winter. Elsewhere, this strip is a common grazing ground, or serves as an open toilet for people whose citizenship papers may just as easily say ‘Nepal’ or ‘India’.

The tarai begins where the stretch of Churay (Shiwalik) hills ends, and forms one geographical continuum with the rest of plains stretching south to the west-east flow of the Ganga. The ecological character of this region is determined by the great and temperamental rivers that emerge from the deep valleys of the Himalaya, carrying melted snow and monsoon discharge – the Kosi past Biratnagar, the Gandak (called Narayani upstream) which joins the Ganga right by Patna, and the Ghaghara (Karnali) in the west. Over geological time, till the time they were bound within embankments in the last few decades, these rivers deposited their bed-load on the flats, which is what makes this one of the most fertile regions in the world. It is a food-bowl that supports one of the most populous of habitats – one-twentieth of humanity live between the Jamuna and Teesta, between the Churay and the Ganga, in the Ganga Rectangle.

In sociological terms, this stretch of plains is the heartland of the Subcontinent. Its swath of forests were cleared and habitation begun with eastward migration of Indo-Aryan speaking people from the Indus basin. The forests first fell in the Doab (the basin between the Jamuna and Ganga), and over the centuries the march continued eastwards right across the North Ganga Plain before culminating in present-day Assam, where the Brahmaputra joins in from the north and east. Indigenous peoples of this region either got assimilated into the emerging Indo-Aryan culture, or were forced further to the north, east and south.

Greek, Persian, Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu sources have left us colour- ful and sometimes mythologised ac- counts of this region’s ancient past in travelogues, narratives and stories. The point is not so much the exact veracity of the accounts as much as the broad identification of the extent of territory that partook of a common cultural heritage and process. The myths start with Manu, the Hindu lawgiver, who refers to the plains between Indra- prastha in the west, Magadh in the east, the Shiwalik in the north and the Vindhya in the south as “Madhya-desh” — “the central country”. And central it has been to the rise and fall of civilisations over the millennia. From the Alexandrine Greeks to the medieval Mughals, from imperial England to the revisionists of Akhanda Bharat, ideologues of every extreme hue have fought pitched battles on this great expanse in the belief that whoever got hold of the heart could ultimately end up controlling the body of India as well.

This populated, presently poverty-stricken expanse of the Ganga plain is thus one of the cradles of human civilisation, whose centrality is evident in both myth and history. Accounts of the past in stories such as those of the Mahabharat and Ramayan point to the existence of complex sedentary societies. Hindu scriptures portray the great churning that society from Mithila in the Kosi-Gandak basin to the Kirat people up in the high eastern mountains and the Khas in between underwent during the period of Indo-Aryan advance. They also indicate the shared cultural and ritual elements of this region. In the Valmiki Ramayan, Prince Ram and his four brothers travelled from Ayodhya – somewhere in present-day Uttar Pradesh (UP), but not necessarily where the town of Ayodhya today stands – all the way to Mithila, and were selected as grooms by Sita and her sisters in Janakpur.

This nursery of Vedic Hinduism also gave rise to another world-historic religion – Buddhism. Its founder, Prince Siddhartha Gautam, was born in Lumbini, fast by the present-day border in the central Nepal Tarai, and he acquired Buddha-hood in the wild lands further south. The credit for the spread of Lord Buddha’s teachings beyond the Ganga region and into the Indus region of the west, goes to the Shakyamuni’s most powerful devotee, the Mauryan Emperor Ashok. Eventually, the struggle for supremacy between Hinduism and Buddhism was to take place in these very plains. If the apogee of the Mauryan empire was also the heyday of Subcontinental Buddhism, by the 4th century AD, under the patronage of the Gupta empire, Hinduism, refurbished and given its final doctrinal form by Shankaracharya’s monistic advaita vedanta philosophy, made a strong come back after centuries of Buddhist dominance of these plains.

