By Tor Kristian Birkeland, volunteer project consultant for HimalPartner
HimalPartner’s partner organization in Nepal, the United Mission to Nepal (UMN), in cooperation with the local organization Chardra Mukhi Clud (CMC), has empowered the local population of Southeast Asia to stop Indian looters from terrorizing them. The Peace and Reconciliation Project has come into an agreement with HimalPartner for the 2016-2020 period, and has been working in various regions of Nepal since 2007. The projects have been receiving financial support from Norad through Digni.
Looting, killing and rape
The Sunsari district in Nepal lies along the border with India. The region is marked by poverty, and social interaction within the population is limited. Women are subjected to a life inside the home, with few opportunities to leave the house to socialize with others. The national boundary between the two countries is open, with densely populated areas on both sides of the border. An open border allows for positive interaction between the Nepalese and the Indians, but it also contributes to the flourishing of criminality. The population on the Nepalese side has been the target of looting – primarily the stealing of livestock – carried-out by Indians. Often the victims have known who the thieves were, and when the victims have confronted the thieves they have often had to buy back their animals and possessions. More than 1800 instances of looting have been reported between 2001 and 2016, and a number of killings are connected with the lootings. This has naturally created fear and bitterness in the population. The thieves have been able to use India as a free zone since there is no extradition policy between India and Nepal. The thieves from India have also benefited from a Nepalese police force that poorly functions.
Life for the Nepalese in the Sunsari district has been riddled with suspicion within their own community. For example, if a personal conflict arises between two people, one person can blame the other for letting the thieves know about how easily their ox can be stolen. It can be very difficult in such a context to take a stand against the looting. How and where does one begin? Who can actually do something about the problem, and how can they be motivated to do something about it? What are the personal risks to put a stop to the looting? Are there persons in authority who benefit from the looting? Uncertainty around these questions makes it easy for people to do nothing about the problem and hope that they won’t be a target themselves.
As part of its peacebuilding program, the United Mission to Nepal has cooperated with a local partner organization
to facilitate local peace committees in the region. Members of the peace committees have been trained in such things as conflict resolution and advocacy work, and are now better equipped to make a strategy plan to handle the looting problem. On the Nepalese side, the committees have approached the local police stations, border patrol, local politicians and the media. They have also travelled to India and spoken with the police and border authorities as well as Indian civil society organizations. Through active advocacy work they have been able to convince the authorities to begin to take responsibility to find solutions for the looting problem. It was particularly beneficial to involve the media. News coverage on the lootings placed the local authorities in a bad light, who were forced to work hard to show that they were up for the job. The peace committees also used their own resources to establish night patrol squads to be on the lookout for potential looters.
The initiatives from the peace organizations have led to some amazing results. Only 46 cases of looting were reported in all of 2016, with only
22 cases reported up to October 2017. Through holding meetings and seminars the project has facilitated the local community to directly deal with a serious problem in society. The process has strengthened the social capital in the region: mutual trust within the community has increased, relationships have been strengthened, as has the people’s belief in their own ability to handle problems. Another important aspect has been the fact that a violent problem has been addressed using non-violent solutions. The possibility of a peaceful and financially productive society is dependent on reducing violence to a minimum. As the newly elected mayor, who was a previous member of the local peace committee, phrased it, “Without peace, no development!” Knowledge and experience from non-violent approaches to societal problems are essential in preventing a spiral into violence in the future in Nepal. There is hope that the project in Sunsari can spread to other areas where looting is still a daily occurrence across the border.