RD Azad was also born in Saptari district. He is in his 60s and has a very different political and social outlook from Tula. Although both have made Madhesi politics their life’s work, Azad still lives in the village of his birth in a remote rural setting near the border. And while Tula is a pragmatist, Azad is fiercely ideological and has been an uncompromising advocate of Madhesi rights – for him, ‘abstract theoretical principles’ matter a great deal.
At the same time, his career embodies the labyrinthine and conflictual politics of Madhesi groups, involving multiple organisations and frequent alliances and splits. At times he has engaged in formal politics and stood for elections, while at others he has gone underground and supported violent revolutionary politics. In this sense his role and focus as a broker is fluid. When engaged in formal politics he mediates links within the fragmented Madhesi periphery, as well as between the periphery and the centre, but when he goes underground he drops out of these brokerage networks entirely.
Like Tula, Azad comes from a middle-class, land-owning family. He was educated in the Tarai and then worked for 17 years as a government secondary school teacher, during which time he joined the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN)- Masal (a now defunct faction) and studied communist literature. It was while working in the hills that he became politicised, voraciously reading about Marxism and Leninism with other teachers who were to become foot soldiers and leaders in the Maoist movement. He subsequently returned to his father’s occupation of farming in his home village of Kochabhakhari with the goal of ‘preparing himself for the Madhes Andolan’.
By this time, he believed that armed revolution was the only way to achieve liberation for the Madhesi people. The precise form that this liberation would take and the means to achieve it were not always consistently articulated, but two demands remained constant: first the right to self-determination of the 24 districts of the Madhes, and second the recognition of Hindi as the official language of the Tarai. While working as a farmer, he travelled widely across the Tarai, cycling from village to village. In the aftermath of the 1990 Jana Andolan, he published a book about the Madhesi cause, Tarai jal Rahi Hai (Tarai is burning). The book was heavily influenced by revolutionary Marxist-Leninist thinking and was written in Hindi, which is spoken widely across the Tarai.
As political parties representing Madhesis emerged in the 1990s, Azad again travelled widely across the Tarai and into India, promoting his book’s message and developing his political networks including through occasional interactions with the Indian intelligence services. Mirroring Tula’s political trajectory, he became increasingly drawn to identity politics, albeit a much more radical variant. Drawing inspiration from another borderland group, Sri Lanka’s LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), he established an underground revolutionary organisation in 1994 – the Madhes Mukti Sangathan (Madhes Liberation Organisation). The group began to prepare for an armed revolution in the Tarai but soon folded because, according to Azad, it lacked a motivated cadre.
In the wake of this failure, Azad re-evaluated his strategy and switched to mainstream party politics. He formed the Madhes Mukti Morcha in 1997, which two years later merged with Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and campaigned for a federal system and a more autonomous Madhes. In 2006, however, he returned to the path of armed revolution, spending time across the border in India and setting up the Madhes Mukti Tigers (Madhes Liberation Tigers) in Sunsari district. Although it was one of the most active underground armed groups in Madhes during that period, it only lasted for a short time.
Azad’s retreat back into radical, separatist politics can be seen as a rejection of the very notion of a ‘deal space’. According to this position, the problem was one of ‘internal colonialism’ and the imperative was to expose contradictions rather than make deals: ‘we are a very dangerous people to the government – they are watching us carefully...by legal and constitutional means the Madhesi can get nothing.’ The Mukti Tigers were formed ‘in great haste’, but Azad left after he became disillusioned with the growing influence of criminal elements and the indiscipline of his cadres. He contested and lost parliamentary elections in 2008 for the MJF, and subsequently left the party, concerned about the Maoist influence in the organisation. After the failure of Mukti Tigers, Azad joined a political campaign led by the Madhesi politician JP Gupta – Tarai Madhes Rastriya Abhiyaan (TaMaRa). Azad continues to work with the TaMaRa Campaign and has abandoned armed revolution in support of a more peaceful strategy.
There appears to be a recurring pattern to Azad’s political career. Attempts to enter formal Madhesi politics and to play a brokering role, usually involving mediating between Madhesi leaders and their support base in the Tarai, lead to disillusionment and a return to more radical politics. In many respects Azad is too much of a purist and an ideologue to play the role of broker for any length of time. While he believes an armed revolution may emerge in the future, he feels that people in the Tarai are not yet ready for such a movement. But he remains committed to this option: ‘If all other doors are closed then you may have to resort to violence. It all depends on the thoughts and actions of the state ruling class.’
However, this position is not widely supported within the Madhesi political movement and Azad remains a marginal figure. His radical position and lack of networks in Kathmandu mean he has limited direct influence on the ‘deal space’ that opened up after 2007. At the same time, Madhesi politicians can use the threat that radicals like Azad represent to extract concessions from the centre. Azad’s life highlights the complex linkages between leftist, Maoist and Madhesi political mobilisation, the intense jockeying for position that characterised the emergent Madhesi movement, and the interplay between armed revolutionaries and mainstream multi-party politics.