[These field notes from 2014 have not been updated to reflect major later developments, including the implementation of a federal system with Birgunj now the capital of Province no. 2, and also the agreement between C.K. Raut and the government in 2019, under which he abandoned his claim for Tarai independence. The route that my bus took to the Tarai was actually the B.P.Korala Highway, which had been opened in 1998 but which, not having visited the region since 1990, I was bizarrely unaware of!]
Logistics On the recommendation of a travel agent friend who considered the faster jeep ride very uncomfortable, I used the night bus service run by the Samar company which left from Kalanki at about 8 p.m. and arrived in Birganj around 5.00. It stops near the Ghantaghar, then goes on to the Hotel Makalu (recommended by Bijay Onta) before turning round to go to the bus park on Bypass Road, from which it’s a short rickshaw ride to the Vishuwa. I thought I’d booked a room for the night of 9/10 September (at Rs3000) by email but, although they had replied to me, there was no record at reception. This caused no problem as there were plenty of vacant rooms and I was allowed to occupy one from 7.00 a.m. without extra charge. Room and breakfast (Rs400) were both fine and WiFi functioning properly. I used the Kailas Hotel restaurant (on the road leading to the campus) for lunch on the first day and dinner on the next – this was where I regularly ate 40 years earlier, though then the restaurant was called Koseli and was a separate business from the hotel. The night bus was scheduled to leave at 8.00 on the second day and here I hit a problem because I did not realise there are now three different starting points for inter-city bus services and just assumed that mine would leave from the western side of the main road north of the Ghantaghar, where I’d seen several buses waiting before. In fact the Samar bus leaves from beside the company’s office on the eastern side of the road. Before I finally reached there, I’d made a fruitless journey to the bus `park’ where I’d alighted the day before and I was lucky I had left my Kailas Hotel afternoon base with plenty of time in hand. The bus itself provides more leg room than in ordinary economy class on a plane, and the fare is only Rs700 one way but there is not much room to stow baggage inside and I kept my rucksack on the floor between my legs. I was in fine shape arriving in Birganj but got a stiff leg after the return journey and was walking with a bit of a limp for 24 hours afterwards!. I’ve not yet been able to locate on the map the precise route we took but going down seemed to be virtually all on the flat, following river valleys, whilst the return journey also had a short hilly section, entering the Valley from the SW via Thankot.
As I am used to moving around in the heat in Hong Kong, I had no problem walking around the town centre and avoided rickshaws (and hassles over the fare) after the first morning, which in retrospect was a mistake as (like Kathmandu taxi-drivers) they might have been a useful additional source of information. There were also no problems with mosquitoes when walking at night (and none, of course, in my air-conditioned room). As a lone kuire tramping the streets, I attracted some attention and several people made genuine offers to help when they thought I was looking for something. The man who finally told me I needed to go to the Samar office for the bus insisted on taking me there on his motor-bike.
Physical changes The town retains the rundown north Indian feeling it always did have as well as the abundance of rickshaws and (as far as I could see) total absence of taxis. The most immediately noticeable change since I last visited in 1990 was the conversion of the road north of the Ghantaghar into a dual carriageway. There has also, of course, been extensive building out along the road and Pradhan Niwas, the compound in Murli/Shreepur where I lived in winter 1972/3, is now totally obscured by new structures. The pond and open field which lay just to the south have also disappeared and the multi-storey Kadambari School nearby is now the landmark to look out for. The one familiar structure I spotted was the post office (on the eastern side of the road), where I used to collect my mail.
In the town centre the old bus station (beside the Kailas Hotel) is now a car park with buses nowadays leaving from the three sites already mentioned. The Ghantaghar (see photo above) was not there in 1972/3 but I think I remember seeing it in 1990.
Just to the north of it, on a black column with no inscription, there is a statue of a dhoti-clad individual with a moustache and glasses (just visible on the photo above). I asked several individuals who it depicted and got the answers `Prithvi Narayan Shah’ and `the king of Nepal’ from two of them. It is difficult to say whether this was genuine confusion on their part, or just to see whether a tiresome foreigner was silly enough to believe them. On the road leading to Thakur Ram campus there is another statue, apparently of some literary figure, but the name (?Ghiya)) was partially obscured. Unfortunately I forgot to ask for further details about both of the statues when I was in the campus.
