The explosive plains of Nepal
The explosive plains of Nepal
Anuj Chopra, Foreign Correspondent
A lean, bespectacled sexagenarian, clad in a handspun cotton kurta, he proffers quotes from history books to articulate his argument – that his native Terai, a low-lying stretch of alluvial plains in southern Nepal, has the right to secede and form an independent state.
“Our land was annexed by colonial powers and then ceded to Nepal’s Pahadi rulers in the 19th century through different treaties. But with the 1950 Indo-Nepal accord, all previous treaties stood abrogated. Nepal’s rule over Terai is illegal,” Mr Goit said in an interview at an ashram in a dusty Indian village near the border with Nepal. “We want – and deserve – liberation.”
For many Nepalis, Mr Goit is a terrorist, responsible for the deaths of innocent civilians and and willing to engage in criminality to achieve his separatist goals. When asked about his group’s methods, he paused to consider his response.
“Gandhi, too, advocated the use of arms for independence,” he said, before digging into his bag to pull out a magazine carrying an Indian government advertisement that had a quote from Gandhi. “Gandhi once said,” he began, quoting from the ad, “I would rather have people resort to arms in order to defend her honour than that she should in a cowardly manner remain a hopeless witness to their own dishonour”.
“We, Madhesis, aren’t cowards,” he added.
Once a top Maoist leader, Mr Goit is now high on the Nepali government’s most-wanted list. He leads the Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (ATMM), an underground militant group fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic Madhesis, who make up one-third of Nepal’s population. He sidled out of hiding in Nepal through the porous Indo-Nepal border for an interview with The National.
Madhesis complain of institutionalised political, social and economic discrimination against them at the hands of Pahadis, people originally from the hills of Nepal who have held sway over the country for centuries, from the ancient Shah dynasty to recent spells of democratic governance. Madhesis accuse Pahadis of marginalising them by monopolising government and military jobs; currently, in the 95,000-strong Nepalese army, there are fewer than 1,000 Madhesis.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be a dark-complexioned Madhesi,” Mr Goit said grimly. “We have been slaves for centuries.”
ATMM was the first armed group in Nepal’s southern Terai plains when it was established in 2004. But in recent years, Terai has witnessed a proliferation of armed militant groups and criminal gangs. There are currently more than 100 armed groups in Terai, according to the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a Kathmandu-based human rights organisation. Some are fighting for Madhesi rights while others are merely criminals, engaging in extortion, killings and abductions, often in the guise of the Madhesi movement. There are even Islamist militants and organised crime rackets from such surrounding countries as Pakistan and India hiding out in Terai and taking advantage of the region’s lawlessness.
Terai, which is hemmed in between the Himalayan foothills and the Indo-Gangetic plains and is known as the “granary of Nepal” for its fertile land, makes up one-fifth of Nepal and is home to nearly half the population. The region, bordering India, accounts for 65 per cent of Nepal’s agricultural output and 70 per cent of its industries.
But now the region is going through its bloodiest period in years.
Because of the growing unrest, and facing violence and intimidation, thousands of Pahadis living in Terai have sold their lands and fled to the hills. Factories are shutting down, severely impacting the economy of Nepal, as businessmen flee the region.
Hira Lama, a Pahadi tea-stall owner whose family has lived in the eastern Terai village of Bharda for two generations, was accosted earlier this year by a group of gun-wielding Madhesi militants on motorbikes who told her to leave. “They told me I have no right to be here,” said Ms Lama. “I told them I’m a Pahadi who grew up in Terai. I’m a part of this civilisation. My parents got married here. I was born here. I belong here.”
She has stayed on but has to pay “protection” money to various armed groups and has sent her daughter to school in India for fear she might be kidnapped.
But Madhesis, on whose behalf the Terai militant groups claim to be fighting, are suffering too. According to INSEC, Madhesis accounted for 67 per cent of the 383 people the organisation estimates to have been killed last year in fighting – although locals believe the actual figure to be far higher – 82 per cent of those abducted and 80 per cent of those raped.
“Madhesis are killing Madhesis,” said Lodulal Biswas, an elderly paddy farmer living in Bharda whose 35-year-old son was kidnapped late one night in July by a gang of 10 men who had turned up at Mr Biswas’ mud hut. The men had asked him for water, saying they were passing through the village on a long journey by foot. But as Mr Biswas went to get them water they stormed into his home and took his son.