The inter-flows of culture within the region are also evident in the localised pantheons of Hinduism. The presiding deity of the Nepali House of Gorkhas was Guru Gorakhnath, an ascetic said to have been based in present-day Gorakhapur. True, the latter-day Shah and Rana rulers of Nepal hired hagiographers to trace their ancestry to obscure Rajput families on the fringe of Thar desert in Rajasthan in north-western India. One ruler even assumed the title “Bikram” from the Parmars of Ujjain on the slopes of the Vindhyas. But there could well be another side to the story. If the Shah family did not evolve from the Magar clans of the middle-hills of Nepal, then it could well be argued that they are descended from fleeing warrior castes from the region around Gorakhpur, escaping the political changes sweeping the Ganga maidaan during the Mughal period in Hindustan. This would explain why Gorakhnath is the presiding deity of the Gorkha principality, from where King Prithvi Narayan Shah emerged in the mid-1700s to conquer and consolidate the kingdom of Nepal.

Much before the Shahs, the Lichhavis from the plains as well as Karnats had progressed northward when pressed by circumstances in the plains. There, they mixed in with the culture of Kirats and Khasa, transformed them and themselves were transformed in the process. Ruling classes of Karnataka origin who established the once-prosperous principality of Simraungarh in what is now the Nepal Tarai, the Karnats ascended to Kathmandu Valley to become celebrated patrons of arts and craft as the Malla dynasty, which preceded the Shahs.

The free flow of people, goods and ideas within the vast plains as well as between the plains and the northern midhills continued over the centuries. The strip of sub-tropical jungle (known as the Charkoshe Jhadi) at the foot of the Churay hills did act as a barrier, but not enough to prevent the seepage of culture and commerce. The Charkoshe Jhadi also became a safe haven for aboriginals such as the Tharus, Kewats, Rautes and Santhals, pushed out as the civilisation of the sedentary cultivators took root everywhere. Over the centuries, these groups developed resistance to malaria, and established themselves in the deep forests of the tarai.

The divided plain
While an evolutionary social-historical process was weaving a common cultural fabric across the plain, more dramatic political processes have in the last few centuries carved it up into administrative units. This political separation, however, did not significantly erode the cultural unity. The genesis of the contem- porary political divisions are to be found in the Mughal administrative and revenue units of the North Ganga Plain. Within the Mughal empire, Awadh in UP became a prominent political and cultural centre of the Ganga-Jamuna doab. Bihar was incorporated into the province of Bengal at the point when the diwani of Bengal was passing into the hands of the English East India Company in the mid-18th century. Meanwhile the forested northern tracts of the plain remained outside the pale of Mughal authority.

This division was replicated and then reinforced when power passed from the Mughal Empire to the East India Company and eventually to the British Empire. Bihar remained within the Bengal presidency, while the United Provinces absorbed that segment of the plain that was eventually to become eastern Uttar Pradesh. Both of these areas however had one feature in common – they came within the zamindari revenue system of the British, which was to provide the basis for feudal and semi-feudal relations in agriculture, characterised by landlordism, insecure tenancy and rentier arrangements that hindered yield-increasing investments in land and obstructed the emergence of a reformist politics. This set them on a different economic trajectory from that of, say, western Uttar Pradesh, where a class of independent peasant proprietors was allowed to take root. The different revenue collection systems were to have a lasting effect in forging the agrarian relations of eastern UP and Bihar.

The decline of Mughal power and the ascendancy of the British coincided with the rise of the Gorkhalis in the northern hills of Nepal. In the inevitable clash between the two the cannon prevailed over the khukuri and the plain, on which the battle took place, was further subdivided. The partition of the plain into three distinct units (Nepal Tarai, Bihar and eastern UP) was completed with the demarcation of the southern boundary of modern Nepal as it exists today by the Treaty of Segowlee (Sugauli) which was forced on the Kathmandu court by the victorious British following the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-1816.

The political and social bifurcation of the northern and southern parts of the plain was accentuated by the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 against the political rule of the East India Company. This revolt of the Company’s troops, joined by local chieftans, zamindars and disaffected elite, which reached its climax in the Awadh region, was the event that cemented the relationship between the sahibs of Company Bahadur and the Rana usurpers of Nepal. When the whole of the Ganga plains had risen in revolt, Jang Bahadur Rana rode down from Kathmandu into Lucknow at the head of a Gorkhali contingent and helped quell the mutiny. This brought the Gorkhalis closer to the British but alienated the indigenous Indian elites from the hill satraps.

