|TARAI RISING: This mass demonstration in Birganj, one of the many during the Madhes Uprising, was attended by almost 100,000 participants from all over Parsa.|
In 1997, a group of madhesi intellectuals and students banded together to discuss their concerns and issues. There was no formal membership in this Biratnagar-based group and participants included leftists and members of other mainstream parties. The common denominator was their disenchantment with the big parties and the sense that their debates were largely ignored. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum soon emerged as the most-respected, representative platform for madhesi issues.
In the same year, the Maoists celebrated their first anniversary underground by intensifying their struggle in the mid-west, Nepal had three unstable coalition governments, and the human rights situation deteriorated as scores were detained by the state.
Ten years later, the Maoists have entered into the peace process, and the MJF has turned relatively violent. Both, however, are now registered as parties with the Election Commission and much of the fight for influence in the madhes is between these two fronts.
Insiders tell us that the Maoist leadership was sympathetic to the Forum at the start, and even instrumental in organising it. Around 1999 Upendra Yadav, then a regular member of UML, started becoming closer to the Maoists.
In February 2004, Upendra Yadav, Maoist leaders Matrika Yadav and Mohan Baidya were arrested in Delhi. Upendra Yadav was let go after a couple of months, while Matrika Yadav and Mohan Baidya were handed over to Nepali authorities and were released in 2006. Those close to Upendra Yadav say that during the time of his arrest he was already trying to distance himself from the Maoists because of discrimination he felt in the ranks within the Maoist hierarchy and because he did not agree with the Maoist plan to divide madhes into 'Madhes Autonomous Region' and 'Tharuwan Autonomous Region'. Vijay Kant Karna, chairperson of Jaghrit Nepal says, "No one was happy in the tarai with the Maoists because they called it Madhes Government but high ranks in their party were given to pahadis."
After the 1 February 2005 royal takeover Upendra Yadav and Jaya Prakash Gupta, former general secretary of the MJF and present Nepali Congress MP started travelling back and forth between India and Nepal to prepare for a movement in Nepal. After last year's April Uprising Upendra Yadav returned to Nepal and in the eight months after Jana Andolan II, the MJF had successfully held meetings in almost all the districts of Nepal.
Since then, the forum and Yadav have been accused of both flip-flopping and forming alliances with Hindu fundamentalist groups in India, such as the Rastiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In December Yadav attended a meeting of rightwing Hindu groups in Gorakhpur and spoke out publicly about making Nepal a Hindu nation again. A month later he was leading the movement for a secular federal republic.
"He can be highly influenced by others," says Nepali Congress MP Amresh Kumar Singh, adding, "If you try to play with all the powers, you forget the cause you were fighting for." Like most madhesi leaders who do not actively profess membership in the MJF, Singh too is said to have had a falling out with Yadav.
Jaya Prakash Gupta, who is close to Yadav, says the accusations of alliances with the palace and Indian fundamentalist groups are misguided. "If mainstream political parties meet with big Indian leaders, no one calls that an 'unholy alliance'," Gupta told us from Biratnagar. Gupta said that since Gaur, Yadav has not been allowed to move freely or explain "his side of the story".
That Gupta and other moderate madhesi leaders took a careful line on Gaur while speaking to us is an indication of the pan-madhesi appeal that the forum still has. On the one hand, they argued, Gaur was 'retaliation' for months of harassment and disruption of MJF meetings by the Maoists Tarai Mukti Morcha. On the other, most admit it was a tactical mistake.
"If the MFJ had been willing to sit for talks right after the Madhes Uprising, they could have bargained their way into more madhesi representation and investigations of Lahan and Nepalganj, and pressured the prime minister to implement the promises made during his second address," says Chandra Kishore, editor of Terai News Magazine in Birganj. "Now, after Gaur, everyone fears the forum as a criminal organisation."
Sarita Giri of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party-Anandi Devi, says the MJF is not in the least militant. "They are not armed, Gaur was retaliation against the Maoists because they had disrupted their activities in Bhairahawa and Nepalganj," she argues.
Meantime, there is said to be a few faultlines showing in the forum, one between the more left-wing members and Yadav, and the other between Yadav's supporters who believe this was the right time to register a party and Gupta's group, which argues that fundamental issues need to be settled before deciding to contest elections. There are signs of a split in the ranks-an insider tells us that of the 25 members in the working committee, only 13 members' names were on the list given to the Election Commission during registration. Gupta pooh-poohs this and says that though his proposal lost out, he will support the MJF as a party.
Yadav gets the most publicity, but there are other prominent figures in the forum, such as veteran leftist leader Sitananda Raya, and MJF secretary general Ram Kumar Sharma. There are two vice chairmen Bhagyanath Gupta, a professor at Birganj's Thakur Ram Bahumukhi Campus, and Kishore Biswas Tharu, a former member of Nepal Sadbhawana Party.
"As a political party our agenda is pretty clear-we want democratic system of governance, autonomous federal structure, proportional elections, and we want Nepal to be a republic" says Jitendra Sonal, MJF's secretariat member.
Analysts say that given the lack of commitment seen on the part of the government to resolving madhesi issues, the MJF as a political party could take off stronger than those who call the forum irresponsible might imagine.