We finally met our bus on the other side, and at last arrived in Nepalganj in the middle of the night. Worn out from the journey of the day before, I decided to spend one day of rest in Nepalganj as this would give me a chance to help Mark settle in, and to meet the staff of COCAP’s Western focal point (housed in the office of COCAP member Social Awareness Concerned Forum or “SAC”)
Krishna-ji, (when speaking to or about Nepalis it is polite to add the honorific –ji) the COCAP focal point coordinator, picked us up from our hotel on his scooter and brought us to the office. As we cruised down the single long dusty street that makes up the business center of Nepalganj, I was struck by the cultural diversity that was evident along the way. Hindu temples lay nestled next to large mosques and many Sikhs (conspicuous in their brightly colored turbans) ambled along the street. The bustling commercial activity was indicative of the fact that the Indian border lies only a few kilometers away.
Once at the office, we learned that SAC has several programs, including a joint program with my host organization (SWEET-Nepal in Mahendranagar) to help build the capacity of all the COCAP member organizations. Krishna-ji insisted that I come visit during their next training (a grant proposal writing training and workshop at the end of June.) Just as with all the COCAP members I have met, despite some language barriers, Krishna-ji was incredibly warm and welcoming.
As I quizzed him about the local political situation and social issues he revealed that despite Nepalganj’s image of cultural and ethnic harmony, simmering tensions lay beneath the surface and had recently escalated into violence.
The Madhesi issue has gotten the most attention in the Eastern Terai, but it is Nepalganj where the current conflict ignited. Whereas Nepal officially recognizes certain rights and privileges for “janjattis,” or indigenous groups, most Madhesis fail to qualify for this recognition, and are marginalized socially and excluded from the political process with no official recognition of their plight. In order to qualify for janjatti status, a group must speak a language other than Nepali, and (most significantly) not be Hindu. In consequence, Madhesi’s are not officially recognized as an indigenous group, and are treated with suspicion and regarded as Indians or “foreigners.”
This comes in spite of their rich history and connection to the civilization of Mithila. In the Ramayana, Sita (the wife of lord Ram) was ethnically Mithilian(sp?)and it is widely accepted that their kingdom was in Janakpur, in present-day Nepal. Thus to maintain that Madhesi’s are not indigenous to Nepal seems to be an untenable argument.
Despite this, many Madhesis are denied Nepali citizenship, and there are huge double standards for the Madhesis that do manage to get citizenship. For example, when applying for citizenship they must have recommendations from others, a hoop which the Pahari (hill Hindus who have historically dominated Nepali society and politics) are not required to jump through.
As a result of this discrimination, and the failure of the Nepali government to even recognize that such a problem exists, many radical and violent Madhesi groups have sprung up in the past year (including the “Terai Tigers, “The Cobras” and “The Madhesi Forum” often ominously referred to simply as “The Forum”) advocating for an independent Terai. In response to these developments, several militant Pahari groups have formed as well, such as “Chure Bhawar.”
Things turned violent in Nepalganj when these two belligerent, ethnically-motivated groups clashed. The confrontation resulted in 27 Madhesi deaths which were all caught on video and subsequently distributed throughout the Terai.
As a result, tensions have been inflamed throughout the region, providing such groups with an increasing number of young volunteers and it remains to be seen how this will all eventually play itself out. With all of Nepal’s rich cultural and ethnic diversity, the shadow of ethnically motivated conflict is frightening. Moreover, an independent Terai is not a real possibility. Most of Nepal’s food is grown here, and many Paharis and janjattis (such as the Tharu people) inhabit the region as well. Realization of even some of these groups demands would require forced relocation (if not ethnic cleansing) of thousands of people.
This all comes at a time when Nepal is still struggling with its own rocky consolidation of democracy, corrupt culture of elite nepotism and impunity, unchecked YCL activities, and daily strikes. Funny, I just thought all the mosques and temples looked pretty.
Posted By Jeff Yarborough
Posted Jun 22nd, 2007