14 MIN READ
Activist and researcher Indu Tharu recalls what it was like growing up and studying during the civil war and how that experience formed her writing consciousness.
Between 1996 and 2006, a civil war ripped Nepal apart. The fighting may have stopped over 15 years ago, but the pain and trauma rage on. The conflict still shapes Nepal’s political and social landscape. The wounds of the families who lost loved ones – on both sides – remain forever unhealed.
Few segments of Nepal’s society faced more trauma before, during, and after the war than the Tharu of the western Tarai. And few people have written more powerfully and poignantly about Tharu life than Indu Tharu, who shares some of her story in this week’s Writing Journey.
As a girl who liked stories about elephants and owls, Indu was just trying to grow up, go to school, and be a good daughter and granddaughter. Yet, she was forced to confront far more violence and death than any child should ever know.
“I felt I just had to write, so I wrote,” she explains here. “I wrote when I felt pain.” With her words, she poured out “outrage and resistance.”
Indu ji’s journey takes us back into Tharu history, into the upheaval of the war, and into the pain of losing her father. She uses her father’s writings and his diary to learn about his struggle for respect and justice for the Tharu, and to connect with the families of his fallen friends.
Many thanks to Indu ji for helping us to better understand, to better feel, these important chapters in Nepal’s history.
Indu Tharu is a writer, researcher, and activist. Her works address issues related to the identity, culture, language, politics, and history of the indigenous Tharu community. She is also the author of a number of works, including Muktik Dagar and Nilambit Nibandha.
A selection of her writings include: Tharu women and political participation (The Record); माघ मनाउने कि माघी (Naya Patrika); मेरो भाषाको सम्मान खोइ? (Nagarik); and किन चाहियो कर्णाली प्रदेशमा थारुको स्वयात्त वडा? (Setopati).
Writing Journeys appears every Wednesday on The Record.
Writing was not a conscious choice. Circumstances demanded that I write. I never thought too seriously about writing. But I felt I just had to write, so I wrote – without giving it much thought, without really knowing how.
During the civil war, after my father went underground, I faced some difficult moments. I often had to switch schools. The environment was never really conducive for my studies. One school even refused to enroll me, saying that the nearby police station had threatened them not to enroll the ‘Maoist’s daughter’.
I routinely had to change where I lived too. After one village school refused me, I couldn’t stay with my mother and study. My father’s friend took me into his house in Dhangadi. But all of a sudden, they told my mother to take me away. They said the police came at night. It could be dangerous to take in a Maoist’s daughter. I was in fourth grade. Between the first and tenth grades, I switched schools seven times, bouncing between villages and Dhangadi.
In this way, by constantly changing schools and accommodations, I continued my education. While living under the care of others, some families treated me with much love while others made me work like a servant. With one individual, I had to wash dishes, clean the house, wash clothes, and all other housework. I didn’t even have time to do homework.
My father had a special fondness for books. Before the war, the shelves of our home were filled with books. In his day, you could count on your fingers the Tharus who had passed the SLC tenth grade exam. But my father had studied up to IA level. He opened up a ‘medical’ store and was called ‘doctor’. I became ‘the doctor’s daughter’. My father also published a newspaper called Tharu Liberation and collected Tharu-language newspapers and books.
I never got a chance to see or read Tharu Liberation. A friend of my father’s told me that it was focused on fighting the unjust atrocities that were being enacted on the Tharu. In 1993, my father started publishing an annual newsletter called Muktik Dagar, or The Road to Liberation. The stories and poems in Muktik Dagar were meant to awaken Tharus. It was a voice of liberation against the feudal jamindari system. To protect and conserve vanishing Tharu culture, the newsletter even published songs (including traditional Tharu songs like sajanaa, maagar, damaar). It came out for nine years while my father was alive.
My father was shot by the then Royal Nepal Army on June 12 2002 and the publication of The Road to Liberation stopped.
My uncle had been impressed with my father’s work. In 1997, he too started publishing a Tharu-language magazine called Traasan, which is the sound of a drum. In 2004, he too became a martyr.
