Trouble in Terai

May 13, 2009 at 7:11 pm 1 comment

An Excerpt from

Nepal: A Failing State or a State in Transition?

Oliver Housden

F E B R U A R Y 2 0 0 9

IPCS Research Papers


III. Trouble in Terai

Militant Identity Politics

The Terai is the most unstable and deeply troubled region of Nepal. Despite being Nepal’s industrial and agricultural heartland, it is wracked by lawlessness and sporadic violence which has escalated out of the control of local and state security forces. Militant groups representing the interests of not only the Madhesis, but also other numerous ethnic and caste groups, are increasing. To make the situation more complicated, the Terai is also plagued by a host of criminal activities, ranging from petty smuggling to regional counterfeit currency rings, which are linked to armed political activity.


Historic Madhesi Grievances

The Madhesi cause has been catapulted to the fore of Nepali politics ever since the Jan Andolan II in spring 2006. While it would be beyond the scope of this paper to provide a deep analysis of the Madhesi movement, it is important to reiterate that Madhesis have historically felt marginalised by the paharis (hill people) who they feel, have dominated political, social and cultural life in Nepal, on the basis of their culture, religion and ethnicity.74 Indeed, “modern Nepali nationalism, largely conceived and institutionalised in the latter half of the twentieth century, [that] was shaped around the monarchy, Hinduism and the Nepali language,” is a concept that Madhesis feel is deeply restrictive and discriminatory against their culture.75


Madhesi Armed Groups

While there are numerous pro-Madhesi armed groups, the main actors are the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha – Jaya Krishna Goit (JTMM-G), JTMM-Jawala Singh (JTMM-JS), Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (ATMM), the Nepal Defence Army, Madhesi tigers, Terai Madhesi Mukti Tigers, Terai Cobra, Terai Liberation Force and the Madhesi Virus Killers.76 It is important to note that many of these are former Maoists77  – such as Jawala Singh and Goit – and the organisational structure and recruitment strategies of these groups mirror the CPNM during the civil war.78 Crucially, the speed with which new groups have been formed means that they have little time to consolidate their structures. Bickering between group cadres, that has increasingly become defined by inter-caste squabbles, often leads to factional divides which threatens the loose association of most armed groups in the Terai.79 Thus, they are prone to constant splintering and reforming as new groups. As a result of their weak organisational structure, it is also difficult to determine the goals of these groups. Although most armed Madhesi rebels espouse ‘regional or Madhesi autonomy’,80 their ultimate goals are unclear. So too is their relationship with mainstream Madhesi political parties, as they have not agreed upon a “common party or individual to represent them.”81


More is known about their military capability and source of weapons. The flat physical geography of the Terai means that these groups do not have the natural advantages of the hills for successful guerrilla training and warfare which the Maoists enjoyed. Moreover, most analysts believe armed Madhesi groups are poorly armed and trained. In an interview with an ATMM military commander, I was told that their military arsenal consisted of small arms which are smuggled over the India-Nepal border, often through Bihar.82 Nevertheless, the rapid proliferation of armed groups means there is a severe information deficit about their long-term strategies and political ambitions.


Other Ethnic and Religious Minorities

The Limbuwans

By rapidly opening the political arena to ethnic minorities, “ethno-politics has become a major paradigm for reclaiming social space” in Nepali politics.83 The Terai, no different than any other region of Nepal, is host to numerous ethnic minorities which have begun expressing their grievances through violence and do not associate themselves with the Madhesi movement. An important illustration of this phenomenon are the Limbuwans. The Sanghiya Limbuwan Rajyaparisad [Federal Limbuwan State Council (FLSC)] has demanded that nine Districts lying east of the Arun River – Panchthar, Taplejung, Terhathum, Sankhusabha, Ilam, Jhapa, Dhankuta, Sunsari and Morang – should be declared the Limbuwan State.84 They have resorted to sporadic violence and organized strikes which have caused considerable disruption to hundreds of workers and brought everyday life to a standstill.85


The Tharus

In early November 2008, the Autonomous Tharuhat National Council created the Tharuhat Liberation Army in the farwestern district of Kailali with the intention “to make the revolt of the indigenous people successful”.86 Indeed, Mr. Laxman Tharu, one of the primary instigators of the movement said, “The government of Nepal has so far ignored the demands of the Tharu community and that we want the entire Tarai plains of Nepal be declared the Tharu Autonomous Region [and]…if our demands are not met with within three months, we are ready to wage yet another peoples’ revolt.”87 Indeed, the Tharu intelligentsia in particular, fundamentally object to being referred to as Madhesis and wish to distance themselves from “all Madhes, one state.”88 What is more, reports of Tharus requesting donations from villagers, especially in Dang where there is a large Tharu population, in support of their insurgency have now become increasingly common.89 However, the Tharu intelligentsia is too disaggregated from grassroots support to pose a huge threat to local security forces. The Tharu community is scattered over a wide area and only in several districts do they have a majority.90 Laxman Tharu has also admitted their arsenal is not particularly sophisticated.91 As a result, raising an effective insurgency is highly unlikely. However, this will not preclude further low intensity violence in Tharu regions that is bound to lead to displacement and violence against many innocent civilians.



