An interview with Mahabir Chaudhari, a Nepali human rights defender now living in exile in New York. He explores the complexities and challenges faced by many migrants who have sought political asylum to escape Nepal’s over a decade-long civil war.
By Rob Verger
This piece originally appeared in Samar 27, published online November 12th, 2007.
If you visit the Subway sandwich shop on 85th street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, you might meet one of the part-time employees there, Mahabir Chaudhari. He’s from rural western Nepal, is one of the founding members of an influential education and human rights organization in that country, and is living in the United States under political asylum.
The organization, called BASE, was founded by Dilli Chaudhari, a friend of Mahabir’s, and was officially born in 1991–although work towards creating BASE began in the 1980s. Mahabir was one of 35 founding members, most of whom were teenagers dedicated to bettering their education and rights. BASE stands for Backwards Society Education and works to help educate and advocate for people in Nepal who might be “backwards” in the sense that they are discriminated against or have poor access to essentials like education and health care. Today the organization has some 37,000 members. But because of Mahabir’s work with BASE, the Maoists, an armed rebel group fighting the Nepali government, threatened and pressured him to join the insurgency–and meanwhile, the Nepali government suspected him and other members of BASE of helping the Maoists. Caught between his own government and the people fighting that government, Mahabir eventually found his way to the U.S. But the road to political asylum and a new life in the U.S. is not an easy one.
On my way to meet Mahabir for the first time, I had walked past upscale clothing stores on Lexington Avenue, and thought that if there was a place that was more different than Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, this was it. Mahabir had just finished a shift at Subway, and we met on a street corner and walked to a nearby diner. He was wearing black pants, black shoes, and a long-sleeved grey T-shirt, and his black hair was neat and short. A phrase he frequently utters, I would learn, is “no problem.”
Mahabir, now 32, was born in the small village of Tulsi Pur, in the Dang District of western Nepal, one of six siblings. His mother was a bonded laborer and a farmer, and his father, who died when Mahabir was ten years old, owned two small stores and also worked as a local politician. Like most people in his village, Mahabir’s family was part of the Tharu ethnic group, which is one of the lower castes in Nepal. “All the Tharu people were discriminated against, so we had to fight for our rights,” Mahabir said, from his seat in the diner. Tharu people usually didn’t own their own land, and thus, like indentured servants, had to work for land owners for wages that might never allow them to become independent: it was a modern-day form of slavery. They also had poor access to education, health care and other services. The majority of Tharu people live in twenty-two districts in Nepal’s Terai region, the swath of jungle and plains that border India.
Mahabir talked about the process that began in the 1960s by which the Tharu people lost their land. His grandfather, who was illiterate, lost his land to a Brahmin because he could not read or understand the deed to the land. “There is thousands of story, because different family has a different story. All the Tharu lose their land, and they would become kamaiya,” Mahabir said, using the Nepali word for bonded laborer. Discrimination against the Tharu people was systematized.
“At that time, we were very, very, very poor,” he added, speaking of his childhood. “Still my mother was working as a bonded laborer. After my father, he worked very hard, made some money, he had some business… After then, we did buy some land.” He added, “Even sometime we didn’t have enough food to eat.” Eventually his father paid off his mother’s debts, and she was released.
It was because of this discrimination against Tharus that BASE was born. Mahabir and other BASE members also worked specifically to advocate for an end to the kamaiya system, helping the kamaiya community fundraise and organize. Eventually, a large peaceful movement swept the districts. Their efforts and demonstrations were recognized in July of 2000 when the Nepali government legally eliminated the kamaiya system. After that, the newly-freed kamaiya had very little possessions and no place to go, and Mahabir and many others worked on the enormous task of helping them resettle.
Although BASE had widespread grassroots support, daily life grew more complicated after the Maoist insurgency began in 1996, triggering a war that ultimately claimed more than 11,000 lives and was especially destructive in western Nepal. (In November of 2006, the rebels and the government signed a peace treaty and a U.N. mission locked up the weapons, but today there is still political uncertainty and general instability in Nepal). As the Maoists grew in strength, they pressured BASE members to join, and some did, but Mahabir and other leaders refused to cooperate with the rebels, disagreeing with their violent methods.
“After we disagree with Maoists, we cannot collaborate with them, we cannot work with them, they force our member to join the Maoists,” Mahabir said. “And some member they were beaten, some member they were kidnapped, and they bombed a couple of office more than ten times.” Meanwhile, the Nepali government accused BASE members of working with the Maoists, and searched BASE offices. In 2002, despite protests from members, the government refused to renew BASE’s registration–but changed its mind after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter to the Prime Minister of Nepal on BASE’s behalf.
