While Butwal burned
While Butwal burned
There will be more Kapilbastus unless the parties act
Kapilbastu shows the fragile nature of tarai politics. All it takes is a minor trigger to unleash violence, communal tension and instability.
The only thing surprising about last week’s events was that it happened in central and not eastern tarai. Or maybe it is surprising because some of us mistakenly thought of Birganj as the dividing point and barely looked west from there.
Abdul Moid Khan was an influential leader in Kapilbastu and bordering districts.
Viscerally anti-Maoist, he headed a vigilante group and had links with politicians and criminals in the tarai and Uttar Pradesh.
His killing may have stemmed from political rivalry or a personal feud, or perhaps groups who knew there would be a backlash and wanted to create instability carried it out. His supporters, Muslims but also some madhesi Hindus, suspected the Maoists, vandalised pahadi houses, attacked both security forces and Maoist camps and torched vehicles. Some people came from across the border to add to the unrest. There was retaliation in Butwal where madhesis were attacked and a mosque vandalised.
In the polarised atmosphere of the tarai, it was inevitable that the situation would take a communal turn. But what is striking is that there were several layers to this confrontation. There was a tussle between Khan’s supporters and Maoists because of past antagonism and for political space, between pahadis and madhesis, and there was potential that this would turn into a Hindu-Muslim riot.
Other extremist groups on both sides also jumped into the fray. The Kapilbastu turmoil should not surprise us because, while there were underlying local dynamics involved, it is a reflection of the major systemic problems that exist in the tarai: the absence of the state, the political vacuum, the rise of violence, and a political context where ethnicity and identity have come to be the defining feature and inter-community relations have deteriorated.
The state has abdicated its responsibility and there is not even a rudimentary level of governance. Instead of being pro-active, warning the political leadership about brewing tensions and maintaining basic administration, most Home Ministry bureaucrats are busy seeking postings out of the tarai or acting as intelligence agents. Others are reluctant to take any action because it might invite the wrath of seniors.
Local district-level party units, which can serve as a potential moderating force, are dormant. In a way, the NC is both at the root of the problem and a possible solution. Its national leadership retains the same prejudices about madhesis and doesn’t want to share power. The party’s madhesi politicians are struggling within the party, looking up to Girija Koirala for direction, or exploring other prospects.
This means a strong network with deep pahadi-madhesi political and civic linkages has become inert ,leaving the political space open for extremists, criminals, and fringe groups. Unless mainstream parties like the NC reform themselves, promote madhesi faces, become active and engage, this vacuum will be filled by others.
Kapilbastu is symptomatic. The entire tarai will have armed groups fighting each other with the state as a silent onlooker, doing nothing to either tackle the core causes or maintain basic law and order.
Ethnicity is becoming the sole determinant of political choice. The social distance between communities has grown and linkages have weakened. Many pahadis do not know how to cope with power slipping out of their hands. Others have become insecure, resulting in migration or belligerence, as manifested by the Chure Bhawar. While most madhesis don’t want inter-community strife, there are some who are pleased with the discourse of hate and relish the thought of ‘teaching pahadis a lesson’. All the ingredients for communal riots, though not a full-scale ethnic conflict, are present.
There will more Kapilbastus, both in the east and west of the plains.
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