|STUCK FAST: A bullock cart moving from Nepal to India gets bogged down in a swollen border river in Sarlahi on Monday. A two-day shutdown forced many Nepali villagers to cross over to shop and travel.|
The road leading from the East-West Highway down to the Sarlahi district capital of Malangwa is the only proof visitors need of the disregard in Kathmandu for the tarai.
Buses, trucks and bullock carts negotiate a road that looks like it is riddled with bomb craters. But most of the time there are no vehicles because it has been closed cumulatively for more than three weeks in the past two months by various madhesi groups.
"If you ask me, I'm fed up," says Chandralal Yadav who gets off his bicycle to negotiate a water-filled rut as wide as the road. "All we want here is peace and development so we can get on with our lives. But these politicians and criminals are not allowing it to happen." It is the same story across the madhes, the feeling that politicians are playing games in Kathmandu and criminalised extremists have hijacked a movement that tried for the first time to give genuine respect to the people of the tarai.
Paradoxically, all along the belt from Bara to Sunsari visitors also realise that things are not as bad as they are portrayed in the Kathmandu media. The situation is not out of control, the political space for negotiations still exists and all it needs is leadership and commitment from the government in Kathmandu.
Surprisingly, those saying this most vociferously are local leaders of the political parties themselves. "My party only sat up and took notice when Madhab Kumar Nepal's house in Gaur was burnt down," says a UML worker here who didn't want his name revealed.
It is hard to explain why the madhes crisis is not registering in Kathmandu when most senior party leaders including Nepal and Prime Minister Koirala are from the tarai. The anti-Maoist feeling here is intense, and most here believe the parties are allowing the madhes violence to simmer because it is keeping the Maoists out.
With Kathmandu distracted by its own power games, local civil society, party leaders and media groups have taken the lead in keeping communal tensions from flaring up. Every week there is a new incident that could potentially set off pogroms like the one that ravaged Kapilbastu last week.
Two weeks ago, madhesi pilgrims were allegedly harassed by Chure Bhabar workers on the highway and false rumours spread that they had been raped. "We immediately met with the administration, civic leaders and the media to calm things down," recalls the UML's district member Ram Chandra Chaudhary, "I was threatened by militants, my house was surrounded but luckily there was no retaliation."
People of hill origin who have lived in the tarai for generations say they face targeted extortion from tarai militant groups and some have left. But many whose ancestors came here during the Rana days are determined to stay. Ironically, they fear the Chure Bhabar, an organization set up in Sarlahi to defend pahadi interests, because of retaliation by madhesis. Other pahadis say the fear of Chure Bhabar reprisals is the only deterrence against madhesi attacks on pahadis. The absence of the state and the apathy of the political parties have exacerbated this polarisation. It has allowed anyone with an axe to grind to become a madhesi or pahadi militant.
The hope is that elections will fill this political vacuum. On Wednesday Upendra Yadav kicked off his MJF's election campaign with a speech in Jaleswor. The NC held a mass meeting in Gaur last week, and even sent its popular senior leader Aftab Alam to rally supporters. At a gathering of NC cadre in Malangwa on Monday, even the familiar bickering over party tickets seemed like a welcome sign of normalcy. The UML has also been mobilising support and is confident it will do well. All this despite a ban on election campaigning by various tarai militant groups.
Most moderate madhesis say their only demand is respect and representation, and even symbolic measures to include madhesis in decision-making and launching show-case development schemes would help. The floods in August were an opportunity for Kathmandu to show it cared, but it squandered it.
"The feeling here is we haven't got anything out of Nepal, so why should we call ourselves Nepalis," explains the NC's Suresh K Sah. "The challenge is to make madhesis feel like Nepalis not just by political representation but by investing in communications and infrastructure." Repairing the road to Malangwa would be a good start.