I found the point on the main road which David Gellner photographed last year but am still nor sure that it is the same spot as the one I photographed myself in 1974 (see photos below). The building with green pillars on the 2013 photo is an old Marwari hostel.
I wandered further south along the main road a little beyond the sub-zonal hospital (currently under CIAA investigation for the embezzlement of money intended to provide subsidized medicine to poor patients) and the many pharmacy stalls lining the road near it. I did not go close to the border, where there has apparently been a lot of new building, including (as I was told later by a travel agent) a multi-storey hotel much larger than either the Vishuwa or Makalu. I was also told by two people that in central Rexaul across the border property is now more expensive than anywhere in India except Mumbai, with Delhi coming in third. Nobody seemed sure why this was so but proceeds from smuggling was suggested as one possible reason.
The main building at Shree Thakur Ram campus has changed very little though there is a new library building next to it. I did not go inside but was told later in Kathmandu by someone who had made a more thorough inspection that the contents were in a sorry state.
Language situation One of my strongest impressions from 1972/1973 was the predominance of Hindi in the Thakur Ram staffroom, the result of so many lecturers being hired from India. I heard a lot of Hindi outside as well but that might be partly because I spent a lot of time with an Indian colleague from the English department who himself always used Hindi for informal conversation with the students and also often visited shopkeepers along the main road and used Hindi there as well. We also had then to use Hindi with the rickshaw drivers, who were based in Rexaul. My subjective impression this time was that there was a little more Nepali on the streets, and the rickshaw driver who took me to my hotel certainly spoke some (another one I passed near the Ghantaghar had enough English to suggest he take me to the bus station (500 metres away) for Rs`100.) Presumably staffroom conversations are now more likely to be in Nepali as people I spoke to told me that faculty generally were now almost all Nepalese except in medical colleges where Indians still predominate; this latter statement seems to hold true for at least parts of the hill as well since a medical student returning from home in Birgunj to his college in Tansen said almost everyone teaching him was Indian. I imagine, though, that Hindi is still heard in tarai staffrooms if all present are Madheshis.
Street scene 1974 (John Whelpton) Street scene 2014 (David Gellner)
Tarai regionalism The Congress and UML, which now dominate the coalition government, would ideally like to implement federalism with the five existing development regions (all of them north-south units) but they will probably propose something on the lines of the abortive 15 May 2012 agreement (see the 4th map at http://linguae.weebly.com/nepali.html (the titles of some of the states shown are satirical but the boundaries are, I think, correct)).This would entail the creation of separate Tharuwat and Madhesh states (something most Madheshis now seem to accept) but also the inclusion of the far-western and far-eastern Tarai and of Chitwan in north –south units. People I spoke to were divided on whether grass-roots opinion in the tarai would accept this: both Tula Narayan Shah (Nepal Madhesh Foundation) in Kathmandu and a physics lecturer /NC activist in Birgunj believed general disillusionment with the Madheshi parties, and their failure to do anything concrete for their constituencies when in power, means there is unlikely to be a renewed tarai andolan should some north-south states be included in the federal structure. In contrast, Laxman Lal Karna, the Sadbhavana M.P. heading the committee investigating alleged fraud in the last election, was adamant that whatever number of states the Tara is divided into, the boundary must be the Chure and anything else would play into the hands of people agitating for compete independence for the region. Lalan Dubedi, the Thakur Ram campus chief, and Pawan Tiwari also thought there would be a strong reaction. Of course, as Pratyoush Onta and Krishna Hachchhethu pointed out that in 2006 nobody would have predicted the andolan that flared up in 2007. More than one person thought that, if this happened, new leadership might emerge. . When I discussed the earlier tarai andolan with the son of my former landlord (the family is Newar but has been in the tarai for a couple of generations), he claimed that most of the people in the processions in Birganj were from the countryside, not the town, and that they participated in return for money rather than out of conviction. A Muslim youth I asked about this on the street the next day estimated that 40-50% of the protectors were financially motivated.
