SOUTH ASIA: NEPAL News Briefs
The Madhesi (as the people of the Terai are known) struggle for autonomy is divided, to say the least. Among those who claim to represent Madhesi aspirations, the most moderate – those who primarily demand an autonomous Terai region within a Federated Nepal – are already part of mainstream politics as a result of the Eight-Point Agreement signed on February 28, 2008. This group comprises the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), Nepal Sadbhavana Party-Rajendra Mahato (NSP-RM) and Terai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP). The 14 radical groups – who seek an independent Terai – are still actively involved in armed campaign. The most prominent among these are the Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (ATMM), the Jwala Singh faction of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM-J), the Prithviraj Singh led Liberation Tigers of Terai Elam (LTTE), and the Pawan Giri led Samyukta Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (SJTMM).
Precious little is known about the objectives and vision of the armed formations, although most of them vaguely speak of a "free Terai". Out of these armed groups a few are breakaway factions of the JTMM, originally formed by Jai Krishna Goit after splitting from the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) in 2004. The JTMM has undergone several splits, and its various factions are now headed by Jwala Singh, Rajan Mukti, Bibas Bidrohi, Kris, Ranbir Singh and Bisfot Singh. The proliferation of JTMM factions has forced Goit to change the name of his group, JTMM-G, to Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (ATMM). Little information regarding the cadre strength, organisational set up, operational capabilities, or specific area of operation of these factions is currently available. Information about other fringe outfits such as the Nagraj led Terai Cobra (TC), Terai Baagi, Terai Army, Madhesi Virus Killers, SJTMM, and LTTE is limited to the occasional reports regarding their engagement in random acts of violence, killing, abduction and extortion in the Terai.
On its part the Coalition Government, on October 3, constituted a three-member team to initiate talks with the armed groups and appealed to them to come to the negotiating table to resolve their grievances. The ‘talks team’ comprises Minister for Peace and Reconstruction Janardan Sharma [of the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPN-M)] as the co-coordinator, and the Minister for Local Development Ram Chandra Jha [of the Communist Party of Nepal – Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML)] and Minister for Education Renu Yadav (MJF) as members. This is the first time that the Government has formed a separate team to hold talk with the Terai armed groups. The Government appears to have been encouraged by the cease-fire announcement made first by the JTMM-Ranbir and Madhesi Virus Killers on September 30. A week-long meeting of the 14 armed formations in the Indian State of Bihar in the last week of September also resolved to accept any Government proposal to hold talks, provided they were "formally invited".
The initial reactions of the armed outfits to the invitation for talks have, consequently, been somewhat encouraging. Bibas Bidrohi, who leads a faction of the JTMM thus declared, "If the Government fosters an environment that is favourable and pledges to make the talks meaningful, we are ready to sit for such talks". Though the armed groups are yet to clarify what they would accept as ‘meaningful talks’, the ‘talks team’ said that the Government was ready to discuss all issues. The team also announced that the Government would send invitation letters and give security guarantees to the representatives of the armed groups, if the latter wanted such a guarantee.
The Government has already sent missives to the Jwala Singh and Ranbir Singh led factions of the JTMM. The team is also in the process of sending invitations to the TC, LTTE, Kirant Workers Party (KWC) and SJTMM. Contact with other parties remains elusive, even though two members of the ‘talks team’ are in the Terai to establish linkages.
Difficulties are, however, already cropping up. Jai Krishna Goit’s ATTM has turned down the offer, with Goit declaring, on October 5, "Earlier once I had said that it was possible to hold dialogue at the United Nation’s mediation. However, the Nepal Government did not show any interest at that time. Dialogue is meaningless now." Another important group, the Rajan Mukti faction of JTMM, has defined some preconditions for talks, including a promise by the Government to hold a referendum in Terai, which would further the cause of the ‘liberation’ of the region from ‘internal colonialism’. JTMM-RM has further demanded the formation of a new ‘trustworthy talks team’, withdrawal of all court cases against the outfit’s cadres and the release of all cadres in jail, before the commencement of the dialogue process.
Similarly, JTMM-J, while welcoming the Government’s call for dialogue, has put forth four preconditions: release of the arrested JTMM-J cadres and scrapping of the ‘false charges’ filed against the group; announcement of a formal cease-fire; proper security arrangement for its talks team; and the deputation of security personnel stationed at rural Village Development Committees to the District Headquarters. Reactions of other outfits to the offer of talks are not yet known, though the three member ‘talks team’ has claimed that it has received ‘positive responses’ from all the groups it has managed to contact.
The present Government in Nepal is the product of extended processes of violence and subversion through which the Maoists have secured a dominant presence in the seats of authority. The wheels now appear to have turned full circle, and the Maoist-led Government has been constrained to open a dialogue process with armed formations that have raised questions on the present regime’s legitimacy and capacities to govern the country.
