JANAKPUR-Brikesh Chandra Lal ran when he heard the cry for help right next to his house last week. He could see a man lying flat on his back and struggling to breathe.
Lal suddenly recognised he was Narendra Khati. They had worked together in the NC. Khati was the brother of a popular student leader Yubaraj Khati. Narendra had moved on from politics, turned to alcoholism and worked at the Janakpur Cigarette Factory. Lal, a former town mayor, is now a senior TMDP leader.
Khati had been shot in his lower abdomen and was bleeding profusely when the police arrived. He died on the way to the hospital. Jwala Singh's Dhanusha-in-charge, Surya Dev Singh, took responsibility. No reason was given.
The uneasy calm in Janakpur after the murder of Uma Singh on 11 January has been deceptive. Armed groups are still active, fear is deep and as a journalist put it: "The state just has no strength left."
We have known that sections of the administration are complicit with the Tarai's criminal gangs and share the loot, but it seems to go a lot deeper than that.
Government officials actively encourage loot and extortion. A cop may actually tell a particular group which trader is a possible target and fix a share. An official at the land office may inform an armed militant about recent transactions and who would have liquid cash. A mid-level banker may pass on the details of which family has received money from a relative in the Gulf.
The conventional explanation is that the Madhesi parties are silently backing the armed gangs to bolster their strength. But the tentacles of crime span across political parties. A bus was recently looted in the middle of the day in Mahottari. The transporters threatened to go on a strike, the administration reacted swiftly and within a few hours arrested the culprits from Hotel Rama, showing they can control crime if they want to. But the very next day, an NC leader got them released.
Or look at the talks drama. The key aim of the Maoists is to get as many armed groups in the party as possible. Instead of politically isolating the armed groups, all parties are engaged in a competitive appeasement of the militants.
The most visible manifestation of that will be seen in the student union elections to be held next month. Umesh Chaudhary, the present Maoist president of the RR campus union, predicts this may be one of the most violent elections in the history of the campus. All candidates boast of the support given by one group or the other.
Dipendra Jha is the present vice president of the campus union. He has been arrested in the past by the police for multiple crimes: stealing assets from government offices, trying to encash a fake cheque. Each time, he has got off because of political pressure.
After the talks, armed groups have been allowed to emerge in public. At a public meeting held by the Rajan Mukti group in Sarlahi, Jha was on the dais. So, it turns out that this office-bearer in one of Tarai's biggest colleges was the student front coordinator of a dreaded militant group.
This also gives a glimpse into the way the government talks with armed groups has worked. The state signed a staple five-point agreement with the bizarrely named Liberation of Tarai Tigers Eelam, which reportedly has only a dozen or so members. Five of them were in the lock-up and were released in the run-up to negotiations. And the same lot later formed the team to speak with Peace Minister Janardan Sharma as equals. Today, they can operate in public.
In this maze, no one here can quite figure out what the government is trying to do. Why are they legitimising goons even though the real militants are still out of the process? Why is it allowing this semi-anarchy to persist? Is the aim to foster a sense of disillusionment, discredit the Madhes movement, and then unleash a security operation? Is it to allow these groups to come out and make life difficult for the Madhesi parties, who are being squeezed from all sides?
Whatever the case, politicians are playing with fire and making life hell for the people of the eastern Tarai.