The village of Maleth, made infamous by the killings of five Madhesi protestors by police on March 6, was quiet on a recent afternoon. Stacks of cow dung, used as cooking fuel, dried in the sun outside homes shaded by jackfruit trees and coconut palms; a rutted dirt path manifested the scars of the previous monsoon. Along the road to Rajbiraj, the district headquarters three kilometers to the south, a printed banner was draped around the trunk of a mango tree, displaying the names and photographs of the five people killed on March 6. The tree itself also bore testament to the violence: a hole from a police bullet in a thick branch, about ten feet up. A group of school children stopped to look at the banner and the bullet hole, pointing at the pictures and reading the names out loud.
Before the killings on March 6, Maleth was just another anonymous settlement in the eastern Terai. Its residents speak Maithili – the mother tongue of 12% of Nepalis, according to the census. They comprise a variety of castes and include Hindus as well as Muslims. The vast majority identify as Madhesi: people of the plains, who share cultural affinities with groups across the border in India (their castes and languages are also found in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and sometimes marriages are arranged with Indians). But the people in Maleth have lived here for generations. Sita Ram Yadav, a 65-year-old former VDC chairman, said that his forbears came here at least five generations ago and cleared the forest to establish the village.
Maleth has experienced significant changes over the past few generations. Schools, absent throughout most of Nepal before 1950, were established, and the VDC now has three primary schools. Electricity came in the early 1990s. Greater connectivity with the rest of Nepal was established when the East-West Highway was constructed in the early 1970s. But as in most of the Terai, the government sited the highway close to the base of the hills, where populations of migrants from the hills are larger. In Saptari, the highway makes a large arc to the northeast before turning south to cross the Koshi River at the barrage on the Indian border, completely bypassing Rajbiraj and Maleth.
Most people in Maleth today are farmers – the village is well-known for its vegetables sold in Rajbiraj – and some pull rickshaws or do labor in the city. Many young men go to India, the Middle East or Malaysia to seek their fortunes. “All the capital for building houses here came from earnings abroad,” said Yadav.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In 1986, with support from the Indian government, the Ministry of Industry established the Gajendra Narayan Singh Industrial Estate on 22 bighas (about 15 hectares) across the street from Maleth village. Named for the late founder of the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, one of the early political parties to advocate for Madhesi rights, the project was expected to bring hundreds of jobs. Ten spaces for industries to rent were constructed, with additional space to build as demand grew. The project acquired land below the market rate, but many villagers were willing to make the sacrifice for the promise of jobs.
“We fully believed that this was going to be an industrial area, that there would be employment here. We thought our poverty would end,” said Musaharu Yadav, 66, who farms and raises cattle in the village.
But the industrial estate in Maleth sits mostly unused today. Stray dogs wander around empty buildings and goats graze on the lawns. Currently there are four factories, of which two are active, employing just 29 people, according to the government website. By contrast, similar industrial estates in Kathmandu, Pokhara, and Hetauda employ over 3,500, 1,900, and 2,400 people respectively.
There are several reasons why the industrial estate failed to thrive. The first businesses arrived only in the mid-90s, but after the Maoist insurgency heated up, the estate shut down in the early 2000s. In 2010, some businesses returned, but progress was hindered again by a lack of electricity.
Ram Kumar Das, a mill owner and head of the estate’s industrialists association, said that when the estate received a “hot line” in 2015, guaranteeing power during business hours, it was the last among the 10 government-run industrial estates in the country to do so. Today, the Maleth estate has an electrical capacity of 25 kVA (approximately 25 kW), the smallest in the country by orders of magnitude.
Industrialists who want to open a business face bureaucratic hurdles. Thula Kanth Chaudhary, who is opening a plastic factory in the estate, said that it took two years for his application to be processed.
Das accused the government of neglecting the estate due to bias against Madhesis. He noted that while Maleth and Rajbiraj are nearly completely Madhesi, most other industrial estates are located in Kathmandu, Pokhara or Terai cities like Hetauda, Dharan, and Butwal with large populations of hill-people.
“India built this estate. So the people from Kathmandu, they say, if India built it, let them run it,” Das said.
(The central office of Industrial District Management Limited, the government company responsible for the estates, declined to comment, referring questions to the Maleth estate’s director, Sanjay Thapa, whose contact number has been switched off for over two weeks.)
The economic discrimination that Das described, if real, would not be a new phenomenon. In his tome on the Terai, Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal, Fredrick Gaige noted that Madhesi industrialists in the 1960s often registered their businesses in the name of associates from the hills in order to ease the process of licensing.
In 2015, earthquakes struck the country, and then the Madhesi Morcha’s bandhs, combined with the unofficial Indian blockade, shut down business in Maleth for over half a year in 2015-2016. Things were just beginning to move ahead in the last few months – a new dairy factory opened and Chaudhary’s plastic business began to move in – when the estate was dealt another blow. The UML party, in the midst of a Mechi-to-Mahakali political campaign, was concerned about security in Rajbiraj, and at the last minute, changed the venue for its rally to the industrial estate.
Das said that he was not informed beforehand. “They didn’t ask any of the industrialists. I’m the chairman of the industrialists’ association. They should have told me. ”
On the afternoon of March 6, a motorcade of UML leaders was greeted by several thousand supporters inside the industrial estate. A contingent of 1,200 Nepal Police and 400 Armed Police Force personnel were stationed in and around the industrial estate, according to the police.
