Ethnic Indian group calls three-day closure in Terai
Apr 11, 2007 - 11:39:39 AM

Kathmandu, April 11 - Less than a fortnight in power, Nepal's former Maoist guerrillas faced their first major challenge Wednesday with an ethnic Indian group calling a 72-hour closure in the southern plains.

The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, a social organisation that began to grow in political stature since January and now poses a serious threat to the Maoists in the Terai plains, said it would enforce a shutdown from January 20 to protest against the government's delay in addressing grievances of the plains community.

The strike call came even as the new eight-party government, with the Maoists as partners, said it had formed a three-member team of ministers to open dialogue with all protesting groups.

The dialogue team headed by Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel, the most senior minister in the new cabinet after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, is expected to start work from Wednesday.

The government also reconstituted a commission, headed by a judge, to investigate the carnage in a southern town last month that left 29 people dead and dozens injured.

'We are ready to resolve the issue through talks,' Upendra Jha, senior leader of the Forum, told IANS. 'We will come even if the government asks us at midnight. However, the government has been delaying holding talks.'

With less than three months to go before the historic June election, the continuing ferment in the plains is alarming the international community and casting doubts on the feasibility of holding polls.

'We welcome the election as a positive sign,' Jha said. 'We are ready to register as a political party and participate in the exercise.

'However, since the election is for ensuring people's rights, we want the Terai problem to be addressed before the election.'

Jha said if the government began dialogue immediately, his organisation was willing to call off the Terai closure.

This is the third general strike since April 1, when Nepal's new interim government - with the inclusion of Maoists - was sworn in.

The Forum wants an autonomous Madhes state in the plains for the plains community who are of Indian origin.

The earlier government had already conceded their demands for a federal government and increasing election constituencies in the plains.

Nepal's plains community says it has been neglected by a series of governments that excluded them from government services, the military and judiciary.

Maoist chief Prachanda said that while the plains people's grievances are just, the Forum doesn't represent the people.

'It is a front for criminal activities. They are being instigated by royalists who want to sabotage the election and Hindu extremists from India, who support King Gyanendra.

'Though we believe talks with the Forum will not yield any result, nevertheless, if the government thinks it can resolve the issue through dialogue, we have no objections,' Prachanda added.

The Forum says the Maoist charges are baseless.

'We are neither supported by the king nor Indian extremists,' Jha said. 'The violence - which we regret - comes from the spontaneous reaction of the plains people who have been suffering from Maoist atrocities.'

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