Amid violence, Indians get caught up in Nepal’s witch hunt

By Sudeshna Sarkar,IANS,

Kathmandu : Dasharath Sawant, a 55-year-old soothsayer from India’s Maharashtra state, had hoped to visit the famed Pashupatinath shrine in Kathmandu with seven members of his family.

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On the way, the group had also planned to do a bit of business, predicting fortunes and selling auspicious stones and herbal remedies.

Instead, he, his four sons and three other relatives came within an ace of being beaten to death by a mob at the Lahan market in south Nepal’s Siraha district where they had halted Tuesday night.

“On Wednesday morning, we decided to explore the market and sell our products,” the shocked Sawant told IANS.

“When we went out, people asked us, where are you from? The moment we said Maharashtra, they pounced on us and began beating us. Had the police not rescued us, we would all have been dead.”

The group of eight, conspicuous by their saffron robes and holy beads, are now living in fear under police protection.

“All we are asking is that police escort us to the Indian border,” said Sawant, who received head injuries. “We want to go back.”

While Lahan police are doing their best to protect the visitors, they too are unable to provide safe passage to the border right now as the Terai plains have been paralysed by an indefinite shutdown called by an ethnic organisation, the Samyukta Tharuhat Sangharsh Samiti, since Wednesday.

The Siraha attack is not an isolated incident.

Since last week, Terai villages have seen an unprecedented series of attacks against outsiders, who are mostly beggars, ragpickers and mentally unbalanced people, on the suspicion they are child lifters.

The suspicion has been fuelled by a section of the media with allegations that Indian gangs had stepped up activities in Nepal’s border towns to kidnap little children.

On Wednesday, two women were attacked by villagers in Dhanusha district in the Terai. In the past, the district had shocked the nation after an armed group hacked a woman journalist to death here.

While one woman was rescued by police, who had to baton-charge the mob, the other died. The dead woman is yet to be identified, police said. The survivor has been identified as Hisila Khatun. While the media said she was an Indian, police said her nationality could not be confirmed immediately.

“People in the border areas look the same, be they Indian or Nepali, and speak the same Maithili language,” said inspector Bhubaneshwar Tiwari. “It is very difficult to say which country they belong to.”

Last week, in the same district, an unidentified woman was doused with petrol and burnt alive after a rumour that she was running away with a child.

Currently, the morgue in the district has three other bodies. All three men were lynched to death on the assumption they were part of a child lifting gang.

Though India has a consulate in Birgunj town in south Nepal, Indian officials are yet to contact the police stations where such attacks occurred, especially against Indians.

“We have called a meeting of the major eight parties today to discuss the case of the Indian astrologers,” inspector Shyam Subba of Lahan police station told IANS. “We are also asking the media and people not to spread false rumours and not to take the law in their own hands.”