En route to the fateful rally in Maleth on March 6, UML leader KP Oli’s motorcade passed through Kanchanrup Municipality, about forty-five minutes’ drive northeast from its destination. Kanchanrup, located along a bend in the East-West highway, is generally a quiet town, with a predominantly Madhesi population.  Stores and restaurants cater to travelers, but most businesses were closed the day of the UML rally.  In the morning, several groups of protestors waved black flags, burnt tires in the street, and chanted slogans against the UML, a party they see as the unapologetic champion of high-caste hill groups’ domination over the Terai. By the time the UML arrived in the afternoon, protestors had been dispersed by the police.  The motorcade passed through Kanchanrup without significant disruption, accompanied by several trucks full of police.

A few hours later in Maleth, the police opened fire on Madhesis protesting the UML rally, killing five and wounding dozens more, as has been extensively reported on.

Kanchanrup did not make headlines that day, nor during the five days of bandh that followed, when hundreds of residents poured into the streets to greet the mourning processions for the deceased.  But Kanchanrup, like many other towns across the Terai, has experienced fluctuating levels of tension over the past decade between locals and the security forces, who are seen as inaccessible and often biased against the Madhesis.

The paramilitary behind tall walls

The paramilitary Armed Police Force (APF), whose personnel from the Kanchanrup were also deployed in Maleth on March 6, is located along the highway in town.  The base contains stately old buildings scattered among tall trees, surrounded by a wall with razor wire. Entry is closed off to the public.

The APF was established in 2001 to fight the Maoists, who were waging a rebel insurgency at the time.  Prior to the Maleth violence, the APF and Nepal army were criticized by human rights groups for excessive use of force during the 2015-2016 Madhesi protests that accompanied the unofficial Indian blockade.

“We have no relationship with the armed police,” says Raj Kumar Gupta, 35. “My hardware shop is located just across from their base. But just to enter their gate you need permission from the SP [superintendent] or DSP [deputy superintendent].”

Karim Sheikh, 47, a local Muslim community leader, says that the APF has helped the community in several instances to put out fires and chase away elephants that wander into town from the nearby Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve.  But he acknowledges that, as a community leader, he has access to the APF that the vast majority of people do not.

Local representatives of the APF were not available for comment and referred inquiries to a spokesperson in Kathmandu.

Nepal Police claims to be a friend

The Nepal Police, at the other end of Kanchanrup from the APF base, operates differently. The Nepal police is responsible for most crimes and civil disputes, and unlike the APF, its gate is open to visitors.  A sign near the entrance declares: “Sincere welcome to visitors! Agents and intermediaries prohibited!”

Dilli Bahadur Chauhan, the local police inspector, has been at the base for three months.

He spoke during an interview about a recent public relations campaign “Police My Friend.” Several events were held with members of civil society and the public in Rajbiraj, the district headquarters.  Police went door-to-door to paste stickers with phone numbers the public can call in case of emergency.

“We tell people you don’t have to bring anyone with you, come by yourself and we’ll help solve your problems,” he added.

Still, many people seek the help of an intermediary to deal with the police.

During the interview, a visitor came to submit an application using an intermediary.  The visitor was a Madhesi woman, come to report a missing relative suffering from mental illness.  She had come with a local village leader, who spoke with the Inspector on her behalf while she hovered silently.  They quickly submitted the report and left.

Later in the interview, another woman called upon the Inspector.  The second woman was of Hill-Brahmin ethnicity, and lived in Kathmandu; she said her husband was a former Chief District Officer.  She was trying to remove a group of squatters from her family’s land in Saptari.  It was necessary to reach a settlement quickly, she said, because she needed to leave for America to attend her daughter’s wedding.  The Inspector chatted with the woman at length, and said he would help mediate the dispute by holding her settlement payment for the squatters until they held up their end of the deal by demolishing their dwellings.

Bachu Sarbariya, a Dalit activist and the secretary of a local organization that helps mediate non-criminal conflicts referred by the police, explains that people, especially those from Madhesi backgrounds, often use village leaders as intermediaries to access police services.

“It could be that they are afraid, and can’t say what they need to say, and the police can’t understand what they are saying.”  He adds that part of the problem is language –women and poorer people sometimes speak only Maithili, the local language.  Chauhan said there are a number of Maithili speakers on his force, but several locals told us that it is not always possible to speak in Maithili with the police.

There is a persistent feeling among many local residents that the police is biased against them.

“The Nepal police head doesn’t meet common people,” says Bijaya Kumar Gupta, 29, who works at a local restaurant.  “The police support Pahadis [people from the hills] the most.”

Buddhi Sagar Chaudhary, 60, a retired schoolteacher, says that the police are just one arm of what he sees as a racist Nepali state.  “From the Shah times, to the Rana times, to the Panchayat times, to the democratic era, people from the Terai have always been kept out of the police and army.”

Under-representation of Madhesis in police forces

Despite provisions in the 2007 Interim Constitution and the 2015 Constitution that call for proportional quotas for Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits, and other marginalized groups in the police and other state agencies, data on actual representation among the police forces is difficult to come by.  As a result, it has been difficult to know the extent of the law’s impact.

Various reports on social inclusion, sponsored by donors such as ADB, DFID, and the World Bank, have examined ethnic representation in institutions such as the civil service, political parties, and local-level users groups (such as for community forests and small construction projects).  But most of these reports have neglected to examine the police.  An independent 2013 report by Lynn Bennett, Bandita Sijapati and Deepak Thapa states that Madhesis make up 17.81% of the Nepal police.  By contrast, mother-tongue speakers of the Madhesi languages Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Urdu, and Hindi make up 22.5% of the national population, according to the census.

Madhesis say that they are underrepresented especially in the upper ranks of the police.  Based on an analysis of names of officers released by the Home Ministry earlier this year, The Record found only 43 (8%) of 547 Inspectors were Madhesi.  As one moves up the Nepal Police hierarchy, Madhesis become more and more scarce.  There are six Madhesis among 125 Deputy Superintendents (5%), six Madhesis among 59 Superintendents (10%), zero Madhesis among 39 Senior Superintendents, and one Madhesi among 20 Deputy Inspector Generals (5%).

Madhesi activists claim that representation at higher levels of the police is important, because it is among the higher ranks that decisions of life and death – such as how to deal with the protestors at Maleth – are made.

Today, the situation in Kancharup is relatively calm.  Although the Madhesi Morcha has quit the government, protests have been put off at least until high school examinations conclude on March 25.

Asked whether the Armed Police Force’s killing of protestors in Maleth has strained his relations with the public, Chauhan said, “People say saala, these police killed people.  Why are these police here? But slowly, slowly things get better.”

Additional reporting was done by a foreign journalist who wishes to remain anonymous.