On Sunday night, around 10.30 pm, Chandrashekhar – a leader of the Madhes Rashtriya Janatantrik Party (MRJP), Revolutionary – called me up. An old acquaintance who had shifted from social activism to the armed movement, he was committed to the cause of Madhesi autonomy.
He was panic-stricken, and said, “Our chairman, Ram Narayan alias Manager Mahato, was arrested by Jaynagar police in Bihar this afternoon. They have just handed him over to a Siraha police team, which came to pick him up. We want to spread the news because they may kill him.”
He had already informed local FM stations and Kathmandu based civil society activists. I tried to reassure him, saying that the police would not be reckless now that the news was out.
The next morning, Chandrashekhar called again. His voice was calm, “They did it. The pahadi state killed him and called it an encounter.”
I was shaken.
News headlines on websites that day took the police version, which claimed that Mahato was killed after he fired on a police patrol at night. There was no reference or investigation about his possible handover by the Bihar police, or the fact that he may already have been in police custody.
Mahato was not just another criminal operating in Tarai. A political activist, he was with the Maoists and then belonged to the original group of defectors who walked out with Jai Krishna Goit. While trying to collect arms for Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha, the first Madhesi secessionist outfit, he was arrested in Munger district of Jharkhand.
After his release, he got back and tried to unite Jwala Singh and Goit. After those efforts failed, he brought almost ten groups under a single umbrella to form the MRJP. When other criminal groups took advantage of the government offer of talks – for the lure of money and in order to win legitimacy – he stayed out, steadfast in his belief that the state was not willing to offer real concessions. He was 35 and remained unmarried.
The day after Mahato’s killing, the Siraha police shot dead another armed activist. Parshuram Yadav was the district in charge of the Madhesi Mukti Tigers, and a part of the faction that had already held one round of talks with the government.
On Tuesday, Avinash Mukti of the Rajan Mukti group died in mysterious circumstances. On Wednesday morning, Akash Tyagi – another armed group activist, with a dreaded reputation as an extortionist – was killed by the Dhanusha police as he was returning from Mukti’s funeral. The police offered the same explanation in the case of Mahato, Yadav, and Tyagi – of how they triggered a confrontation, and were found with explosives and pistols.
One does not have to be an armed group sympathizer to question the government approach, as reflected in these series of incidents. In fact, it can be argued that those killed had lived by the gun, had attacked the Nepali state’s legitimacy, and often took recourse to criminal activities – all solid ground for a government reaction. But does this give the right to the state to kill at will, and then lie about it?
What is the new government’s policy vis a vis armed groups in the Tarai? Are these incidents part of a well thought strategy designed in Kathmandu? Do they signal an escalation in security offensive? Has the government imposed a de facto emergency in Tarai where rules do not matter and all actions are fair in the name of restoring law and order? Or is it the actions of lower level policemen operating in the districts?
Some of these killings have been greeted with relief in Tarai towns, especially among businessmen suffering from extortion. But is the government ready to suffer the consequences of the simultaneous resentment that is building up among the Madhesi political activists – who see the ‘encounters’ as an instance of pahadi suppression? Has Kathmandu already forgotten that when you do not follow the due process of law, and violate human rights, innocents suffer and alienation builds up? Is there no institutional memory of what happened after Kilo Serra and Romeo?
The Tarai needs better public security. There has to be legal action against those who have murdered and looted in the name of Madhesi rights. The state has to become stronger. And better co-ordination with the Bihar police is essential.
But all this must happen within the laid out procedures and laws. The law and order situation is a symptom of a broader political problem, which needs constant engagement. If policymakers think that the ‘Madhesi problem’ is solved and the stick approach is needed, they are only inviting trouble.
Kathmandu will now have to deal with the anger of Mahato’s party comrades, the rage of Yadav’s four year old son who cremated his body; and the bitterness of Tyagi’s friends and family.
(First published in the Nepali Times.)