Kathmandu, Nepal - Nationalist strains have emerged along Nepal's southern border with India as Madhesis who make up the majority of inhabitants in the region seek improved conditions.

Many Madhesis say they are victims of discrimination and rights abuses, and protests seeking repairs to crumbling infrastructure have been met with a forceful response by Nepali police and paramilitaries.

Jailed intellectual Chandra Kant Raut, or CK Raut, has emerged as a figurehead rallying Madhesis with growing grievances against the government in the capital Kathmandu. Although Raut's agenda has yet to gain widesread support, he is increasingly being seen as a bargaining chip in the political struggles now unfolding in the region.

"Intellectuals see Raut's agenda as a means to ensure the state gives attention to marginalised Madhesis," says Vijay Karna, a former Nepalese ambassador to Denmark.

Despite constituting one-third of Nepal's population, many Madhesis remain stateless and are also under-represented in the bureaucracy, judiciary, and police. Official statistics show Madhesis comprise a mere 1.5 percent of Nepal's army, and even the British and Indian armies recruiting for their Gurkha brigades do not consider Madhesis warrior material.

Police violence

The Postal Road traverses the length of the country from east to west as it runs through the villages of the area known as Madhes, but also called Terai, inhabited by Madhesis as well as other indigenous groups and the Pahadis, Nepali-speakers from the hills.

But travellers using this road - Nepal's oldest highway - cannot fail to spot its neglected condition and the closer one gets to the Indian border, the more decrepit the infrastructure becomes.

To the north, however, another road built in the 1960s and also stretching from east to west along the foothills where the great Indo-Gangetic plain ends and the mountain range bordering China begins, offers a stark contrast.

Built with Indian support, this road avoids Madhesi population centres, and the towns that have sprung along it are mostly inhabited by the settlers from the hills who speak the country's official language, Nepali.

In October, students in the Madhesi town of Simraungadh near the border with the Indian state of Bihar signalled that they had had enough of the poor condition of the roads.

Villages of the area known as Madhes are inhabited by Madhesis, as well as other indigenous groups [Prabhat Jha/Al Jazeera]

"Travelling on the road from our town to the district headquarters, Kalaiya, is scary, like playing with death," said Umesh Kushwaha, a 12th-grade student.

"So about 15 of us students consulted teachers and farmers and decided to stage protests for better roads."

The students led an effort to shut down the road to the headquarters of the Bara district, gaining the backing of farmers forced to sell produce in Indian markets because of a lack of roads on the Nepali side and angry at harassment by border police.

However, violence flared when local police brought in the Armed Police Force (APF), a paramilitary unit created to battle Nepal's Maoist insurgency 13 years ago.

"One evening in the marketplace the police inspector, Niranjan Thapa, heaped abuse on the students in the village centre, thrashed them, and took them to jail," Simraungadh resident Ranjit Kuswaha told Al Jazeera.

The following day, October 10, the APF shot dead Jay Narayan Patel, a farmer and father of six. Another protester, Shah Mohammad Ansari, in his 20s, is still recovering in a Kathmandu hospital after being shot in the back.

As news of the violence reached Kathmandu, district officials signed an agreement with the protesters to fix the roads and to compensate families of the dead man and those wounded.

Yet several weeks later, local people complain there has been no sign of the promised repairs, and blame the local government's apathy on discrimination against Madhesis.

"Just look at Pahadi places like Nijgadh, all the roads are paved there down to every person's front yard," Kushwaha said. "The government isn't interested in developing border areas because only Madhesis live there."  

Nationalist sentiment

In September CK Raut - the Madhesi intellectual advocating a peaceful route to independence - was arrested after a meeting.

CK Raut published an autobiography detailing discrimination against Madhesis, and compiled a history of the region [Source: Raut's blog/ckraut.wordpress.com]

He was taken to Kathmandu and charged with a "crime against the state", which carries a 20-year sentence. He refused bail and, so far, has spent two months in jail.

The reactions of Madhesis and Pahadis to his detention underline the dramatic gulf that exists between these Nepalese communities.

"The hill people are furious with CK Raut's agenda but do not care about his welfare," said Tula Narayan Shah, who runs a research organisation focused on Madhes.

"On the other hand, the Madhesis care about CK Raut's welfare, but are nonchalant about his agenda."

Raut's appeal derives in part from his impressive academic record as a engineering scholar who gained a PhD at Cambridge University and then worked in Boston.

Since returning to Nepal three years ago, he has travelled extensively in the country, published an autobiography detailing discrimination against Madhesis, and compiled a history of the region.

Many local people say Raut has made sacrifices - unlike the current crop of Madhesi politicians - and his imprisonment has further endeared him to those with grievances against Kathmandu.

"We only support CK Raut and Matrika Yadav," said Kushwaha, referring to a former minister in the Maoist government who leads a fringe party and is reputed to be a "clean" politician.

'Identity'

In national politics, Madhesi regional parties have often found allies among the Maoists, who advocate dividing Nepal into federal states along the lines of "identity".

A gross violation of rights like this will further alienate Madhes.

- Mohana Ansari, National Human Rights Commission

A few days after the Simraungadh shooting, the Maoist leader Prachanda told a rally that Madhesis are the "true defenders of the border, unlike the rich politicians in Kathmandu with family ties to the Indian elites".

At the same meeting, Yadav roused the crowd by mentioning Raut.

But Raut's agenda does not have popular support in Madhes and some Nepalis, such as Karna, say Kathmandu has always considered Madhesis outsiders, ever since it annexed the region 200 years ago.

It is against this backdrop of alienation and discrimination that the events in Simraungadh and the imprisonment of CK Raut threaten to fuel tensions.

"The people of Simraungadh wanted development, what they got was bullets," said Mohana Ansari, a commissioner at the National Human Rights Commission who is investigating police brutality in the town.

"A gross violation of rights like this will further alienate Madhes."

Follow Gyanu Adhikari on Twitter: @saatdobato

Source: Al Jazeera