Complex story characterising Tarai

March 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm Leave a comment

Complex story characterising Tarai

– Prashant Jha

It has to be one of those dark coincidences. In 2007, I first met Mukesh Chowdhury, aka Arjun Singh, the man who has claimed responsibility for the killing of Janakpur entrepreneur Arun Singhaniya, at almost the same spot where the murder took place on Monday evening.

Shiv Chowk is the epicentre of Janakpur. Two of the town’s biggest hotels—Manaki and Welcome—are located at the crossing. It has the best-stocked newspaper stall and paan shops, which draw the men out in the evening to exchange local gossip. A popular fish and beer joint, Navrang, is located close by. One road leads down to the bazaar and the railway station while the Janaki Temple is only a short walk away. And a police van is usually parked 50 metres away.

It almost seems like the day (Holi) and location of the killing carried as stark a message as the murder itself. The sharpshooters, and their masters, seemed to be taunting the state and the rest of the society — we can do what we want to do to anyone, at the time and place of our choosing; catch us if you can.

While we know little about the causes and background of the killing, one thing is certain. This is a complex story that has all the elements that have characterised the situation in the Tarai over the past few years — politics-crime-business nexus; crippled security structure with shoddy intelligence; a state that commands little popular legitimacy; the culture of intolerance; multiple political fault lines; and the active use of violence to achieve political, personal or commercial goals.

To see this merely as a case of media being targeted would be unfair to the hundreds who have been killed in the last three years in the region between Biratnagar and Birgunj — cases which figure merely as small Page 3 briefs in the national media. Most of these killings have had a history of land disputes, personal revenge, political rivalry, caste enmity, or commercial acrimony. Reporting and taking editorial lines make media entrepreneurs and journalists more vulnerable. But it is important to remember that is only a part of their multi-layered identity. Singhaniya’s killing appears to fit into this broader pattern. What is intriguing though is the increasing trend in Janakpur of influential local elites being systematically targeted.

So who did it?

We do not know. And going by past trends, we will not know. All we will be left with are residues of the rumours circulating around Janakpur.

But tracing the trajectory of the person who has claimed responsibility can give clues about the new generation of those who take pride in the blatant use of violence.

Three years ago, Mukesh Chowdhury was a young MJF activist who had participated in the Madhes movement. He looked like any other sincere Madhesi student who was inspired by the calls for dignity and rights. But his fascination with the world of armed groups was difficult to miss. By January 2008, Chowdhury was heading the student front of Jwala Singh’s JTMM. He usually operated from small hotels in Bihar and was well versed in the jargon about ‘Madhesi liberation’.

Even when many of Jwala Singh’s closest aides like Ranbir Singh, Bibash Bidrohi and Chandrashekar left to form the Madhes National Democratic Party (Revolutionary), Chowdhury stayed on with Jwala Singh. It was only a few months ago that he set up his own group, the Tarai Janatantrik Party-Madhes. But through this period, it was clear that Chowdhury like many other armed groups’ activists had active political support some mainstream Madhesi politicians. He was understood to regularly visit Janakpur and Kathmandu to meet these patrons who enjoy state office.

He may have killed Singhaniya. Or he may be taking the responsibility on someone else’s behalf. Or he may want to take the credit to establish himself as the new terror in town which will translate into greater success in extortion. Or he may be leading the police up a wild goose chase. The point is three years after this trend began in the Tarai, the Nepali state either lacks the basic intelligence to catch culprits or the political will to do so.

The politics-crime underbelly is always murky. Erstwhile crime partners turn into sworn enemies; a politician by the day may be an armed group member at night; and cops wink at murderers and let them go. The state has a choice. It can set an example of how crime will lead to punishment. Or it can carry out the pretence of investigations and forget about the case when media attention shifts to the next story in a few days. In that case, it is only a matter of time before the next killing occurs in the Tarai.

(Jha is a Kathmandu-based journalist who covers contemporary politics with special focus on Madhes)



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