After two months of unrest, this border bridge had suddenly become calm. The tents remain pitched on “no-man’s land” in the middle of the bridge between Raxaul in India and Birganj in Nepal, but they are empty. Customs officials said they cleared the Madhesi protesters and seal the border for the day.
The election brought a temporary calm on the bridge, site of an agitation by Madhesis against the Nepal government.
“We are voting to form a government here that will solve the problem there,” said Raxaul’s Rajiv Kumar Gupta, 38, standing in a long queue on the Bharti Dutavas (embassy) compound, a vast gated area right on the border and opened for polling.
“I am an LIC agent. Because of the continued unrest and blockade, many of my policies are lapsing,” he said. “We know we will have our own vidhayak, our own government. And they (Madhesis) aren’t even treated as citizens there. This is because Madhesis are from among us.”
Sympathy for the Madhesi cause is widespread among people living along the border, with their shared ties going back a long way. “My mother’s home is in Birgunj,” said Manorama Devi. “I was born there. I came to Raxaul after I got married here. I am now Indian but Birgunj too is my home.” She said “kamal symbol people have been particularly good to Madhesis who are sitting (in protest) on the bridge”. “We voted for kamal. They are helping our brothers on the bridge.” She was referring to a community kitchen run by a businessman linked to the BJP.
The BJP candidate is sitting MLA against the maha gathbandhan’s Suresh Yadav (RJD) and a strong independent candidate, Shyam Bihari Prasad, who deserted the JD(U) after he was denied a ticket.
A Customs official at the border toll counter said they had orders to remove the protesters from the bridge and shut the border until polling is over. “We didn’t remove their tents but asked them to clear the bridge for 36 hours. They can come back tomorrow,” he said. A group of central SSB forces patrolled the toll counter.
In the no-man’s land at the centre of the bridge, only five Madhesis were sitting underneath a tent. “Indian officials asked us to clear the bridge last night, so we had no choice. The border has been sealed on the Nepal side too,” said Krishna Patel, Parsa district secretary of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party. “Meetings in Kathmandu this week are going to be decisive. If the Nepal government don’t take care of our issues, it will change everything. We won’t ask for a separate state then, but a separate country.”
Dinesh Sah Kanu, another Madhesi said, “We are happy to see people voting with enthusiasm. We wish our issue is resolved too. Modiji’s government has been very helpful.”
Though the BJP is getting praise from Madhesis as well as Indian voters, it sitting MLA faces anti-incumbency. “He has not helped resolve a single issue here,” said Vikram Saraf, 27, a student in the voting queue. “He doesn’t meet people. In Nepal, there is a famous mela of Ghadi Mai that happens every five years. Our legislator is like Ghadi Mai because he appears once in five years, at the time of polls.”
Raj Kumar Yadav, a farmer, said many couldn’t come to cast their vote. “Many among our neighbours, who are working in Nepal, couldn’t come because they cannot afford the bus fare. After the blockade, people have been charging 10 times the normal fare,” he said. “Our business here has been ruined by this protest.”
The contest is triangular. Ajay Singh is in contest with the maha gathbandhan’s Suresh Yadav (RJD) and a strong independent candidate, Shyam Bihari Prasad, who deserted the JD(U) after he was denied a ticket.
With the Madhesi protest on the bridge having completed 79 days, hundreds of trucks and containers are stranded on the road. A few drivers had lighted kerosene stoves near a container and were cooking their lunch.
“We have been stuck here for more than two months. The malik sends a few thousand rupees once a while to the person who owns this parking space,” says Mukesh Sahani, from Begusarai. “No one from the administration has come to see what is happening to us. We went to the thana and requested the darogaji to give some security to the tankers. Imagine what will happen if anybody gets up to mischief.”
Anil Chouhan from Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh and Bhim Paswan from Gaya were sitting with Sahani. “If this blockade doesn’t end soon, we will starve on the road. Mukesh bhaiya has been helping us, otherwise our maliks in Kolkata haven’t sent any money,” Chouhan said.