Zamindars and neo-zamindars
However, despite the distribution of the north Ganga plain between three different political and admin- istrative dispensations, each unit was, in demographic and socio-economic profiles, practically a mirror image of the other. The political process by which the agrarian structure of the Nepal tarai emerged was very different from that of east UP or north Bihar, but the net result was the same. For over a century, the Shah kings reigned while the Ranas ruled Nepal. The cultivated tarai bordering British dominion provided most of the revenue to the court of Kathmandu. This revenue was to increase several-fold as the Charkoshe Jhadi emerged as a source of timber for the sleepers of the rapidly expanding Indian Railways.

The ruling class of Kathmandu wanted to populate the newly created clearings in order to further increase revenue, but the hill people chose to push eastwards toward Assam through the mid-hills instead of descending to the malarial plains. The demand for settlers was met by the peasantry fleeing the British oppression in Tirhut and Awadh, in today’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. Pauperised people of eastern UP (formerly United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh) and Bihar crossed oceans in search of a better life and ended up as girmitiya labour in the plantations of Fiji, Trinidad and Mauritius. But quite a few simply walked across into Nepal—and straight into the exploitative arms of tarai birtawals – the courtiers of Kathmandu who were given large freehold parcels of recently-cleared forests for services rendered to the state. This gave rise to the class of neo-zamindars in the tarai.
Almost all land grantees in the tarai came from the peasant hill-stock. However, the fear of malaria kept them in the hills, and these absentee zamindars relied on local cultivators to extract the produce from the land. This helped develop a rentier mentality, and the hill landowners soon became an idle elite who lived off the labour of others even while despising them. This kind of disdain for the peasantry is most visible, even today, in the western tarai, where Jang Bahadur and his Rana descendants doled out parcels of land to Chhetri court faithfuls, poor Rana cousins, destitute Thakuri in-laws and sundry other Brahmin priests. The landowners used the brute power of the state machinery to enslave the local peasantry. As with the zamindars to the south, these neo-zamindars of the north indulged in the worst forms of feudal exploitation, pauperising the local Tharu farmers and turning them into kamaiya (bonded labour) slaves, creating a system that was not outlawed till the year 2000.

The colonisation pattern was somewhat different in the eastern tarai, but still ended up marginalising the indigenous people, Tharu, Rajbanshi and Sattar tribals. In the central tarai, where a civilisation (Tirhut, Mithila) flourished much before the formation of the Nepali state, title-holders of land from the hills were relatively more respectful towards the locals. But even here, the forest was cleared at a faster rate than it could be brought under cultivation by the local people alone, so the hill-elite encouraged in-migration from Bihar. Those who came over were mostly from the lower strata of society, more subservient to their masters, and so here too the hill land-owners got accustomed to lording it.

The common heritage of the divided plain does not end with the correspondence of their agrarian structures and rural classes. It extends as much to the communal and social compositions of their respective populations, their shared political heritage, the common threats facing their culture and their marginalisation within mainstream society.

The erosion of the cultural base is perhaps the most visible aspect of the divided plain and language is one area where the loss is felt most acutely. Both Nepali as well as Hindi belong to the same family of languages, derived largely from Sanskrit. Both have drawn extensively from the Persian and Arabic influences of the Mughal court of Lucknow. Another similarity between these two ‘official’ languages is that both have grown at the expense of the local languages of the Ganga plain. But, despite the patronage extended to the official languages, on both sides people prefer their mother tongues to their ‘official’ language. On the Indian side, east to west, they speak Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi – languages that have been appropriated by Hindi zealots as different dialects (boli) of official Hindi. For long, these language have laboured under the domination of ‘Khadi Boli Hindi’. The state government of Bihar for a while recognised Maithili, but Laloo Yadav decided that it gave an unfair advantage to the Maithil Brahmins of North Bihar and therefore withdrew recognition. Bhojpuri and Awadhi, too, continue to languish.

Likewise, in Nepal the political power of the hill elites has ensured that the culture of the tarai has never been promoted by the state as part of the Nepali culture. The masterpieces of the great poet Vidyapati – poems based on the folk songs of Mithila – were composed as early as the 13th century, but the honour of being named the Aadi Kavi of Nepal (and not just of Nepali, as is the case in reality) goes to Bhanu Bhakta who came nearly six hundred years later.

