Turmoil in the Terai
Turmoil in the Terai
Prasanta Kumar Pradhan
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management
Disorder and chaos prevails in the Terai (also known as Madhesh) region, with several armed groups operating unimpeded, creating a serious challenge to the beleaguered state.
While the presence of at least a dozen armed groups has been reported in the area, the most prominent are the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF, also known as Madheshi Peoples’ Rights Forum) and the two factions of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM) led by Jaya Krishna Goit (JTMM-G) and Nagendra Kumar Paswan a.k.a. Jwala Singh (JTMM-J), respectively. With a well trained armed militia, these groups are currently orchestrating unrest in the region, engaging in killings, abduction, looting and extortion. Other entities presently active in the region include the JTMM – Bisfot Singh faction, Madheshi Rashtriya Mukti Morcha (Madheshi National Liberation Front), Madheshi Mukti (Liberation) Tigers, Terai Cobra, Terai Baagi, Terai Army, Madheshi Virus Killers Party and the Royal Defence Army.
As SAIR has noted earlier, the “identity, profile and aspirations of the Madheshis have abruptly acquired increasing importance in the fragile political detente in Nepal.” According to the 2001 Census, 48.4 percent of the over 23 million Nepalese in the country reside in the Terai region. “Madhesh, also known as Terai or Tarai, is the flat southern region of Nepal, extending from east to west. It occupies about 17 per cent of the country’s landmass. The word ‘Madhesh’ is said to be derived from ‘Madhya Desh’ meaning ‘country in the middle’. Economically, Madhesh is the most productive region of Nepal, accounting for its most fertile lands and the overwhelming proportion of its agricultural output. In addition, a large number of agro-based industries, including jute factories, sugar mills, rice mills and tobacco factories, have been established throughout the region.”
According to MJF leader Upendra Yadav, the Madheshis are the victims of ‘internal colonialism’ as well as regional and racial discrimination by the pahade (hill people) rulers. The MJF demands complete autonomy from the pahade rulers, and has started an ‘armed struggle’ to secure this objective. S.N. Mehta, the Sunsari District president of the Madhesi Youth Forum, the MJF’s youth wing, claims that around 800 cadres are undergoing training in Sunsari, and they are planning to increase the number of cadres to 1,500 soon, and would expand their base and activities to cover all the Terai Districts.
The JTMM-J and JTMM-G, on the other hand, are secessionist in nature and demand complete independence from Nepal. Both the JTMM groups do not recognise the pahade rule and seek an independent Terai state. Goit has, thus, declared: “Terai was annexed by the Nepali pahade rulers and then parts of it were ceded to them by the British through treaties. By the Indo-Nepal agreement of 1950, all other treaties stood abrogated… Terai should have become free then… It is simple, we are free, we should be free.”
Most other demands of these diverse groups have strong commonalities and focus principally on regional autonomy with the right to self-determination, proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly, ending discrimination against the Madheshis, return of seized lands by the Maoists, etc. Moreover, taking their cue from the success of the Maoist insurgency, all the Terai ‘liberation groups’ believe that they can achieve their desired goal by resorting to violence and intimidation. Jwala Singh claims his group has already formed armed militia in 12 of the Terai’s 20 Districts, adding that, “We are planning to develop our military strength to a brigade.” His faction, with a cadre strength of a few hundreds, has a central committee, central and district level Terai ‘governments’, a Terai Liberation Army and District committees across the region.
The cadre strength of the JTMM-G remains difficult to estimate, though unconfirmed reports suggest a support base of a thousand, including hard-core cadres and sympathisers. The Goit faction functions with a central committee, East and West Terai Regional Bureaus, village, ward and cell committees and a parallel military organisation.
Though these groups are present across the Terai region, major incidents have been reported mainly from the Siraha, Dhanusha, Morang, Sarlahi, Bara, Saptari, Mohattari, and Rautahat Districts. These incidents include the killing and abduction of civilians, Government employees and also Maoists, the last of which are regarded as the foremost enemies of the Madheshi movement and people. According to Institute for Conflict Management data, 14 incidents involving various armed Terai groups were reported in June 2007, while 23 were reported in July 2007. This included one civilian and four Maoists killed in June, and eight civilians and three Maoists in July. Apart from the killings and abductions, the Madheshi groups have been involved in capturing land and disturbing day to day life by calling for frequent strikes in the region.
One commentator has remarked that “raw anger characterises the mood in the Tarai… The political landscape in the Tarai today is characterised by uncertainty and a confrontational mood. There is virtually no state presence across the eastern plains, and the Kathmandu leadership, across the political spectrum, is perceived as insincere… In a political landscape characterised by violence, frequent strikes and state inertia, the Madhesis are suffering.”
Significantly, the three principal Madheshi groups – the MJF and the two principal JTMM factions – are splinters of the CPN-Maoist, and parted ways with their parent group because they came to believe that the Maoists were not serious about the development of the Terai region, necessitating a separate and independent struggle for their ‘cause’. The split has given rise to the inherent rivalry between the Terai armed groups and the Maoists, leading to frequent and bloody clashes. On March 22, 2007, Prachanda termed the MJF a ‘criminal gang’ and demanded that the Government outlaw the group. Similarly, on June 18, the MJF demanded that the Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League be proscribed and that the Maoists immediately be expelled from the coalition Government. The Maoists also have their own organisation in the Terai known as the Madheshi Rashtriya Mukti Morcha (Madhesi National Liberation Front), and now seek a ‘democratic republican state’ based on federal autonomy and proportional representation. Unlike the JTMM factions, the Maoists reject secession, demanding “a unified Madhes region” comprising all its communities.