The direction that the conflict takes from here will depend primarily on the strength and willingness of both the parties to the conflict: the coalition Government – which includes the ‘moderate’ Madhesi parties – and the armed Terai groups. While the Government’s strength may include its capacity to be flexible and accommodative, the strength of the armed groups vests essentially in their operational capabilities and their ability to retain popular legitimacy.
It bears mention that an earlier attempt by the then Peace and Reconstruction Minister, Ram Chandra Poudel, to hold talks with the Terai armed groups on the eve of the Constituent Assembly (CA) elections in April 2008 had collapsed when the groups began to put forward a multiplicity of preconditions – similar to the current conditionalities being articulated by the Terai groups – for the talks.
In the event – however uncertain – of the talks actually taking off, there are a number of residual concerns that would influence the direction of the incipient process. These include:
First, the Government is yet to decide the criteria for extending invitations to the various groups. Janardan Sharma, coordinator of the ‘talks team’ said the Government would invite the armed outfits after determining whether or not they are ‘political groups’ through consultation with the Home Ministry.
Second, it is also not clear whether separate rounds of talks will be held with each outfit or with groups of such outfits, or through a single process with all formations. Given that little unity exists among these formations, joint talks can be expected to yield almost nothing. Despite the fact that the Madhesi groups held a meeting in Bihar in the last week of September 2008 in a bid to unite under a single umbrella, all that was achieved was an agreement to form a "working unity". The issue of the leadership under which such unity was to be secured remained a vexed issue. Notwithstanding Jayakrishna Goit’s expression of confidence that he would ultimately lead all armed Terai outfits to unity, reports indicated that, during the September meeting, Goit’s proposed leadership was spurned by several formations.
Third, the present Government claims that, as it is yet to resort to use of force against the armed Terai groups, the question of declaring cease-fire does not arise. Further, the reality of the ground is that the Terai outfits are yet to face a concerted campaign against them by state forces, and have, consequently, little incentive to dilute their radical demands, while, on the other hand, there is little sense of urgency in the state’s agencies to capitulate to demands that may be excessive or unjustified.
Critically, the room for maneuver for either side is currently limited. The Government has almost nothing to offer in terms of a ‘settlement’ beyond an autonomous Terai region, a proposal that has already been accepted by United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) in the Eight-point Agreement. Any further concessions would catapult the leaders of the armed factions into political primacy, to the detriment of the ‘moderate’ Madhesi groups, such as the MJF, which are already in the Government.
Unless a majority of the armed groups – including all the most prominent among them – can be brought to the negotiating table, any alternative scenario of a dialogue with the few who are available and willing, would have little impact on the prospects of peace in the Terai.
[South Asian Intelligence Review]
Government sends letter of invitation to Terai factions: The Government, on October 13, sent an official letter to Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM) factions led by Jwala Singh and Ranvir Singh, respectively, inviting them to come for a dialogue. Minister for Peace and Reconstruction Janardan Sharma who heads the three-member talks team said that Government emissaries were trying to establish contacts with all armed groups in the Terai and were also holding indirect talks with some of the armed groups. On October 16, Jwala Singh of the JTMM-J welcoming the Government's call, but said four "simple conditions" must be met before the armed outfit starts negotiating with the Government. The conditions were: release of arrested JTTM cadres and scrapping the false charges filed against the JTMM-J; announcement of cease fire; ensuring proper security arrangements for its talks team; and deputing the security personnel stationed at rural Village Development Committees to the District Headquarters. On October 17, Minister for Local Development Ram Chandra Jha gave the assurance that the Government would ensure the safety of the representatives of the Terai-based armed outfits expected to take part in negotiation with the Government. The Himalayan Times, October 14 & 18, 2008.
Three persons killed in explosion in Rautahat: A woman and two minors died on the spot and four others were injured when a bomb went off at Chandranigahapur Chowk in Rautahat District on October 14. Two other persons were injured as Police opened fire to control an agitated mob after the explosion. The Terai Tigers initially claimed responsibility for the blast. Subsequently, two other groups, the Tarai Army and the Tarai Sena also claimed responsibility for the incident. The Himalayan Times ; Kantipur online, October 15, 2008.
Government invites Terai armed outfits for dialogue: Following a Cabinet meeting held at the Prime Minister’s office at Singha Durbar on October 3, the Government invited the armed groups active in the Terai region to come to the negotiating table. It also formed a three-member committee led by Minister for Peace and Reconstruction Janardan Sharma to hold dialogue with the armed outfits. Responding to the offer, the armed groups operating in Terai announced that they would hold talks with the Government. They also declared a cease-fire during Dashain festival, reports Nepal News. Kantipur online, September 25, 2008.
[South Asian Intelligence Review]
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