The difference of political opinions within the Muslim population, which stretches across the Terai, is striking. While most Muslims in the East and especially around Biratnagar tend to support the MJF, in mid and far western regions, support for other political parties, such as the CPN-M, UML, as well as the MJF, is mixed.92 It is important to stress that Muslims as of yet, have not become militant. On the contrary, Muslim participation in civil society is beginning to flourish in some corners of the Terai.93 However, there has been speculation for some time that an increasing number of madarasas in the Terai have been funded by organisations in the Gulf with radical agendas.94 Such accusations, predominantly emanating from the Indian Intelligence authorities, have also maintained that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operates along in the Terai in order to exploit the open border for anti-Indian activities.95 Indeed, the hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane which was bound for Delhi from Kathmandu on Chrsitmas Eve, 1999 was by a Pakistani who had allegedly been living in Nepal – an incident which soured Indian-Nepali relations.96 While there is no smoke without fire and the ISI is most likely to have some presence in the Terai – such as ISI’s links to counterfeit currency which shall be discussed below – it is difficult to provide a clear picture. Indeed many claims about ISI’s influence in Nepal are either unsubstantiated or exaggerated by the Indian government to deflect from their own intelligence failings.97 In order to reduce low-intensity violence in the Terai, Madhesis have to be included into the political process.98 On the face of it, initial developments under the new coalition government were encouraging, with the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) forming part of the current ruling government coalition.99 Indeed, the new Constituent Assembly is the most inclusive and representative political institution ever created in the history of Nepal.100 Madhesi political parties and their grievances therefore, now occupy considerable political space in Kathmandu. However, for Madhesis this is simply rhetoric and many do not feel they are adequately represented in the government. For instance, although they are in government they are not involved in major political committees, neither do they have enough top jobs in relation to their representation of the population. At the grassroots level, many Madhesis have not seen any visible change either. As one local told me, “whenever and wherever I go [to the bank, police station, hospital] all I see is pahari.”101 Therefore if change is going to be deep and long lasting, the psyche in Kathmandu must transform dramatically to include ethnic and caste minorities into central and local politics. However, there is also an onus on the Madhesi leadership to shift the direction of the movement. Popular feeling in the Terai towards Madhesi cadres is beginning to change, as disillusion grows towards both the political process and fear of armed groups. As Prashant Jha notes, one of the big questions for the future is which “political force will capitalise on this growing disillusionment with the Madhesi outfits and the resultant political vacuum.”102 Secondly, the Madhesi movement has already begun to exhibit the same caste and hierarchal ambivalence towards smaller, more marginalised ethnic minorities as say those paharis who had historically oppressed them. The Tharus and Muslims in the far west in particular, are frequently dismissed by Madhesi intellectuals as “backward,” “simple” or “who don’t understand or know what they want.” The Madhesi movement accuses major political parties, and particularly the CPN-M of provoking their cause in order to drive a wedge into India,” Seminar Report for IPCS, CLAWS, Delhi, 23 September 200 Madhesi solidarity.103 While this is partially accurate, it is also grossly patronising to assume that Muslims or Tharus cannot think for themselves. Many Muslims in the mid-west, for example, continue to support the CPN-M because they were the first and only party in their manifesto to advocate positive discrimination and political representation in favour of Muslims.104 Furthermore, the Limbuwans who demand autonomy for nine states, several of which are in the Terai, present another challenge to the Madhesi movement. As the major ethnic-based party in Nepali politics, Madhesi parties and especially the MJF must recognise these demands in their political discourse and the new political landscape of Nepal. As with the difficulties over the shape of federalism, accommodating such a disparate range of demands will be far from easy; but to ignore such voices would increase the possibility of more groups resorting to violence to achieve their goals.


