SUGA, Mahottari -It's been a year since the last Chhath column, and a lot has changed for the worse.
In this farming region, the volatility of the grain market is now overshadowed by the fear of Maobadi extortion. Earlier the 'boys' used to come around and be satisfied with a few sacks of rice, some dal or temporary shelter for some days in the village school. Now, they demand cash payment.
In the cash-starved economy of tarai villages, the dread of Maobadi cadre with receipt books is so great that many better-off farmers have moved to the district headquarter. Even VDC secretaries and rural extension workers refuse to visit their assigned villages for fear of facing insurgents and their compulsory war tax.
In Ninety Three, a novel about the pathos of French Revolution, Victor Hugo says that mountain insurgents fight for ideals while it is prejudice that propels forest-based rebels into taking up arms. In Hugo's overpowering prose, this difference arises because ".the one has to deal with precipices, the other with quagmires; the one is the man of torrents and foaming streams, the other of stagnant puddles where pestilence lurks; the one has his head in blue sky, the other in thicket; the one is on a summit, the other in a shadow." Not many Maobadis of the Nepali hills measure up to Hugo\'s ideals, but every rebel that you encounter these days in the tarai confirms his generalisation about the brutal nature of insurgency in the plains.
Mountainous terrain is ideal for hit and run guerrilla tactics, and a small group of dedicated fighters can make a disproportionate impact. But the tarai is made for more conventional warfare. God is indeed on the side of the bigger army in the battlefields of the flatlands. Having denuded the mid-hills with their terror, the Maobadis have been forced down to an area where their main enemy is geography itself.
The security forces, however, are not in a position to take full advantage of this. People intensely dislike the Maobadis here, but their hatred for the insurgents doesn't automatically translate into admiration for the security forces under unified command. Rebels are detested despite their guns, but enforcers of law are feared because of their weapons. That is probably the biggest tragedy of all civil wars: the choice of figuring out which side is more dangerous.
Maobadis may be brutal, but most of them are local youths. Their parents believe that given time, these misguided youngsters will mend their ways and come back. But in this village with a peacetime population of 5,000, nobody has even a distant relative serving in the army. Most army patrols that visit the village can't talk to villagers in the local language. Here, forces of the ruler and his subjects have very little in common and even less to share. On top of that, there is the history of grievances that have piled up since the Rana regime through the Panchayat years. This erupts into open tension on the smallest of misunderstandings.
It is also the month of Ramadan for Muslim Nepalis. Believers who observe Roja usually get up in the morning for Sahari, the pre-dawn meal that heralds the day of fasting. Naturally, there is some commotion in Muslim neighbourhoods. This attracts the attention of a security patrol. An indiscrete remark from a soldier that Muslims can't have the freedoms of the last 12 years silences the entire community. At evening Iftar, the social conversation acquires political overtones as family members compare notes about the barbarity of the Maoists and the cruelty of the military.
Security checks along the east-west highway are doing nothing to make travellers sympathetic to the government. Motorcyclists, bus passengers and commuters face needless humiliation and harrassment at every checkpoint. The tarai may turn out to be a quagmire for Maobadis, but the 'civil military command' is unlikely to have a cakewalk unless the local people are taken on board.
The only way to involve the people of the tarai in the functioning of the state is to re-activate the constitution that held out the hope of making them full participants in a more inclusive Nepal. Nepali nationality is a work-in-progress, and the smallest of jolts at this stage can shatter it.
Authoritarian and totalitarian experiments in governance cause political tremors. It is to control this seething emotion that the Maobadi leadership and the government should both rethink their strategies in the tarai. This landscape is too fragile to bear their excesses anymore.