RAM ASHISH CHAUDHARY
My story talks about how I became a peacebuilder and how it has affected my life and the lives of others around me. It is a story of finding your own way and of the art of making the right decisions when they are needed. It is a story of letting go, and a story of finding out what is really worth fighting for.
To understand this story of peace, you need to understand its background. I am from Nepal, where the Madhesi people – consisting around 50% of the entire population – live, mainly in the southern part of the country. Madhesi people are not included in society, nor recognized the same rights as others in Nepal. Especially, in the not so distant past, Madhesi people were not represented in the police or army and, most importantly, they had no place in the Parliament. There were still tensions between the Madhesi communities and other communities of Nepal. In Kathmandu the Madhesi people were called names just because of wearing the traditional robe called Dhoti.
In the past I was a politician in the political party Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum (Madhesi People’s Rights Forum) – one of the biggest political representation of the Madhesi people – where I worked for six years in the youth wing. The party fought for the equal rights of the Madhesi people. Nonetheless, with time I realized that for our leaders, youth was only a useful asset when it came to demonstrations. But once the purpose of demonstration had been achieved, we were not included in the decision-making process and we were unable to shape the resulting policies. So, when an agreement between the government and the party came into life, we – the young members – were just asked to leave. They also told us that revolutionists cannot do politics, and that was why we had to be excluded. The political party used the youth for their sole political interests, and when the movement turned out to be a successful one, the party leaders replaced the youth activists with their own leaders.
I was very disappointed with the actions of the party that I had believed in and that had been a part of my life for so many years. My disappointment was even greater when I realized that, because of my image as a member of the party, I could not find a good job outside politics.
At the same time, many young people started to be involved into the armed conflict with the government. They were fighting for the right of self-determination of Madhesi communities. This came following the twelve points peace agreement between the government of Nepal and the Nepal Communist Party (Maoists) that ended a decade-long, violent conflict. It was then that the youth of the southern part of Nepal (Madhesi region) started to take part in a violent revenge with the Maoists by joining the armed groups. Later on, many of the unemployed youth that could not find a job, continued with these activities for money. Since they had no other means to feed themselves, they engaged in the independence movement as rebels.
I was totally aware of the future of such armed movements. I felt that I knew what would happen. I had seen it before. Back in days when I was a member of the political party, we had been covering such groups; we demonstrated against persecutions directed at them, and we obscured the truth about their actions. Many members of such groups were my friends at that time and it felt natural to do it, but in time they became more radical in their actions and started to kill people. One of my best friends had joined such group and he also tried to convince me to enlist in their ranks as well. At some point I was 90% in favor even of actually joining them, but never did in the end.
I was still looking for a different job when I got in contact with Search for Common Ground. They involved me into the youth leadership trainings and asked me to participate in the youth sector. Thus, I became devoted to their activities, and took a different path from many other young people in my community.
Following the training received from Search for Common Ground, I started peacebuilding work in my own organization, the Maharani Youth Club. At the beginning we worked in our local community. I remember that when I started this work, I still was in contact with my friend from the armed group and he still tried to persuade me to join him there. At the same time, I tried to convince him about joining our efforts directed at peacebuilding. Sadly, my friend carried on with his engagement in the rebel group and was later shot dead by the police force during one of the many fire exchanges between his group and the authorities. I felt great sadness, but I knew that I had done my best to convince him to use all of his energy and resources for peacebuilding and the empowerment of the Madhesi youth, instead of the dangerous activities of rebel groups.
After two years of working with my organization in the local Madhesi community, we established a new organization called Youth Network for Peace and Development. By then, we had a lot of contacts within our community. We tried to get young people out of their engagement in violent rebel activities, and reintroduce them back to society with the hope that they would use their energy for creative and peaceful work, benefiting both themselves and the whole society in general. We had been in constant contact with the security forces and police, so that we could vouch for youth engaged in the armed groups and convince the police to not to persecute them.
Out of the ten people we worked with, we were able to pull out seven, from which we were able to convince two to join our organization and act as role models for further candidates. The remaining five either left the country or concentrated on their education. What is important is that all of them resigned from active participation in the armed rebel groups.
Because of the kind of activities that we undertook, the leaders of the armed groups were constantly threatening us. They where obviously not contempt with us convincing their members to join our peacebuilding efforts. Nonetheless, I knew that those threats were empty – at that time they did not have the power to harm us. Also, the people that we were in contact with were mostly our friends and that made it easier to reach them through unofficial channels.
I later joined the SODARC Center for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation Promotion. There were still many Maoists in the rural areas of Nepal – and that is where SODARC was working for reconciliation to happen. Because of my previous experience, I was appointed as a social mobilizer in the two Village Development Committees situated in the Southern part of Nepal. My task was to create local Peace Committees in both VDCs. Because of our peacebuilding efforts, we had a good relation with the government of Nepal so were allowed to further continue with our work by creating the Local Peace Committees in some other districts of Nepal. Soon, we were creating the Local Peace Committees all around the country, and by doing so, we provided direct support to inhabitants of the various communities on the village level. The people in the villages welcomed us with open arms. They were of course happy to receive direct financial support, but they were also interested in the peacebuilding trainings that we provided.
Now, I am a member of Teach for Nepal (TFN). Teach for Nepal is a movement of outstanding university graduates working to end the education inequity in Nepal. I use my experience as a peacebuilder to teach youth in a village school located in the Lalitpur District, a very remote, mountain area of Nepal. I tell young people about their role in society and show them that they are responsible for both themselves and their communities. At the same time I teach them English. I mostly teach the students who have to travel 3 hours to their schools and usually come from the families with a low income. To provide them with equal opportunities and show them different options in their lives, we are undertaking different activities that could interest them; so that they always have an option for development and are not forced to join violent movements. Even if I teach in a Pahaadi community, while I myself come from a Madhesi community – I know their language and I understand the cultural differences, and for my young students my heritage is neither an obstacle nor a problem.
Despite all efforts made, there are still some tensions between the Madhesi people and the rest of Nepalese society. But I feel that after all these years as a peacebuilder, I now know exactly what things are really worth demonstrating for, and that as long as there is an oppression and inequality, people should not be afraid to do so. I am trying to pass this knowledge further on, so that younger generations can learn from the mistakes made in the past and are able to fight for the things worth fighting for.
Story: Ram Ashish Chaudhary
Artist: Agnieszka Wyrostek