During the conflict, The Road to Liberation became a target for the government. If they found it in your house, you would face torture. Because of this terrorism, no one could save The Road to Liberation. Some burned it, others buried it.
I read all the editions of The Road to Liberation when I was just eight or nine. It had poems and stories that I’d read again and again, often aloud. I also used to read some of the books that Baba collected, including Hindi books. When I was in second and third grade, I would repeatedly read fun stories and poems from the books of my ninth and tenth grade sisters, brothers, uncles, and aunts. I loved reading stories about elephants and owls.
But the outbreak of war brought change. Our conditions changed. Every day, four or five times, the police or army would visit our house. They began to surround the house day and night. After finding The Road to Liberation during a raid, they severely beat my grandfather and grandmother. They arrested my grandfather. Because of the merciless torture he suffered in custody, he left us forever. After that, my mother and grandmother either buried or burned all our books. But even then, my mother never stopped telling me to “study hard.” So I started studying my school books so hard that I nearly memorized them. After all, I grew up in an educational system that rewards rote learning.
But no matter how hard I studied, I never thought that I too could write or that I should write. I used to write essays for school with titles like ‘my aim in life’, ‘my country’, and ‘Dashain’. I also wrote letters to friends, and to my mother and father. But everything was centered around my school exams.
It was only after the 2006 People’s Movement ended that I started writing about Tharu society. My first publications appeared in the Dhangadi Post. My active involvement in the People’s Movement gave me insight into the needs of the movement. I understood exactly how undemocratic a system with a king-by-birth was. I started to look at myself and the society I was born into. Why did the Tharu, the Tarai’s primary residents, get displaced? Why were Tharus forced to become kamaiya and kamlari (bonded laborers)? In this republic we fought to attain, where is a place for my language, my clothes, and my cuisine?
In the 10-year ‘People’s War’, thousands of Tharus sacrificed their lives to establish a separate Tharuwan state. But the government established by the second People’s Movement (Jana Andolan II) itself decided to erase Tharu identity. This led Tharu society to grow angry and rebellious. They understood that they had been excluded from social, cultural, and political processes. Despite a large population, they had almost no political representation. Tharus understood that for many decades the so-called ‘upper caste’ elites had exploited them. Even the leaders of the political parties had used Tharuwan as a ladder to gain political power. Tharus wanted to free themselves from this kind of slavery. And they wanted to establish their own province where they could govern themselves.
But sadly, to counter the Tharu movement to establish a Tharu province, a movement for a ‘united far west’ was started. Everyone – including the police administration, bureaucrats, media – supported the united Far West movement and attacked the activities of the Tharuwan movement, and even used violence to block meetings. In the course of the movement, on Bhadra 7, 2072, an unimaginable event occurred in Tikapur.
After the Tikapur events, the media portrayed Tharus as criminals. No one wrote or spoke out about state violence and extremism. The Tharu living in villages near Tikapur faced a curfew and much cruelty. But instead, it was the Tharu who were called criminals.
When I saw the state act violently toward my own community, I became distraught. That Tharu houses, stores, resorts, FM were burned and looted while a curfew was in place shows that the curfew was called just for Tharus. Word spread across Nepal about Tikapur. But no one was ready to write or speak about the discrimination that the Tharu faced from the state, before Tikapur and afterwards.
The situation stirred upheaval within me. So I wrote. I wrote about the experience and memory of the movement, about identity and the right to exist, pouring out outrage and resistance. It was a story of oppression and anger, and the Tharu struggle.
Slowly my writings took the shape of a book. Essays from various printed and online media were collected and published in my book Nilambit Nibandha (Suspended Essays).
