People of hill origin in Birgunj in dilemma
Birgunj was shaken from inside by the Madhes Movement and the six-month Indian blockade. Blockade at the other border points with India was relaxed but this point was blocked completely. The locals are still haunted by that harrowing experience.
Social tension was palpable in the city with significant presence of people of hill origin. Cognizant locals took out a goodwill rally to ensure that the tension did not precipitate violence.
Birgunj, that has been recovering a year after the blockade, is now on election mode. That latent animus between the Madhesis and people of hill origin again seems to be resurfacing in the furnace of election. Many Madhesis and people of hill origin alike are in a dilemma about who to vote for after Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, a unified force of the Madhes-based parties that led the Madhes Movement, picked Rajesh Man Singh of hill origin as its mayoral candidate.
The indecision is more in people of hill origin than Madhesis. We asked a Thakuri man in Chhapkaiya who he will vote for. He looked around at the Madhesi kids around him and mulled for a moment before agreeing to talk with us. "See, Rajesh Man is fighting on a ticket of Madhes-based party despite being of hill origin. Many people of hill origin, therefore, are undecided about who to vote for. Many Madhesis are also unsure," he stated and explained that he has decided to vote for Nepali Congress (NC) due to that reason.
A Shrestha woman we encountered at Birta Tole of Birgunj has also yet to decide who to vote for. She wants to vote for Rajesh Man but does not like his party. "Rajesh Man is a good man but he is running on a ticket of Madhes-based party. We don't like Madhes-based parties, you know," she stressed.
We also found another Manandhar man who likes Rajesh Man but does not like his party. He has been impressed by the stance taken by KP Oli for the nation when India imposed a blockade for six months. "I would have voted for CPN-UML by recollecting the pain of blockade. But the party has picked Basaruddin Ansari as a mayoral candidate," Manandhar said. "We tend to look at the individual candidate during local election. I feel I should vote for Rajesh Man from that line of thinking. But he is contesting on a ticket of Madhes-based party. I am, therefore, in a dilemma," he elaborated.
Many people of hill origin are also associating the candidacy of Rajesh Man to their future security. The people of hill origin with around 6,000-7,000 votes want to ensure there is no social tension and violence in Birgunj if there were another Madhes Movement in the future. Many of these people believe that Rajesh Man can play a significant role at times of such tension if he were to win on a RJP ticket.
Manoj Shrestha from Maisthan Chowk is a UML supporter. But he feels many people of hill origin will vote for Rajesh Man for future security. "I have been voting for UML from the beginning and will again vote for the party. But many people of hill origin here will vote for Rajesh Man. It was easier for people of hill origin to live here during the time of Madhes Movement due to Rajesh Man," he reasoned.
Suresh Shrestha of Birta Tole, where the majority of inhabitants are people of hill origin, concurs. "Rajesh Man can save us if there were an ethnic division and the movement were to turn violent. He has earned that status and even Madhesis listen to him. I will also vote for him," he reasoned.
Many people of hill origin campaigning for Rajesh Man did not look too enthusiastic. We asked a group of three women, who were resting after campaigning for Rajesh Man, about how their campaign was going. One of the trio said she was campaigning for Rajesh Man only because he is a relative.
Bharat Bhusan Rupakheti, 34, seems to be in the greatest dilemma of them all. His father is running for ward chairman on a ticket of Federalist Socialist Forum, a Madhes-based party.
He has come to campaign for his father quitting a job of civil engineer in an INGO. He is not happy with his father running on a ticket of Madhes-based party. He has not even mustered courage to campaign for his father on Facebook until now despite his sisters urging him to at least campaign on social media.
"Dad has already become a candidate. I may post on Facebook now," he said. "I have posted many things on Facebook criticizing the Madhes-based parties in the past. Now my dad has been associated with him," he added.
Madhes-based parties fielding people of hill origin as candidates has sent a good message about communal harmony, and can play an important role to alleviate potential tension in future.
Many people of hill origin have qualms about whether to vote for the candidate of hill origin fielded by Madhes-based parties as the pain and animus of Madhes Movement and Indian blockade are still fresh. That dilemma was clearly evident in almost a dozen of the voters we talked with.
Rajesh Man will have a strong chance of victory only if many people of hill origin were to vote for him.