The chilly winter ahead
Murders committed by armed groups and robberies carried out by dacoits in the Tarai, however, make front-page news and headlines in the mainstream media. In short, the region is depicted as a wild place, ungovernable without the use of force. Thus every action of the government and the security forces is justified, so long as it is carried out in the name of restoring law and order. The general attitude is: after all, we cannot let the Tarai turn into Bihar, whose inhabitants so closely resemble these Madhesis.
This is not to say that we condone the violence committed by armed groups. We abhor it. We denounce it wholeheartedly. This, however, does not mean that we are blind to the atrocities committed by the security forces. Every excess committed by the security forces invariably further alienates the Madhesi people from the Nepali state, just as the excesses committed by the armed groups have thoroughly discredited them. But we have a national habit of excusing one wrong by pointing to another. Our ruling party has carried this tradition forward, and other parties have zealously followed it.
To put things in perspective, let us revisit the path that led to the escalation of violent and arbitrary actions committed by both sides. As the media and our garrulous politicians never fail to point out, formal and informal letters were exchanged between the government and the armed groups. Talk teams were formed. Groups were identified. Informal talks were held. In the resulting confusion, however, it was hard to figure out who was involved, and even harder to comprehend what was being discussed. The armed groups, who seemed willing to talk, stuck to their half-baked demands. The government, on the other hand, had a simple approach — sit down and talk, or else. This is not surprising given the mismatched membership of the talks team, whose disbandment has been demanded from the beginning of the process. We could not help but think that the whole process was a mere façade. We knew it was going nowhere and suspected that all the concerned actors felt the same way.
Come Poush, it is no surprise that both Bam Dev and Rajan Mukti’s men are out in full action. Rajan Mukti, lest we forget, appeared to be the most eager to hold the talks. Where did things go wrong? Did the government really have the political will and the desire to actually follow through with the talks? Or was the emphasis on the threats? Was Rajan Mukti sincere, or was he only utilizing this period of uncertainty to regroup, following the tactics of the governing guerillas as they always have?
Let us leave these musings to the legitimate and illegitimate powers-that-be in the Tarai. For us ordinary citizens, living amidst anarchy and fear, what has become glaringly evident is the lack of civil society, particularly in the human rights sector. The international community, particularly the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), quickly goes on the defensive by crying “mandate.” National human rights groups, such as the Informal Sector (INSEC) utterly lack credibility thanks to their lack of inclusiveness and past actions, and it would be difficult for them to do anything, even if they wanted to, which in itself is suspect. And disjointed efforts by newly formed Madhesi groups seem to have been unable to make any impression. Furthermore, there are no visible signs of any effort being made by the central government, the local administration, or the international community to foster the growth of civil society, despite some prominent personalities having pointed out the absence and the need for a robust civil society.
In the end, we may end up perpetuating a vicious cycle. Armed groups will continue to act with impunity. The security forces will use force, unwittingly increasing frustration in the Nepali state. When there are complaints of human rights violations by either side, access to justice will be difficult due to the lack of a responsive government and independent human rights organizations. This will foster alternate modes of justice, which in turn will further increase human rights violations.
As it has become painfully clear, the wheel that has been churning in the Tarai is a complex one with many spokes. The government, for its part, has only made the situation worse with its short-sightedness and obvious lack of understanding. The armed groups will only be too glad if this situation perpetuates. Therefore, it is upon civil society to fill this vacuum, by acting as mediators during crisis and by advocating the common people’s cause during moments of despair.