Bride & Bread
Partaking as they do of a common legacy of past achievement and present neglect, political boundaries cannot suffice to arrest the mutual traffic between the northern and southern plains. In the hills of Nepal, India is referred to as Muglan (land of the Mughals). The colloquial term for the territory ‘beyond the border’ in Mathili, Bhojpuri as well as in Awadhi, is Magulan. Conversely, the word for Nepal in Maithili is Sarhad – the frontier. It is a name well deserved, as the southern flank of Nepal truly is the frontier of the Ganga civilisation.

The circulation of culture is across the plains societies is an everyday phenomenon. Pilgrimages take people across the border both ways. The Mithila Parikrama – or the circumambulation of the ancient capital of Mithila – takes devotees to sites on both sides of the border in the completion of the pilgrimage. The Pashupathinath temple continues to attract devotees in hordes to Nepal while Bishwanath of Benaras and Baijnath of Bihar are two very important shrines for Nepali Hindus. Festivals and cultural practices are nearly identical in the Nepal Tarai and the region to the south. Lakhs of Nepali ‘tarailis’ and Biharis together attend the Vivaha Panchami, Ram Navami and Panchkoshi Parikrama festivals in Janakpur. Legends communicate values across generations, and the plays based on Ramayan (Ramlila), Allahudal and King Salhesh are common to the communities on both sides of the border, as are the traditions of Jhanda (flag of Hanuman) and Daha (a Shia Muslim celebration). The tarailis celebrate Holi, Diwali and Dushhera with their counterparts across the lines on the map. The temple of Chhinnamasta, near Rajbiraj in the eastern Nepal Tarai, is revered by all the people of the Kosi belt in Nepal and Bihar. For the Muslims of the tarai and the Ganga plains, the influence of dargahs and madrasas is not blocked a whit by the international boundary.

The Anglo-Nepal war that settled the boundary in the central tarai left districts such as Mahotari, Rautahat, Bara and Parsa with a sizeable Muslim population. Much of the Awadh tarai was under the suzerainty of Lucknow, and the transfer of territory in “Naya Muluk” (Banke, Bardia, Kailai and Kanchanpur districts in the far west of Nepal) took place after the final fall of the Mughals in 1857, when the British rewarded Jang Bahadur for his loyalty during the Mutiny. This further added to Nepal’s muslim fold, a demographic category that is identical with Muslims across the boundary in India.

Many Muslim activists found temporary shelter in the tarai of ‘Hindu rashtra’ Nepal in the wake of the communal riots that engulfed North India after the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992. This prompted the RSS-inspired media to label madrasas in the Nepal Tarai as hotbeds of anti-India activity fuelled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). In their characteristic zealousness, Hindu fundamentalists look suspiciously at every Nepali Muslim, and are appalled by the ‘leniency shown by the Nepali state. It is a tribute to the tolerance of Hindus of the Nepal Tarai, however, that the propaganda war being waged by the radically politicised Hindus of India has failed to make a dent in their behaviour towards fellow Muslims.

There was also a reverse flow of people from Nepal to the Indian part of the plain. Two kinds of taraili people have opted to go to Bihar and UP, one kind was the marginalised poor, from the lowest strata of society, exploited by the Nepali-speaking zamindars. The other kind of taraili were the very rich who wanted to gain respectability by becoming full-fledged zamindars. Nepali zamindars were merely revenue contractors for the Ranas, but one could gain ‘respect-ability’ by buying small villages in Bihar or UP.

A case in point in Mahotari is the clan of Shyamanadan Mishra, India’s foreign minister in the Charan Singh cabinet of the late 1970s. The Mishras had been residents of the Nepali zamindari of Pipra for over a century, and Shyam-anandan’s grandfather once went looking for a groom for his daughter, seeking some reputed Bhumihar families of Bihar. He was turned down because while the Mishras of Pipra, though very rich, were merely the subjects of the Ranas while the Bhumihars in Bihar were independent zamindars under the British. Incensed, he bought a huge zamindari bordering Nepal. This was how, in the contem-porary period, one of his grandsons become a minister in India (Shyam-anandan) while two others became ministers in Nepal (Bhadrakali Mishra and Ram Narayan Mishra).
This free movement of people within a common cultural region promoted not only political but also marital connec-tions. Marriage across the border is common to this day, so much so that the tarai-centered Sadhbhavana Party’s lawmaker Hridayesh Tripathi can justifiably point out that the relationship between the people of Bihar and UP on the one hand and tarailis on the other is that of roti-beti – bread and bride.