My landlord’s son and a Maithil Brahman friend, who I had a long conversation with over drinks and dinner, were adamant that there was no tension in Birgunj itself between Pahadis and Madheshis and a lecturer at TR (also a Maithil Brahman) told me that the mix of ethnic groups in the town meant people had to get along together, unlike the villages which were generally overwhelmingly Madheshi. In contrast, the campus chief maintained that there had been tensions even in Birganj. This mirrors similarly conflicting impressions of the situation in the tarai as a whole and across the country in general. Krishna Hachhethu told me that there has been a drawing apart of different ethnic groups and that the increased separation of Madheshis and Pahadis was very noticeable when he was recently in Biratnagar. On the other hand, Pratyoush Onta takes a more sanguine view and referred to a forthcoming article in SINHAS by Tula Mani Basnet, who argues that the extent of inter-ethnic hostility at the grassroots during the 2012 crisis has been exaggerated.
By coincidence, the arrest of Tarai-independence advocate C.K. Raut on sedition charges came just after I returned to Kathmandu. I have never met Raut but corresponded with him briefly three years ago when he was making his documentary on the Tarai and sent two of his HK-based acolytes to interview me on the history of the region. The sound quality on the recording was not very good and in the end the video had only the main commentary and interviews with local people (see `Black Buddhas’ on YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs4UxuuIlkI https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZwrUPLnK5A and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWmh6hfyJ0U ). Krishna Hachhethu, who has met him a couple of times, describes him as charismatic and he evidently has a loyal feeling among a section of educated Madheshi youth, whilst also trying to organize also amongst the poorer sections of the community. When Krishna interviewed him on his own, he apparently placed emphasis on the right to self-determination (citing Quebec and Scotland as examples) rather than secession itself, so it is possible that his present stance is a maximalist demand that he might be prepared to moderate later on. One or two people I spoke to thought that the arrest at this point was partly to see how strong a reaction it would produce before deciding how careful of Madheshi opinion the government would have to be in formulating its final proposals on federal units. There have so far been protests from Pahadi human rights activists as well as Madheshi groups and at least one demonstration in Biratnagar but no widespread disturbances. This might, of course, change, depending on the outcome of Raut’s trial, which began in Kathmandu on 8 October.
Raut’s views are also on display on the website of his Alliance for an Independent Madhesh (http://madhesh.com/), which does not seem to have been updated since February 2013. His analysis is, to say the least, simplistic, ignoring the many cleavages within Madhesh itself and also the stratification of Pahadi settlers in the region. In what I have seen of his account of the region’s history, he seems constantly to equate Madhyadesh in the classical sense of the whole region between the Himalayan foothills and the Vindhyas with Madhesh as it is understood today. His film also gives the impression that the tarai was simply `given’ to the Gorkhali state by the East India company, ignoring the fact that, as his website does partially acknowledge, the region had previously been a patchwork of tenurial rights held both hill and plains states.
`Creative’ interpretations of history are, of course, a mainstay of activism generally, and, if I understood his Nepali correctly, journalist and union organizer Pawan Tiwari believes that the force with which Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Valley was composed of Tirhutiyas! He maintained that the Gorkhali regime only turned against the Madheshis when they helped the British in the 1814-16 war.
Politics at Thakur Ram Whilst teaching in Thakur Ram in 1972/73, I was aware of a division among students and staff between `Democrats’ (Congress) and `Leftists’ (Communists) and this still continues, with Congress supporters, as before, the strongest group. The campus chief put the breakdown amongst the staff at 70% Congress, 20% Progressive (including communists of all varieties?) and 10% Madheshi parties, whilst the head of the English department estimated the student split as 50% Congress, 20% UML, 20% for the Madheshi groups and 10% Maoist. The latter, though himself a Congress supporter, thought that there was a continuing trend away from Congress to the Madheshi parties amongst both staff and students but another Congress lecturer denied this. The significance of the fairly low level of support for Madheshi regionalist parties depends on the proportion of Pahadis and Madheshis in the campus and I unfortunately did not ask about this. However, Pratyoush Onta who, unlike me, visited when there were a large number of students still on the campus, thought there was definitely a Madheshi predominance. My own impression from 40 years ago was of a very high proportion of Pahadi students but I was an even less careful observer then than I am now!
