Shooting in SaptariOli govt and Kathmandu’s civil society should urgently reach out to Madhes
The events in Saptari district on Saturday night are a cause for serious concern. The police tried to clear protestors from the highway, and in so doing, it seems to have used disproportionate force. At least two protestors were killed in police firing. Numerous others were injured. Police maintain that the protestors were unduly aggressive and hurled, among others, petrol bombs at them and they had to open fire in self-defense. There are also reports that police personnel in Rajbiraj entered hospital premises and severely harassed and beat up people there, including medical staff. Some of the hospital staff have even issued a statement complaining about the police action.
Over the past three months, there has been increasing public anger in the Tarai towards the security forces and the Oli government. Saturday marked 100 days of Tarai unrest, which predates the constitution, and two months of the border blockade, which followed the promulgation of the constitution.
The events on Saturday could further inflame the situation. If immediate steps towards reconciliation are not taken, there is a danger that the alienation in the Tarai will become entrenched, leading to long-term strife. More immediately, there is a danger that the current negotiation process between the government and Madhesi parties will be affected. The Madhesi parties could now be pressured by their constituents to take an even harder line against the ruling parties.
We have not been able to independently verify if the police response on Saturday followed the standard security protocol. Even while the concerned stakeholders await the final verdict on the Saptari shootings, it would be wise for Prime Minister and other senior leaders of the ruling parties to take a step back and make gestures of reconciliation with the protestors, a symbolism that has sorely been lacking. Ideally, government ministers should visit the Tarai, express sympathy towards the protestors, announce reparations for the families of the dead and injured, and also communicate to them that they are committed to a negotiated settlement of the Tarai standoff. So far neither Prime Minister Oli nor any other senior government leaders has demonstrated much empathy to the Tarai unrest. A vast majority of UML leaders in particular seem to think that the way forward is not to negotiate but rather tire out the protestors, or even crush them by force. That will be counterproductive. Other major parties including the Nepali Congress and UCPN (Maoist) must take a very strong stance against this.
In addition, civil society should step up and argue that the problem in the Tarai is a political one.
For their part, Madhesi parties should not allow the events on Friday to become further radicalised, but should rather seek to calm down the Madhesi population and generate pressure for talks. The Madhesi parties should prevent their cadres from using violence and desist from attacking ambulances and trucks. Such incidents only lessen their moral high ground.
The situation in the Tarai has over the past three months escalated to such an extreme point that it will likely have severe political and social effects for years to come. The parties need to understand the gravity of the situation at hand and reach a political agreement as soon as possible. Short term, the Oli government should take immediate measures to defuse the rage and alienation that has overtaken the Tarai.