Satya Rupa Singh, a 36-year-old primary school teacher in the town of Jaleswor near the Indian border, initially did not care about protests spearheaded by Madhesi parties in the Tarai. Their shutdown had made life difficult for weeks. The police had been firing at protesters, but she wasn’t ready to go out and join the demonstrations against the constitution.
But on 10 September, she saw the security forces firing indiscriminately at protesters near her home, killing 15-year-old Ramu Singh and four others. That is what outraged Singh and she decided to join the street protests. Two days later, three more were killed in police firing.
“That was just too much, the police must stop killing us,” she said. However, Singh, like many others in these plains districts bordering India still doesn’t know what are the demands put up by Madhesi parties. She is just against the violence, and is furious that the state has insulted her people.
In the last three weeks, Singh has not missed a single day of protest, even travelling 10km away from Jaleswor to take part in a sit-in to block the import of fuel and other essential commodities into Nepal.
“We endured 40 days of blockade, but the state did not care about our life,” she says. “Let Kathmandu now feel the same pain.”
What started as a street movement of the Madhesi Front, an alliance of four Madhesi parties, has now become a Third Madhes Movement in less than a decade. In January 2007, Upendra Yadav, who is now a key leader of the Front, was arrested for burning the Interim Constitution in Kathmandu. His arrest set off protests across the plains and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala agreed to include federalism and autonomy for a Madhes province in the Interim Constitution.
A year later, Yadav and other Madhesi leaders launched another movement and agreed to participate in the first Constituent Assembly (CA) elections only after getting a deal on proportional representation for marginalised communities in state organs. Now, there is a third uprising in progress. Madhesi leaders say this time they will not back off unless the new constitution gives legitimacy to what was agreed upon in the past.
However, the parties leading this struggle did not initially have the organisational structure necessary for a sustained movement. They knew this, and even announced that their future provincial government would give Rs 5 million to families of each Madhesi person killed by state security. Even so, the Madhesi people, most of whom had voted for candidates of national parties like the NC and the UML did not come out into the streets.
After eight policemen were lynched in Kailali by Tharu protesters on 24 August, police started using excessive force in response as the protests spread to the eastern plains. That is when people like Satya Rupa Singh and others joined the protests. As the police used more force, the violence escalated.
When Madhesi parties organised protesters from surrounding areas to overrun Janakpur, an emergency meeting of government officials led by Dhanusa CDO Kali Prasad Parajuli got police prepared to counter it.
“We were afraid we might not be able to contain the situation if thousands of protesters resorted to vandalism,” says Parajuli. Violent clashes erupted and three people were killed in Janakpur as the situation spiralled out of control.
The Madhesi parties appear united for now, but there are groups with varying interests. For example, the people here have already secured a Madhes province, but are divided over which Tarai city should be declared the provincial capital.
Some Madhesi leaders want the trade centre of Birganj, while others are pushing for Janakpur, the heart of the ancient Mithila kingdom. Madhesi groups were competing with each other to be more radical, and to suffer more fatalities to bolster their cause for the location of the capital.
Whatever the reason for the escalating violence, the loss of every Madhesi life added fuel to the fire, radicalising even the moderates.
Lalan Dwibedi became Chief of Thakur Ram Multiple Campus in Birganj with the backing of the NC, but is outraged by the heavy-hand of the state and a lack of respect from Kathmandu for the people of the plains. “How can they call us dhotis? We are all Nepalis, and we are now fighting a battle of dignity,” he says. “Every derogatory word by a government official, every bullet fired by police, and the death of every Madhesi protester adds fuel to the fire.”
Madhesi protesters, who have blocked border points with sit-ins during the days and sleeping on no man’s land at night, have welcomed India’s blockade. However, the seven-point of amendment, which New Delhi reportedly pushed Kathmandu to accept, does not find resonance with every Madhesi leader.
“I don’t understand why there is so much fuss about citizenship,” says Lalbabu Raut, Vice Chair of Federal Socialist Forum and a member of the parliament. “Except for a few Madhesi leaders, the Madhesi people are satisfied with citizenship provisions.”
Raut says proportional representation of Madhesi in all state organs, demarcation of constituencies in proportion to population and wider boundaries of plains provinces are the key demands. “This is what we are fighting for, the other demands are minor” he adds.
Interestingly, after the Madhesi parties changed their tactics and started sit-ins at the border no one has been killed in protests. But the ordinary people across the Tarai are suffering, and they want Kathmandu to take steps to end their hardship.
Showing who’s boss, Editorial
Before it’s too late, Puru Shah
Fighting our own battles, Jivesh Jha
Blockade blues, Bidushi Dhungel
Tarai talks, Tufan Neupane
It’s not about the constitution, Om Astha Rai