There is however a caveat to this account of similarities. There is between the northern and southern part of the plain a hierarchy of status. The attitude of the elites of UP and Bihar towards the ‘tarailis’ of Nepal has always been ambivalent. While they admired the ‘purity’ of Sarahadiyas, ruled as they were by Hindu kings (as opposed to being lorded over by Mughal vassals), these elites also viewed the Sarahadiyas as uncultured and uncivilised – in a phrase, country bumpkins. Thus, Bihari landlords happily gave their daughters in marriage to well-to-do Sarhadiya clans, but when it came to choosing brides they preferred to select among themselves. Such differences are the precursors of larger differences rooted in geopolitics and unequal relations between India and Nepal, some part of which at least has its base in cultural attitudes. Equally, they are the products of material stagnation and cultural erosion. Relegated societies need to invent differences of honour, status and lineage to retain a sense of self-worth, particularly if they happen to be legatees of an ancient civilisation. Clearly, the divided plain is in urgent need of some form of reintegration and revitalisation.

Heart of heartland
Culture is not only what is it understood to be, it is also what one does. It has to be dynamic and fluid, and in the context of the Ganga Rectangle which encapsulates the currently separated Nepal Tarai, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it has become necessary to give cultural flows an orientation towards the future. On both ‘sides’, a new generation is emerging that has not shared the shackles of either colonialism or despotism. For this generation, the fact that Fanishwar Nath Renu, the celebrated Hindi writer, spent his childhood in Koirala Niwas (the house of the Nepali political family of the Koiralas) in Biratnagar, or the fact that the first few stories by BP Koirala were written in Hindi and published in Hansa, an influential literary journal of that time produced in Allahabad, has little, if any, significance. The political games played by Kathmandu and New Delhi are steadily pushing shared values into the background, although they have not succeeded on this frontier as they have in others for the sheer volume of cultural baggage that is shared. Nevertheless, these days there is more acrimony over, say, who takes the blame for the monsoon floods. Historically the point was moot.

The political connections between Nepal and the Ganga maidaan were of course dictated by more than just happenstance and the need for upward mobility. Due to the free movement of people, the emergence of anti-colonial mass politics in India inspired the struggle against the Rana oligarchy in Nepal. Since open political activity was not possible within Nepal, much of this struggle was based in India side of the plains. The fire of British Indian jails baptised most of the leading lights of the anti-Rana struggle. The venues for the convention of newborn Nepali political parties were Patna, Benaras, Begusharai and Darbhanga. When an armed insurgency against the Ranas was launched, weapons were collected in Bihar and transported to the border. New Delhi came into the picture only when the movement had already entered the final phase of negotiation and settlement.

Nepal’s first experiment with democracy lasted just about a decade (1951-1960) and the first elected parliament of the country survived barely eighteen months. Soon thereafter, King Mahendra’s direct rule commenced and political parties were proscribed. Almost the entire leadership of the Nepali Congress was put behind bars. Once again, Bihar and UP became the springboard for the democratic struggle of Nepal as Nepali Congress leaders, as well as some Nepali communists, found refuge in Patna and Benaras. Not only did the highly political Koirala family reside in Bihar, exiled by the Rana regime in the 1920s, an entire generation of Nepali political leadership grew up in the border towns of Bihar and UP. Even in modern times, therefore, the myths and histories of people on both sides of the tarai border are inextricably inter-twined. Mahatma Gandhi, Jaya Prakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur, of India, are equally respected in the Nepal Tarai. More recently, Laloo and Mulayam have been hailed as messiahs of Yadavs as much in Nepal as in Bihar and UP. This will come as news to Kathmandu’s insular elites, who prefer to fly over the tarai, Bihar and eastern UP on their way to the power centre of Delhi, neglectful of the contributions of the plains to the making of the hill’s polity.

In the Ganga Rectangle, the larger number of people by their tens of million inhabit of course eastern UP and Bihar. But if a cultural, economic and social revival is sought in this region, the very nature of the centralised Indian republic will not allow dynamic new energy to be generated in these regions. It is clear that the Nepalis of the tarai have to take the leadership to develop common flows into the future, which will benefit the larger fold. While the political establishment of India relies on the votes of this heart of the ‘Hindi heartland’, the region remains a neglected backwater left to wallow in its own underdevelopment and seeming incor-rigibility. On the other hand, the Nepal Tarai is emerging as a dynamic region in its own right, and will before long will be creating economic reverberations along the entire Gangetic belt.