Several thousand protesters from all over Saptari, including Maleth village, gathered on the street outside the walled compound of the estate. The protest was organized by an alliance of regional Madhesi parties angry at the UML’s opposition to a constitutional amendment to address Madhesi demands. The amendment would ensure seats in the Upper House of parliament based on new federal states’ population size, increase political rights for naturalized citizens, and reshape the boundaries of a state in the Terai where Madhesi population is highest. UML leader KP Oli has been dismissive towards Madhesi politicians and unsympathetic when approximately 50 Madhesi protesters were killed by police during the anti-constitution protests in 2015 and 2016.
The protesters in Maleth on March 6 burned tires and threw rocks at police. Police fired tear gas and warning shots in the air. A police truck mounted with a water cannon for crowd control sat parked near the entrance of the industrial estate, unused.
Near five o’clock, the program came to an end. As the UML leaders made their exit, the police opened fire on protesters, hitting people several hundred meters south of the gate. The crowd fled in panic, and the police charged, beating people with lathis, chasing them into homes. Five people were killed by police bullets, and dozens were taken to hospital with injuries.
The police later claimed that the firing was necessary in order to prevent protesters from entering the industrial estate. Initial press reports quoted KP Oli and Deputy Inspector General of police Ramesh Bhattarai claiming that protesters hurled petrol bombs at the police and UML. However, evidence to support this claim never materialized. Multiple videos of the protests show protestors throwing stones; they also depict police beating unarmed, subdued people on the body, face and head.
Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi, a Nepali Congress politician and a Madhesi himself, has announced that the families of the deceased will receive Rs. 1 million each in compensation.
A VILLAGE IN MOURNING
Maleth has been in mourning since March 6. Three of the people killed were residents of the village.
Pitambar Mandal, 50, was shot in the chest and died in hospital in Dharan. He came from a landless family of Terai adivasis and worked as a house painter and tenant-farmer. His son, Bhola Prasad, said his father was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – he had little interest in or time for politics.
Birendra Mahato, another fatal casualty from Maleth, was a former police officer and a farmer. He left behind a wife and four young children, who are now left with no male earners in the household.
The youngest of those killed, Sanjan Mehta, was just 25 and had recently married. He was shot in the head and photos of his body, with a widely fractured skull and brains spilling out onto the ground, have circulated widely. His family claims Sanjan was restrained by two officers while a third shot him in the head at point-blank range. (The police deny this.) His brother, Ranjan, said Sanjan had recently finished his bachelor’s degree and was preparing to take the civil service exams. “Every day he would go to the store, and for two-three hours each evening he would study. He didn’t do anything else.”
Had Sanjan lived to become a civil servant, he would have been part of an under-represented minority. A 2014 report edited by sociologists Om Gurung and Mukta Tamang notes that Madhesis make up 14.2% of civil service employees, whereas mother-tongue speakers of Madhesi languages Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Urdu, and Hindi make up 22.5% of the national population. (Although high-caste Madhesi groups are well-represented in the civil service, middle-castes, low-castes and Muslims are severely under-represented; Madhesi Dalits, who make up 4.5% of the national population, have only 0.5% of civil service jobs.)
Another villager, Satya Dev Yadav, said that several protesters ran into his home to hide after the firing, until police forced their way in and beat them with batons. In the process, they also injured his fourteen-year-old grandson, Mukesh, who studies in class eight.
“When we were hiding in the house, I was sitting on the bed, and I saw the police, they were shouting, motherfuckers, dhotis [derogatory term for Madhesis], sons of Modi [the Indian Prime Minister]! I worked in Kathmandu for 13 years, I played tabla for Radio Nepal. For Radio Nepal!” said Satya Dev, a former professional musician, exasperated at the notion police would consider him less-than-Nepali. (Other reports have also asserted police use of racial slurs.)
Most people in Maleth interpreted the police actions as a demonstration of support for the UML party. Satya Dev divulged that he was once a member of the UML party, and ran as their candidate for ward president in the 1997 elections. “But now I don’t even want to see the faces of UML leaders,” he added.
Back at the industrial estate, Das explained how holding the UML rally at the estate has hurt business. As the UML crowds left, the director of the estate and administrative staff fled. Angry Madhesi protesters then entered the estate and began to damage property, torching the interior of the director’s living quarters, breaking windows, and burning goods from several businesses.
Das said, “So now we’re in a dilemma- do we do business here or not? Now we’re threatened by the local people on the one hand, and the administrators [of the industrial estate] who work on their own without consulting us.” He said his association is demanding that the government pay compensation to the industrialists for damaged property.
Across the lawn from Das’s mill, workers on ladders painted Thula Kanth Chaudhary’s newly-rented plastics factory. After it opens later this month, Chaudhary said he expects to employ over a dozen people. Asked whether he felt disparaged by the recent violence and vandalism, he said he isn’t about to give up after spending two years trying to secure his space. “I have loans to repay.”
Satya Dev Yadav, the musician, was less optimistic. “We had hopes for the industrial estate,” he said. “Now, in my mind, it’s just a war zone.”
Cover photo: Satya Dev Yadav, a farmer and musician whose grandson was injured in clashes with the police on March 6.
Additional reporting was done by a foreign journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.