In search of safer pastures

EVERY MORNING, Sub-Inspector Chhabi Rana of the Nepal Police wakes up knowing that by the end of the day, he would have entered a few hundred more names in his logbook of Nepalis crossing the border into India.

His police post is only a few metres from one of the busiest crossing points on the open border between Nepal and India. On the Nepal side is the town of Nepalganj and on the Indian side is Rupandehi in the Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh. For years, Nepalis have been coming to India in search of employment, either because they could find no jobs in their own country or when their seasonal farm jobs ended.

Now, hundreds are also leaving Nepal due to the Maoist insurgency. "I have even seen a thousand people leave in a single day," Mr. Rana says. His well-thumbed register contains the names of the people who leave and the districts in Nepal where they lived. On a recent Sunday, there were 280 entries. The entries show people having left in large groups from Rolpa, Rukum, Kalikot, Jajharkhot, Dang and Salyan, the districts that are most affected by the Maoist insurrection.

The movement of people is constant, peaking between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every day. They pass under the concrete arch that marks the border by tonga, in rickshaws, in jeeps and on foot, giving the place the feel of a bazaar.

Chakra Bahadur Oli and his friend Jagat Bahadur Thapa say they are both leaving to find jobs in India after the Maoists rounded up hundreds of people in their area and took them away. "Two weeks ago, they came to my house and asked me why I was staying at home doing nothing. `Come, join us and fight with us', they told me," says Mr. Thapa.

Mr. Oli's father was among those the Maoists took away. They released him after eight days during which they made him work as a helper while they went from village to village "educating" people.

Caught in the middle

Nepal's impoverished people are the worst hit by the eight-year-old insurgency. "People are caught between two armed groups, the Maoists and the security forces," according to Mr. Rana. The police and the army come down heavily on villagers suspected of supporting the Maoists, while the insurgents attack people for not supporting them.

The targets

The Maoists target teachers, employees of non-governmental organisations and anyone with the potential to prevent people from supporting or joining them.

At the Nepalganj Government hospital, a whole ward, macabrely named `Disaster Room,' is filled with Maoist victims from all over western Nepal. One man was there because a bomb exploded in the paddy field in which he was working. Another had a bullet injury in his hand.

"I was working in my field. They were on the road. I did not hear them calling out to me, and they took offence at that. I was begging their forgiveness when they tried to shoot me down, and the bullet went through my hand," explains Net Ram Mowlia. He was scared to return to his village when the hospital discharged him. He says one of his options was to cross the border to Rupandehi.

Worries for India

The worry for India is the possibility of the insurgents crossing over with those fleeing them. The Maobadi of Nepal are suspected of having links with the People's War in Andhra Pradesh and similar groups in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation in West Bengal.

The Shashastriya Seema Bal, earlier known as the Special Security Bureau, patrols the Indian side. "There is so much movement. People cross the border even to buy their medicines and groceries. In such circumstances, checking would amount only to harassment," says an SSB official at Rupandehi.

But, he says, his force has been on higher alert after a spate of incidents in Nepalganj, the most serious of which was an attack by the Maoists on a police station and a bomb explosion in the marketplace, both two weeks ago.

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