The Nepal Tarai has certain attributes that eminently qualify it to assume leadership in the development of the Ganga Rectangle. It constitutes 23 percent of Nepal’s landmass, and today houses more than half of Nepal’s population. There is still a lot of green cover remaining, however, of the jungle, which is a remnant of the dense woodlands that once stretched from the Jamuna to the Brahmaputra. The tarai is the food bowl of Nepal, producing 70 percent of its rice and all kinds of cash crops including pulses, vegetables, tobacco, sugarcane and jute. Industrially, the tarai is even more important for the Nepali economy, as almost all consumer goods produced within the country are from factories that dot the tarai landscape. Out of about 60 towns of significant size, 40 are located in the tarai. Barring the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys in the mid-hills, all other important urban settlements lie in the southern plains. Most crucially, even though only 20 out of 75 districts of Nepal fall in the tarai, together they send nearly half of all the lawmakers to the Lower House of the country’s Parliament. These factors combine to give the Nepal Terai a potential preponderance and influence within Nepal, compared to eastern UP and northern Bihar’s ‘relegated’ role within not only India, but also the states of UP and Bihar themselves. Not only New Delhi, but Lucknow and Patna can afford to neglect eastern UP and northern Bihar, whereas Kathmandu is required now to pay attention to the Nepal Terai even though it too has historically neglected it.

From a forested backwater of the Nepali nation-state, therefore, the tarai today is swiftly emerging as a well-populated economic powerhouse. Three decades of trying (and lots of foreign aid, including India’s) has completed the East-West Highway, which not only helps economically and socially integrate Nepal, but with feeder roads it provides a potential trunk route for the economy of the regions to the south as well. Above the flood line and well-built along most of its thousand-kilometre length, this highway – the brainchild of King Mahendra in the early 1960s – is all set to promote cross-border markets and industry. The 1996 trade treaty between Nepal and India, which is lenient on ‘local-content’ requirements for Nepali exports, coupled with Nepal’s potential for generating hydropower to spur industry and the prospects of good governance as and when the current Maoist problem is resolved – points to a time when the plains of Nepal will provide an economic backbone to the Hindi heartland of India. Already, some Indian corporates are taking advantage of the locational assets of the tarai, and there is no reason why this trend will not accelerate once the political teething problems of Nepali democracy are sorted out. The construction of the dry ports of Birgunj and Bhairawa have been completed, and once they are connected to Calcutta by Indian Railways’ containers, the economic boost will benefit both sides of the border. Likewise, as and when an international airport is developed in the tarai, either at Nijgadh or Bhairawa or elsewhere, this will provide another injection of energy to the Ganga Rectangle.

Education and health services are another important area where the tarai can lead the way, for whereas once Nepalis crossed the border points for learning, the roles are swiftly being reversed today as the quality of educational establishments and hospitals in Bihar and eastern UP plummet. On the other hand, the Nepali hills are seeing a renaissance of sorts in private schooling that is all set to spread to the tarai. In the meantime, it is the complaint of hospital administrators right across the Nepal Tarai that they are being swamped by the demands of Biharis and UPites. The Nepal Eye Care Foundation, on an average, sees about 5,000 patients from across the border per day. This is a far cry from the days when Nepali patients used to go to Sitapur and Aligarh in UP for minor eye operations. A cancer hospital in Bharatpur in the inner tarai of central Nepal sees patients from large parts of Bihar and UP, and a large Indian-aided teaching hospital in Dharan in east Nepal sees patients from as far afield as Assam, West Bengal and Bihar. Since it will be difficult for Nepal to restrict access to such facilities on the basis of nationality – the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Kathmandu and New Delhi, for one, requires equal treatment of each other’s citizens – there is clearly no way out for either side but to plan more of a future together.

