Nepali Times
No Madhesi wave



Umesh Lal Das refuses to accept congratulations for being included in the PR list for elections. Instead, he is angry and hurt and holds forth for an hour on the injustice of politics.

He rails at the casteism of the Yadav-Muslim-Bania combine in the tarai, the myopia of Kathmandu-centric Madhesi leaders, the insult of being confined to the PR list and the tragedy of being a Kayasth in a district of Muslims, Yadavs, Tharus and Pahadis.

"They pushed me into this sheet of paper," he says in Maithili, peeling a banana, "one year of being on the streets for the Madhes movement and I still didn't get a ticket from MJF."

Despite proportional representation and all the talk of 'inclusiveness', Umesh's caste worked against him in an election that is supposed to frame the laws of a new Nepal.

Caste, which was concealed by the broader Madhes struggle for the past year, is back as an election issue. It is determining the way in which the Madhesi alliance is selecting candidates and getting splintered, and it will decide who will win.To see just how complicated caste is in Bara, just look at how it is divided.

Constituency 1 has Yadavs, Kushawas and Kalwars. While most parties are fielding Yadav candidates, TMLP has put up Jitendra Singh who is banking on a split in the Yadav vote to see him through. Number 2 has Yadavs, Muslims and Telis where Congress and UML will see a tough contest. Constituency 3, which includes Kalaiya bajar, has Kalwar, Kanus, Muslims and Dalits. Some believe NC will win while others think MJF's Pramod Gupta has a chance.

Constituency 4, with areas like Jitpur and Parwanipur on the highway, has a substantial chunk of Muslims and will see a contest between Farmullah Mansur of the NC, UML's Mahmood Alam, and royalist Yunus Ansari. Number 5 is a Tharu stronghold with NC's Umakant Chaudhary having a head-start while the sixth will see a Pahadi winner, possibly Puroshottam Dahal of the UML. The Maoists will be able to pick up votes in all constituencies, especially the ones with a sizeable Pahadi population, to add to their vote share in the PR.

But hold on. Where is the Madhesi wave for Madhesi parties? Less than a month after the signing of an agreement with the government, bickering within the Madhesi alliance has eroded its support base. Even Madhesi cadres are annoyed. Ramkishore Yadav of the MJF says testily: "Who do these leaders think we are? They used us to get seats and forgot about the Madhesi cause."

The big parties are therefore back in business, but fielding Madhesi candidates because they know the Madhes Street will not accept Pahadis. They have the experience in electoral politics, the organisational strength, the traditional loyalties and the money. In the 11 constituencies of Bara and Parsa together, the NC and UML may take as many as eight seats. The elections may actually strengthen the hand of Madhesi radicals who can now point to poor representation of the new Madhesi parties in the constituent assembly to show that nothing has changed.

Borderline militancy

In Bihar, Madhesi extremists wait and look at Ranbir Singh's right foot, which is shorter than his left one. A clash with Maoists in Saptari a few years ago left him with a bullet injury.

He was treated in Bihar's Darbangha, and Singh says with a mixture of pride and self-pity: "Look, there are eight screws here. The doctor says don't walk too much, but in my line of work I have to."

Singh is the Madhes sarkar pramukh of the Jwala faction of the militant JTMM and number two in the hierarchy. A former Sadbhabana activist, he was in the original team that defected from Jai Krishna Goit.

Singh calls the eight point agreement a \'bhram\', an illusion. "Where is the united Madhes, autonomy? Where is right to self-determination? Where is a full PR system? The government is fooling people."

Chandrashekhar, head of the group's intellectual front, chips in, "Mahant Thakur is the biggest enemy of the Madhes. Girija has sent him." The JTMM is angry at the Madhesi parties for not acknowledging its role in the movement, and not being consulted before the Kathmandu agreement.

But the extremists are now fighting for political survival. If elections happen, they risk getting marginalised. If they step up violence, the public may turn against them.

"This is the lull before the storm," says Chandrasekhar, "there is no way the Pahadi sarkar can hold elections in the eastern Tarai." Jwala's group has also warned of violence in Kapilbastu and Banke and says it is has laid land mines in parts of Saptari and Sunsari. In the coming weeks, it threatens to capture candidates, set off bombs and kill election officials.

"The ground activists are ready. We are just waiting for instructions from the leadership," says Sunsari incharge, Krish, who is on the run for having allegedly killed Shekhar Koirala's brother-in-law in January.

But the militant groups know that the people want elections, and admit that they will ultimately have to work with the Madhesi parties. Some extremist cadres are even involved in poll campaigning for Madhesi candidates.

"In certain seats, we may support some candidates if they are committed to the Madhes," says one leader, "the assembly won't give us any rights and the Madhesi parties will come to us for help. And we will lead the next movement."

The Militants are now running scared of the Indian authorities, and have become more careful while they go back and forth between Bihar's border towns where they live with sympathisers.

Unlike the mainstream Madhesi parties, Jwala's group is more inclusive of all Madhesi castes. The top leaders include a Dalit, Yadav, Brahman, Kushawa, while the district chiefs include a Musahar, a Dom, Brahmans, Rajputs, Muslims, and even, it is said, a Sikh.

But the extremist groups deeply distrust each other over money, dealings with the media and attitude towards talks. Prime Minister Koirala personally spoke to a JTMM leader on the phone in January, inviting the group for talks with his daughter. While one faction was keen on it, Jwala Singh vetoed the idea.

Koirala's hardline statement this week, however, has weakened this faction's effort within the armed group. Says Ranbir Singh: "We are not against talks. Our preconditions are release of activists, withdrawal of cases, calling off STF operations, and a unilateral ceasefire by the state."

Prashant Jha in North Bihar

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)