Criminal Gangs and Activities

Other than groups with a political agenda, the Terai is host to numerous criminal groups as well. Yet, as with armed Madhesi groups, there is a gaping information deficit about the source and actors involved in criminal activity. However, there are several observations which can be noted. Firstly, the source of this problem in many respects is similar to that of armed political insurrection. Historic exclusion from politics and economic under development have left many ethnic, religious and lower caste minorities adrift and with minimal choices and opportunities. Depending on where one is in the Terai, it is common to find that the most marginalised groups tend to be involved in criminal activities. For example, Muslims in the mid-west and especially in Nepalgunj, who are more illiterate and unemployed than other groups, have been involved in smuggling sugar, detergent or oil. 105 The open border has facilitated the growth of criminal activity in the Terai. This is certainly not a new phenomenon as the porous nature of the border has been exploited by the illegal importation of timer, the drugs economy, and stone and pebble smuggling for cheap construction materials in India.106 However, more worrying was the recent discovery of counterfeit currency in Birgunj in November 2008. The scale of the operation – Nepal is the primary conduit of fake Indian currency in the subcontinent – is particularly worrying.107 As Bhaban Singh, an elected member as the CA member notes, the amount of Rupees currently being smuggled suggests that “politicians and policemen are involved in the fake currency racket. Otherwise how can so much cash come in through Kathmandu?”108 What is more, the Indian government maintains the racket was organised by Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Agency in order to “fund terror and subvert the Indian economy,”109 once again fuelling speculation about the presence of ISI and radical Islam in Nepal. This evidence illustrates the conceptual problem of defining the source of unrest in the Terai. It is almost impossible to disaggregate political and criminal activities because they are often linked to one another. This is not only illustrated by the alleged links between ISI and the counterfeit currency ring but also by the supply of weapons by criminal gangs to armed political groups. Thus, the problem in the Terai is both a socio-political and law and order issue. Yet this is not solely because of an ineffective government in Nepal. The open border facilitates illegal activities as India, especially Bihar, has become a safe haven for criminal and armed political actors.110 Thus, the Indian government must engage with Nepal to improve collaborative governance to bolster security in the Terai.111 What is more, the lack of information about these groups severely limits the mandate of what peace talks can realistically achieve. Research centres, such as the Asian Study Centre for Political and Conflict Transformation, want to work on this issue, but since it is seen as bottomless pit, the study remains drastically under funded.112 However, the collection of reliable data about key actors in the Terai would be a huge step forward in aiding the peace process.



74 Data on the presence of ethnic or caste minorities indicates that Madhesi claims that they have been excluded from politics in favour of the Pahari, upper castes, are legitimate. The representation of Madhesis in Cabinet or constitutional bodies has traditionally been a fraction of the paharis. In Koirala’s cabinet in 2001, Madhesis held four out of possible 25 Ministerial posts; only two Madhesis were members of Constitutional bodies (versus 17 Paharis) and four Chief of Government Corporations and Committees, whilst paharis constituted the 52 other available posts. Table 9, Madhesi Representation in Cabinet, Constitutional Bodies and other Important Posts, in Amresh Kumar Singh, “Restructuring of the Nepali State: A Madhesi Perspective,” in Nepal : New Frontiers of Restructuring of State, ed. Lok Raj Baral (New Delhi: Adroit, 2008), 111.

Furthermore, as of 2007, the Proportional ShareIndex (PSI) rating of Terai Madhesis vis-à-vis their representation in the National legislature was 0.66, despite constituting 33 per cent of the national population. Conversely, the PSI of Bahuns and Chetris stood at 2.58 and 1.04 respectively, Table 8: Representation of Different castes and Ethnic Groups in National Legislature, [according to the 2007 Interim Constitution] in Ibid.: 110

75 International Crisis Group (ICG), “Nepal’s Troubled Tarai region”, Asia Report N°136, 9 July 2007, 2-5, south_asia/136_nepal_s_troubled_tarai_region.pdf


76 The ATMM, Pawan Giri-led SJTMM and JTMM-J, formally unified into the Terai Janatantrik Party in January 2009. See “Three Terai rebel organisations unite,”, 14 January 2009.

77 The Maoists sought to incorporate the Madhesis into the insurgency during the Nepali civil war. Throughout the conflict, the Maoists mobilised ethnic minority participation in the insurgency. Indeed, their success depended on these ties. Whilst Madhesi involvement in the conflict came much later in the conflict, their support nevertheless became extremely important in building the strength of the rebellion. The CPN-M’s calls for greater regional autonomy and self-determination certainly resonated with the Madhesi movement. However, the Madhesis quickly became disillusioned with the Maoists for failing to implement and act upon their pro-Madhesi rhetoric. In 2004, some Madhesis in the Maoists Jawala Singh and Jai Krishna Goit, separated, to form the JTMM. Subsequently, the number of armed groups in the Terai towards the end of the civil war grew and violence increased after the ceasefire in late 2006 and early 2007 (See International Crisis Group (ICG), “Nepal’s Troubled Tarai region,” Asia Report N°136, 9 July 2007. 78 U.N. Security Council, “Secretary-General Report on children and armed conflict in Nepal,” December 2006, 6

79 Prashant Jha, “Madeshi movement splintered by caste and militancy,” Nepali Times, 21-27 November 2008 lainSpeaking/15293

80 The major exception was the ATMM which demanded total Terai/Madhesi secession from Nepal, but after their unification with JTMM-JS and Pawan Giri, it is unclear whether their ultimate goal will be independence or regional autonomy.