Ganga culture
While economic growth is linked to political stability and will take its time, the tarai is already taking a clear lead over its neighbours in the cultural sphere. The languages of the Ganga maidaan – Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Awadhi – shared by the people of the Nepal Tarai, have started to benefit from the languages movement in Nepal. The speakers of these native tongues of the cross-border region, while they may not be overwhelming in absolute numbers, are a significant proportion of Nepal’s population nevertheless – together constituting about 26 percent of the total (Maithili – 12 percent, Bhojpuri – 7 percent, Tharu – 5 percent, and Awadhi – 2 percent). Even though Maithili may now benefit from the formation of Jharkhand – as Maithili-speaking areas become politically more significant in a truncated Bihar – the Nepali Tarai will remain a more receptive ground for the advancement of these languages. Bhojpuri and Awadhi enjoy higher respectability in Nepal’s Birgunj and Bhairawa than across the border in Motihari and Gorkhapur.

Due to the politics of numbers, the Nepali speakers of Parsa District or Deep Kumar Upadhyay of Kapilvastu District are proud to flaunt their Bhojpuri or Awadhi, while their counterparts across the border continue to try and gain respectability through using Hindi in Patna, Lucknow and New Delhi.

But, the Hindi spoken by the people of eastern UP and Bihar is the butt of jokes for Khadi Boli purists and Bollywood scriptwriters alike, but it continues to be the language for the upwardly in Bihar and eastern UP, even while there is a resurgence of mother tongues in the Nepal Tarai. Professor Dhireshwar Jha Dhirendra, perhaps the most respected Maithili scholar alive, has chosen to stay in Nepal despite his Indian citizenship, and is today a member of the govern-ment-backed Royal Nepal Academy. Indeed, the little innovations in Mai- thili are all happening on the Nepal side of the border, whether it is the production of books and cassettes in Maithila, or even CDs and films as has started. Though what is happening is hardly enough even, something similar is underway with Bhojpuri and Awadhi. Literatteurs of these lan-guages find a relatively more free atmosphere in Nepal than in Bihar and UP.

Thus, today Janakpur, Rajbiraj and Simraungadh are better placed to promote Maithili culture than Dar- bhanga, Madhubani and Muzza-ffarpur. Kalaiya and Birgunj have a more vibrant Bhojpuri flavour than the highly-criminalised Motihari. Lum-bini and Kapilvastu hold the potential of becoming seats of Awadhi resur-gence. But for things to prosper more culturally, the opinion-makers of Bihar and eastern UP need to realise that their cultural renaissance is possible only through a closer tie-up with their Sarhadiya brothers and sisters – who they have historically tended to revile as country bumpkins.

In cultural matters, it seems clear that the dynamism cannot come from Bihar or eastern UP. Thus, Nepal has released its FM radio airwaves to the public, and while there are many Nepali-language stations all over, there is already one which is broadcasting part-time in Awadhi. While Radio Nepal already airs news in Maithili and Bhojpuri on its short-wave bands, before long local FM radio based in Janakpur will be beaming local language programmes that can be caught all over the Mithila region. The same will be true of Bhojpuri. The fact that the two sides at the Birgunj-Raxaul border point have now been provided local telephone facility is another harbinger of closer interactions between the Nepal Tarai and neighbouring regions of the Ganga Plain.

Earlier, Maithili books by Hari Mohan Jha were big hits in the tarai, and these days the most active Maithili dramatist, Mahendra Malangiya, is based in Janakpur. Further consolidation of modern-day cultural linkages would lead to the publication of economically viable literary and news magazines in Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. The people of the region should also capture their culture for their own benefit. To begin with, there is no point in calling the same school of painting ‘Madhubani art’ in India/Bihar and ‘Mithila’ in Nepal. When it represents the cultural legacy of Mithila, why not call it that? Meanwhile, just as Mithila art has been rescued from the clutches of oblivion, there is urgent need to revive Bhojpuri pottery and Awadhi weaves.

Oil and water
Nepal’s national identity was sought to be built around the Gorkhali conquerors who established the Gorkhali state on the strength of their khukuri. This ‘Nepali culture’ is relatively young, hence very vibrant and assertive; but it is also insecure for the very same reason. In order to fortify its identity, it seeks to build walls around itself. The overwhelming results of opinion polls demanding “regulation” of the India-Nepal border are nothing but a reflection of this insecurity. But the statist-minded of Nepal will have to understand that those who are born Maithils will forever be Maithils regardless of their citizenship, be it Indian, Nepali, Canadian or Australian. The same is true for the remote neo-colonists of New Delhi or those somewhat closer in Lucknow or Patna. Cultural identities are deeper and stronger than political ties, and this unity of purpose needs to be exploited for mutual benefit by the people of Nepal and India, not denied or destroyed. For the taraili people, the challenge will be to convince the Kathmandu elite that the surge in cultural flows does not weaken national loyalties – you cannot dilute oil with water. They operate at separate levels and need to be treated as such. Cultural diversity is the strength of the Nepali state, not its weakness.

