PICS: DEEPAK RAUNIYAR
In private they said friends had stopped speaking to each other, journalists were self-censoring because they were afraid of the militants. The journalistic community is itself getting polarised between Limbu and non-Limbu.
We got an inkling of the lawlessness of the east as we crossed the Kosi in a ferry. Six hundred vehicles were queued up to cross the river where it breaks out into the plains. A man claiming to be from the Khambuwan Rastriya Morcha approached us after he found out we were journalists. "Don't forget to write my name in your report," he ordered, "it is because of me that you got across today."
Further east, we meet Sanjuhang Palunwa, leader of the Federal Limbuwan State Council in his home at Birtamod. He is supposed to control the Limbuwan Volunteers (LV), who were enforcing a new tax on businesses and media, which had to register with his 'government', even though there seemed to be no mechanism to use this tax. Palunwa is fed up with the ruling party not listening to his group and the government not taking it seriously and has launched a series of protests in the east.
There are moderate voices, like that of Satendra Jabegu, the Ilam district president of the FNJ, who used to be with one of the Limbuwan groups. He feels that dividing up the country along ethnic lines is wrong and that we should be careful about federal boundaries and the names of the new units. There are many here who agree with him, but their voices are getting drowned out in the clamour of the radicals.
The highways in the east are always blocked by one group or another protesting one thing or other. In the event that the roads are open, vehicles have to pay taxes to myriad militant groups. Every car that goes from Phidim to Jhapa has to pay taxes in at least three places to the Federal Limbuwan State Coucil (Palunwa), the Federal Limbuwan State Council (Lingden) and their respective sister organisation Limbuwan Volunteers, and Upallo Kirant.
On top of all this, there are taxes collected by the DDC. The main cash crop of the region is cardamom and the DDC collects Rs 75 per sack, while merchants have to pay Rs 100 to various Limbuwan groups. Some truckers said even the police got a cut.
"The Limbus are also not happy," said the group's leader Manraj Jabegu in Ilam, "we are helpless that the police are not helping us control this extortion." We put this to Panchthar CDO Dullu Singh Basnet, but his reply was: "We have no order to apprehend them. We can chase them, but we are not allowed to catch them."
The next morning while returning from Phidim, we encountered a group of Limbuwan Volunteers in Ranke. There were five young boys carrying long khukuris and were asking for money from every vehicle and motorcycle (see picture).
As we reached Sunsari we ran smack into another highway blockade, this time by the Tharu Kalyankari Sabha. After being stuck for days, we hit another obstacle in Nijgad organised by Chure Bhabar. The only thing these disparate groups of young men carrying rocks, sticks and knives had in common was that they threatened us to publicise their agitation in the media, or else?