“We were in the middle at that time. That was a very hard time,” Mahabir said.
Today, Mahabir lives in Ridgewood, Queens, with his wife, Neera Chaudhari, 31, and his sons, Sabin, 12, and Samir, 7. The other three families in his building are all Nepali, and a short walk away are two large apartment buildings, occupied almost entirely by Nepali families. (As the conflict increased in Nepal, more and more Nepalis have had incentive to leave, relocating to India, the Middle East, and New York City, among other places). I visited Mahabir in his apartment 11 days after we first met, and we sat down at a small table. Music and car horns from the street filtered up through the open windows as we spoke.
Mahabir wore a sharp blue collared shirt, black pants, and a thin gold chain from Nepal around his neck. Sabin and Samir played quietly in the next room. He spoke further of the process of violence and intimidation that led to his eventual move to the U.S. I asked him why, specifically, he did not want to be a part of the Maoists’ violent methods. “We believe in the peaceful way, because the violence way never solve the problem,” he said, adding, “if you beat somebody, of course somebody will beat you too.”
The situation continued to deteriorate for Mahabir and other BASE members. In 2001, Maoists stopped him and confiscated his motorcycle. In the following years, members of BASE (and some friends of Mahabir’s) were killed by government soldiers on suspicion of being Maoists, and others were killed by the Maoists under suspicion that they were working with the government. “From both side we were in danger at that time,” he said.
In early 2003, Maoists bombed a BASE office in a village called Dhangadhi where Mahabir was part of a meeting. “We were in the BASE office, at night because we had a meeting, some people they came from the village, and they were staying in the office, and I was there too… and they bombed… The office boy he was injured little bit, and he cut his hand, but nobody died,” he said. Damage to the office was light. “We called the police, at night, but they didn’t show up. They came only the next morning, like seven, eight o’clock. And that time, I thought, I’m in danger. That time I was scared very, very much, but I didn’t have any option. I cannot go to other village.” (Later, when Mahabir was in the U.S. in 2004, the same office was destroyed in another bombing).
In the summer of 2003, Mahabir got a position as a counselor at a summer camp that focused on international leadership sponsored by the Louis August Jonas Foundation and located in upstate New York. While there, he realized that it might not be safe for him to return to Nepal, applied for an extension to his visa (which he received) and then began learning about political asylum. Through the help of a friend at an organization called Global Youth Connect, as well as support from Human Rights First, Mahabir began the process of applying. He eventually ran out of time and filed the asylum papers himself. But he was rejected and referred to an immigration court. Human Rights First put him in touch with Brooklyn Law School, where lawyers helped him try again. In April of 2005 he found out that he had been granted asylum. “At that time I was quite happy,” he said. Mahabir had to wait more than a year before his family could join him, which they did, in July of 2006.
According the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the number of people granted asylum from Nepal has increased sharply in the past decade. In 1997, only three Nepalis were granted asylum, and in 1998 there were only 26. But in 2005 there were 316, and in 2006 there were 373.
While he was gone from Nepal, violence and tension continued in and around Tulsi Pur, Mahabir’s village, as well as in many other spots across Nepal. “When I came here, they went two or three times to look for me,” Mahabir said. “When they didn’t find, they were crazy. One time, they beat my mom. My mom was beaten.” He added, “They asked her to ask me to come back.” She was hospitalized. Word reached Mahabir what had happened. “It was very hard to me to hear that. I called my mom and at that time she was unable to speak very well.”
Even though he is far from the physical danger now, life in the U.S. is hard for Mahabir and his family, as it is for so many immigrants. “I wanted to wish it will be peace in Nepal…and I’d go back, and I start my own career, to be a social leader,” he said. He is able to work on BASE’s behalf from here some, and he also volunteers for Global Youth Connect. But he feels that his real work is in Nepal. And despite the fact that he has a job and a family here in the U.S., his thoughts are still in Nepal, and he worries about his mother. “For five years, I haven’t met my mom… four or five years… that’s a long time,” he said, then paused. “She’s getting older and older.”
To learn more about BASE, contact Mahabir at dahitmahabir at yahoo.com
Rob Verger is an Instructor in the University Writing Program at Columbia University as well as a graduate student there. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe. In the spring of 2000, he studied abroad in Nepal with the School for International Training. Contact him at robverger at gmail.com.