For the people of Bihar and UP living in the border region, it is important to realise that just as all their rivers flow down from Himalayas, the source of their cultural awakening may now lie in the Nepal Tarai. It may be politically expedient for New Delhi to brand all madrassas in the tarai as seats of Islamic extremism, but people on both sides of the border know that it is safer being a Muslim in ‘Hindu’ Nepal than it is in ‘secular’ Bihar or eastern UP. This is so because the dominant identity of people in Nepal is still cultural, while it has acquired communal and casteist overtones in India. The way to strengthen cultural identity is to make it more vibrant, and the tarai is well placed for the moment due to its enhanced place within Nepal to lead such a movement. In India, the New Delhi-centric intelligentsia would do well to look at the heart of the Hindi heartland and see how the nodes of its resurgence lie up north across the border in the Nepal Tarai.

Even for the Indian elite, the realisation must have dawned by now that the overarching national slogans of “Mera Bharat Mahan”, “Garva se kaho hum Hindu hain” and “Hindu-Muslim Bhai Bhai” cannot counter other deep-rooted identities like being the progeny of the mythical Yadu (Yadavs) or Parushram (the Bhumihar’s Ranvir Sena). To weaken such parochialism, however, it is necessary to strengthen the more inclusive cultural identities in this region such as the Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi ones. Inspired by the history of nation-building in Europe, India’s freedom fighters copied their model from the British and forged the Indian identity around Hindi, Hindu and Hindustan, the thin veneer of secularism notwithstanding. This was a mistake, in the long term.

Cultural identities (nationalities) are to be seen as a resource; attempts at replacing them entirely with political citizenship will be fruitless, if not actually counter-productive. Strong nationalities give strength to citizenship in plural societies. People from both sides of the Indo-Nepal border have lived together, survived the vagaries of nature, and prospered by co-operating with each other. There is a need to make such ties stronger, rather than sacrifice them on the altar of statist nationalism.

The cultural awakening around Janakpur and Lumbini can lift the Mithila and Awadh regions from their present lassitude and depression. Industrial resurgence along the Birgunj-Butwal stretch can inspire the commercially moribund Vaishali-Motihari regions and their Bhojpuri-speaking population in Bihar. For places like Kishanganj, Saharasa, Darbhanga, Muzzaffarpur, Motihari, Siwan and Gorakhpaur, economic development in Nepal’s tarai will have a more immediate impact than the progress in Cyberabad or the Silicon Plateau. In many ways, the Nepal Tarai and even Kathmandu Valley today matter more for Bihar and eastern UP than New Delhi. In the same way, the tarai (and Kathmandu, ultimately) cannot escape from the follies of Lucknow and Patna and needs to be better aware of trends and events south of the border. For too long, have the intelligentsia from the two sides looking to Delhi Durbar than at each other.

Dinkar, a Bihari poet, writing in Hindi, expresses his laments to the mountains in his poem titled “Addressed to the Himalaya”. He, at least, understood the symbiotic link between the adjacent region. This is how Dinkar voices his anguish:

On your feet lies
Mithila delicate
Ask her where she lost
Her priceless heritage?
O Kapilvastu, Buddha’s teachings
Where have they gone?
Tibet, Iran, Japan, China
Sermons reached, here forgotten?

Ask Vaishali’s ruins,
Where is Lichhavi grandeur vanquished?
O gloomy Gandaki! speak
Where have poet Vidyapati’s songs vanished?



Entry filed under: Articles.

Gajendra Narayan Singh Mahendra Narayan Nidhi

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Amit Shah  |  July 17, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Great……The broadest picture painted by anyone over my culture.

    This article brings the facts tht we all knew in our heart but were somehow reluctant accept it.

    Thanks a lot

    Amit Shah

  • 2. Sanjay Thapa  |  September 20, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    Interesting….And eye opening…really good piece of write-up

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