Parsa district politics, I was told by a Congress sympathiser that, as in Thakur Ram campus, Congress has traditionally dominated district politics. He explained that their poor performance last time, winning only in Parsa-1 and Parsa-4 with UML taking the other three seats (see table below), was the result of factional in-fighting within the party at local level, which resulted in some party members working for the defeat of official candidates. This dominance does not, though, seem to have been total in recent years: while all four seats were won by Congress in 1991, they took only 3 in 1994 (the fourth going to the RPP) and in 1999 (one went to the UML) and in 2008, when the number of constituencies was increased to 5, they lost to the MJF Nepal in Parsa-1 (which includes most of Birganj municipality) and to UML in Parsa-4. What is striking about the 2013 results is that, whatever the state of inter-communal relations in the town at a personal level, the total vote for Madheshi regionalist parties, both in the FPTP and PR sections, exceeded that for Congress. This was also the case in Parsa-2 (which includes part of the municipality and some of the countryside) though by a narrower margin. In Parsa-1 third position was taken by the Rastriya Madhesh Samajwadi Party, set up in June 2012 by Sharat Singh Bhandari, who had been dismissed from his post as defence minister in Baburam Bhattarai’s government for making secessionist remarks and then expelled from the MJF(D). I would guess that personal factors were a major reason behind RMSP’s unusually strong showing and also that of Ashok Rai’s Sanghiya Samajbadi Party in Parsa-4. Across the tarai as a whole, the total vote for Madheshi parties also held up well and their relatively poor showing compared to 2008 was the result of the many splits weakening them in the FPTP contests.
The Muslim community I did not set out to investigate Birgunj’s Muslims (who I think are about 10% of the population) but happened to be hailed on the street opposite the Telecommunications Building (`Birgunj’s White House’) by a group of Muslim youths, two of whom were due to leave shortly to work in the Gulf.. They were dressed no differently from their Hindu counterparts and I only realized their identity when they asked me (whether as a serious question or not ) whether I was a Muslim or Hindu. They disclaimed any interest in politics, one saying that they were simply `responsible citizens’ and told me that local Muslims were not aligned with any particular political group but included supporters of all of them. All, however, supported the Pakistan cricket team and they said the area where we met was known as `mini-Pakistan’.
Local problems The lack of economic opportunities is a key complaint in Birgunj as elsewhere in the country, though I was told that there had been a lot of `development’ in the town itself but little in the surrounding countryside. The youths just mentioned told me that there had been a demonstration outside the telecommunications building some days earlier over a power failure which left one or more villages without power for several days. To my surprise, as I expected this kind of complaint from a Pahadi rather than a Madheshi, the campus chief told me that the tarai-born population in general were concerned about the influx of illegal immigrants from south of the border – echoing to some extent worries in Hong Kong about the influx from the mainland, though our problem is principally with the vast number of legal tourists.
John Whelpton October 2014 NOTES  Pawan Tiwari actually argued that two states were preferable to one Madhesh, as the latter arrangement would spark conflicts. Tula Narayan Shah argued that the ek madhesh, ek pradesh slogan never had that much resonance at grassroots level, where the main concern was with fair representation in public sector employment.  However, looking back at the scarcely legible notes I took during the interview, I am not sure whether Dubedi was talking about the reaction if the five development regions were taken as federal units (i.e. the whole tarai parceled together with the hills) rather than the compromise proposal almost agreed in 2012.  He was actually released on bail in November 2014 and formally acquitted in April 2015 (see NEPAL 2015)  Bhandari was one of the many tarai politicians who left Congress to join the MJF in 2008. His party’s best showing was in his own home district of Mahottari, where he was himself a candidate.