Travelling by day through the tarai these days is fraught with uncertainty. Things weren't this bad even during the conflict.
On the night bus from Birganj to Kathmandu the mood used to be irreverent. Strangers would easily strike up conversations about police inefficiency, military arrogance, administrative callousness, Maoist excesses, and the avarice of politicians. But the Madhes Uprising brought an end to this spontaneity. These days people glance furtively at co-passengers as they get on. Few talk to strangers, and there is almost no conversation across the aisles. Silence hangs thick inside the bus until the first hills appear.
Last week, the tense ambience relaxed somewhat only when the bus crossed the Chure and neared Hetauda. A passenger sitting in the driver's cabin whispered to an acquaintance, "We are only four Nepalis in the bus. All the rest are Forum."
The person making the comment may have been a victim of either one of the JTMM factions, or any other violent groups professing to be working for madhesi rights. He may even have been an activist of the Chure Bhabar Ekta Samaj, a 'society' formed to counter madhesi militancy. But his use of "Forum" to describe Nepal's plains-dwellers revealed the ingrained antipathy towards a group about to make peace with the government.
Upendra Yadav has lost his political brand even before its strength could be tested at the polls. No wonder Jayaprakash Prasad Gupta, the pragmatic radical, has swiftly abandoned the MJF ship he helped build and launch. "Forum" is not quite a generic term yet, but it has acquired anti-establishment connotations. Ufortunately, it doesn't sit well with the kind of leaders MJF has in the districts. Its foot-soldiers are mostly the rejects of mainstream parties, retirees from government service, and other ambitious individuals who had failed to find a niche in national politics.
Even though MJF cadres were at the forefront, it would be na?ve for them to believe that they were the leaders of the Madhes Uprising. Like a bushfire, the conflagration in the tarai that began unnoticed this winter consumed everything in its path and then spent itself. What we see today in the plains are cinders of a fire that raged for almost three months. With their month-long agitation announced this week, the Maoists are playing with matches and will restart that fire. This strategy of fighting fire with fire can create unwarranted complications for the constituent assembly elections.
Contrary to conventional wisdom in Kathmandu, the tarai uprising hasn't affected the Maoists as much as we'd imagined. To begin with, the Maoists didn't have much of a base in the madhes. Second, their core supporters among the marginalised communities have been left 'untouched'. When Ram Bahadur Thapa began to camp out in Janakapur for extended periods, he may have found
that half his job had already been done by the MJF.
Despite their antics in parliament, the NC's madhesi lawmakers have lost their legitimacy in the eastern tarai. The UML has been exposed as a party of pahadi priests. No mainstream party can truly claim to represent the people of the tarai today. The field has been left wide open for various armed groups, and that is the arena that the Maoists are all set to enter.
If things weren't complicated enough in the tarai cauldron, the coming month could see the growing one-upmanship between Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his military strategist Ram Bahadur Thapa come to a head.
Unlike the JTMM or the Chure Bhabar, the Maoists have an alternate vision, a political program, and a national network to support their adventures in the tarai. While this will embolden their YCL to militancy, the retaliation from fringe groups is likely to be equally violent. All this will exacerbate the terror in the tarai. The end result will mean that elections will be impossible in November. Possibly, this is what the Maoists secretly want.