I wrote when I felt pain. When I burned. When something pricked me. The stories of several people continue to inspire me to write – my grandmother, who in the conflict lost my grandfather and her two promising sons, and continued to tread an ocean of sadness; my mother, who, despite being in the prime of youth, faced uniformed soldiers decorated with guns and regularly climbed a mountain of grief; Samjhana Chaudhary of Bardiya, who during wartime was gang-raped and shot dead while pregnant; and Ramdaiya, who became terrorized in the aftermath of the Tikapur incident after the arrest of her husband. Much that I’ve thought of remains to be written.
I aimed my writings at my own community. I could never find a place in mainstream media. I couldn’t even reach them. That’s because they represent the elites. But the media that prioritized indigenous issues published my writings, encouraging me.
I’m still unable to give a concrete answer as to why I started to write. Multiple factors have played a role. One day, my mother gave me my father’s diary, a diary that, despite the violence and vandalism of war, managed to survive. It was medium-sized, the kind that can fit in a bag. My mother had taken such good care of it that the cover still looked new. Flipping through the book, on the first page I saw my father had listed his plan to publish epic poetry, long verse poetry, and novels. Flipping through the pages, I saw my father had written out poems, gazal, and essays in black pen with titles in red and decorations in green. With great care, he had placed photos, birthplaces, addresses, death, and place of death of his wartime compatriots.
In 2075 I decided to publish Muktik Dagar. I wanted to write about my father’s contribution to Tharu literature and journalism. But I didn’t know anything about my father’s work. When we lost my father, I was 12. To learn about his work, I visited several villages in Kailali and Bardiya. That’s where my father and uncle did most of their work.
I had never heard of anything published on Tharu participation in the People’s War or the suffering they endured. I had only heard stories of their pain and I wanted to write it down. But before I could write, I had to first find those stories.
I found the homes of individuals who were murdered in the war and met their families. Family members didn’t know birth dates, when they went underground, or the date of death. Many of the families couldn’t read and write. They couldn’t speak Nepali.
After meeting those families, I realized what an important act of documentation a handwritten diary can provide. If the diary didn’t exist, I couldn’t have met those families. It would have been hard to find a description of those whose lives were lost. Without the diary, I couldn’t have written of their contributions. Their names would have disappeared with their dead bodies.
For The Road to Liberation, I reached many Tharu villages and I met many people. To publish it, I gathered a lot of information from study, research, and interviews. Because I was encouraged by my father’s work, I decided to name my project The Road to Liberation. Publishing The Road to Liberation in the memory of my father naturally awakened memories of the conflict.
The more I wrote, the more I learned. Before this, I hadn’t had a chance to learn about what to write, and how to write. In the early days, it felt like I was pouring out my rage. It turned out the movement’s moment taught me to write. Before writing, I thought, what subject would I write about? And I used to sit with a pen and paper in hand. While writing, an image formed in my heart. When writing about Tharu language, I vividly recall the discrimination I encountered due to not being able to speak Nepali properly. An image of me sitting in the last bench because I didn’t know Nepali comes to me. It’s not just what I’ve experienced myself; in my soul, I can also see images of other stories I’ve seen and heard.
Today, in comparison with my initial days of writing, I think a little more deeply before I write. I discuss the subject with those who know more. I look for materials written on the subject. I read. I make a list of things to not leave out of the writing. The first draft is ordinary. To improve it, I change my words while editing. When the piece is ready, my heart feels like a bird.
Probably because there are so few women Tharu writers, I received a lot of encouragement after I started to write. But I’ve also received an equal amount of disapproval, primarily because I focus on Tharus. Status quoists call me an ethnic nationalist. Naturally, I received praise from readers interested in identity. I always accepted all kinds of comments.
Everybody writes stories about maharajas, landlords, and aristocrats. But I want to write stories about laborers, farmers, the lower class, and the oppressed. The story of one ordinary person can represent the stories of countless ordinary others. I want to go village to village to hear the life experiences of ordinary people. Their life experiences, their suffering, the knowledge they contain move me. In formal education, we never get to hear these stories.
When writing, I don’t follow any guidelines. To write, the right mood has to hit me. I’m very moody. If someone tells me to write on a subject, I often can’t do it. Whatever I want to write about has to touch my soul.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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