Nepal's Bleeding Edge

Letter from the Terai Plains

Protesters stand near a burning tyre as they gather to block the highway connecting Nepal to India during a general strike called by Madhesi protesters demonstrating against the new constitution in Birgunj, Nepal November 5, 2015. Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

In early February, a group of local Nepalis stormed a blockade that had been clogging a crucial border pass with India for four months. The event marked a pause in a six-month spasm of unrest throughout southern Nepal that brought the country to its knees and crippled an economy that was already reeling after last year’s deadly earthquakes. The blockade had been erected in September 2015 by members of the Madhesi ethnic group, which is centered on the hotly-contested Terai plains between India and Nepal, and has long accused Kathmandu of treating its members as outsiders. When, in defiance of their Madhesi protest leaders, disgruntled locals and businessmen ripped apart the crudely built structure with their hands, it became clear that the blockade had been rejected by the very people it was intended to help.

A month after the blockade’s end, tensions are still high as the Madhesi community struggles to reconcile both with the central government and itself. The Madhesi, a marginalized minority with cultural and linguistic ties to neighboring India, has been fighting for greater rights and recognition in Nepal for decades. And when Nepal’s central government proposed a new constitution in June 2015 that marginalized the group by establishing contentious new administrative divisions, dissent began to spill over into violence. Vehicles were torched and dozens were killed in clashes with police. In response, protesters led by members of a coalition of ethnic Madhesi political parties occupied the no-man’s land that connects Birgunj with the Indian town of Raxaul, choking off 70 percent of all trade entering Nepal. The gambit sparked a humanitarian crisis and a diplomatic spat when the Indian government lent its political support to the protesters’ cause.

Binita Devi is of the dozens who lost a loved one during the initial wave of protests. Binita pleaded with her husband one morning last September, urging him not to join the growing, increasingly violent anti-government protests. But he ignored her and left the house anyway. Less than

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