81 “Nepal: Talks crucial to prevent upsurge in Terai violence – rights groups,” IRIN News, 21 October 2008 024

82 One can assume they are low-grade weapons, given the low-intensity nature of violence and small-scale attacks in the Terai. Author’s interview with ATMM District Commander for Sunsari District, Sunsari, 13 November 2008

83 D. Kumar, ”Nepal’s Future: Order in Paradox,” AAKROSH, Vol.11, No.40, (July 2008): 35

84 The FLSC’s vision of federal Nepal is an arrangement of autonomous regions demarcated along the traditional boundaries of ethnic groups. SATP, “Nepal: Assessment 2008,” x.html

85 “Nine eastern districts reel under Limbuwan bandh”, 30 November 2008; “FLSC strike cripples eastern Nepal for 2nd day”, 1 December 2008,

86 “Tharuhat Liberation Army is formed”,, 4 November 2008, 4/news06.php

87 “Nepal: Tharu Revolt imminent if identity ignored,” Telegraph Weekly Magazine, 25 October 2008, s_id=4497

88 Ibid.

89 Author’s interview with (Anon) civil society leader, Nepalgunj, Banke, 15 November 2008

90 See “Nepal National Population Census, 2001,” Central Bureau of Statistics, 2001, Kathmandu,

91 “Nepal: Tharu Revolt imminent if identity ignored,” Telegraph Weekly Magazine, 25 October 2008, s_id=4497

92 Author’s interview with Abdul Satar Ansari, Muslim civil society figure, Madhesi Intellectuals Society, Biratnagar, 10 November 2008.

93 Muslim civil society figures such Hasan Ansari, Head of the Eastern Nepal Civil Society (Biratnagar), Imam Haida, senior figure of Jamiyantul Olma Nepal, have sought to register madrasas with the Nepali government and the Fatima Foundation, a women’s rights organisation in Nepalgunj

94 Author’s interview with Ambassador K.V.Rajan, Institute for Higher Education (IILM), Delhi, 30 October 2009

95 For more, see International Crisis Group (ICG), “Nepal’s Troubled Tarai region”, Asia Report N°136, 9 July 2007, 2-5, south_asia/136_nepal_s_troubled_tarai_region.pdf

96 “Nepal suffers Hijack Fallout,” BBC News, 25 February 2000,

97 In an Indian intelligence report about ISI and madarasas in the Terai, the Shisul Uloom madrassa was accused of training and supplying Islamic militants. Not only is this madrasa tiny – 2000 square feet – it is surrounded by a big Hindu population who would have quickly reported any suspicious behaviour. Author’s interview with Imam Haida, Shahbazia Madrasa, Biratnagar, 11 November 2008

98 International Crisis Group (ICG), “Nepal’s Troubled Tarai region,” Asia Report N°136, 9 July 2007, 32, south_asia/136_nepal_s_troubled_tarai_region.pdf

99 ICG, “Nepal’s New Political Landscape,” Asia Report N°156, 3 July 2008, 10

100 Oliver Housden, (Ambassador KV Rajan), “Emerging Situation in Nepal and Implications for

101 Author’s interview with local villagers in Biratnagar, 11 November 2008

102 Prashant Jha, “Madeshi movement splintered by caste and militancy,” Nepali Times, 21-27 November 2008

103 Author’s interview with Abdul Satar Ansari, Muslim civil society figure, Madhesi Intellectuals Society, Biratnagar, 10 November 2008; Author’s interview with MJF Biratnagar Youth leader, Rangali, Morang, 11 November 2008; Author’s interview with Rajendra Prashad Sah, senior MJF and civil society leader, Sava’s Inn Hotel, Biratnagar, 12 November 2008

104 Author’s interview with Vice-President of Fatima Foundation, Nepalgunj, 15 November 2008

105 Ibid.

106 Author’s interview with Prashant Jha, Lalitpur, Kathmandu, 4 November 2008

107 VK Shashikumar, “Real or fake?”, Nepali Times, 31 October – 6 November 2008

108 VK Shashikumar, “Politicians and police are involved. Otherwise how can so much fake currency be smuggled?”, Nepali Times, 31 October – 6 November 2008

109 Ibid.

110 For example, both Jai Krishna Goit and Jawala Singh live in Bihar

111 Given the porous nature of the border and the fact that many Indians and Nepalis use the border everyday, politically and logistically, closing the border is a non-starter.

112 Author’s interview with Manish Thapa, Asian Study Centre for Political & Conflict Transformation, Kathmandu, 7 November 2008

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Entry filed under: Reports.

Nation building or destroying? Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha, struggles with identity

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Zafa  |  May 24, 2009 at 10:50 am

    The Gurkha’s have now got the right to live in UK, lets hope the Muslims and other minorities get the right to live peacefully in Nepal as well.

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