The Government has failed to confront the armed Madheshi rebels as many of the Police posts which were evacuated during the Maoist insurgency are yet to be restored. Of the 141 Police posts that were either displaced or merged, the Government has restored only 59 in the Terai region, leaving behind a gap of at least 82 police posts. The continued threat from various armed groups have hindered the process of restoration of these posts, and consequently of the re-establishment of some state control over the region. Any move on the part of the Government to mobilise its Armed Forces faces stiff resistance in the Terai. Worse, the Security Forces are ill-equipped and utterly demoralised by the success of the Maoist insurgency. The Nepal Police has a current strength of 47,349 and the paramilitary Armed Police Force (APF) has 20,428 personnel for the whole country, a mere fraction of what is needed to meet the nation’s multiple internal security challenges.
In view of the significant power of the armed Madheshi groups and the relative popular support they enjoy in the region, the Government has been compelled to invite them for talks. After repeated refusals, the MJF finally agreed to sit for talks on June 1, when it presented a 26-point charter of demand. The major demands include the restructuring of the state and the formation of a Commission to implement such restructuring; the inclusion of Madheshis in all organs of the state; a federal system of governance; proportional representation; withdrawal of charges against MJF leaders; compensation to those injured during the Madhesh agitation; and the redressal of a number of other grievances of the Terai people. The demands that have been acceded to by the Government include the formation of a State Restructuring Commission, declaring those killed during the Madhesh agitation as martyrs, providing compensation to families of the dead, and providing relief and treatment to those injured during the agitation. The Government has also agreed to carry on a dialogue to seek the help of the UN technical team in further talks; drop charges against MJF leaders, ensure access of Madhesis, Dalits (lower caste Hindus), women, Janjatis (indigenous nationalities) and backward people, to all organs and levels of the state, and a proportionate distribution of resources. An agreement was also reached on demands such as the return of seized properties by the Maoists, ensuring industrial security and an early declaration of the date for Constituent Assembly elections. However, controversial issues, including an autonomous Madhesh province, the right to self-determination and proportional representation remain unresolved. The second phase of talks between the MJF and Government ended in failure on July 25. In the third round of talks on July 28, the MJF, surprisingly, demanded the dissolution of the Interim Parliament, leading to the collapse of the talks.
On July 13, in a letter to the Chief of the United Nations Mission in Nepal, Ian Martin, Goit said that he was ready to hold a peaceful dialogue with the Government, provided the UN or any other credible international agency agrees to broker such talks, and hinted at the possibility of a resumption of negotiations if the Government created ‘an amicable environment’. However, Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel dismissed Goit’s proposal for mediation, insisting that that all internal matters would be solved internally through a dialogue with the Government.
On July 15, Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula gave a 15-day deadline to the agitating Terai groups to come forward for talks, and warned of ‘strict action’ if they failed to comply. Jwala Singh rejected the ultimatum on July 17, and accused the Government of “trying to mobilise the Army to suppress the Terai movement for liberation.” His group also gave a counter-ultimatum to the ‘hills-origin’ Government officials in Terai to relocate out of the region within two weeks, or else face dire consequences. Jwala Singh asserted that southern Nepal was the ‘autonomous state’ of the Madheshis and “The dialogue with the Government will take place only to demarcate the independent state of the southerners.” He added, further, that there was no chance of talks with the Government as the Madheshis had declared Terai an ‘independent state’.
On the other hand, the little-known Madheshi Mukti Tigers (MMT) has also expressed its readiness to sit for talks with UN mediation, if the Government meets its conditions, which include the declaration of a cease-fire by the Government, declaring people killed in the Madhesh movement as martyrs, releasing its detained cadres and dropping of charges leveled against them.
With the Constituent Assembly elections scheduled for November 2007, the Government is trying hard to bring the rebels to the negotiating table, at least, for a peaceful conduct of the elections. The MJF has already been registered as a political party with the Election Commission and is ready to take part in the elections only if its conditions are met by the Government. It has also threatened that they would not allow the election to be held if their demands are not met. Jwala Singh said that, “If the pahade Government tries to forcefully hold elections then the consequences will be grave. And the pahade rulers will be responsible for that.” Similarly, Goit has declared that the new Constituent Assembly would only “renew the slavery of my people…. Nepal has no right to conduct an election here and talk about a Constituent Assembly. We don’t belong to them.”
Underlying all this is a fact that there is a serious political vacuum in the Terai. While the mainstream political parties have proved to be utterly ineffective in redressing the grievances of the Madheshi, the Maoists and a mélange of Madheshi groups have been fighting to occupy this vacant political space.
It is obvious that it is virtually impossible for the Government to meet the preconditions set by armed Terai groups, under prevailing circumstances. This was the case even before the MJF added the further obstacle of a demand for the dissolution of the Interim Parliament and Government. While the Government is evidently willing to concede the relatively low-key demands, the core demands like proportional representation, autonomy, etc., remain can hardly be addressed. Within such an environment, where armed groups confront both the state and the Maoist cadres, the possibility of holding elections for the Constituent Assembly in the Terai region appear bleak.
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