Nepal will face further turmoil following its decade-long Maoist revolt if the government ignores the demands of Madhesi people living in the southern plains, a protest leader from the ethnic group said.
Anti-government protests in the Terai, a narrow strip of fertile plain bordering India and mainly populated by Madhesis, have left five people dead and dozens wounded over the past week in a blow to what had been a fast-moving peace process.
The Madhesi People's Rights Forum, which has led the protests, said the government — dominated by elites from the highlands — had discriminated against Madhesis over jobs in the government, police and army as well as seats in parliament.
"We will continue the struggle if the government ignores our demands, and the future of the country will be difficult," Upendra Yadav, the forum's chairman, told the agency in Kathmandu on Thursday.
The latest unrest comes after a November peace pact ended a Maoist revolt that left 13,000 people dead.
That agreement brought impoverished Nepal close to stability as former rebels joined an interim parliament and began to lock up their weapons.
The arrest of 48-year-old Yadav this month, for burning a copy of the interim constitution, was one of the incidents that sparked protests in the southeastern town of Lahan, which is still under curfew after becoming the focus of unrest.
The protests escalated after a Maoist activist shot dead last week a 16-year-old boy. Police said they had to open fire when Madhesi protesters tried to storm a police station a few days later.
Four demonstrators died and scores were wounded.
Nepal's Terai, also known as Madhesh, is home to nearly half of the country's 26 million people and many residents have deeper cultural and linguistic links with the people of India than with Nepalis living in the mountains.
"They (the politicians and Maoists) have never thought of us as one of their own. They take our votes and revenues and that is all," Yadav, a college teacher from Sunsari district, said.
On Thursday, in the latest violence, at least 20 people were hurt in clashes between Madhesi activists and Maoists in the town of Janakpur near the Indian border.
Angry Madhesis then torched a Maoist office and a police post, forcing authorities to clamp a night curfew.
"If we did not shout and protest, no one would have heard of us," said Yadav, who was set free after protests demanding his release.
The new political architecture in Kathmandu — which has replaced King Gyanendra's absolute rule — has failed in its first major test after the November peace deal, analysts say.
It was a mistake for the Maoists and the ruling alliance to agree to an interim constitution without addressing the concerns of the people in the Terai, they added.
"The government and Maoists have mishandled the whole thing. They have been outrightly dismissive of Madhesi worries," said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of Samay, a Nepali weekly magazine.
"If they continue with such a dismissive attitude, this could escalate and undermine the peace process," Ghimire added.
Madhesi activists say that although the people in the Terai constitute nearly half the population, less than a quarter of the interim parliament's 330 members come from the region.
"We want respect and autonomy and proportional representation in the political, administrative and all decision-making processes of the country," Yadav said.
Covering 23 per cent of landlocked Nepal, Madhesh is the country's bread basket, providing maize, rice and wheat, and is home to industries like jute and sugar.