Mr Biswas has no idea why his son was taken or whether it was planned, although abductions are endemic in Bharda, where armed gangs are believed to use ransoms from kidnappings to raise money to pay for weapons and salaries of gang members. The family has scoured the local jungles looking for their son without success and suspect the kidnappers have taken him across the border into India. “I have no money to pay even if they approach me for ransom,” said Mr Biswas as his wife lay her head on his shoulder sobbing.
Mr Goit, the ATMM leader, bristles at the suggestion that Madhesis are killing one another and pointed out that Terai is infested with many criminal and insurgent groups who seek refuge there.
Mr Goit insists his group are of a different ilk – “We are freedom fighters”, he said.
“We only forcibly tax Pahadis. We don’t extort money from Madhesis. I tell my men – ‘Don’t trouble Madhesis. They are our people, our wealth.’”
Many Madhesis willingly contribute to the movement, he said. “You knock on a Madhesi door in the middle of the night to say, ‘Can you help me, brother?’ People take us in, feed us, and keep us away from the army.”
Across Terai’s lush countryside, amid agricultural land harvested by farmers with scythes, there are roads strewn with the mangled remains of torched vehicles.
Analysts warn that the lawlessness in Terai and the subsequent influx of armed groups from surrounding areas pose a serious risk for South Asian security.
“A tight-knit network of informal traders is exploiting a vacuum of law enforcement in Terai to generate significant operating capital for the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-i-Taiba,” said a report released earlier this year by the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute.
Conversely, many armed groups from Terai base themselves in India and launch attacks on Nepalese authorities from there, analysts say.
After the interview, Mr Goit crossed back over the porous border into Terai through the flood plains of the monsoon-swollen Koshi river, which is lined with sandbanks and riddled with shifting grasslands.
“Terai is waiting to implode,” said Subodh Raj Pyakurel, chairman of INSEC. “The trouble is the world doesn’t realise yet how serious the situation is.”
More worrying still is that many of the armed groups claim – and Mr Pyakurel believes them – to possess much of the hi-tech weaponry once used by Maoist rebels in Nepal’s civil war between 1996-2006.
According to the 2006 peace agreement signed by the former rebels, these weapons should have been deposited in UN-monitored Maoist cantonments and locked away in UN containers.
The former Maoist government, which came to power after a landslide victory in 2006 and which was Pahadi-dominated, reached informal ceasefire agreements with several Madhesi armed groups, but those hang in limbo after the Maoists resigned from power in May over a bitter row to integrate Maoist rebels into the Nepalese army. The prominent Madhesi groups, like ATMM, are averse to direct talks with the current government and call for UN mediation, a demand the government chooses to ignore.
As the armed conflict intensifies, the government under Madhav Kumar Nepal has indicated it plans to bolster its troop presence in Terai to rein in the armed groups.
But militants say they will not be defeated.
“No matter how much they beef up security, they cannot touch us,” Nagendra Paswan, a hardline militant leader, said in a telephone interview from his hideout.
Once with Mr Goit’s ATMM, Mr Paswan, more commonly known by his nom de guerre of Jwala Singh, splintered away in 2006 to form his own militant group, Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha-Singh. He claims his group is active in 20 of Terai’s 22 districts.
Armed with an inventory of sophisticated weapons, he said he was preparing a contingent of guerrilla fighters who swear by the motto of “Maro ya maro” – Kill or get killed. “We’re killing Pahadis because they don’t belong here.”
In an interview in a school building in Siraha town in south-western Terai, 15km from the border with India, the military commander of ATMM, a lanky, mustachioed man with a suspicion of outsiders, revealed a more ominous message.
Giving his name as Shekhar, he claimed he was readying a special contingent of “manav bombs” – or suicide bombers – to launch kamikaze suicide missions on Nepalese government installations.
“Madhesis were once a coward race that once was scared to pick up arms,” Shekhar said. “There will be a day, I assure you, when every Madhesi man and woman will become a soldier.”
He revealed that two years ago, he met with Tamil Tiger rebels in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, before the Tigers had been defeated by the Sri Lankan army.
“We wanted cyanide capsules. They wanted our recipe to manufacture time bombs cheaply,” he said.
“It’s very easy to manufacture time bombs. All you need is this,” he said, picking up a plastic bag to reveal what was inside. It was full with dynamite.
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