First posted on Nepalitimes.com on 28 April, 2009
After braving knife-wielding protesters on highways, removing trees felled by activists to block roads and defying bandas for the past three weeks we thought we could take on anything the New Nepal had to offer.
We weren’t prepared for what Gaighat had in store for us. After joining a convoy being escorted by the APF through the Tharu stronghold of Inaruwa in Sunsari, we were told the highway ahead was blocked by hundreds of Tharus camped on the highway. So we took a little-known jungle track along the Tiyuga river that was used by the Maoists during the war to get to Gaighat.
When we finally rolled into the capital of Udaypur district past midnight the town was deserted. We thought it was because everyone had gone to sleep, little realizing there was a curfew on. Tharu activists and police had been battling it out all day with the protesters trying to storm the district administration and the police firing tear gas. The police had arrived just in time to save a highway bridge in Jaljale on the road to Lahan from being demolished by hundreds of Tharus armed with picks.
The curfew was lifted for three hours, and we sneaked in the first show of ‘Frames of War’ and the launch of the book of war testimonies, ‘Never Again’. Present in the audience was Bardalal Acharya, who appears in the film speaking about his son, Lila, who was a Maoist and disappeared by the army in Kathmandu in 2004. Directors Prem BK and Kesang Tseten profile Bardalal and his wife Laxmi Maya in the film talking about their attempts to trace their son. Their story is the story of the families of 2,000 other Nepalis who are still missing. Bardalal broke down several times as he watched his wife wipe her tears on the screen. The Acharyas are symbolic of how the ex-rebels and the state have abandoned the people once again after having made them suffer through a war the people never wanted.
There was a ripple of laughter in the audience when in the documentary, Laxmi Maya points to the photo of Pushpa Kamal Dahal to ask: “This is Prachanda, isn’t he the king now?” Maoists in the audience were not amused. The previous day they had tried to get the local chapter of FNJ, our local organizers, to allow them to vet the film to see if it was “anti-Maoist”. FNJ refused this attempt at censorship.
After the first show, word spread through the bajar that this was a must-see. People defied the curfew and four screenings had to be organized to accommodate the rush. The war may be over, there is supposed to be peace, but the nationwide highway blockades, curfews and chaos have made life even more difficult than it was during the conflict. The only difference is that people aren’t being killed. But in the eastern Tarai, even that is not true. The latest are the public lynchings of at least eight people suspected to be child smugglers in Dhanusha this month. So many children have been abducted by traffickers in the supply chain for human kidneys across the border that people suspect any stranger coming into town of being a kidnapper. They either beat them to death or set fire to them.
Once more we travel though the night in convoys under police escort to get down to Dhanusha. There is a new word in the Nepali lexicon: “skirting”. The word is actually “escorting” and it is what the police do when there are enough buses stuck on a bit of highway and the people’s anger has reached a critical mass, they gather all the vehicles together and escort them through the blocked portions of the road. But some trucks and buses invariably trail behind and are vandalised and set on fire by blockaders. It’s the laws of the jungle: the weakest and slowest always lose out.
We take the less-travelled route to Dhausha Dham, the place where Ram is supposed to have broken a dhanush into three pieces and thereby won Sita’s hand in marriage. It is pitch dark. There are oil lamps on the doorsteps of mud huts, the twin eyes of mangy dogs glow red in the headlight. The dust is so thick, it is like driving through fog. This part of Nepal was probably more developed during the reign of King Janak. Has Kathmandu deliberately not invested in roads in the Tarai to punish the people here? The 16 km from Janakpur to Jaleswor should take only 20 minutes, it takes over an hour.
In the distance there are bright moving lights in the inky darkness. Another julus? No, it’s a wedding procession. A bullock-cart carrying a diesel generator is powering clumps of white neon-lamps that boys carry on their heads. Moths and insects orbit the lights and fall on the faces of the frazzled-looking boys. A sound system belts out Maithili songs from the roof of a Sumo carrying the bride and groom. We overtake the rowdy procession and plunge back into the gloom.
Janakpur, at least, is open for business. This is the Madhes that the Tharus are agitating against being included in, and there are no Tharus this far south. The Moghul spires of the Janaki Mandir are so gaudily incongruent that they actually look quaint. The bustle of the market and commerce mask an undercurrent of fear.
The state’s hold is tenuous and ethnically-laced tension simmers just under the surface. It is difficult to separate politics from crime and corruption here in the lawless frontier of the world’s newest republic.Go back to previous page