|BLUE SHIRTS: Members of the Madhes Raksha Bahini, set up by Rajendra Mahato (below, left, with phone) of the Sadbhabana faction, marched through Lahan's streets last week, alongside an APF patrol vehicle.|
Exactly a year ago, this highway town in the eastern tarai was in flames. Madhesi anger boiled over after the killing of a local youth and the Maoist mishandling of the issue.
"For weeks there was only smoke here," recalls Ramchandra Malik. "The burnt out buses blocked the highway." A year on, madhesi parties and militant groups are preparing to launch separate agitations from 19 January, accusing Kathmandu of not listening to their demands of political representation and autonomy.
Last year's uprising was spontaneous, and although there is still resentment against the state, most people here are weary of the past year of violence and disruptions. Long-distance buses speed through the town all night, horns screeching. Pahadi and madhesi vendors serve food and drinks to passengers through the windows. Armed police patrol the main junction, watchful but not obtrusive.
The political parties, made of madhesi figures who recently defected from the NC are preparing for their agitation. The Sadbhabana faction led by Rajendra Mahato and the Biswas-led MJF splinter group are rallying support for their stir.
"If they don't join us, they will be finished," says Mahato, who is in Lahan this week to train his newly formed YCL-like Madhes Raksha Bahini. Clad in blue jackets, Bahini members frequently march through the tarai towns chanting slogans in Hindi: "Who will protect the madhes? We will."
Mahato told Nepali Times the Bahini is just a deterrent force meant to dissuade other armed groups from infiltrating his party's agitation. There is deep resentment against the "pahadi state" in the tarai, and leaders like Mahato and Mahanta Thakur, another NC defector, are trying to capitalise on it.
But there is also bitterness against leaders like Thakur and Mahato for not doing enough while they were in power in Kathmandu. The emergence of these high-caste, landed madhesis has also brought out fissures within the madhesi community. Dalit and Tharu leaders within the newly formed tarai parties say their next struggle will be against madhesi leaders for inclusivity and proportional representation.
"What rights have we got since last year's uprising? We just got Upendra Yadav and got so many of us killed. And now what does he do? He goes away to ride a Pajero in Kathmandu," says Ramrati Ram without mincing words. The disenchantment with the madhesi leadership is almost as strong as resentment against armed groups which are harassing madhesis as well as pahadis. But even more intense is the seething anger against Kathmandu, seen to be apathetic towards madhesis and not treating them with dignity.
With the government now committed to hold elections by mid-April, moderate madhesi parties have agreed to take part. But the armed groups have said they won't let the elections happen. Tarai intellectuals feel the armed groups are using the madhes as a front for criminality, and they can be bought off for the right price. But the only way to deal with the madhes parties is by negotiation.
"The only big change in the past year has been that we aren't called 'dhoti' or 'Indians' in Kathmandu anymore, we are called 'Forum'," says a Lahan resident, Prem Jha.
Aside from the danger of militant violence in the coming months, there is an added tension as parties desperately compete to tap the madhes vote bank. The NC is the biggest loser because of the defection of Mahanta Thakur, who controlled the party machinery in the eastern tarai. Thakur has defended his move, saying he was disillusioned with the NC leadership.